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Friday, July 22, 2011

The Boys of Summer in 1959

            The Dodgers baseball team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, and I became a fan in 1959. Talk about catching a wave.
            That first year in Southern California the Dodgers finished in seventh place, but had about the best attendance in the Major Leagues. Baseball experts didn’t expect much from them in 1959. Baseball experts were wrong.
            It was a curious team they fielded that year. Three of the Boys of Summer (Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo) were in the twilight of their careers. There was some up-and-coming talent, including a couple of pitchers named Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Three of those players (Snider, Drysdale and Koufax) are now in the Hall of Fame and a fourth (Hodges) should be. The manager, Walter Alston, is also in.
            You always remember your first one, and mine was June 21, Father’s Day. My dad and I went to see the Dodgers host the Cincinnati Redlegs, as they were then called, at the Coliseum. Cincinnati won 17-3, and I was so disappointed that it took years to realize how lucky I was to have seen future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson hit a booming home run for the visitors.
            By the time August rolled around, the Dodgers were in a three-way pennant race against the San Francisco Giants, who had Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and a sensational rookie named Willie McCovey; and the Milwaukee Braves, who had Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and Henry Aaron.
            Koufax was still an erratic young pitcher that year, but at the end of August, in a clutch game against the Giants, he showed a glimpse of what was to come. He struck out 18, including the last six batters he faced, to set a new National League record. It happened way past my bedtime, but I was listening with a radio under the blanket.
            At the end of the season the Dodgers and Braves were in a tie for first place and had a best-of-three series to determine who went to the World Series. Los Angeles won the first game in Milwaukee. When the second game was played in Los Angeles (during the day, of course), I raced home from school, hoping to catch the end of the game.
            Down three runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the score, then won in extra innings on a throwing error off a routine grounder to short. I still remember Vin Scully’s call: “Hodges around third … heading for the plate … We go to Chicago!”
            After losing game one of the World Series to the White Sox, 11-0, the Dodgers rallied to win it in six games. Furillo capped his career with a pinch-hit single to drive in the winning run in game three, and a pitcher named Larry Sherry, called up from the minor leagues in midseason, won two and saved two to become series MVP.
            Being nine years old, I assumed it would always be like that. The next three years taught me how to accept disappointment.
            It’s been two decades since I followed the Dodgers on any regular basis, and what got me to thinking about this was the news that the team filed for bankruptcy last month. The owners, the McCourts, are in a bitter divorce, and have reportedly been using their equity in the team to finance their high living while the team languishes below .500. When the owners make more news than the players, something is wrong.
            Oh, by the way, there’s a fifth Dodger from 1959 in the Hall of Fame: The owner, Walter O’Malley. Aside from moving to California, he rarely made news.