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The Dodgers Are Good Enough

This was the second year in a row the Dodgers went to the World Series and lost. I did a franchise bio for the Astros after they won the series last year, and just a couple of months ago I did one for the Red Sox who were the eventual victors this year. It’s only fitting to dive into the Dodgers franchise after they left it all on the warning track this year.

Jeff Pfeffer of the 1916 Brooklyn Robins. Public Domain.

In the early years of the World Series Era, the Dodgers franchise won pennants in 1916 and 1920 although they lost both of those World Series. In fact, that 1916 series was the last time the Dodgers franchise faced the Red Sox in the postseason until 2018. Let's take a moment to marvel over the pattern on the Brooklyn uniform from 1916... ahhhh, now that's great throwback baseball fashion.

It wasn’t until 1932 that the franchise officially changed their name to the Dodgers. From the 1880’s until the ‘30’s the Brooklyn team used names like the Atlantics, The Bridegrooms, the Grooms, the Superbas, the Grays, the Trolley Dodgers and the Robins. What the hell is a Superba? A Superbas?

Side note: "The Grays" is a pretty classic team nickname, also shared by the Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues. Another similarly simple name that was once almost used for an MLB team was “The Nine,” which was one of the suggestions for the Tampa Bay Rays when they were founded. The Rays went through a lot of nonsense before settling on their current name. The name the “Manta Rays” was favored by fans and the league alike, but the cheapo owner didn’t want to shell out upwards of $50,000 for the naming rights from a Hawaiian team. The owner ended up rigging a fan vote and naming the team the Devil Rays, a name that was abandoned under new ownership. Similarly, The Colorado Rockies had a naming rights issue with a small jeans company, instead of picking a less popular name the team came to an agreement with the company where they wrote a small check and they are also very careful with the use of the team name on any pants related merchandise.

1913 Brooklyn Dodgers team picture. Public Domain.

The Brooklyn Robins (1914-1931) couldn’t win a World Series and after 1920 they didn’t taste the postseason again until the Dodger years. They didn’t just miss the playoffs, they were losers. Lovable losers. It wasn’t until the acquisition of Dolph (not "Dolphin") Camilli for the 1938 season that they changed their identity from being comically bad to “The Boys of Summer.”

Camilli was considered the cornerstone of the team that became consistent contenders. He was the league MVP in 1941, the first time in 20 years that the Dodgers had made it to the World Series. The Dodgers wouldn't be back to the World Series until Jackie Robinson's rookie season of '47, but Camilli's time with Brooklyn marked a progression for the team. That year, he led the league in homers, RBI and his fielding was noted as being “brilliant.” He came to the Dodgers from the Phillies after the 1937 season and he went on to lead the league in both fielding percentage (.994) and on-base percentage (.446) in '38. In upcoming months I will pose the question of fielding through the decades and when it comes to older players. It seems that perhaps the eyeball test of being “brilliant” and “graceful” should probably have more weight than fielding percentage with older players. However, the two combined, like in the case of Camilli, probably means that his fielding percentage was high not because of a lack of range, but because of exceptional ability.

Dolph Camilli in 1936. Public Domain.

The guy could rake. A two-time All-Star, he won the ‘41 NL MVP award when he led the league in homers with 34 and RBI with 120 and sporting a healthy .407 OBP. He hit 23+ homers eight straight seasons for 239 in his 12 year career (playing with the Dodgers from '38 to '43). His career average was .277 but he got on base at a .388 clip over his career, leading the league once in OBP in ‘37 and leading the league in walks in ‘38 and ‘39. Tragically, Dolph’s brother was a boxer who died in the ring in a match against heavyweight champ Max Baer.

Gil Hodges attempting a catch at Ebbetts Field. Back cover of Baseball Digest March 1953. Public Domain.

Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese said that Gil Hodges' hands were so big that he didn’t need a first baseman’s glove, “he just wears it to be fashionable.” Hodges took over first base after military service in Robinson's rookie year of '47 and manned the position through the move to L.A. into the '61 season. An eight-time All-Star with seven trips to the postseason, he was so graceful at first base that he was compared to a ballet dancer. He was a perennial leader for double plays, assists and fielding percentage for his position and was the very first winner of the Gold Glove at 1B for the NL, his first of three awards. A marine during World War II he fought in the battles at Okinawa in the Pacific Theater. On August 31, 1950 he hit four home runs in a game (driving in 9 runs) only the 6th major leaguer to complete the feat. The Mets drafted Hodges for their expansion season and he hit the very first home run in franchise history before his playing time was limited by injury. He later managed the Mets and was at the helm for the Miracle Mets that won the 1969 World Series. He had a .273 career AVG and 1921 hits, but his .359 OBP was a notch below what a .300 hitter would expect. He went to seven World Series with the Dodgers winning two, one each in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

These Dodgers teams of the '40's and '50's had many near misses, losing several times in the playoffs and World Series before finally winning it all in 1955. They lost a deciding game three to the Giants for the chance to get to the World series in '51 when Don Newcombe was pulled in the 9th for Ralph Branca who gave up "The Shot Heard Round the World" to Robbie Thompson. Newcombe was the first great African American pitcher in the majors and the first player ever to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards. He was one of the best hitting pitchers the game has seen, even playing as a hitter in Japan for a time. Unfortunately he had a tragic drinking problem and his numbers dwindled through over the years.

Opening day at Ebbets Field, 1913. Public Domain.

The Dodgers move to L.A. also meant the move away from Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn. Perhaps one of the most beautiful parks in the history of baseball, Ebbet’s field was an inspiration for aesthetic design of parks starting in the 1990’s with Camden Yards in Baltimore. When the Mets closed Shea Stadium in Queens and built Citi Field, they moved from a cookie cutter, gigantic round toilet of a home field to a park designed to hearken back to the Dodgers roots. This includes an entrance that mimics the grand entryway of The Dodgers’ old home. There is a Giant “42” sculpture greeting fans as they walk in. The Mets incorporated a little Dodger blue in their franchise at inception. The Mets were founded in the void left by the move west by the Dodgers and Giants. As New York’s new NL team the Mets incorporated the yellow from the Giants’ colors and Dodger blue into their own team colors.

The first game at Ebbets Field, 1913. Public Domain.

Ebbet’s field was home to the Brooklyn team from 1913 to 1957. It was demolished by a wrecking ball painted as a baseball in 1960 and the Jackie Robinson housing project was built in its place. The land where the park was built included a garbage dump called “Pigtown.” The construction of the stadium transformed the neighborhood, even building some of the roads that surrounded the park. The stadium was referred to a “bandbox,” along with Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park that were built around the same time and similarly allowed fans to sit closer to the action. Ebbets had tall blue home run fences, similar (but not quite as tall) as the Green Monster in Boston, although they wrapped around all of the boundary lines rather than Fenway’s lone towering left field wall. Right field was only 297 feet from home plate and sported a chain link fence over the wall that looked out into the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Overflow seating at Ebbets Field during the 1920 World Series. Public Domain.

Ebbet’s field saw nine World Series, only one championship team and hosted the 1949 All-Star Game. The park would host football games, some professional games, but the football legacy of the field is of Biff from Death of Salesman clinging to his City Championship glory of playing high school football at Ebbets Field many years before.

One of the first great Dodgers to start his career in L.A. was SS Maury Wills. He is credited for reinventing the stolen base as an offensive weapon in the 1960’s, paving the way for players of the future like Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson. He could also be credited for grounds keeping for MLB fields. For decades infield grass could be thick and slow and the dirt could vary from field to field whether it was rocky or flat. Wills’ ability to steal made teams resort to creative tactics to slow him down including watering the dirt around first base to stick his feet in mud.

When he set the single season steal record of 104 in 1962, no TEAM had matched that mark for a season in seven years. He was the NL MVP that year, leading the league in games (165!?!), plate appearances, at bats, triples, steals, caught stealing (with only 13), had 130 runs and 208 hits, played in two All-Star games and won a Gold Glove. That year, fellow Hall of Good Enough star and teammate Frank Howard broke out with 119 RBI, no doubt the beneficiary of Wills disrupting the base paths. In his first six full seasons Wills led the league in stolen bases each season.

As the running game started to take off as an offensive option, the conditions of the fields across the league started to be more uniform until they tried to one up each other with smooth infields and chess board mow patterns in the outfield. The only inconsistencies would come from artificial turf. He was a seven-time All-Star (over five seasons), won an MVP, All-Star MVP, two Gold Gloves, went to four World Series and won three. He is 20th on the all-time steals list with 586.

Steve Garvey 70-82

He hits one for the mistress. Steve Garvey hits in the 1970s against Cincinnati. Image by jvh33 of Flickr, from a 35mm slide.

