The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

 

Bavasi and the Bookshelf

Fresh off last week's bloggy take on Buzzie Bavasi's death, I've delved into a two-part look at his lengthy career over at Baseball Prospectus, the first of which is up today. Bavasi helped make history before ascending to the GM chair and enjoyed a great run with the Dodgers, but he also experienced some of the lowest lows in his later years with the Padres and Angels, and given the BP-flavored interest in team-building, I thought his successes and failures deserved closer scrutiny. Here's what I had to say about the middle period of his Dodger tenure (1957-1962), a stretch in which the team managed just one pennant while in the throes of a rebuilding effort:
By this time, the core of the team that Branch Rickey had assembled was aging. [Jackie] Robinson retired rather than report to the Giants after a 1956 trade. The 1957 season was soured by the team's inevitable departure for Los Angeles (a topic recently revisited here by Gary Gillete), while the Boys of Summer crept closer to their ruin. [Roy] Campanella was paralyzed in a January 1958 auto accident, [Don] Newcombe was traded to Cincinnati after an 0-6 start, and Pee Wee Reese became a part-timer. The Dodgers finished seventh out of eight teams at 71-83 in their inaugural season in LA, their first sub-.500 campaign since 1944. Yet Bavasi was already working to rebuild his aging ballclub by remaining true to a pair of Rickey principles: a commitment to the Dodgers' player development system, and complete faith in the virtues of power pitching. He assembled an unlikely World Champion in 1959 out of that mess, one that -- prior to the dawn of the Wild Card era -- Bill James called the weakest of all time.

Bavasi was able to rely on the nearly overripe fruits of the system to overhaul the team. [Johnny] Roseboro and [Charlie] Neal, both of whom had spent the better part of the decade in the minors, stepped into the lineup as solid regulars in 1958; Neal enjoyed a breakout year in 1959, when he was the league's top-hitting second baseman via a .287/.334/.464 performance with 19 homers and 17 steals. The speedy [Maury] Wills, who had toiled for nine years in the minors, was recalled midway through 1959, replacing a slumping Don Zimmer at shortstop, and hit a sizzling .345/.382/405 in September. Bavasi also made one key trade that year, acquiring left fielder Wally Moon from the Cardinals for Gino Cimoli. The lefty-swinging Moon rebounded from an off year with St. Louis by taking advantage of his odd new environment, the Los Angeles Coliseum. Built in 1923 for University of Southern California football games, the Coliseum was a 93,000-seat football stadium ill-suited for baseball. It was 300 feet down the right field line, 440 to right center (reduced to 375 in 1959), 420 to dead center, and just 251 feet down the left field line (which was topped by a 40-foot screen). Moon quickly learned to focus on hitting to the opposite field; 14 of his 19 home runs were at home, nine of them "Moon Shots" which went over the screen.

The Dodgers used another of their new home's quirks -- dim lighting and a major league-record 63 night games -- to give their pitching staff an added advantage. The team had already led the league in strikeouts every year since 1948, but in 1959 they became the first staff to top 1,000 in a season, blowing away 1,077 hitters. Don Drysdale led the league with 242, while Sandy Koufax placed third with 173 despite tossing just 153 1/3 innings. Johnny Podres, the hero of the 1955 World Series, was seventh with 145 and third in strikeout rate. Koufax and Drysdale had been signed by the Dodgers in 1954; the former, a bonus baby, had joined the big club in 1955 but had struggled with the strike zone ever since, while the latter joined the staff the following year and became a rotation mainstay in 1957. The duo would anchor the team's fate for the better part of the next decade.

Further aided by another pair of pitchers Bavasi promoted in midseason -- veteran Roger Craig and rookie Larry Sherry -- the Dodgers won a three-way race in 1959, outlasting the Giants (now relocated to San Francisco) and the Milwaukee Braves, whom they beat in a best-of-three playoff at the end of the season (for more on that race, see my chapter in It Ain't Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, now out in paperback). They then beat the Go-Go Chicago White Sox in the World Series

They reverted to fourth place the following year, and finished second in 1961 despite holding the lead as late as August 15. They finally moved into state-of-the-art Dodger Stadium in 1962, a ballpark that dramatically favored pitchers, and won 102 games, the second-highest total of the Bavasi era. Sparked by the speedy Wills, who stole an NL record 104 bases, a new stable of homegrown youngsters, including first baseman Ron Fairly and outfielders Willie Davis, Tommy Davis (no relation), and Frank Howard, helped them finish second in the league in runs scored despite the park's suppression of offense. Drysdale and Koufax both topped 200 strikeouts, with the former leading the league for the third time in four years and winning the Cy Young on the strength of a 25-9 record, and the latter topping the circuit in ERA despite a two-month absence.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the Giants won 103 games, including the rubber match of a three-game playoff. That game almost cost Bavasi and Alston their jobs. Alston, forever working on one-year contracts, had been forced to swallow the irascible Leo Durocher as part of his coaching staff -- "on the grounds that we don't want bridge partners or cronies for assistants," explained O'Malley -- and the Lip continually undermined the manager in front of the team and second-guessed him in the press, particularly over Alston's staying with Stan Williams instead of summoning Drysdale amid a four-run ninth-inning meltdown in the deciding game of the playoff. Soon after the defeat, Durocher carped that the team would have won if he'd been in charge. Bavasi hit the roof when he found out, threatening to fire Durocher, but was overruled by O'Malley, who wanted to fire Alston in favor of Durocher. Bavasi told O'Malley, "If you fire Alston, I'm gone too. He didn't make those errors, he didn't give up those base hits. How in the hell can you say it was Alston's fault?" O'Malley backed down, and all three men kept their jobs.
Part Two will run next week.

