Late last week a counterman at the Whelan drug store on the corner of Seventh Street and Flower Avenue in downtown Los Angeles hastily lettered a sign and taped it against the big front window. "San Francisco Giant Steak Sandwich," it read, "So Tender It Folds." Every Angelino who saw the sign smiled, because it is always great fun to tweak those supersophisticates 400 miles to the north and, after all, the Giants did seem to have a championship won, only to lose it to the Dodgers on the next to last day of the season. For the next three or four years Dodger fans are going to refer to 1965 as "the year the Giants blew the pennant," and Giant fans will grudgingly agree. Both, however, will be wrong.
Very few people recognize what really happened in this season's exciting National League pennant race, but the simple truth is, the San Francisco Giants and the rest of the clubs in the league succumbed to one of the grittiest teams ever to play anything anywhere. It is far too easy to say that the Giants folded or that the Dodgers got their third pennant in the past seven years because they won 15 of 16 games while the Giants were losing eight of 17; too easy to say that only tremendous pitching and Maury Wills carried Los Angeles. Just as easy as it was back in May to say that the Dodgers were through because Tommy Davis broke his ankle, or to say in July that if they ever fell out of first place the Dodgers would drift into the second division, or to malign them as contenders late in August when they lost three of four games to the New York Mets. The Dodgers are playing in the World Series now because they got total effort out of speed, pitching, youth, managing, anger, frustration, inexperience and L.B.J.
The Dodgers who won the pennant last Saturday are a team right out of pulp fiction because every player does what he can do. Every time the Dodgers heard a slight about themselves this season they dug in deeper. "Nobody respected us," said Maury Wills. "That's what made us win. Probably not even the New York Mets. We heard all year long from different teams and different writers that we could not win and, while you might expect it from writers, the worst thing is to hear that people in your own profession do not respect you. The more we heard the madder we got, and now I hope somebody knows that it is not good to get a Dodger mad."
The Dodgers were like a child's rubber raft this season, because every time someone pushed them down in one spot they bobbed up in another. They went up against opposition much stronger than themselves time after time with what seemed like little more than a note from their mothers. But almost always when they left a town or closed a home stand they had a little bagful of wins.
Early in the season the other teams wondered who the kid was playing second base for Los Angeles. For years the Dodgers had been bringing up second basemen, only to have them fail. Obviously, the newest one would not do, either. This latest model was Jim Lefebvre, a 22-year-old blue-eyed rookie with two years in the low minors at Reno and Salem and not even half a season at Triple-A Spokane. Lefebvre had won a job in spring training at a time when he was certain he was not going to win it. In 10 intersquad games he got a total of two hits, both of them on the 10th day, and he resigned himself to another spell in the minors, which he knew he needed.
But Manager Walter Alston was not relegating Lefebvre to the minors. Alston had watched Lefebvre the previous winter in the instructional league and had begun to call him Frenchy. In the club's first exhibition game against a major league team Alston put Lefebvre at second base, and Frenchy made two good plays in the field and hit a long triple. Alston was happy. Lefebvre went on to have a fine spring, and he started the season with the Dodgers. Everything went well until late in June, when Lefebvre played poorly through a home stand. Instead of benching him at home, Alston waited until the team went on the road.
"I knew I was through," Lefebvre says now, "and I felt maybe he didn't bench me at home because I was from California. I had trouble feeling like part of the team, because I was not doing my job. Sitting on the bench, though, I got a new perspective, and then Alston gave me another chance and I flubbed it. He told me to take extra batting practice, and I did, and I flubbed again. I knew I had had it, and that was it. But he tried me again, against the Reds, and I hit a two-run homer. The team seemed to know who I was. Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam had talked to me several times, trying to help me. All along—even when guys were calling me 'hey, you' or Fifi—Sandy Koufax would stop by and ask me how I was and call me Beachy, because he knew I was living at Playa del Rey. After the reporters and photographers were through he would take it on himself to put his arm around me when they were gone and thank me for a play I had made and tell me to hang on.
