Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977–78 Dodgers by Michael Fallon, and: The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers by Michael Leahy
These are two books by suburban Los Angeles boys, fans when young of the Dodgers in different dynastic decades. Michael Leahy, a veteran reporter for The Washington Post, writes about his Dodgers of the 1960s. Michael Fallon, an arts manager and writer in Minnesota, devotes his book to the team of the next decade.
And there the similarities end.
Leahy's book is rooted in the players' stories. He had extensive interviews with eight Dodger players, especially Maury Wills and Wes Parker, and shorter discussions with dozens of other Dodger players, opponents, fans and executives. The strength of the book is the players' willingness to delve into their emotions. They reveal the constant balancing between fear of failure and pride in achievement. They return again and again to the desire to be paid for those achievements and their struggles to get what they felt they deserved from ownership.
There are constant reminders of just what a grind the 162-game season can be. The players talk of their growing fatigue—of their desire for the season to end. Their resentment when bundled off to a 1966 postseason tour to Japan is palpable.
Wills and Koufax are pictured dealing with injuries that less driven people would take to the disabled list. The drive for excellence leads them to painkillers and stretching the rules. It's even conceded that Koufax once deliberately threw at somebody (Lou Brock). But only once. While Koufax wasn't one of those interviewed, his teammates refer to him constantly as a linchpin of the team and his experiences are a major theme.
Michael Fallon, on the other hand, really loves Tom Wolfe. That's the journalist, not the novelist. The Dodgers of the late 1970s are the frame around which Fallon weaves his own tale, but, like his hero Wolfe, he's striving for the meta-story, the overarching tale lingering under a seemingly mundane narrative. That overarching tale is failure, the decline of "decadent" Los Angeles, a term that appears in the title but Fallon never defines, much less substantiates, in the book. It's clearly a meta-story that resonates with him personally.
There is no indication in the text or notes that Fallon interviewed anybody for this book. He clearly has made an extensive search of newspaper and magazine [End Page 245] articles about the team, and books by or about members published subsequently, but the voice is very much Fallon's.
Fallon does provide extensive footnotes to these sources and an index. Leahy, unfortunately, has neither footnotes nor an index, but the interviews pretty much speak for themselves.
When each book turns to its promise to connect its team to the society around it, the different approaches show.
Leahy's players talk about the racial tensions of the 1960s, the birth of the players' union, where they were when John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were shot. They recall driving home amid the flames of the Watts Rebellion and of worrying about relatives and friends in Vietnam. There are some nice contrasts. There's Wills, a child of the projects who had to fight his way through nine minor league seasons to be called to the Dodgers only in desperation, Yet, he forged a fourteen-year career which, in Leahy's opinion, merits that Hall of Fame. And then there's Parker, a scion of money, private schools and parents who demeaned him constantly. His rise to the majors was rapid, although his hitting came around years after his superb glove. Wills and the other players jumped on the Marvin Miller bandwagon. Parker, despite being the player rep, keeps his distance, a product of a belief system inculcated in him by his successful family.
The role of the players' union is one of the interesting differences in the book. Leahy's players talk of their salary battles and the way general manager Buzzie Bavasi and owner Walter O'Malley worked together to limit salaries. Fallon's players, filtered through the press and with predictable caution, are much less vocal even though it's the early years of free agency and with Marvin Miller's major battle won. With Cy Young award winner Mike Marshall traded the year before Fallon's focus begins, the militants are gone. There is a description of Miller's campaign to win free agency, but it's not central to the book.
What's central is a recounting of the 1977 and 1978 National League pennant races, playoff victories over the Philadelphia Phillies and World Series losses to the New York Yankees. Within this framework, Fallon is thorough. He does well in capturing the personalities of such critical players as flamboyant manager Tom Lasorda, the image-obsessed Steve Garvey, the cynical Don Sutton and the solid Reggie Smith. The inner tensions of the team are not at the Bronx Zoo level, but there was plenty of soap opera drama.
He closely follows spring training and the pennant races in both seasons, the ups and downs of the team's performance and the ways Lasorda sought to manipulate that performance. He follows roster moves closely, especially the career of Glenn Burke. He carefully approaches the question of whether the Dodgers knew or cared that Burke was gay, describing Burke's relationship [End Page 246] with Lasorda's gay son but also noting that Burke's performance with both the Dodgers and the A's (.561 career OPS) didn't merit a major league career.
