I learned a whole heck of a lot about baseball at Dodgertown, mostly because of the way they taught it. You always had the spirit of the man down there: Branch Rickey. Those that followed him passed it on down. Everybody was aware of Branch Rickey, because they never let his spirit die around there. They always said, Mister Rickey did this and Mister Rickey said that. And it's still going on; it's still lasting. Those things never die.
Former Los Angeles Dodger
On a beautiful day in Vero Beach, Fla. last spring, with the sun hanging high in the belltower of an early afternoon, the black man stopped his wheelchair between home plate and the mound on Field 2, facing the mound.
The spirit of the past is always right around a corner at Dodgertown, and the way you get to Field 2 is this: You can enter Dodgertown by turning off Vero Beach's 26th Street into Duke Snider Road and then take a left on Vin Scully Way, which runs right past the field along the leftfield line. Or you can turn in at the main gate, onto Jackie Robinson Avenue. Then you head straight for a hundred yards or so. Don't turn left (what else?) on Sandy Koufax Lane, because that breaks like a good curve past the villas—small, one-bedroom, one-bathroom structures where most of the players live, two to a unit. Keep going until you get to Roy Campanella Drive. Take a right and, if you're on foot, walk straight on, through the gap in the fence and over to the pitcher's mound, until you reach...Roy Campanella.
Campanella, a Dodger instructor these days, among other things, was sitting in his wheelchair and addressing a dozen or so fresh-faced young catchers, most of them minor-leaguers, teaching and explaining in a voice clear and deliberate.
"And another thing," Campy was saying. "You have to give a pitcher confidence that if he bounces the ball in the dirt, you can get in front of it and block it. Any pitcher who can keep the ball down low is a better pitcher. When he starts bringing the ball up, he's going to get hit much harder. If one gets away, the pitcher depends on you to block it—not catch it, just block it—and keep the ball in front of you. If the runner sees the ball in front of you, he'll never run."
The Dodgers have trained at this site every year since 1948, when Rickey, then a co-owner of the team, first summoned almost 600 players to Vero Beach to chase fly balls, avoid the alligators, stay sober and attend church on Good Friday. The late Mister Rickey, as all who knew him still unfailingly refer to him, left the Dodgers after a power struggle with co-owner Walter O'Malley in 1950, but what he created and left behind is as immutable in these parts as the color of the orange.
He set out to create a "college of baseball"—in fact, in a 1948 Dodgertown field-operation log the place is called the Brooklyn Dodgers School of Instruction Camp—and he did precisely that. Rickey had been a catcher in his playing days, and one of his star pupils that first year was Campanella, a minor-leaguer about to join the Dodgers. "If Mister Rickey could only have caught like he could talk about it!" Campanella says. What Rickey talked about is what Campanella still talks about today. So there was a continuum at work on Field 2 that day, a tradition of teaching a catcher a certain way of catching. After 34 years, the same school was still in session.
The students listened raptly as Campanella made points and spun yarns. One illustrated the value and proper use of the pitchout. There was the day, he recalled, when he was catching Preacher Roe, who had excellent control, in a close game against the New York Giants. Willie Mays was on first, and Campanella called for three straight pitchouts before he ever asked Roe to throw a strike.
"I knew that Mays was going to run," Campanella told them, "and that out was very important. And I had the confidence I was going to throw him out. This comes from practice and from believing in yourself. I just knew in a close game that Mays would try to steal. I called for three pitchouts, and I got him on the third one. I knew I could put Roe in a hole like that because I knew he could get the ball over. You have to pick your pitcher to do this with. Know your pitchers and believe in yourself! "
Campanella's sermon on the mound that day covered familiar ground, but there's much about the Dodgertown of 1950 that no longer exists. And there has been a lot added since Rickey departed. The place has always been unique—it was, for instance, the first major league training facility in which both major and minor league clubs trained together—but now it's a real oddity, a kind of full-time, 450-acre country club that, incidentally, also happens to be the home of the Dodgers six weeks a year.