Review of Michael Leahy's "The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers"

tags: book review, Michael Leahy, The Last Innocents

Henry D. Fetter wrote "Taking on the Yankees: Winning and losing in the Business of Baseball."

The Last Innocents, Michael Leahy writes, “is a story about the odyssey of seven players [shortstop Maury Wills, catcher Jeff Torborg, first baseman Wes Parker, outfielders Willie Davis, Tommy Davis and Lou Johnson, pitcher Sandy Koufax, and infielder Dick Tracewski] during the turbulent 1960s” and is two books in one.  The first reflects the youthful passions of the author who was a 12 year old Los Angeles Dodger fan from the San Fernando Valley and was lucky enough to witness Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in September 1965.   The second  is the product of the now 60 -something prize winning journalist’s ambition to invest the object of his childhood fandom with a societal significance beyond that of the sport itself.  The first book is more successful than the second book.

Leahy is a terrific writer with an ability to avoid the cliches that afflict most writing about sports ( a mention of “drowsy baseball executives with big bellies” is a rare lapse).  The book provides a compelling account of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ triumphs (World Series titles in 1963 and 1965 and the National League pennant in 1966) and disasters ( the loss of the pennant playoff to the Giants in 1962, the World Series sweep at the hands of the Orioles in 1966 when the Dodges went scoreless over the last 33 innings).  Drawing on probing interviews with former Dodgers (Golden Glove first baseman Wes Parker and shortstop and base stealer extraordinaire Maury Wills are his major sources;  unfortunately the reclusive Koufax would not talk to the author about himself, but only about Wills) as well as a number of their opponents, Mr. Leahy revisits many of the highlights of those seasons, often with a fresh perspective on what might otherwise be dimly remembered (if remembered at all) diamond happenings of a half century ago.

And so we relive that perfect game by Koufax in September 1965 from the perspective of the Chicago Cub catcher whose errant throw allowed the Dodgers to score the winning run in a 1-0 game and a key strikeout by Koufax, relying only on his fastball and lacking command of his curve, and  from that of the Minnesota Twin batter he struck out to preserve the Dodgers’ win in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series.   We get a vivid account of the notorious brawl between Giant pitching great Juan Marichal and Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro in the summer of 1965 that resulted in a 10 game suspension for Marichal (which may have cost the Giants the pennant when they finished only two games behind Los Angeles), as well as the fateful mis-positioning of Dodger second baseman Larry Burright in the ninth inning of the decisive 1962 playoff game that cost the Dodgers a double play and opened the way for the Giant rally that won the pennant for San Francisco.

Leahy portrays Sandy Koufax as an intense  tough minded competitor who was not above throwing at Lou Brock in retaliation for taunting him on the base paths.  The book devotes well-merited attention to the base running revolution that Wills single-handedly wrought by breaking Ty Cobb’s long-standing record for stolen bases in 1962.  Nor does Mr. Leahy ignore the racism that black ball players including Wills and outfielder Lou Johnson habitually endured on their prolonged passages through the minors to the big leagues or the chattel like condition of ball players bound by the sport’s reserve clause and denied the chance to capitalize on the full economic value of their talents.

At times, Leahy’s set pieces fall flat.  The book begins with an anecdote meant to recall the passions of baseball fans in the days when baseball reigned as the uncontested national pastime – according to Leahy a Dodger fan shot a Yankee fan after a barroom argument during the 1956 World Series between the two teams.  But according to the most complete reports in the New York press both men were rooting for the Yankees and they were actually arguing over a bet: the fatal post midnight fracas was evidently fueled more by alcohol than by a clash of team loyalties.   We get a big buildup to the 1963 World Series as a showdown between Maury Wills and the American League’s more plodding emphasis on power hitting. But when the Dodgers pulled off an unexpected sweep of the Yankees, they won it on superb pitching and timely clutch hitting -  Wills's two singles and one stolen base did not affect the outcome.

There are also a  number of factual glitches.  Dodger attendance was not 2.8 million in 1963  but a bit over 2.5.  Jackie Robinson did not hold the team’s single season stolen base record before Wills broke it. The “first time that the major leagues would see more black than white faces on a ball field” was not in 1960 but in 1954 when the Brooklyn Dodger starting lineup included Jim Gilliam, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Amoros, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.  Leahy likely overstates Koufax’s impact on Dodger finances which, although considerable, was probably somewhat less than half of the 1 million dollar annual increment calculated by Mr. Leahy.  The wild melee among fans waiting in the stadium parking lot to buy the limited number of tickets available for the 1963 World Series revealed less about a newfound enthusiasm for the team than to the more mundane fact that the Coliseum (where the team hosted the 1959 World Series)  had almost twice as many seats as the team’s new Dodger Stadium home.  To write that the Dodgers “had been altogether reinvented on the West Coast, expunged of any vestige of Brooklyn” is only true if one ignores the core of the team’s pitching rotation through the mid-1960s, Koufax, Don Drysdale ( who is given surprisingly little attention in the book)  and Johnny Podres,  all of whom had played at Ebbets Field.

But none of these objections  significantly detracts from  Leahy’s achievement  in recreating a slice of baseball history that deserves to be better remembered than it likely is these days.  But he is less sure-footed in his effort to document  what his subtitle labels  “The collision of the turbulent sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers.”  The book checks off the obligatory references to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., the Watts riots, the war in Vietnam, the Manson family murders, LSD and Haight-Ashbury, the Weathermen and so on.  But the promised “collision”  goes missing. However “turbulent” the times, the Dodgers played through them as though nothing was going on beyond the confines of Dodger Stadium.   JFK 's assassination did not interrupt Parker and Torborg's efforts to win the attention of major league scouts in winter ball; no Dodger games were canceled or rescheduled after RFK’s killing;  Dodger Stadium hosted the team’s  regularly scheduled games even as Watts burned a few miles away; no Dodger 's career was interrupted by the draft,  let alone Vietnam combat service.  (The only player in the Dodger organization who served in Vietnam was Roy Gleason, who made a very brief appearance with the Dodgers at the end of the 1963 season, was in the team’s minor league system when he was called up in 1967; a war  wound derailed the opportunity  to resume his baseball career).  Indeed the author himself apparently gives up in trying to make the case for a “collision” and acknowledges that “the real world never intruded [in 1969] at Dodger Stadium.  Everything there was as it always had been....This was baseball’s chief appeal that summer.”

Nor does the book live up to its claim to be about  “The Last Innocents,” a title which goes unexplained in the text.  Pronouncing an “ end of innocence,” as Mr. Leahy does in a subchapter referencing JFK’s assassination is an overdone trope which has been invoked to explain many other eras.  Eliot Asinof placed  “America’s Loss of Innocence” in 1919 in a book with that title;  and according to intellectual historian Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence involved “A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912 1917;" and there are numerous other such claims. Leahy’s proclamation is a belated, as well as overused, one.  Nor does he identify who “the last innocents” are supposed to have been - or why.  The players he writes about were hardly “innocents,” having endured tough struggles to reach the major leagues, suffered difficult and unhappy childhoods, and confronted hardball management contract negotiating tactics.  Nor were the fans who were caught up in the overwhelming, often tragic, “real world”  events of the time.

Leahy explains the book’s genesis by saying that “ after a long stretch writing largely about politicians [I] wanted nothing more than to do a story about baseball.”  The unfulfilled ambitions of his book are probably beside the point for most readers who will be much more interested in the compelling baseball stories that he relates with skill and insight.  And I suspect that the same was true for Leahy when he wrote it.

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