Another Dodger third baseman, Steve Garvey, is the holder of the longest consecutive game streak in NL history, from 1975 until he broke his thumb in 1983 after 1,203 games. A rather wild throwing third baseman, Garvey moved to first base in 1973. He didn’t commit throwing errors after moving to first base because he just plain refused to throw to second base on forceout attempts. He won four Gold Gloves at 1B and didn’t commit an error all season in 1984 over 160 games, during a streak that lasted 193 errorless games. His .996 fielding percentage was an MLB record… without throwing the ball to second. In 1974 he moved to first base and became the first player to start an All Star game on write in ballots. This was his first of ten All-Star Games and he won the NL MVP that season with 21 homers, 111 RBI, 200 hits, and a .312 AVG.

His “Mr. Perfect” persona fell apart after his playing days as his idyllic marriage fell apart and stories of multiple mistresses came out. In 2000 he won an appeal over an arbitration case from more than 12 years prior for $3 million. This judgment was an aftershock of the collusion in Major League Baseball in the 1980’s. It was a nice reward to go with a trophy room full of hardware. He collected an NL MVP, two NLCS MVPs, two All-Star MVPs, four Gold Gloves, and a 1981 World Series ring to go with his five pennants.

Cropped to show Ron Cey from a poster about Birth Control, really. Public Domain.

“The Penguin,” Ron Cey, was an “oddly-proportioned” power hitting third baseman for the Dodgers. When he retired, he sported the third most home runs by a third baseman behind Schmidt, Mathews, Nettles and Santo. Even while playing in the same league as Schmidt, Cey still made it to six All-Star games in his career. He was one of three Dodgers to win the World Series MVP in 1981 with Guerrero and Steve Yeager. He played with the dodgers from '72 to '82 and after he was traded to the Cubs he wasn’t exactly appreciated “Cey and (Larry) Bowa are old enough to be dead,” wrote a local columnist. Despite this malady, The Penguin was able to lead the Cubs to the postseason for the first time in 39 years. Despite a rough start and two injured and bandaged hands, he hit .281, 12 homers and 45 RBI over the last 59 games of the season. It was not to be, during the NLCS he hurt his elbow while lifting baggage and slumped during the series as the Cubs season ended. He had a rather low career AVG of .261 but his .354 OBP is a testament to his consistent ability to get on base. He hit 316 home runs in his 1868 hits over his 17 year career, 12 with the Dodgers.

In 1977, outfielder Dusty Baker was part of the first 30+ homer quartet in baseball history with teammates Cey, Garvey and Reggie Smith. It's little wonder that Tommy John had the run support to win 20 games that season. A mediocre center fielder for the Braves, Baker excelled after moving to LA and to left field. A former high school track star, Dusty mixed power and speed to propel the Dodgers to four World Series, and a pile of Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers Manager of the Year Awards and All-Star invites for himself. He was an especially good postseason hitter, although over the decades he is now more known as a successful manager… and for the rule banning kids from the dugout and field after his little son was nearly run over retrieving a bat near the plate. He hit 242 home runs in his 1981 hits over 19 years (14 full seasons)

Ebbets Field's was built over a garbage dump only to be torn down to become a rather rough housing project, and Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine also has a rather dark history of its real estate. The and where the L.A. stadium was built in the ‘50’s had been a thriving neighborhood for Mexican Americans. When the land had been picked as the location for the new park, the people living there were evicted through eminent domain, some were forcibly removed from their homes rather violently. The colorful fanfare of baseball coming to California whitewashed the very problematic origin of the stadium, but the lingering memory in the Mexican-American community alienated a fan base that didn’t come to the team until Fernandomania.

Dodger Stadium, 1987. Public Domain.

The Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had tried to have a domed stadium built in New York in the ‘50’s but the city wouldn’t come to an agreement so he had the team moved to Los Angeles. When the Dodgers came to California, their stadium was not ready for play so they played in the Los Angeles Coliseum for three years, opening in 1961. Dodger Stadium underwent renovations in 2005 to fit the 21st landscape of MLB stadiums and is now the third oldest park in the league behind only Fenway and Wrigley Field.

