SI Vault
 
PAINFUL SEARCH FOR A PENNANT
Jack Olsen
September 19, 1966
Baseball enters the stretch—and here come the colorful Dodgers, their eyes on the flag and their elbows in ice baths. A fight flares, laughter cools it, and the world champions stagger on—maybe all the way
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 19, 1966

Painful Search For A Pennant

Baseball enters the stretch—and here come the colorful Dodgers, their eyes on the flag and their elbows in ice baths. A fight flares, laughter cools it, and the world champions stagger on—maybe all the way

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Look at the Dodgers. See how they run. Slow-ly. See how they pitch. Pain-ful-ly. See how they hit. Weak-ly. See how they win. U-su-al-ly. Question: How?

Look at the Dodgers up in their plane, high over Colorado, late in the night. A gentle turbulence barely rocks the wings; cabin lights are dimmed and a certain amount of sonorous breathing can be heard. Still, there is action. Phil Regan, John Roseboro and Willie Davis are playing lowball poker, and Regan is winning again. Maury Wills is making good on a promise not to drive everybody berserk with his customary five-hour banjo recital; instead, he is playing nonstop guitar. Nobe Kawano, the clubhouse man with a heart of gold, and James (Junior) Gilliam, the ballplayers' ballplayers' ballplayer, continue a running game of gin rummy that goes back almost to the Harding administration. Jim Lefebvre, a switch-hitting bat boy who made good, and Wes Covington, an old pro who has found a new career as a holler guy, play a heated card game called crazy eights; anything involving Covington is likely to be heated. Sandy Koufax makes one of his rare appearances as a gin player, and gets knocked out of the box 39 to 21 under an arcane scoring system understood only by the participants.

A man from the front office looks anxiously at the dark shapes of clouds coming up under the wings and speaks in a low voice about the world champions of baseball: "We're known as a speed club, but except for Willie Davis we haven't got as much speed this year as the wrestling team at Wellesley. We're known as a pitching club, but the only overpowering pitcher we've got is Koufax, and with him every start may be his last. Stars like Maury Wills and Don Drysdale are having knee problems. So we're not winning on speed; we're not winning on stars; we're not winning on overpowering pitching. People say, look at the ball club; they can't be winning at all; it's an optical illusion, another one of Buzzie Bavasi's card tricks. But of course we're winning, and what we're winning on is the oldest thing in sport. We're winning on spirit.... Yeah, they do say that about every winning ball club. But without spirit this team would be the Los Angeles Cubs."

Look at the Dodgers in the clubhouse. See the boxes of baseballs and the players signing them. See the endless supplies of bubble gum, both normal and sugarless, the cases of soda pop and beer. See the bandages, hypodermics and bright-colored pills. Look at Reserve Outfielder Al Ferrara sauntering around in a protective undergarment and a 20-gallon Mexican cowboy hat. John Roseboro dresses underneath the latest addition to his locker: a picture of an eight ball. Pee Wee Oliver hums one of the selections from his new Roulette album, while his manager, Tommy Davis, beams approval. Koufax sees big-hit, no-field Dick Stuart fumbling with his glove, and shouts the length of the clubhouse: "Come on, everybody, let's get some laughs. Stuart's gonna field ground balls." Stuart laughs; of all the jokes in the world, he likes the ones about himself the most. Off to one side, Ron Perranoski is trying to put a writer on: "You want some funny stories about the bullpen? There's nothing funny goes on in the bullpen. The only funny thing that happened down there this year is I showed up." Perranoski struts off, smirking.

Walter Alston sits in a corner and muses. "Listen to 'em," he says. "They're loose. They're ready for everything. Either you have spirit or you don't. We're lucky to have it. It doesn't come from me or the coaches. People talk about managers getting a team up. Well, once in a while you can have a meeting and get them up a little bit, but baseball is played day in and day out and after you've had about five peptalks in a row it starts running right off their backs. Nobody in the world can make a dead-ass ballplayer get excited. These guys don't need that. They're competitors and they hate like hell to get beat. There're times when I don't know whether this is the best team in the league or not. But I know they're not gonna give up. On top of everything else we've got some young kids who seem to get better under pressure. Kids like Wes Parker and Jim Lefebvre. You'd expect young kids like that to choke a little. They do the opposite. And we've got enough veterans like Gilliam and Roseboro and that kind of guy who's been through everything."

Look at the Dodger office. See the deep-pile rugs, the objets d'art, the handsome paintings of pennant-winning Dodgers all up and down the halls. See the money. See the smiling man behind the big desk under the picture of Lincoln. He is Emil J. (Buzzie) Bavasi, Owner Walter O'Malley's trail boss, and remember not to trade any of your stamps or coins to him. Bavasi is just finishing a talk with Ron Fairly, players' representative and perfect gentleman except when he pops out. "I was just telling Ron," Buzzie says, "that when I start a season with these 25 men I know that I've already got 25 games in the bag because each one of those guys is gonna do something to win a ball game. That's the kind of club it is. They take turns winning games. And that makes every one of them as good as Henry Aaron or Willie Mays when their turn comes. There's not a one of them that doesn't give 105%. Walter Alston is one of the reasons. He treats every man up there as if he were over 21. There are no children on this club. He doesn't fine 'em; I don't think, there's been a fine this year. Once in a while they'll have some drinks or stay out late, and Alston doesn't do anything about it because he knows they had a reason to do it, and he knows the next day they'll still be giving him 105%. You never hear him tell any player what to do with his private life or his free time. And the men'll do anything for him."

A loud outcry in the hall signals the arrival of Lou Johnson, the outfielder whose gentle innocence has earned him the nickname "Sweet Lou." "Hey, come here, you," Buzzie shouts. "What're you here for?"

"What am I always here for, Tiger?"

"Money."

"Right again. Money. And now I gotta run into you. You're bad news. I'm on a hitting streak. Last night I got two hits, and now I'll go 0 for 40, and I can't afford it."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5