Under Further Review: The Last Innocents

Year in and year out, new books on baseball history flood the marketplace. Some are straight player biographies, some are quick knockoffs about recent winning teams. Far too many are published by New York writers about the self-proclaimed “Golden Age of Baseball,” when the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants battled in the Greatest City on Earth in the 1950s and everyone living south and west of Hackensack is assumed to still care. Oh, and you say there’s yet another Jackie Robinson book coming out? Fine, but how about a slice of baseball history we know little about, or at the least, hasn’t been written to death?

The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers by Washington Post veteran Michael Leahy not only spotlights a pivotal period in Dodger history that has been given scant attention, but is easily one of the five best non-fiction baseball books I’ve ever read—and I’ve read quite a few.

Heartfelt, brilliantly reported, and undeniably powerful, it pulls you into the final years of pre-Marvin Miller baseball, when lordly team executives could still treat their players miserably; when pitchers with questionable arms were expected to pitch entire games and shut up about it; when African-American players had yet to be unshackled of Jim Crow laws and fought to change racial rules and attitudes that were still prevalent throughout the game 15 years after Robinson broke the color barrier. I can’t count the number of times reading this book I stopped, looked up, and said “Holy shit,” and long before reaching the halfway mark I was slowing down to savor every word. Leahy’s book is just that good.

Walk with me into his opening chapter, or more specifically, into the Dodger clubhouse, circa 1962. Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills sit together at a table before a game, opening and reading each other’s racist hate mail. “You don’t want to read this one, Sandy,” says Maury, “This guy is serious.” “Here’s another letter you don’t want to read, Maury,” says Sandy.

Rather than give a comprehensive history of those Dodger years, Leahy chooses to tell his tale through the eyes and words of seven Dodger players: Wills, Tommy Davis, Sandy Koufax, Lou Johnson, Dick Tracewski, Jeff Torborg, and especially Wes Parker.

Raised in a rich Brentwood neighborhood, Parker suffered from very low self-esteem, and despite his brilliance with a first baseman’s glove, every trip to Dodger Stadium to play a home game in front of his impossible-to-please father was a living nightmare. Leahy begins Parker’s story in a Paris hotel room, years before he became a major leaguer, when he decides to finally do something with his life, make some phone calls, and try out for the organization. Weaving through the larger baseball story like a heartbreaking coming-of-age novel, Parker emerges as one of the more heroic Dodgers I knew next-to-nothing about.

Maury Wills? Even more so. Baseball life for many a black ballplayer was a constant struggle well into the 1960s, when Maury and Tommy Davis were shocked to discover that the Dodger spring training field in Vero Beach still had segregated seating sections and facilities for white and black fans, and that it took a concerted group effort by Davis and others to pressure Walter O’Malley to do something about it. Dodger management also wasn’t exactly delighted to hear that Wills was having an occasional romantic rendezvous with girl-next-door Hollywood movie actress Doris Day, and the all-star shortstop was encouraged to end the relationship.

Much has been written of O’Malley’s sweetheart deal with the city to build Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, but Leahy reveals one key fact that has been largely overlooked. Fixated on making the highest profits possible in the Dodgers’ new 1962 home after being denied a chance to build a new stadium in Brooklyn, O’Malley flatly refused to broadcast any home games on local television, forcing fans to come out to the stadium if they wanted to watch them. If anything, it eerily reflects the current fiasco of a TV deal the Dodgers made with Time Warner, denying two-thirds of the city from watching any Dodger games in the three final years of Vin Scully’s great career.

Much more shattering, however, are the yearly contract negotiations of Dodger GM Buzzie Bavasi detailed by many of the ex-players. Bavasi was a notorious skinflint who, on O’Malley’s orders, would do anything to not give players what they deserved. A favorite tactic was to leave phony signed contracts for other players on his desk, then excuse himself from the meeting for a minute or two, giving the new contract-seeker a chance to eyeball the fabricated amount someone else was getting—which always happened to be less than what the player in the meeting was seeking.

The baseball in the book is also wonderfully realized, and like everything else Leahy includes, expertly chosen for maximum drama. His accounts of Sandy Koufax’s 15-strikeout Yankee Stadium game in the 1963 World Series opener and 1965 perfect game against the Cubs are detailed, tense, and spiced with actual Vin Scully commentary. Koufax’s Game 7 complete game shutout to win the 1965 World Series, when he had absolutely no curve ball, was going on just two days rest, and his arm was ready to fall off, is breathtaking. This account also includes the best line in the book, uttered by new Dodger outfielder Lou Johnson after his home run broke the shutout and totally silenced the Minnesota crowd: “You could hear a cat pissin’ on cotton after I hit it.”

Immediately after getting swept in the ’66 Series by Baltimore, a year in which Koufax and Don Drysdale broke the rules by jointly holding out for more money during spring training, O’Malley expected all his exhausted players to accompany him on an 18-game goodwill tour of Japan. Maury’s legs were shot, he could barely run, and after finally agreeing to go on the tour, took himself out of the lineup and flew back to the United States. O’Malley felt betrayed and humiliated, and had Bavasi trade Wills to the Pirates that winter.

Documenting the drama of these Dodger years would have been enough for a great book, but Leahy puts it over the top by framing the team’s story within the dramatic social change that was happening in America. One of the most difficult things to do when writing a book about a baseball season or era is breaking away from the action on the diamond to let the reader know what was “going on” at the time. Much of the time, this technique stops the book completely dead in its narrative tracks. Dan Epstein, in Big Hair and Plastic Grass and Stars and Strikes, manages to pull off a baseball-as-part-of-‘70s-culture motif with entertaining results, but successful attempts at this are few and far between.

Leahy does it so well that it’s seamless. The players’ reactions to JFK’s murder are deeply moving, as are those to Martin Luther King’s. When Drysdale was found dead of a heart attack in his Montreal hotel room in 1993, a cassette tape was among his possessions—containing a recording of Bobby Kennedy mentioning Don’s shutout streak during his ill-fated victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel. When the Watts riots happen in the summer of ’65, some of the players are described driving to the ballpark with shotguns in their cars. Wills has to check in constantly on his Maury Wills Stolen Base Cleaners in South-Central for fear of looting. And the Marichal-Roseboro fight at Candlestick Park? It happened days after the same Watts riots, a tense coincidence Leahy tries to diffuse, though I find hard to ignore.

The arrival of Marvin Miller was a watershed moment in the game’s history, and Leahy, without going into too much detail about the free agent era to come, makes it clear that big changes down the road would be inevitable, and captures the players’ first reactions to Miller beautifully.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It reveals a dark, powerful side to what has mostly been seen as a sunny, successful era in Dodger history, and does it with grace, skill, and much emotion. I can’t say I’m wild about the book’s cliché title or its wordy subtitle, or the number of times Leahy tells us Wills, Parker, and other players were visibly crying, but those are mere pebbles in a lovingly-raked infield.  The Last Innocents is an incredible read.

***

Jeff Polman lives in Los Angeles, writes about baseball and culture, and has had four historical baseball novels published. You should follow him on Twitter.

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