Dear Giants fans,
I have a confession to make.
The author is Michael Leahy, who wrote for The Washington Post. One of the strengths of his book is the amount of time he spent interviewing players. Wes Parker gave him over 40 hours.
One of the main motivations for me to buy this one was to play catch up. Born in 1956, I only vaguely remember the 1960’s. When the nation sat down every weekday evening to hear Walter Cronkite tell his viewers about all the unrest and violence in the nation and elsewhere, I was outside playing baseball with the neighborhood kids.
Leahy does a brilliant job of weaving in and out with the past and present. The main protagonists are Maury Wills and Wes Parker. Each of them were vital components in the Dodgers’ success, who won the World Series in 1959, 1963 and 1965, before fading away like a setting sun.
Long before players consulted with a performance coach, both Wills and Parker had an extreme lack of confidence. Leahy brings out their psychological struggles in a compelling way. In addition to his inner demons, Wills also fought discrimination, even after moving from his hometown here in Washington to Los Angeles.
The author also focuses on Sandy Koufax. I remember my best friend Robert, who lived beside us beginning in 1964, started following Koufax and the Dodgers. Around the same time, I fell for the Giants.
The great baseball players were all gods to us, but I have to admit, there was something about Koufax. A Brooklyn blue blood, the southpaw ace seemed to have his own special place on Mount Olympus. He might have the best all time nickname – “The Left Hand of God.”
In the beginning of his career, and before he learned to harness his speed, Koufax had poor WHIPs. He turned things around in time for the 1962 season. The Dodgers won 102 games but lost the pennant to Los Gigantes in the three-game playoff. Giants fans rejoiced up the sun-swept coast, but Koufax was just getting started.
The following season was the one that put Koufax on the map. The fireballing southpaw had a 10.7 WAR, went 25 and 5, and led the league in ERA 1.88 and strikeouts 306.
With all that, you would think Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi would have given him the raise he deserved. But back then, before free agency and the players union, the team had all the leverage.
Another strength of this book is the author’s balanced approach when it comes to telling the stories of the individuals involved. Bavasi stands out this way, the kind of person who had both good and bad qualities.
His less than ethical side came out during negotiations with the players. After Koufax’s brilliant ’63 season, capped off by the Dodgers sweeping the Yankees in the Fall Classic, the star ace went toe to toe with Bavasi. The Dodgers were making tons of money and Koufax wanted his fair share of the pie. His stance against management was part of the laying of the foundation for the house the baseball players now live in, in terms of their rights and gains in labor relations.
The only criticism I have of this wonderful book is that at times, the author does not seem to appreciate sabermetric analysis. Wills did win the 1962 N.L. Most Valuable Player, but some have called that vote the worst one in the history of the selection. Mays had a WAR of 10.5. Wills was 6.0, and the Giants beat the Dodgers for the pennant.
But, in defense of Leahy, this was the way the writers thought back then and his pursuit of Cobb had captured the imagination of the nation and the writers.
Wills was certainly the most exciting player that year as he chased Ty Cobb’s long-standing record of 96 swipes. But as the author points out, the Dodgers speedy shortstop (he also played some games at the hot corner) had to face the hate mail that came with his growing fame. In fact, this is one of the poignant moments in the book. Wills and Koufax opened each other's mail and traded observations such as - “Maury, you don’t want to see this one.”
Leahy juxtaposes the Dodgers story with what was going on in the country. Americans have been through periods of crisis before, but for those who went through it, none seemed as horrible as the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. The Watts riots in Los Angeles shook the players too.
At the same time, baseball was king in the sports world. During pennant races and World Series, fans were transfixed to their transistors at work and in schools. Casual fans stopped on city streets to watch some of the action at stores that sold TVs.
The violence and blood shed across America wasn’t limited to the streets. Leahy, of course, writes about a game the Giants and Dodgers played at Candlestick Park on August 22, 1965. I was only nine years old and have no memories of reading about it in the paper. But it is a game that is etched in my mind and had an impact on my early years as a fan of the game.
In 1966, my parents gave me a Christmas present, maybe the best one ever. I opened up the wrapping to find “Willie Mays” by Arnold Hano. Hano leads off by recounting what happened in the third inning of this contest played in the heat of a close pennant race. The author called it the most bitter game he had ever seen.
I knew the basics of the story. Roseboro threw a ball back to Koufax and whisked it past Marichal’s ear (a rare match up between the two superstars). Heated words were exchanged. Marichal struck the Dodgers catcher on the head with his bat. A near riot ensued.
Hano emphasizes the point that Mays’s swift action - comforting Roseboro – prevented a riot. Leahy also echoes this point.
The author also makes some great personal observation. One is something every sports writers should read. During an interview with Koufax, many years after his perfect game took place at Dodger Stadium (1965), Leahy brought up the subject of this game that cemented Koufax’s status as a superstar.
Koufax had asked they only talk about Wills. When the author crossed the line, Koufax, ever the gentleman, simply paused. Feeling the awkwardness, Leahy got the message.
Out of this experience, he writes: “We ought to allow the men we turn into deities to have their sanctuaries.”
I’ve always been fascinated by how authors have chosen to write about the Giants and the Dodgers. Although things have changed recently, it seems like the Dodgers were treated more like darlings and the good guys while the Giants were seen as something less.
Leahy does treat the Dodgers in a good and fair way, but some of their players on those 60s teams had to experience a certain amount of anguish and pain on their way to glory. Seeing this pathos through the lens of these players makes this book quite enjoyable as a learning experience.
Oh my God Giants fans. Did I really just say that?