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A good part of this blanket thinking about the Dodgers as an old team stems from the sheer greatness of the key Brooklyn players, greatness that keeps young players from breaking into the lineup. No other group of stars in the long history of baseball has played together so many years so successfully as the eight-man nucleus of the modern Dodgers: Reese, Furillo, Gil Hodges, Snider, Campanella, Newcombe, Erskine and the departed Jack Robinson. Reese came to the Dodgers in 1940; Furillo in 1946; Robinson, Snider and Hodges (except for two times at bat in 1943) in 1947; Campanella and Erskine in 1948; Newcombe in 1949. A couple of them made one or two return trips to the high minors, but 1949 can be designated as the year this collection of extraordinary players became a team. In the eight seasons from 1949 through 1956, they won five pennants and tied for a sixth, lost another on the last day of the season and finished second the one other time they failed to win. And the same group was chiefly responsible, year after year. Aside from pitching (where first Preacher Roe, then Joe Black, then Clem Labine and Sal Maglie made significant contributions to success), only one other player, the resourceful Junior Gilliam, has become an integral part of the Dodger lineup. Compare the Brooklyn starting nine in the memorable first game of the 1949 World Series against the New York Yankees (when Tommy Henrich beat Don Newcombe 1-0 on a ninth inning home run) with that which started the memorable last game of the 1956 Series (when Yogi Berra destroyed Newcombe with two two-run home runs). Newcombe was the pitcher in 1949, Campanella the catcher. Hodges was at first base, Robinson at second, Reese at short, Snider in center, Furillo in right. In 1956 Robinson had moved to third base, but the others were all in precisely the same positions. The Yankees, who won seven pennants in the same eight years, had an almost complete overhaul in that time: of the nine who started against Brooklyn in 1949, only Yogi Berra was in the lineup for that final game of the 1956 Series.
The point being so laboriously made is simply this: the greatness of the Dodger nucleus makes it hard to believe that the Dodgers can continue to win without them, and the rapid turnover of personnel common in baseball makes it hard to believe that the Dodger nucleus can keep going much longer. The retirement of Jackie Robinson, the greatest of all Dodger ballplayers, lends strength to this argument. The nagging feeling persists that perhaps this at long last will be the year that the fabulous one-hoss shay falls apart, all at once.
But talk to Walter Alston about this. He's the fourth man to manage this extraordinary collection of players and the most successful, when you consider the declining ability of his stars and the rising ability of his opponents. Admirers of Leo Durocher, Burt Shotton and Charley Dressen may possibly object indignantly to that statement, and it is admitted that Alston may well be the weakest tactician of the lot. But as a strategist he is by far the best. Someone once explained the difference between tactics and strategy in describing Leo Durocher as a manager: "If you were in a building and it started to collapse, Leo would get you out. I don't know what he'd do, but he'd think of something, and you'd get out. That's tactics, and that's Leo. But someone else would have seen to it beforehand that the damn building was safe."
And that's strategy, and that's Alston. Durocher seldom thought past today's game. Alston is almost irritating in his consideration of the future. One of the standard joke lines of Brooklyn baseball writers is, "We'll have to wait and see about that," which is Alston's stock reply to most questions seeking his opinion. Alston doesn't pop off. Ask him, for instance, if he thinks the Dodgers will miss Robinson this year. It's a ticklish question in the first place because the fiery, outspoken Robinson was a constant bur on Alston's hide.
"I can't say yet," Alston replies. "Have to wait and see how the player who takes his place will do."
Press him a little further. "Hell," he says, "any team would miss a competitor like Robinson. He was a great player. But Charley Neal [a young infielder] had a better batting average than Robinson last year. Randy Jackson [ Robinson's alternate at third base] hit about the same, and he batted in more runs."
Talk to Alston about the other old players, about the possibility of one or two or several of them breaking down this year. "There's always that chance, but I don't see any sign of it yet. And I don't think the whole bunch is going to break down at once."
But the possibility is there, and Alston knows it, and so he is constantly working his young players in and out of the lineup: Don Demeter, a 21-year-old string bean of a center fielder who hit 41 home runs for Fort Worth last year; Jim Gentile, a 22-year-old first baseman, who hit 40 homers as Demeter's teammate; John Roseboro, a left-handed hitting catcher who is not yet on the Dodger roster but who hits sharply, throws well, runs fast and, all in all, looks like a fine baseball player. Alston has been using Neal and Chico Fernandez at second and short. And Zimmer, of course, and others.
All this is an attempt to reinforce the dike, to buy insurance. The Dodgers have had, for the past decade, brilliant fielding and powerful hitting. Lately, both have become just a little frayed.
PITCHERS AND HITTERS