Sunday, June 14, 2015

Oh, How Different Things Could Have Been: Walter Alston, Leo Durocher and the 1962 Dodgers

History is fixed.  It is unchangeable.  Nothing can change the past.  You can watch Carlton Fisk hop down the line a million times and he will still waive the ball fair.  No matter how many times Todd Worrell touches that bag, Don Denkinger is still going to call Jorge Orta safe.  Bill Buckner is never going to field that little roller behind the bag and Mitch Williams will not look back over his shoulder to see Joe Carter's fly ball being caught.

The winners and losers in the history of the game will always be winners or losers.  But this series will explore some "what if's".  What if a player who missed the World Series hadn't gotten injured?  What if a play that turned a World Series had been completed differently?

We have already looked at  the 1905 Philadelphia Athletics and  Johnny Evers and the impact he might have had on the 1910 World Series.  This week we will look at the impact Leo Durocher had on the 1962 pennant race and how different things might have been had he not been hired:


This battle was more than a three game series.  This was generations of hatred.  It stretched all the way back to the first days of organized baseball and went far beyond the game.  In Brooklyn, considered a small town in New York, the citizens clung with pride to that small town feel.  The larger area of New York City was pushing to incorporate Brooklyn as a borough.

It was small town vs big city.  The battlefield was really the political arena but for the citizens, the baseball diamond turned into the battlefield.  It turned into us vs them.  Giants vs Superbas.  The acceptance of being a borough of New York sunk in after a few years but that hatred lingered on the field.

As the years  went on some started to forget what had first lit the fire but the embers were reignited in 1913.  John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson had been team mates and friends since 1892.  They played together on the old Baltimore Orioles, the dominant champions of the early National League.  As McGraw started managing and Robinson became too old to play, McGraw made sure that Robinson always had a job on his coaching staff.  They were inseparable.  That all changed over a glass (or keg, or two or three) in 1913.  While McGraw had turned the Giants into the terror of the National League, the Superbas had fallen to the second division.  The rivalry had become less intense, simply because Brooklyn was not very good.

McGraw and Robinson were two peas in a pod.  Neither could stand to lose a game.  So when the Athletics took the last game of the 1913 World Series it probably would have been better for all involved to just go home.  Instead, McGraw, Robinson and some friends went out to drown their sorrow.  No one quite remembers who threw the first insult.  McGraw had some criticism of the way Robinson had coached at third.  Robinson had plenty of criticism for the way McGraw had used his bench in 1912 and 1913.  Words got heated and someone (most say McGraw) threw their beer at the other.  That was enough for Robinson.  He quit on the spot and was hired as manager by the Brooklyn Superbas as a direct challenge to McGraw.

The Giants continued to thrive and although he was hated by many of his players McGraw kept the Giants in contention every year.  Robinson was beloved by his players and the press.  He was known as "Uncle Robby" and the team changed their name to the Robins in his honor.  Unfortunately, with the exception of 1916 and 1920 they were not very successful and by the time Robinson left the managerial spot they were known as the "Daffiness Boys' for their poor play.

There were of course other incidents to incite the rivalry.  The most memorable was the famous Bill Terry question in 1934 "Are they still in the league?"  But when Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was fired midway through the 1948 season and hired immediately by the Giants, the rivalry took on a more intense feel.  The hatred intensified.  Every close pitch took on a sinister meaning.  Every hard slide at second base had a retaliatory equalizer.  The Dodgers hated Durocher.  Robinson hated him.  Furillo hated him.  Even Pee Wee Reese hated him.  It was fine because Durocher hated all of them right back.  Durocher was glad to be a Giant.  He had Willie Mays.

The Durocher era of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry was intense since they were both fighting for first most years and most had that personal connection to Durocher.  What made it more intense was that the man who replaced Durocher, Charlie Dressen, had been a Durocher disciple (similar to McGraw-Robinson).  The most vivid moment of that era, of course, was the three game playoff in 1951 that ended with the Branca-Thomson confrontation.

