TRUE BLUE: Reviewing a ten-year-old book

Sunday, July 29, 2012

TRUE BLUE: The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It
by Steve Delsohn
·  Paperback: 320 pages
·  Publisher: Harper Perennial (2002)
·  ISBN: 0380806150

I am a Dodger fan, though I look at the current roster and recognize only the names of coaches Manny Mota (a Dodger since 1969) and Davey Lopes (who joined the team in 1972).  My emotional investment runs to the Walt Alston line-up of my childhood; the Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Maury Wills Dodgers of the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s. 

This summer, I have been reading a wide range of California history, including two books on the Dodgers.  Roger Khan’s delightfully literary, THE BOYS OF SUMMER, focuses mostly on the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early ‘50s.  Those same players formed the core of the team that I remember coming to LA in 1958: Duke Snyder, Jim Gillium, Wally Moon, Johnny Roseboro, and Pee Wee Reese.  Delsohn’s TRUE BLUE dips back into the Brooklyn years only enough to set the stage for that move.  Then, year-by-year, he uses interviews to record the memories of the players and close observers who made up the Dodger teams until the close of the century.

That pretty much chronicles the baseball years of my life.  I was eight when the Dodgers arrived in LA.  In 1959, I attended my first professional game, Dodgers vs. Cincinnati, in the Coliseum.   For the next decade, I didn’t make it to the bleachers very often, but I listened to most games on the radio, and checked box scores every morning in the LA times.

By necessity, a history of fifty years—both on and off the field—can hit only the high points, and most fans will want to offer their own list.  Yet Delsohn hit all but two of mine.   His quick overview of the politics behind the new stadium at Chavez Ravine missed the bitterness of the community that lost their homes.  I could only have been ten, but I remember the standoff between police and a man armed and barricaded in his home, while the bulldozers stood ready to demolish it.  Throughout my teaching career, I have gone back to that illustration every time I needed to explain the workings of eminent domain.

I also would have included Dick Nen.  Delsohn recalls the pennant drive in 1963, clinched when the Dodgers swept a series in Saint Louis.  I remember Nen’s homerun in that series, the only hit he ever had as a Dodger, tying a game they went on to win.  Nen came up from the minors late in the season, and was traded at season’s end to the American League.  I remember standing on the playground at school, listening on a radio.  Curiously, all these years later, I remembered it happening four years earlier, the year the Dodgers beat the White Sox in the World Series, and my memory had me listening to it on a different playground.  Our minds play tricks on us, and reading history helps set us straight.

In childhood, these Dodgers were my elders—two and three times my age—and heroes.  It is interesting now, at age 62, to look back at them as young men, half, or even a third my age.  Koufax conquered the world, and retired at 30, almost like Alexander the Great.

I must have been about twelve when I stood in line an hour at a bank opening, to stand in front of Koufax for a few seconds while he signed his name to a plastic bat and handed it to me.  What finally became of that bat, I don’t know.  We were kids.  We thrashed it hitting tennis balls in the street, the closest we ever got to real baseball.  A rolled up newspaper was the pitcher’s mound, and I was Sandy Koufax staring down Mays or McCovey.  Never mind that I threw right handed, at a velocity that barely overcame inertia, and my opponent was a brother three years my junior.  And we were appalled when Koufax retired.  That 1966 season he’d gone 27-9, with an ERA of 1.73.

Forty-six years later, I can view the retirement in a very different light.  I have my own bum knee, earned at age 17, while trying to push my body beyond what it could reasonably do.  The team doctor had warned Koufax before the 1966 season that pushing his arm could leave him permanently crippled.  Delsohn also suggests the intensely private Koufax had been humiliated during the previous winter’s salary negotiations.  Stingy Walter O’Malley had belittled Koufax in the press for several months, before finally raising his annual salary from $90,000 to $125,000.

The book also probes the motivation for Koufax’s refusal to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series, because it fell on Yom Kippur.  Previously, Koufax hadn’t displayed enough religious devotion to justify such a decision, but Delsohn concludes that Koufax took seriously his position as a role model to thousands of youngsters.  That is the stuff our sports heroes ought to be made of.

The 1972 season started with the first Major League Players’ Strike, and ended for me in September, when I left for Europe.  It was impossible to catch Vin Scully’s radio-casts while hitchhiking through foreign lands.  Only in December did I learned who won the Series (Cincinnati).  I’d broken my childhood addiction, cold turkey.

On the other hand, in 1973, marriage brought me a father-in-law who bought Dodger season tickets.  That brought me a very different relationship with the Dodgers.  The Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey Dodgers were my own age, peers rather than heroes for daydreams.  As Delsohn’s book moved into the Tommy Lasorda years, I was surprised to still recognize the names of every player.

That didn’t change until the teams of the mid 1980s.  By then I was overseas again, this time in the wilds of eastern Colombia, teaching school on a small Bible translation center.  Delsohn doesn’t mention Karis Mansen, but he should have.  Karis became my conduit to the Dodgers.  By day, she was a linguist, translator, and mother-of-three.  But in the wee hours of the morning, she tuned into Armed Forces Radio to catch her Dodger games.  Then she would keep me posted.  The 1985 season stands out in my memory.  Near the All Star break, Karis told me the team was in fourth, several games below .500.   I figured the season was over, and didn’t ask again until October.  A very animated Karis told me the Dodgers had taken their division, and would be facing Saint Louis in the play-offs.  They had, she said, turned it around.

I no longer follow baseball, and beside Mota and Lopes, can only name two active major leaguers (Diamondback Aaron Hill attended our church when he was small, and Astro’s manager Brad Mills is a former neighbor). 

But that was not the case 50 years ago, and as Delsohn wove together interviews of players and others near the game, it took me back to a time when I rarely missed a game on the radio, or a box score in the next morning’s LA Times.  He refreshed memories and filled in gaps in my knowledge.  He even supplied the missing pieces for some mysteries I’d carried since elementary school.

These days, I may not often think about baseball.  But when I do, I think Dodger Blue.

A previous Dodger post, The Back of Duke Snyder's Head, is from Feb 28, 2011.
The link on this screen saver is here


Though I will differ on the choice of your team, I will give you kudos for fervor. Baseball has a rhythm that allows introspection and thought.

I loved Boys of Summer and you give me pause to think of my favorite baseball books. Sounds like a future blog post.

For the record I was a baseball fan as a youth. In high school I fell in love with the Pirates and their swashbuckling style. In college in Northern California I found the Giants. Now I mildly claim the Giants, but usually follow people I know or organizations. I follow childhood friend Brad Mills and the Astros, Aaron Hill and the D-Backs among others.

Steve said...
July 30, 2012 at 7:16 PM  

Steve, if Dodger fans and Giants fans need an excuse to overcome the rivalry and be friends, they only need to look to Johnny Roseboro and Juan Marichal, who (after their dust-up) went on to become friends, and hung out together in the off seasons. Delsohn mentions that.

I haven't been involved in baseball the way you have, but the only serious crack in my Dodger fanhood came in the '70s, when Atlanta's catcher, Biff Pocaroba, was a cousin-in-law. Today, I feel some hometown pride in Mills and Hill, but I don't often check the stats.

I'm reading California history, especially around one week in September, 1966, which is where my novel is placed. The Dodgers and Giants had a great race going that year, and it gets mentioned in the book.

I probably won't find time to review The Boys of Summer , but it was a very enjoyable read.

Brian said...
July 30, 2012 at 9:38 PM  

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