The 1960s Dodgers: Two Parts Patience, One Part Creative Insanityby Steve Treder
November 10, 2004
Earlier, we examined the situations of the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s. Those organizations in that decade presented very different scenarios: the Cardinals parlayed good-but-not-great home-grown talent into a three-time champion through extremely astute trades; the Giants managed just one pennant despite a staggering bounty from the farm system, because of highly questionable choices and ill-conceived trades.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were the other team to finish on top in the National League between 1962 and 1968 - like the Cards, they were a three-time champ in those years - and they demonstrated neither such extreme. But the Dodgers in this period did exhibit sound organizational principles: excellent talent development, prudence and patience in deploying it, and wisdom in trading when the situation called for it.
The First-Year Flop
In 1958, quite unlike their upstate rivals, the team the Dodgers brought to California was distinctly over the hill. Former Brooklyn stars were in decline all over the roster: outfielders Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, first baseman Gil Hodges, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and pitchers Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. The Dodgers, pennant winners in four out of five seasons from 1952 through 1956, tumbled from third place in '57 all the way to seventh in '58, and watched the Giants pass them in the opposite direction.
So the Dodgers faced an immediate rebuilding project. They went about it in a particularly careful, patient manner. Unlike many ball clubs in such a circumstance, the Dodgers didn't "tear the team apart" by dumping their veterans. Newcombe was traded away and Reese retired, but all the rest were kept on hand for 1959. Snider and Hodges in particular were put to very effective use, eased out of everyday jobs but deployed quite effectively in platoon roles for the next few years.
The Dodgers understood that they had an outstanding manager in Walt Alston, and an impressive core of home-grown talent on hand: pitchers Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres, Sandy Koufax, and Stan Williams, and catcher John Roseboro were all 25-and-under, and on the major league roster all or most of 1958. For 1959, the Dodgers augmented them with rookie outfielders Don Demeter and Ron Fairly. They made only one significant trade in the 1958-59 offseason, sending standout defensive center fielder Gino Cimoli to the Cardinals for Wally Moon, who had been a productive lefty-hitting corner outfielder-first baseman for several years until a slump-ridden 1958.
The '59 Surprise
The Dodgers were likely as surprised as anyone in 1959 when they ended up winning the pennant and World Series. The flag was the result of a number of fortuitous events, including unexpected star turns from second baseman Charlie Neal, and pitchers Roger Craig and Larry Sherry. But championship outcome or not, the 1959 Dodgers were clearly an improved ball club. Moon proved to be a shrewd acquisition, Drysdale stepped forward as one of the league's top pitchers, and the rest of the young talent developed nicely.
The team had only one real weakness: at shortstop, incumbent Don Zimmer slumped miserably to a .165 batting average, and to take his place the Dodgers turned to a light-hitting, slick-fielding, lightning-fast 9-year minor league veteran named Maury Wills. The 26-year-old Wills didn't hit well or steal much in '59, but his defense was such that the Dodgers considered him a candidate for the regular job going forward.
The Virtue of Patience
For 1960 the Dodgers again made no major moves. At the end of spring training, they committed to Wills at shortstop by trading Zimmer to the Cubs, receiving cash and prospects in return - and one of the prospects was a 23-year-old southpaw sinkerballer named Ron Perranoski. The 1960 Dodgers finished fourth - probably a better indicator of their talent than the first-place result of 1959 - and the season served as another opportunity for the youngsters to further develop. Two more outfielders, Frank Howard and Tommy Davis, had solid rookie years. Wills blossomed beyond all expectations, hitting .295 (he had hit .267 and .253 in his two full seasons in Triple-A), and stealing 50 bases (the most he had stolen in any minor league season since 1952 was 34; no one had stolen 50 bags in the National League since 1923).
In the following off-season, again the Dodgers made no significant changes. For 1961 yet another standout rookie outfielder was on hand, in Willie Davis. This gave the Dodgers perhaps as crowded an outfield as has ever been assembled: Willie Davis, Moon, Snider, and Fairly were all good left-handed hitters, and Demeter, Howard, and Tommy Davis were all good right-handed hitters; all shared playing time with none as a full-time regular. The Dodgers leveraged this surplus in early May, trading Demeter along with a power-hitting young infielder named Charley Smith, to the Phillies in exchange for hard-throwing star reliever Dick Farrell.
The Farrell trade made good sense, but didn't bear fruit; Farrell pitched pretty well but in bad luck. Overall the 1961 team was a strong blend of youth and experience, finishing second. The most promising developments of the season came from left-handed pitchers: the 25-year-old Koufax finally began to master his control, and broke through as an 18-game winner with more strikeouts (269) than any National Leaguer had fashioned since 1892, and Perranoski, the unheralded minor leaguer picked up from the Cubs a year earlier, put together a strong rookie year in the bullpen.