The Dodgers remained at the top for the next few years following Branca-Thomson but the Giants fell off after a few years (although they did manage to shock the 1954 Indians).  When attendance fell at the Polo Grounds and the option for a move to the West Coast came, the Giants jumped.  The rivalry was still there between the organizations but they seemed to be on different schedules.

The 1958 Dodgers finished 7th while the Giants finished third.  The Dodgers won the first West Coast World Series in 1959 while the Giants finished a distant third.  The 1960 Dodgers fell to 4th while the 1960 Giants fell to 5th. The 1961 Dodgers climbed back to second, just 4 games behind the pennant winning Reds while the Giants came in third, 8 behind the Reds and 4 behind the Dodgers.

1962 proved to be the first real rivalry moment on the West Coast.  The Giants had dismissed Durocher years before moving west and most of the players from his days as the Dodger manager were gone by now.  Durocher wanted to get back into the game and he expected to be offered the job as the first manager of the Angels franchise.  According to Durocher in his autobiography, he helped the Angels prepare for the expansion draft and was shocked when Angels General Manager Fred Haney told him to tell anyone in the press who asked that he "wasn't interested in the job."  The problem was he was very interested.  Leo desperately wanted to manage.  That led to an offer that shocked him.  Out of nowhere he got a call from Buzzy Bavasi, Dodgers General Manager saying that Walter O'Malley and Walter Alston wanted him on their coaching staff.

It was a match made in hell.  It was oil and water. It was the man who never spoke and the man who never shut up.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.  Every move Alston made Durocher questioned.  It was bad enough that some of Alston's players questioned him but when the coaching staff backed up that insecurity it led to a tense, uncomfortable club house.

Alston was seen as the company man.  He got the job because Charley Dressen, who had led the team to the brink of the 1951 World Series followed by two straight NL titles, had the audacity to ask for a three year contract.  O'Malley was offended that his generosity of year by year contracts wasn't enough for Dressen so he replaced him with Alston who never questioned the annual contract negotiations.  He was a silent leader.  He rarely argued with the umpires.  He felt that arguing with them on close calls would prejudice them against you and you will never get another close one.  Durocher believed if you weren't antagonizing the umpire on every call you weren't doing your job.

Winning fixes everything.

The Giants started 1962 hot. It was a sign, thought Giants fans.  It was finally their year.  Opening day saw Juan Marichal dueling Warren Spahn. Marichal started the day with a quick inning.  Spahn got two quick outs in the bottom of the first by getting Harvey Kuenn and Jose Pagan but this Giants team went as Willie Mays went.  In the first at bat of the season Mays went deep.  Marichal would strike out 10 and allow only three hits.  The Giants won 6-0.  They won 6 of their first 7.  They won 12 of 13 from April 25-May  8.  By mid May they were 27-10 with a 4 1/2 game lead in the National League.

By June 1st the Dodgers were tied for first.  Even that was an uphill battle.  In a normal season their efforts would put them in a good position and give them some separation from the pack.  This was not a normal year.  A Dodgers 13 game winning streak from May 21-June 1 was only good enough to earn them a tie with the Giants.  The Dodgers lost the next two before winning four more straight.  So winning 17 of 19 was only good enough for a half game deficit.

In the second week of June the Giants hit the skids.  They lost 12 of 16 from June 6 through June 22.  With a Dodgers team playing red hot heading into June this was their chance to pull ahead. They did not take advantage. Over the same stretch the Dodgers went just 8-8.  They were only up  2 1/2.  That quickly disappeared as the Giants recovered from their slide.

Neither team could do anything to pull away.  The Dodgers would pull ahead by a game but within days the Giants had erased it and pulled ahead by a game themselves.  The Dodgers pulled into first on July 8 but between that date and July 27th, they could not get the lead above 2 games.