Outfielder Kirk Gibson spent the vast majority of his career with the Tigers, 12 of his 17 years, compared to three injury plagued seasons with L.A., but he has been immortalized in Dodger Blue. He was in his age 31 season in '88, the year he hobbled around the bases after hitting a walk off home run off of Dennis Eckersley. The Dodgers upset the A's that year behind Gibbie's heroics and great pitching from Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser. That regular season Gibson had career highs in games played (150), OBP (.377) and AVG (.290). He hit 28 home runs and 76 RBI on the way to winning the NL MVP and a Silver Slugger award. He is remembered as a an immobile slugger, although he never hit more than 30 home runs in a season and he actually had more steals than homers in his career (255 HR, 284 steals), and stole more than 30 bags three times. He is remembered for his one at bat in the '88 series, but he also led the '84 Tigers to their first Championship in 24 years. He won the ALCS MVP, then hitting hitting two homers with a .478 OBP in the World Series. After his playing days he worked as a broadcaster and was the manager of the Diamondbacks for five seasons, winning the Manager of the Year Award in 2011.

The Dodgers were absent from the playoffs after that '88 Championship until 1995. That year, the Dodgers signed Hideo Nomo from Japan even though, aside from a two minute highlight video, no one from the organization had seen him pitch in over a year. Hideo put the Dodger’s $2 million gamble at ease by winning the Rookie of the year award in 1995. His arrival changed everything in baseball. Nomo was the first of many successful Japanese stars to cross over to the big leagues. MLB parks all over the country started selling sushi in their concessions after it succeeded with his arrival. Nomo threw the first no-hitter at altitude at Coors field and threw another for the Red Sox in 2003.

He had four especially spectacular seasons, and four disappointments, but it's the vivid memory of watching his tornado wind up on Baseball Night in America on NBC, listening to Bob Costas call the west coast game while visiting my uncle in Alaska during a summer vacation that will always immortalize Nomo's Dodger run. A was a mixed bag his whole career, 1995 encapsulated his career as he not only led the league in shutouts, but balks and wild pitches as well. He struck out 16 hitters against the Pirates and threw a one-hitter against the Giants that year. Nomo won 78 games and had a 3.15 ERA in Japan over four and half seasons before coming to the US, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award, winning 123 games with a 4.24 ERA over 12 seasons for a total of 201 wins across the NPB and MLB. He was an All-Star in ‘95 and received Cy Young votes in ‘96.

1959 World Series at the LA Coliseum. Public Domain.

Nomo was the last of a run of Rookies of the Year out of L.A.. The trailblazer in that department was first baseman Eric Karros who played with the Dodgers from '91 to 2002. Karros was once run out of the Venezualan winter league by fans throwing bottle caps at him who did not appreciate his .113 AVG. He went on to win the NL rookie of the year award in ‘92 to start a stretch of four straight Dodger ROYs. In 1993 he was the first Dodger to start his career with consecutive 20-home run seasons, matched the following season by Mike Piazza. That same year he led the league in assists and double plays by a first baseman. Karros hit 284 home runs out of his 1724 hits out of his 14 years (12 full seasons) in the majors. He had five seasons of 30 home runs or more, driving in 100 RBI each of those seasons.

When the Dodgers signed starter Kevin Brown in 1999 he signed $105 million contract, he was worth more than an appraisal of Dodger Stadium. Brown was a six-time All Star and won two ERA titles in ‘96 and 2000, while also leading the league in wins in ‘92 with 21. He logged 211 career wins and a 3.28 ERA.

Brown was one of the stars of the 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series just four years away from expansion. That season he threw a one-hitter in his second start and a no hitter in June. The previous season, ‘96, he had the ERA title posting a 1.89 mark, his first of two ERA crowns (the second coming in 2000 with the Dodgers). That year he finished second Cy Young voting to John Smoltz. He was one of the fire sale Marlins, going to the Padres the next season. He led the San Diego staff to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees. Along the way he broke Bob Gibson’s single game strike out record for the post season when he struck out 17 in an NLDS game.

Kevin Brown, 2007. Public Domain.

While with the Yankees in 2004, Brown had a bad September start against the Orioles where he took his frustrations back to the clubhouse. He broke his non-pitching hand punching a wall. He missed a few weeks but was back for the playoffs… He wasn’t much help when he came back as he was rocked in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox and his career was basically over.