Admittedly, the 1970s didn't feature events as resonant as the 1960s political assassinations, civil rights battles violent and non-violent, and all the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War and resulting protests. The events that Fallon refers to are smaller and of less direct concern to the players he's describing. They have little to say about the world around them. But that's okay, because Fallon has a lot to say. The book contains extended sections on such topics as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's campaign to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles, on various serial killers and on the Sunset Strip nightclub scene.
These topics at least have some connection to Los Angeles, although not necessarily to the Dodgers. Instead they are clearly Fallon's interests. His extended tale of Tom Wolfe (the journalist) and his struggle to finish The Right Stuff has no apparent connection to either Los Angeles or the Dodgers, although Fallon does mention such seminal Wolfe pieces as the Los Angeles-centered The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. There's not even that connection in Fallon's extended discussion of Bob Marley and the musician's effect on Jamaican politics. The time spent on Jim Bouton's last comeback attempt is connected only by one Bouton start against the Dodgers in 1978.
Admittedly, Leahy has an odd aside with Bob Oswald, Lee Harvey's brother, that doesn't have any apparent connection to the Dodger story. But that only takes a couple of pages, not entire sections in multiple chapters.
Leahy provides similar narratives, especially of the 1965 and 1966 seasons, but his stories come from the players. These emphasize the prolonged slog of the season and the necessity of obsessive concentration. As players talk, the admiring profiles of their teammates emerge: Wills' rigorous search for any edge, the competitive spark Sandy Koufax kept behind a mask of polite humility, John Roseboro's quiet leadership and respect for himself and others. Parker's revelations of his own lack of confidence and troubled family relationships are a beacon of honesty.
Because the players are telling the story, Leahy's book doesn't have the smooth chronological flow of Fallon's. Leahy generally goes season to season but he is more interested in the players' views on their teammates and the times than he is on keeping the chronology clear. Dipping backward or forward in a player's career helps keep their larger stories straight.
Fallon sets up the 1977 and 1978 seasons well with a review of both Walt Alston's and Lasorda's careers, with Lasorda replacing Alston after the 1976 season. This explains Lasorda's determination to justify his promotion and overcome what he perceived as years of slights. There are good descriptions of [End Page 247] a team divided by the true believers who had played for Lasorda in the minors and bled Dodger blue, and the more established players such as Don Sutton who viewed Lasorda's antics with a jaundiced eye.
The authors exit their tales in keeping with their narratives.
Leahy's players talk of their subsequent careers. Dick Tracewski moves placidly from utility infielder to coach. Jeff Torborg's playing career is disappointing but his baseball savvy leads him into managing. Wills' drug problem short circuits his career as a manager. Parker retires into various intellectual interests.
Fallon doesn't exit his narrative as cleanly. The team leaves the stage rather abruptly after the 1978 season. Perhaps that is because subsequent events don't fit Fallon's narrative of how the 1977–78 Dodgers epitomized the failure of the Southern California dream. The Dodgers lost the two World Series that Fallon focuses on but virtually the same roster won the 1981 World Series. Certainly, the continued growth of both population and economic activity in Southern California would argue against the idea of decline.
But not for Fallon, whose family history underlies his meta-story. In the same time period Fallon is writing about the Dodgers, his grandfather attempts to expand his successful neighborhood hardware store and get into real estate. Fallon says the venture's ultimate failure came in the economic downturn of the late 1970s, the end of the California dream. What he mentions only in passing is that one of the first home improvement mega chains opened just down the street. That's not a Southern California story; the growth of superstores destroyed small businesses all over the country.
Despite having grown up in Southern California, Fallon is prone to the East Coast tropes about Southern California. He often states them in somewhat hyperbolic tones, proceeds to say they're overblown, but then subtly uses them to frame his story further. He is fond of big picture quotes from Time Magazine summing up decades (the Me Decade, for example).
For the Dodger fan, there's something to be gained from each of these books. The basic scripts are there from both eras. The question is whether you want the players to speak to you directly or have them frame a tale of the author's. [End Page 248]