On July 25th the Dodgers won.  The lead was at 1 game.  They won their next three to stretch the lead to 4.  An August 1st loss coincided with the Giants' 4th straight loss so the lead stayed at 4 but the Dodgers won another 4 straight.  Four more wins by the Dodgers put the lead at 5 1/2, the biggest any team had enjoyed to that point of the year.

Winning solves everything.  Losing causes problems.

The Dodgers had no problems anyone was aware of.  The Giants stars seemed to be sniping at each other behind closed doors.  Mays.  McCovey. Marichal.  Cepeda, Perry. The egos were reportedly out of control.  Each believing they were the most important cog in the wheel.  If management paid a kindness to one of them, another wanted to know why they had not gotten the same treatment.

What no one was aware of was the behind the scenes cat and mouse game between Durocher and Alston.  In his autobiography Durocher told how he would undermine Alston, although in his mind he wasn't undermining the manager he was doing things the way they should be done.  "Alston would give me the take sign, I'd flash the hit sign.  Alston would signal to bunt, I'd call for the hit and run."...I never 'saw' a take sign from Alston with any of the speedsters-and how they loved it.  The whole team knew what I was doing, and they were saying 'Just keep going Leo'."

Winning solves everything.

The Dodgers went into San Francisco for a three game series from August 10-12 with a chance to stretch the lead.  The Giants swept the series.  The Dodgers lost the next two to the Pirates and the lead was back down to 1 1/2.  No one could pull away.  As they entered the final month of the season the Dodgers were up 2 1/2 but no lead was comfortable.

After losing three in the first week the lead was back down to 1/2.  From September 8th through September 15th the Dodgers won seven straight and stretched the lead back to 4.  It was not a secure lead but by September 22nd, with only 7 games left to play the lead was still at 4.  The Dodgers needed to win just a few more games to shore up the pennant.  With Koufax and Drysdale there was little doubt they would do just that.

They lost September 23 in St.Louis while the Giants won in Houston.  The lead was down to three but only six games left.  The Dodgers would play the expansion Colt .45's for three and the Cardinals for three, all at home.  The Giants would play the same two teams, the Cardinals followed by the Colt .45's, also all at home.

The Dodgers lost two of three to Houston.  The Giants took two of three from St. Louis.  Entering the last three days of the regular season Los Angeles clung to a two game lead.

On September 28 the Dodgers lost in 10 innings.  When the Giants' game got rained out the lead was cut to a game and a half.  The Giants would play a double header on Saturday, September 29th.  They won the first game convincingly, cutting the lead to one game and with Marichal on the mound they felt they could keep the pressure on Los Angeles.  The Dodgers sent Drysdale to the mound with confidence that they could hold the one game lead.  Marichal failed to deliver.  In 4 1/3 innings he allowed 4 runs.  Houston's Bob Bruce pitched 9 innings and allowed only 2 runs.  The Dodgers could clinch if Drysdale could win. Drysdale pitched 8 strong innings allowing 0 Earned Runs, only 5 hits and 3 walks.  Ernie Broglio of the Cardinals pitched 9 innings and allowed only 2 hits and 0 runs.  The difference in the game came in the 2nd inning with two outs and a runner on first, Frank Howard made an error on what would have been the third out of the inning.  The runner on first scored.  The Cardinals pitcher followed that with a clean single and the Dodgers lost 2-0 on two unearned runs.

September 30th was the last day of the season. The Dodgers needed a win or a Giants loss.  The Giants needed a win and a Dodgers loss.

The Dodgers sent out Johnny Podres, the man who had clinched the only World Series title in Brooklyn history.  He would face Curt Simmons.  Podres was brilliant.  He retired the first six batters before allowing a single to Gene Oliver leading off the third.  Oliver did  not advance any further and Podres retired the next 11 straight.  Simmons seemed to constantly have a runner on base but double plays bailed him out several times.  The teams entered the 8th scoreless.  Podres got the first batter on a line drive to center,  He had now retired 18 of the last 19 batters.  The batter was Gene Oliver.  In his first full year in the majors Oliver had hit only 13 Home Runs this year.  He hit his 14th to give the Cardinals a 1-0 win.  It would hold up.

