On Not Hating the Dodgers: a pre-Fathers Day columnJune 17, 2016
I’d forgotten I’d written this. It’s from 1994 and it’s in my 1997 book The Shortstop’s Son, which you can still order online.
My father was a Dodger fan. My earliest memory involves a blue and white T-shirt emblazoned with the team’s logo. In those days, of course, they were the Brooklyn Dodgers, though they wouldn’t be for long.
He knew well those post-war teams, those names that ganged together in a kind of incantation: Furillo, Reese, Snider, Hodges, later Robinson and Campenella and Newcombe and Drysdale and the others. The Dodgers were my father’s team, the team of his adolescence and young adulthood, and though it was a long way from Asheville, N.C., to Ebbets Field, he mourned their move to the coast.
Though he thought O’Malley’s desertion was a cynical and soulless thing to do, he soon forgave the Dodgers, and later, when we also moved west he would take me to games at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. We always arrived early enough to watch batting and infield practice, and he took advantage of the time to instruct me on the small points that made a man a ballplayer. For a time he had been a professional shortstop, small but with quick wrists that gave him surprising power. He had favorites, and the players he particularly admired reflected his own ethic of duty and work.
He liked Wally Moon because the big man had adjusted his left-handed stroke to take advantage of the short left field wall in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers played their first year out of Brooklyn. He liked Maury Wills because he saw in the scrappy shortstop a man of meager natural gifts who had made himself first into a switch-hitter, and then into an All-Star. Junior Gilliam similarly impressed him — especially when, in 1965, at the age of 36, he came out of retirement to hit .280 and (temporarily) solve the Dodger’s perennial third base problem.
The year 1965 was also the year that Tommy Davis broke his right ankle early in the season, depriving the Dodger’s of their starting left-fielder and one of the game’s best hitters. To replace him, manager Walter Alston called up a 31-year-old veteran named Lou Johnson. Johnson had spent 13 unspectacular seasons in the minor leagues, but that year he went on to hit a dozen home runs and drive in 58 runs — not an inconsequential amount for a team that scored as infrequently as the Dodgers. My father became a Lou Johnson fan in 1965.
The year was, ironically perhaps, when I learned to hate the Dodgers.
I would like to be able to write that I hated them because they broke my father’s heart, but that would be romantically inaccurate. I was never a Dodger fan, probably because the Dodger teams I first became aware of were squads built on speed and pitching, finesse teams that manufactured runs and won and lost “boring” games by one-run margins.
I liked the Boston Red Sox, the Cincinnati Reds of Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, and — of all teams — the vainglorious New York Yankees with Mantle and Maris and Yogi Berra and Tom Tresh. Later I would come to love the Pittsburgh Pirates with the sullen, masterful Roberto Clemente.
But most of all, I liked the San Francisco Giants. I liked them because, most of the time, they were the team that was playing the Dodgers when we went to Dodger Stadium. I liked them because my uncle lived in San Francisco — he took me to games at Candlestick.
I loved Willie Mays and Orlando Cepada and Willie McCovey and, beyond all comprehension, a little outfielder named Mateo Alou who — in 1965 — definitely seemed the lesser of three brothers. (Once, I think in 1966, the Alou brothers, Felipe and Jesus and Matty, comprised the Giant’s outfield for an inning — the only time in major league history brothers have accomplished that.)
The Giants were, as the team name implies, big and thundery. They were hitters mainly, though they had the elegant Juan Marichal, and they were not so subtle as the Dodgers. I mean those fierce old Giants no disrespect when I say they were a boy’s team; the Dodgers were for more sophisticated tastes.
Yet, if I am honest, I must admit I loved the Giants out of mischief too. I know it annoyed my father that I preferred Marichal to Koufax, a Mays double to a Wills bunt-and-steal. I took some delight in rooting for the Dodger’s mortal enemies — it made those games more interesting.
What everyone remembers about 1965 is the ugliness that occurred on August 22 at Candlestick Park. Giant pitcher Marichal went after Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a bat, cutting his head and touching off a 14-minute riot. Marichal was suspended for eight games and forbidden from accompanying the Giants on their final trip to Los Angeles on September 6 and 7. I remember my father’s anger that any man would use a bat on another player, particularly one so gentlemanly as the quiet Roseboro.
I remember a flush of shame, but it passed. That year Mays hit 52 home runs, and McCovey 39, and though the pennant race was close — there were no play-offs then — the Giants reeled off a 14-game winning streak in September and moved ahead of the Dodgers by four-and-a-half games.
But then the Dodgers finished the season by winning 15 of their last 16, overtaking my Giants and winning the pennant by two games.
My father, I remember, was exceedingly kind at the end. Yet something went bitter in my young heart — the disappointment stung so bad I cried.
It is spring again, and I am no longer the youngest person in the office. Probably most of the folks around here were yet to be born in 1965, even those who care about a thing as picayune as baseball probably wonder at my affinity for a team that can only be reassembled in my imagination. Where have you gone, Tito Fuentes? Or you, Jim Ray Hart?
The game is different, these days, not better, not worse, but different. Curt Flood freed the slaves, then went off to Spain to wear a beret and paint in the cafes. He is one of my heroes too, but he changed this game.
Now we root for players more than teams, if we root at all. I still love the snap of baseballs through bright air, the rub of leather, the pregnancy of a curve ball about to snap….
But I no longer hate the Dodgers. And somehow, there is something sad in that.