Shelf life has expired on the ‘Dodger Way’
One in a series marking 50 years of the Dodgers in L.A.
Branch Rickey disciple Al Campanis wrote “The Dodger Way to Play Baseball” in 1954.
Campanis was scouting director on his way to becoming general manager, and his book, both symbolically and in practicality, became the organization’s bible, preaching pride in coaching and fundamentals with an emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.
The “Dodger Way” formed a significant part of the club’s aura and attraction for decades, tutored to rookies in night classes at Dodgertown, envied and emulated by other organizations.
But was the book eventually misplaced? Has it now been permanently lost?
The answers may depend on who is doing the analysis and what the yardstick is. Two conclusions are hard to dispute:
If the ultimate yardstick is wins, losses and postseason appearances, there was consistent success on the field and remarkable continuity to the staff in virtually every department from the time Walter O’Malley brought the Dodgers to L.A. in 1958 until Peter O’Malley sold them in 1998.
Since that sale, the on-field success has virtually disappeared and the continuity has disintegrated.
“The contrast is startling,” former general manager Fred Claire said, referring to the eras before and after the 1998 sale.
Said O’Malley: “Al’s book was a cornerstone of our success, as fundamentals always are, and that continuity was also a cornerstone. I can’t think of any organization in baseball which had that continuity for as long as we did. There was stability throughout.”
As for the last 10 years, a convulsive period of high-priced change in the executive and player rosters?
“I haven’t been part of it so I can’t really address it,” O’Malley said.
The figures don’t lie:
Whereas there was a single-family ownership for the first 40 years in Los Angeles, there have been two owners in the last 10 years alone -- uninterested Rupert Murdoch and transplanted neophyte Frank McCourt.
Whereas there were four general managers (one of them, Fresco Thompson, died a few months after taking the job) and three field managers in the first 40 years, there has since been a revolving door on those offices.
Keeping the movers busy in that 10-year period, there have been six general managers (counting Tom Lasorda and Dave Wallace on an interim basis) and six field managers (counting Glenn Hoffman on an interim basis).
It has been a chaotic era of change and turnover, with little to show for it except a high payroll and frustration on the field: the Dodgers have been to the playoffs twice in the 10 years since O’Malley sold, going as division champion in 2004 and the wild card in 2006.
While disappointed fans may point to what seemed like similar periods of drought under the O’Malley ownership, the facts say differently.
After winning a World Series title in 1959, their second year in Los Angeles, the Dodgers would win two more World Series and play in a third during the 1960s.
They would win three National League pennants in the 1970s while in fierce division competition with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
They would win two World Series titles and two other division titles in the 1980s.
And, amid the escalating economics that influenced O’Malley to sell in ’98, they would win two division titles in the first eight years of that decade, lose the possibility of a third on the last day of the 1997 season and lose the possibility of another when the 1994 strike wiped out the remainder of that season while they were leading the division.
“I don’t want to say I’m proud of that record or happy with it,” O’Malley said. “I don’t want to characterize it. I just think it speaks for itself.”
And as a cornerstone of it, O’Malley said, he pointed to Campanis’ book.
“I don’t think it was ever pushed aside or put on a shelf,” he said. “Everybody in our organization always had great respect for what he wrote. He knew the game from all aspects and loved to teach it, as Rickey once did. He deserves a lot of credit for that book.”
In April 1987, however, Campanis made insensitive remarks regarding African Americans while appearing on “Nightline” and O’Malley bowed to pressure from outside the organization by firing Campanis and elevating Claire to the general manager’s position.
No one was closer to Campanis than Lasorda. It was Campanis who brought the former left-handed pitcher back as a scout and then made him a minor league manager on a fast track to replace Walter Alston as the varsity manager.
Lasorda said he is saddened to think Campanis died with people believing his “Nightline” remarks represented his true thinking (“No one did more for black and Latin players,” Lasorda said) and he believes that it was when Campanis left the organization that the “Dodger Way” began to slip away.
“He let it get away,” Lasorda said in a pointed reference to Claire, citing as examples the changes that were made in the club’s farm and scouting directors, among other staff moves, and that young pitchers were allowed to throw sliders, a pitch Campanis had banned because of the strain it put on young arms.
Claire, always dignified and composed, bit his tongue in a telephone interview and suggested that Lasorda is applying revisionist history. He said that Ben Wade and Bill Schweppe, the longtime scouting and farm directors who had accompanied the team from Brooklyn 30 years earlier, had simply opted to retire and were replaced by two longtime Dodgers employees with respected resumes -- Terry Reynolds and Charley Blaney.
As for young pitchers throwing sliders, Claire said: “I never influenced or insisted on a pitching philosophy. I relied on the recommendations of Tommy, as a former pitcher, and the organization’s pitching coaches. I never made a trade or signed a player without taking into consideration the opinion of Tommy, the scouts and other members of the staff.”
The Dodgers won a World Series in Claire’s second year as GM, produced five straight winners of the rookie-of-the-year award during his tenure, returned to the playoffs in 1995 and ’96 and, Claire said, never played a game during his last four years that didn’t bear on the club’s playoff possibilities.
Claire and manager Bill Russell were fired in 1998 shortly after a Murdoch lieutenant went behind Claire’s back to trade Mike Piazza. Kevin Malone and Davey Johnson, who replaced Claire and Russell in full-time roles, were the first people to fill those jobs in the club’s 40 years in L.A. who didn’t have any Dodgers background.
“That was just the start of the changes,” Claire said.
Indeed, it was as if Murdoch, the new owner, couldn’t wait to get out, virtually underwriting McCourt’s eventual purchase. And while McCourt has spent far more than anticipated on players and stadium improvements, insisting in the process that the emphasis is on young players and building from within, he is already on his third general manager (Dan Evans, Paul DePodesta and possibly jeopardized Ned Colletti) and third field manager (Jim Tracy, Grady Little and Joe Torre). He will soon employ the Dodgers’ eighth batting coach in the last 10 years, and all of those front office and field people will have given lip service to the fundamentals of pitching, speed and defense with no evidence of having thrown the book at their players, now in the midst of another struggling season.
In fact, when considering the breakdown in Dodgers continuity and stability over the last 10 years, you may have to conclude that Mike Scioscia, a former Dodgers catcher and once heir to Lasorda before Malone and staff chased him out of the organization (one of the more costly victims of the merry-go-round), took the book with him when he left to become manager of the Angels.
After all, the “Angel Way” bears a striking familiarity to the “Dodger Way,” for those who can remember back that far.