• • •

In my thirst for insight into Bavasi's days with the Dodgers, I've been plowing through my latest find from Manhattan's awesome Strand bookstore (which boasts 18 miles of books on its shelves the way McDonalds boasts of billions served), Harold Parrott's The Lords of Baseball from 1976. A former writer for the Brooklyn Eagle, Parrott became the Dodgers' traveling secretary during the Branch Rickey era, and was still around when the team moved to L.A.; he later worked for the Angels and the Padres in various capacities as well. I'd always assumed Lords was a stuffy book, but it's an absolutely irreverent peek into the corridors of power, with the author gleefully reveling in the folly of owners and operators from Larry MacPhail to Walter O'Malley to Charley Finley while watching the Reserve Clause disintegrate before his very eyes. Imagine John Helyar's epic The Lords of the Realm as told to Ed Linn by a Bill Veeck-type raconteur and you're about there.

On that note, one of the occupational hazards of palling around with other baseball writers is that your reading list is always growing. My head is currently reeling from suggestions gathered this past Monday, when I met up with Kevin Baker, Alex Belth, Steven Goldman, Derek Jacques, Joe Sheehan and Emma Span to quaff a few beers and attend a reading for The Anatomy of Baseball which featured Baker, Jeff Greenfield, Michael Shapiro, and John Thorn, as well as Allan Barra taking his usual amusing potshots from the peanut gallery. Alex had just published a survey of essential baseball books for which he solicited 10 apiece from over 50 writers, including our entire cast. The top 10 most frequently named books, garnering from 13 to 35 mentions, aren't especially revealing to me, as I named six of them in my own entry (the numbers don't really matter):
1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton -- the groundbreaking look behind the curtain at the ups and downs of a baseball player

2. Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn -- a meditation on mortality and a brilliant, poignant study of the flawed beauty of the human organism, masquerading as a baseball book

3. The Summer Game by Roger Angell -- a lyrical account of baseball in the Sixties as seen through the eyes of one erudite fan

4. Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire -- for my money, this gonzo account of the 1973-1975 Texas Rangers is funniest baseball book of all time

5. Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher and Ed Linn -- an agonizing choice between this and Veeck as in Wreck, ultimately decided by Leo the Lip's role in the New York-centric golden age in the Forties and Fifties

6. Past Time: Baseball as History by Jules Tygiel -- a concise summary of nine trends that changed baseball, by one of the game's unsung scholars

7. Lords of the Realm by John Helyar -- an often hilarious account of a century's worth of labor versus management battles

8. The Glory of their Times by Lawrence Ritter -- the classic oral history of early 20th century baseball

9. The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris -- two fans explore their love affair with those cardboard slabs and the memories they represent

10. The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz -- a wonderful exploration of the history baseball statistics, from the development of the box score to the onslaught of real-time Internet updates to the entry of performance analysis into front offices
Even personally speaking, I'd be hard pressed to call this list my definitive one; at the time I was just ticked off enough at Bill James to avoid fretting over whether or not to include Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, The Bill James Guide to Managers, the Historical Abstract, or This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones. Given a second batch of ten to right that wrong, I'd also add Weaver on Strategy, my Baseball Prospectus colleagues' Baseball Between the Numbers, Moneyball, Nine Innings, Red Smith on Baseball, and the aforementioned Veeck as in Wreck, and that would still leave me bummed that I couldn't include another batch of Roger Angell, a shout for the idiosyncratic, Bouton-edited anthology "I Managed Good But Boy Did They Play Bad", a nod for Pat Jordan's A False Spring, a giggle for The Bronx Zoo, and a self-interested plug for It Ain't Over.

The fun part is that such lists offer expert recommendations and the occasional gentle nudge. Alex came over to watch the Yankees game last Friday night, and he quizzed me on two books with which he wasn't familiar, Eliot Asinof's Man on Spikes and Boyd and Harris' The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. The former, a novel by the man who wrote Eight Men Out (seen the movie several times, never read the book) is one that's been sitting on my shelf unread for a couple of years save for its first half-dozen pages (just enough to get me to take it home), while the latter has probably provided me with as much inspiration and as many laughs as Ball Four or Bill James. As such, I was surprised that Alex was unfamiliar with the authors' blend of irreverence and nostalgia, for it's one that really has found a home in the blogosphere and beyond, particularly via Alex's own Baseball Toaster colleague, Josh Wilker, the books's most worthy literary heir who writes that it "not only celebrates the magic of baseball cards but gives voice to everyone who ever collected them."

For myself, the list has shamed me into swearing that Man on Spikes, Dollar Sign on the Muscle and a few others already on my shelf will get their day. But not before I finish reading The Lords of Baseball, that's for damn sure.

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