At this year’s dinner for the Baseball Assistance Team, honoring the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets, former Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson spoke of the importance of manager Gil Hodges to the miracle world championship won by the ’69 team.
“Gil taught us the Dodger way to play baseball,” he said. “The fundamentals. In a way, the win for the ’69 Mets was sort of another win for the Dodgers, for the way they did things. That’s what Gil brought to us.”
There was a time when The Dodger Way to Play Baseball was not only considered the soundest instructional system in baseball, but it was also the title of the book given out to players in the organization. It was prepared by Al Campanis, the team’s director of player personnel, and it eventually made its way to the public in 1954, despite it now being in the hands of opposing organizations. (It was issued in hardcover by E.P. Dutton as The Dodgers’ Way and in softcover as the Dodger Way.)
“The problem for the other clubs wasn’t in adopting the Dodger Way, it was getting their players to want to play the Dodger Way. Big difference,” notes Peter Bavasi, son of the Dodgers’ general manager Buzzie and himself a longtime baseball executive.
“Oh sure, I know that book, and the title was our way of doing business,” recalls Dan Gray, a catcher in the Dodgers organization in the early 1990s who now operates two ProSwing training centers in Westchester County, N.Y. “We were proud to be Dodgers because of the way they went about things, and that book had it all down in print to set the tone.”
Some of the “ways” may seem outdated today, such as the chapter on first base play, which emphasizes shifting the back foot, depending on the direction the throw is coming from. One seldom sees that any more. But most of the book holds up as much today as it did during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ glory years, when it was first issued.
Campanis, who died in 1998, was a shortstop in the organization and a teammate of Jackie Robinson’s at Montreal in 1946. He played only 20 games in the Major Leagues, but he became the club’s scouting director before moving up the ranks. He was a proud “Rickey Man” in the tradition of Branch Rickey’s teachings, and one of the most respected men in the game. His book, which includes a foreword by Walter O’Malley, says, “This book is an outcome of many lectures and round-table discussions at the Dodgers Spring Training Camp in Vero Beach, Florida. The material in this book is not a one-man proposition but rather a compilation of material from some of the outstanding men in baseball.”
He lists 14 of them, including Bavasi, Fresco Thompson, Rickey, George Sisler, Walter Alston and Paul Waner among the men who contributed their theories.
The book is broken in sections on defense, offense and field management, with the final section including a chapter of the elimination of hazards. These include sliding head-first, interesting now that it has become so common in the game.
“Though sliding head-first has been mastered by some major league players,” he writes, “it is still considered a more dangerous slide than the feet-first slide. The dust which enters the eyes, ears, nose and throat may cause infection to set it. Then, too, there is the possibility that the head and neck may receive permanent injury if the baseman should fall upon the runner. It is true that injuries may also occur when executing the feet-first slide, but the lower extremities can better stand the shocks.”
Campanis, sadly, is best remembered today for ill-chosen remarks he made on Ted Koppel’s ABC Nightline in 1987, an interview intended to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s Brooklyn debut. Out of his element in such a setting, Campanis told Koppel that there were no black managers, general managers or owners because, “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” Koppel, embarrassed for Campanis on what was to be just a soft interview, gave him another chance to respond, but he fared no better.
It would be the end of his Dodgers career, as the team was forced to let him go. He deeply regretted his unfortunate comments, and he knew that the first sentence of his obituary would reference them. It did.
There really are few instructional primers as sound as this one was, however, and while no longer in print, it remains a tribute to a time when the Dodger Way was the most respected in the game. And a well presented one it was.
Marty Appel, former Yankees PR Director and television producer, is the author of 18 books including Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss, the first narrative history of the team in almost 70 years.