Through the storied history of the Dodgers it is outfielder Shawn Green who holds the single season record for home runs when he hit 49 dingers in 2001. The next season he tied the MLB record of four home runs in a game in a matchup against the Brewers. In that game he also broke or tied single game records for extra base hits and total bases. He later set records for the most home runs in two and three consecutive games with five and seven, respectively. In 2000, Green compiled a 53 games on-base streak, second best in modern day NL behind only Duke Snyder. He was smooth player, with a looping left handed swing similar to Ken Griffey, Jr’s and a strong and accurate arm from the outfield that compiled 14 assists and 5 double plays in 1998. He did not commit a single error in the outfield during the 2005 season.

Green’s 331 home runs and 1,276 RBI are the second best for Jewish players behind only Hank Greenberg. Green’s grandfather actually changed the family name from Greenberg. In 2001 Green sat out the first time in 415 games to observe Yom Kippur. He also donated his pay for September 26, 2001 to a charity for survivors of the New York 9/11 attacks. Although Green never played in a World Series, he earned a ring for the Blue Jays in 1993 after he was an end of the season call up. He was a Gold Glover, Silver Slugger, two-time All-Star, had 2003 career hits, a .283 AVG and .355 OBP. His 445 career doubles tie him with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Shawn Green’s acting credits include cameos in the series premiere of the show Numb3rs and in the Hilary Swank drills to the center of the Earth movie, The Core.

Dodger Stadium, 2018. Picture by Bill Kelhoffer.

The very first MLB game I ever went to was an Expos/Giants game in Montreal in 1996. Monteal had been one of the most frequent trade partners of the '90's and 2000's making swapping players like Pedro Martinez, Delino Deshields, Henry Rodriguez and others. The Expos had the best season of their existence in 1994 with the best record in the majors until the strike hit and cancelled the rest of the season and World Series. Unfortunately, the team purged most of their best players from that season, including Wil Cordero, the best hitting shortstop in the majors in ‘94, by the end of 1995. In ‘94 the Expos were an amazing 34 games OVER .500 but ‘95 was a disaster and they fell to 12 games under .500, winning only 66 games in the shortened season.

Mark Grudzielanek was tasked to take over the shortstop position in Montreal full time in ‘96 as a solid piece for the over-acheiving Expos who came back to win 88 games and finish second in the NL East. He was an All-Star that season with 201 hits, 33 steals and a .306 AVG. That first game that I went to was so full of energy, every player seemed like a rising star: Henry Rodriguez, Grudz, Rondel White and Mike Lansing, all supporting the star of the lineup Moises Alou. The next season, Grudzielanek led the league in at bats and doubles with 649 and 54 and he stole 25 more bases. He was only a stolen base threat in his first two seasons, but the rest of his career he was a consistent hitter, notching a .289 AVG, 2040 hits and 391 doubles over his career and a dependable middle infielder.

His best year with the bat was ‘99 with the Dodgers when he hit .326 and had an OBP of .376, his last year as a regular shortstop. The next year he moved over to second to make room for 24 year old Alex Cora at short. He earned MVP votes in ‘03 with the Cubs thanks to his .314 AVG and slick glove at second and in ‘06 he earned a Gold Glove at the keystone with the Royals at the age of 36.

Rafael Furcal came up as a teenage phenom short stop with the Braves in 2000, jumping from single A ball to the Majors when Walt Weiss suffered an injury in the off season. He stole 40 bags and got on base at a .394 clip on his way to the NL rookie of the year. A few years later it was revealed that he was really two years older than was previously thought and had really been legal to drink the whole season. Possessing incredible speed, his arm at short might have been his marquee skill. He threw just as hard or harder than the pitchers on his own teams.

On August 10th, 2003 Furcal completed an unassisted triple play against the Cardinals by snagging a liner on a hit and run before tagging second and the oncoming runner. A three-time All-Star, Furcal had 314 stolen bases and 1817 hits over his career despite injuries that slowed him in the second half of his career. He spent six seasons with the Braves and six with the Dodgers but it was as a mid season trade to the Cardinals that he finally won a World Series after nine post season runs.

The Dodgers have won six straight NL West division championships and have collected the last two NL pennants. They are in the midst of a string of NL dominance they haven't seen since the days of Jackie Robinson. However, those Jackie teams needed eight years of near misses before they finally took home a trophy. The L.A. Dodgers of today may not have that kind of opportunity to stick it out without rebuilding or losing their biggest stars on the open market. Regardless of if they ever win it all, the Dodgers have been a force in baseball, winning 18 pennants and 6 World Series since they acquired Dolph Camilli after the 1937 season.

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