There's also an area right outside the home clubhouse where the pitchers practice control. It's called The Strings because of the pieces of twine tied together to frame the shape of the strike zone at each of the four home plates. Rickey would be right at home here, because it was he who had The Strings set up many years ago, and he spent most of his outdoor working time at Dodgertown in this area. "When it comes to pitching," he used to say, "I know my onions."
When it came to training camps, he knew 'em, too. One day late in 1947, the season in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, a prominent Vero Beach businessman named Bud Holman, for whom the Dodgertown stadium would later be named, suggested to Rickey that the Dodgers transfer spring training operations from Pensacola to a disused Naval training base 500 miles away at Vero Beach. During World War II the 80-acre base had served as a center for training divebomber pilots to fly night missions; they' made endless strafing and bombing runs over nearby Blue Cypress Lake. After the war the U.S. government deeded the facility to the city of Vero Beach.
Red Barber, the Dodgers' radio announcer in those days, recalls that Rickey had already used the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pensacola as a "minor league factory" and that that experience certainly kindled his interest in Vero Beach. "Mister Rickey was always ahead of the parade," Barber says. "A very brilliant man."
Rickey dispatched one of his rising young organizational lights, Buzzie Bavasi, to evaluate the Vero Beach facility. Stepping off the train, Bavasi was stunned: "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness!' It was a town of about 4,000 people. I couldn't understand why Mister Rickey wanted to come down here. Then we went out to the base. It was rather dilapidated, and it was abandoned. Windows were broken. Weeds were all over the place. But it was all flatland, and you could see the possibilities. There were 18 apartments, single-story, one-, two- and three-bedroom, on a site adjacent to the base, and I thought, 'Those could be good for our staff.' "
That evening, in Holman's tow, Bavasi met the town fathers, who asked for $20,000 a year in rent. The Dodgers were scratching financially in those days, and Bavasi countered with an offer of "a dollar a year for 20 years." Holman had envisioned the Dodgers as a lure for tourism. Bavasi pointed out that 13 sports-writers traveled with the Dodgers and "they will have a Vero Beach dateline every day." After considerable dickering, town officials finally agreed: a dollar a year for 20 years. The tab for the apartments, which the Dodgers would rent for front-office people, was set at $75 a month for a one-bedroom, $100 for a two-bedroom and $125 for a three-bedroom.
In his three years at Vero, Rickey would make an indelible mark on spring training. By 1949 he not only had all his players in one spring training camp, unheard of at the time, but he also had them organized on the field like Marine recruits at Parris Island.
A total of 581 baseball players passed through Dodgertown in 1948, of which 477 were minor-leaguers: 61 catchers, 206 pitchers, 96 infielders, 28 first basemen and 86 outfielders. During that first spring the Dodgers themselves and the Triple-A Montreal Royals, as well as 38 free agents, stopped by briefly on their way back from training in the Dominican Republic. Just about everyone except Manager Leo Durocher and his wife, actress Laraine Day, stayed in two large barracks. Leo reported that Laraine could not abide the wire coat hangers, so they moved into a hotel that had wooden ones.
In those early years Rickey, the silver-tongued orator, began each day with a lecture on the fundamentals of the game. Actor Chuck Connors, then a minor league first baseman, recalls Rickey talking one morning about how to take a lead off first base. "Not the break," Connors recalls, "just the lead. He could hold you spellbound. Articulate, poetic, brilliant, compelling."
On the field there were so many players running around that each one not only wore a number, but the numbers were of different colors—orange, maroon, yellow, purple, black, green, blue, brown, white and red—so one No. 46 could be distinguished from another. Players rotated from one skill area to the next: bunting, executing run-downs, sliding, hitting, stealing. "Every half-hour they'd blow a whistle and you'd change," says Guy Wellman, a minor-leaguer then and now a scout for the Dodgers. The managers were easily discernible. "We thought that was pretty funny. All the managers ran around in white satin uniforms," Wellman says.
And there, presiding at The Strings, wearing a bow tie and a felt hat, holding a cigar and dictating notes ceaselessly to his secretary, was Rickey. He really did know his onions. One after another, pitchers came to perform for him. Al Campanis, now the Dodger general manager, then a minor league instructor, recalls Rickey watching a different pitcher at The Strings every 15 minutes. He called every player "young man."