"When I first began going around the major leagues I was shocked that the fans booed the great players—Frank Robinson, Ken Boyer, Henry Aaron. I wondered if I could ever get to the point where they would boo me for the same reasons, and then I thought, "No matter where we go they don't boo him. Not Sandy.' How great can he be? But he took time to help me, and the rest was just luck."
The rest was not luck at all. Lefebvre plays second base very well, and he hit .320 during the last five weeks of the season. He finished with 69 runs batted in, only one behind Ron Fairly's club high of 70.
As far as the rest of the league was concerned, Maurice Wesley Parker III was a who-is-that-playing-first-base type during the early part of the year. Granted, he had played in 124 games in 1964, but only 31 of them were at first base and not many of those were as a starter. "This year," says Bobby Bragan, the manager of the Milwaukee Braves, "Parker has replaced Bill White as the outstanding defensive first baseman in the National League."
Parker is a strikingly handsome young man of 25 who is remarkably versatile. He is a superb fielder, he switch-hits, he runs fast and he plays bridge well enough to have won tournaments in several Los Angeles suburbs. In 1962 Parker went to Hawaii to watch his father in an international bridge tournament. He watched the best players in the world and, although at that time he knew little bridge himself, became interested in the game. His father, a wealthy Los Angeles real estate man, introduced him to some of the players. One evening he watched Charles Goren and Helen Sobel and, fascinated by the way the experts played, put himself into a bridge school. He won a couple of tournaments with partners from the school and then branched out. For two seasons now he has been part of a running bridge game on Dodger road trips with Wally Moon as his partner against Jim Gilliam and Don Drysdale.
When the Dodgers won the pennant last week Parker was a young man who had trouble expressing how he felt about winning. "It came down to the last out," he said, "and I felt so tired that I didn't know what I was doing. I wanted somebody to hit the ball to me and get it over." Parker was standing in the Dodger dressing room amid empty champagne bottles, telegrams, socks and shoes. "Tonight," he said. "Then it will hit me. Long after it's over. I have found it impossible to do anything else but think about being in a pennant race, and I could do nothing to relax and relieve the tension."
The final out in the Dodgers' championship year was made by L.B.J.—Louis Brown Johnson. Louis Brown Johnson is a man of 32 years and 19 different teams, a left fielder with an ear on his stomach. He has one daughter and three sons, and he calls the sons Halfway Out, Three-quarters of the Way Out and All the Way Out. The reason that the top edge of his right ear is on his stomach is very simple. It is as simple as playing second base with no major league experience or becoming the best defensive first baseman in an entire league with very little experience. Nine years ago Johnson was playing for Ponca City, Okla., and on the way to a road game he became involved in an automobile accident with several of his teammates. The top part of his ear was sliced off, and it was not possible to sew it back on immediately. The doctors inserted it in a fold of skin on his abdomen. "That's the warmest part of the body," Johnson says. "The doctors told me it would keep warm there and we would put it on later. But I went back to school at Kentucky State and never did have it put back on. But it doesn't bother me. I haven't got rabbit ears, man, but I got the cool."
Johnson came up to the Dodgers in May to fill in for Tommy Davis, and he did a tremendous job, though he was hit by pitches 16 times. Shortly after he joined the Dodgers a Bob Bruce fast ball broke a hole in his batting helmet and sent him to the hospital for three days with a concussion. Johnson staggered out of the hospital and hit a double only three hours after being discharged. When he returned to the team he said, "We're going all the way with L.B.J.," and, in truth, he knocked in many key runs. Plagued by financial problems all his life, Johnson is now playing in a World Series that may net him more than his present $11,000 salary. "How do I feel starting regularly in a World Series?" he said last Saturday after the Dodgers had won. "I don't believe it, man. That's Dreamsville. I never even was considered a starter in the bigs, and now we're going for everything. Not just L.B.J.—the whole 25. We snuggle up against your leg like little puppy dogs and lick your feet, but you don't wake up in the morning, 'cause you died of rabies."
Wes Parker played all of his cards right.
To Lou Johnson it all was Dreamsville.
Jim Lefebvre felt he'd be in the minors.