In San Francisco the Giants sent Billy O'Dell to the mound.  Like Simmons in Los Angeles, O'Dell seemed to be constantly in trouble.  The Colt .45's had runners on base in almost every inning.  The Giants had plenty of chances of their own but were unable to take advantage and were constantly leaving men on base.  The Giants drew first blood in the 4th with a Home Run by Ed Bailey.  Both teams continued to threaten and Houston tied the score at 1 in the 6th.  The Giants had the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th with two out but Matty Alou popped out.  This Giants team went as Willie went. Leading off the bottom of the 8th with a 1-1 count.  Willie went deep.  It was a sign.  Willie wanted to win and the Giants did.  1-0.

The season was over.  The Dogers and Giants were tied.  The two teams, rivals for generations, would face off in a winner take all, three game death match.  A best of three series for the right to take on the other hated rival, the Yankees.

The Dodgers sent Koufax to the mound for Game 1.  At 14-6 to follow up an 18 win season it seemed that Koufax had finally figured it all out.  His 2.41 ERA was best in the NL for the year but he had missed all of August and had lost his last four decisions.  What was worse, he had not gone farther than the 4th inning in any of them.  The Giants sent Billy Pierce to the mound.  Pierce was a veteran near the end of a good career.  He had spent most of his career in Chicago with the White Sox and would love to be a World Series Champion before he retired.

The Dodgers went in order in the first and the Giants went as Willie went.  Willie went deep off of Koufax for a 2-0 lead in the first.  The Dodgers went in order again in the second and Jim Davenport went deep for a 3-0 lead and an end to the day for Koufax.  It wouldn't end there.  The Giants won 8-0. The Dodgers not only lost, they used six pitchers in the process.  The Giants' bullpen rested.

The Dodgers sent Drysdale out for Game 2. If anyone could save the season, Drysdale could.  He faced Jack Sanford. It started to look bleak for the Dodgers when the Giants took a 5-0 lead in the 6th.  It was a nightmare inning for Drysdale and the Dodgers. The 6th started with a strikeout but that was followed by a walk, a double, an error, a single, another single, a ground ball out and another single.  The typewriters in the press box were clicking out the Dodgers' obituary when Jim Gilliam led off the bottom of the 6th with a walk.   A Duke Snider double moved him to third and he scored on a sac fly. That was followed by a conga line of batters to the plate.  A walk, a single, a single, a hit by pitch, a double and an error.  A Giants team that entered the inning needing just 12 outs to advance to the World Series had given up 7 runs.  A once secure 5-0 lead was now a 7-5 deficit.  But this was Dodgers-Giants and no one gave up without a fight.  The Giants scored two in the 8th to tie it at 7 where it remained entering the bottom of the 9th.  Maury Wills walked to lead off the 9th.  Gilliam walked behind him.  A sacrifice bunt moved both in to scoring position.  An intentional walk loaded the bases with one out.  When Ron Fairly lined out to Center Field for a sacrifice fly, the Dodgers tied up the series at 1game each in the most difficult fashion.  They scored a walk off run without having an official at bat in the inning.

This was it.  One last game to decide the National League.  The Giants started Juan Marichal, their undisputed ace.  The Dodgers started Johnny Podres, the hero of the 1955 World Series.  The Giants scored two in the third.   The Dodgers scored once in the 4th and twice in the 6th and stretched the lead to 4-2 in the 7th,  The score remained there in the top of the 9th.

On the bench, Durocher had started his work before the inning started.  When Ed Roebuck came off the mound after the 8th Durocher asked Roebuck how he felt.  According to Durocher, Roebuck said "My arm feels like lead."  Durocher then went to the pitching coach, who was within ear shot of Alston and told them to get someone up.