The Value of Depth
The National League expanded in 1962, and the Dodgers' great depth served them well. Despite surrendering Dick Farrell, Gil Hodges, Roger Craig, first baseman Norm Larker, infielder Bob Aspromonte, and pitcher Jim Golden in the expansion draft, the team was well-equipped to absorb the losses. If anything, the culling of the roster may have benefited the Dodgers, as it forced some choices, and the Dodgers were decisive in making them. In 1962, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, and Frank Howard were made regulars in the outfield, with Moon and Snider now strictly in reserve, and Ron Fairly became the starting first baseman.
With both Drysdale and Koufax now established as top aces, with their heavy-hitting young outfield in place, and with Wills running wild as never before at the top of the lineup, the 1962 Dodgers were an outstanding ball club. Winning 101 regular season games, in many seasons they would have breezed to the pennant, but in this particular year they were caught at the very end, and defeated in an excruciating 3-game playoff by the immensely talented juggernaut from San Francisco.
Success and Setback
The way the Dodgers rebuilt in 1959-61, patiently working their bounty of young talent into the mix while still finding productive roles for their veterans, was a model of level headed decision-making. The extraordinary team that emerged in 1962 appeared ready for a sustained run of excellence. In 1963, with virtually the same roster as '62, they cruised to the pennant and a stunning sweep of the Yankees in the World Series.
But in 1964, for the first time since 1958, the Dodgers struggled. The defending world champs dropped to 80-82, and sixth place, as several things went wrong:
- They gave several young pitchers (Phil Ortega, Joe Moeller, Larry Miller, Nick Willhite, and Pete Richert) opportunities in starting roles, and none did well.
- Age finally caught up with longtime standout infielder Jim Gilliam, and spelled the end of his days as a dependable full-season regular.
- Overall the team didn't hit well. Slumps plagued the lineup's two best hitters, Tommy Davis and Frank Howard, both of whom saw their batting averages plunge 50 points from 1963. The 1964 Dodgers hit just 79 homers, their fewest since 1946, and scored just 614 runs, their fewest since 1927.
Here's Where it Gets a Little Strange
The manner in which the Dodgers would respond to their 1964 problems was fascinating. One might expect that a team with plummeting offense would look to try and find another bat or two. Instead the Dodgers did just the opposite. In December they pulled off a blockbuster deal, easily the organization's most significant trade in at least a dozen years - and it was designed to bolster the pitching and defense, at the expense of the hitting. The Dodgers sent Howard, their only hitter with consistent home run power, to the Washington Senators, along with a promising young power-hitting third baseman (Ken McMullen) and two of the struggling young pitchers (Ortega and Richert). In return they received John Kennedy, a great-glove, no-bat third baseman, and the prize of the package: 25-year-old control-artist southpaw Claude Osteen.
Obviously Osteen improved the already-strong pitching staff; along with Koufax and Drysdale, he would give the Dodgers essentially three aces. It's interesting that they saw achieving this as their priority, and also to consider how they assembled the rest of their team for 1965:
- They moved Fairly, a good fielder, and a good hitter but hardly a slugger, from first base to right field to replace Howard (who had a strong arm but zero range).
- They installed Wes Parker, a 25-year-old defensive whiz with a very untested bat, as the regular at first.
- At second base, they replaced the tandem of Nate Oliver and Dick Tracewski - slick glove men with no bats - with Jim Lefebvre, a 22-year-old with just 55 games of Triple-A experience. Lefebvre was a good hitter but a questionable fielder.
- They opened the season with the good-field, no-hit duo of Kennedy and Tracewski sharing third base.
Thus the Dodgers defied all traditional baseball sense: they opted for defense at the expense of offense at the corner positions of first base, right field, and third base, while sacrificing defense for offense at second base. When Tommy Davis went down for the season with a broken ankle on May 1st, the Dodgers' 1965 lineup looked stranger still: Davis was replaced in left field by Lou Johnson, a 30-year-old with a resume including just 185 major league at-bats, in which he had batted .254 with 2 homers and 14 RBIs.
Triumph Against All Odds
Whether it all made sense or not, it worked. Johnson hit fairly well, and provided improved defense in left. At the end of May, Gilliam came out of retirement and gave the team one last burst of good hitting, solving the third base problem. Parker and Lefebvre both held their own. Wills stole 94 bases, Koufax, Drysdale, and Osteen combined for 123 starts and a 64-35 record, and despite hitting even fewer homers and scoring even fewer runs than they had in 1964, the Dodgers came on with a dramatic September rush to nip the Giants and win the pennant, and went on to another World Series championship as well, coming from behind to defeat a very strong Minnesota Twins ball club.
In 1966, with nearly the same roster and the same pitching-and-defense-and-little-else approach, the Dodgers won another pennant, again in thrillingly close fashion over the Giants. Then suddenly that fall, the ride came to an end: the Dodgers were swept by the Orioles in the World Series, Koufax stunned the baseball world by announcing his retirement at age 30, and Wills jumped the team during a post-season exhibition tour of Japan, leading the organization to unload him. The Dodgers underwent another rebuilding cycle that would put them out of contention for a few years.
But their remarkable run from 1959 through 1966 deserves recognition as a feat of patience and prudence, followed by a sudden dash of idiosyncratic boldness. In the long and storied history of the Dodger franchise, they may have had better teams, but few quite as successful, or as interesting.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.