Durocher's account says that Joe Becker, the pitching coach, didn't say a word but Alston said "I'm going to win or lose with Roebuck. He stays right there."  Meanwhile, further down the bench, Duke Snider, Koufax and Drysdale were pleading with Durocher to convince Alston not to send Roebuck back out for the 9th.  Durocher says he told the three "What the hell do you want me to do?   I'm not managing the club.  There's not a goddam thing more I can say than I've said."

The problem was not that Durocher was not running the team.  The problem was that Durocher had built a relationship with the players that made them comfortable coming to him to question the manager knowing that he would back them up on their griping.  It was almost as though Durocher was telling them "you're right.  he's wrong.  If I were in charge I would do what you are telling me you think is right."  What was worse he was doing it with Alston ten feet away.

Things fell apart for the Dodgers needing just three outs.  Alou led off with a single.  He was erased on a Fielder's Choice and McCovey walked putting two on with one out.  Things were still ok.  Except on the bench where Durocher and Snider were griping away about Alston.  Durocher's version implies that the Dodgers had an unlimited supply of relievers.  In reality, their bullpen had been working overtime in these three games.

Snider, who was unhappy with his own playing time for the season, had left the game in the 8th with a thigh injury.  His version makes Durocher's version slightly more questionable in the fact that the players knew there was no other fresh option opposed to Roebuck.  "Our pitchers were worn out by this point-Koufax, Podres, Ron Perranoski, Stan Williams, Ed Roebuck- all of them- except one, Don Drysdale...Big D was sitting next to me when the 9th inning started and I said to him 'Don, go down there and tell Alston you want to warm up.  We could still lose this thing if we're not careful...Don says 'I already told him.' 'What did he say?' ' He said he's saving me for tomorrow'."

What really changes Durocher's version is the way he told it to Snider.  In the way Durocher told the story to Snider it was not just once that Durocher questioned Alston.  According to Snider "Leo told him he was crazy.  A few minutes later, Leo tried again  Alston said again 'Roebuck's my man.'  When Leo questioned Alston's sanity in more candid terms, Alston said 'well then you're fired."

There was anarchy and chaos on the bench with a two run lead.  Instead of letting the team get the final two outs everyone was second guessing everyone.  There was no confidence that this would work out.  With Alou on first, Alston shifted second baseman Larry Burright towards first to close the hole opened up with a runner on first.  Snider said the Dodgers players were yelling to Burright to move farther towards the second base bag.  Snider seems to imply that Kuenn's fielder's choice  would have been a double play and everything would have been avoided if the players had run the team and positioned Burright.  Instead it was a ground ball with a force at second.

That was followed by a Willie McCovey walk, a Felipe Alou walk, and a Willie Mays single.  Now Durocher got his way and Stan Williams came in to pitch.  A sac fly scored the tying run.  There was then a wild pitch, an intentional walk, a walk forcing in the go ahead run,  another pitching change, an error by Burright on a ground ball and finally a third strikeout.  Snider would have told you Drysdale should have been in there and Burright should have been playing closer to second, that would have changed everything.  Durocher would have told you that Alston should have changed pitchers (to one of the other tired arms) at the start of the inning and that would have changed everything.

Regardless, the mood on the Dodger bench was one of panic and fear even with a two run lead.  The Dodgers were playing from behind with a lead and they beat themselves.

Leo Durocher certainly wanted to get back into a manager position and he was able to do that with two more teams before finally retiring. What two teams did he manage after leaving the Doodgers?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Johnny Evers was identified with the Cubs in the first decade of the sport as much as the ivy on the walls at Wrigley are today.  Frank Chance left the team over a dispute with management and Joe Tinker was traded to Cincinnati leaving only Evers of the famous "trio of bear cubs". 

In 1914, with the fortunes of the team falling, Evers was traded to the lowly Boston Braves.  Midway through the 1914 season the Braves got hot and went from dead last to the top of the league.  Led by Evers, Shortstop Rabbitt Maranville and pitcher Bill James, the "Miracle Braves" rolled into the World Series and not only won, they swept the heavily favored Philadelphia Athletics.  It was the first time a team was swept in World Series history.

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