The only people in Los Angeles unprepared for the arrival of the Dodgers in 1958 were the 1958 Dodgers. They bumbled through the season like miscast actors, which, I thought, was not the way a team two years removed from the World Series was supposed to play.
Although I was only 13, I based my judgment on considerable, if not exactly first-hand, experience with big-leaguers. One of the many pitchers in the Inglewood (Calif.) Little League to throw a baseball past me with undisguised ease was George Metkovich Jr. This appeared to be a simple matter of superior breeding, since his father had played for six major league teams (moreover, he bore a nickname with a glorious future, Catfish). Pleasanter than the whoosh of a called third strike was the voice of the neighborhood librarian, who told me she lived a few doors away from Hank Sauer. She promised to let the most valuable National Leaguer of 1952 know that I had checked out his biography. If she ever did, his response was never passed on to me.
The rest of my preparation for the Dodgers was easier than attaining a good word from Sauer. It consisted of watching the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars, the two local entries in the Pacific Coast League. The PCL billed itself "The Third Major League." That was a trifle overstated, but the league almost always managed to come up with an attention-getter like the Angels' Steve Bilko, who resembled a Hudson sedan and hit 111 home runs in 1956 and 1957. I cringed at every one of them, because my team was the Stars. They seemed more intent on developing characters, and the one with the most staying power was Carlos Bernier, who stole bases by the score, cursed umpires in Spanish and chewed a wad of tobacco the size of his glove. Only the Dodgers could get such an institution out of town. Bernier went with the Hollywood franchise when it was moved to Salt Lake City, at the same time the Angels took their halos to Spokane.
Los Angeles now was big-league, and my parents decided to take me to the Dodger's first game in the Coliseum. Our seats were behind the left-field screen, the widely remembered Infamous Left-Field Screen. Only 251 feet from home plate but 40 feet high, it extended 140 feet between two steel poles, providing the Dodgers with a reminder of the Brooklyn Bridge.
A lot of people said it was going to make a joke of baseball in the Coliseum, but the souvenir hunters who jammed behind the screen at the Dodgers' debut were jubilant. At least 40 reasons for their joy sailed over the screen in batting practice. Pee Wee Reese, who was then 38 years old, accounted for a good half dozen of them, which must have swelled the chests of the many senior citizens in the crowd of 78,672.
The game against San Francisco that followed had a striking resemblance to batting practice. Line drives assaulted the screen like hailstones. Sauer, now an elderly Giant, hit two home runs over it. I suppose I finally could have greeted him since he was playing left field, but I no longer cared to, now that a Dodger rookie third baseman named Dick Gray had captured my attention. He hit a homer to put the Dodgers ahead, and when the Giants staged a ninth-inning rally, he saw Jim Davenport miss third on the way home, called for the ball and got the putout that made him the hero of the hour.
I never would have believed it that day, but Gray's play turned out to be the highlight of the season for me. Twelve times I returned to the Coliseum and 12 times Los Angeles lost.
This was the team that had virtually dominated the National League for a decade, but only the raggedy Phillies finished lower in 1958. I suppose I should recall what good there was to see: Carl Furillo batting .290 and playing right field as if he were giving a clinic, and Johnny Podres surviving on guile and guts in a park that should have been a lefthander's graveyard. But most of the Dodgers who had made Brooklyn an acceptable word in mixed company—Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine—played as if they had come West to a retirement community. In time I realized that the Boys of Summer had become the Boys of Slumber.
There were fitful attempts to rouse them with new blood. The only move I could not approve was the trade of Don Newcombe to Cincinnati. Not that I was particularly fond of Newk's 0-6 record or thought he would ever again win 27 games as he had in 1956, but Bilko, who had been the most hated Angel in my eyes, returned to Los Angeles as part of the deal.
I endured it because I knew that no matter what Bilko did (which turned out to be very little), the real hope for the future was in Green Bay, Wis. There a monster named Frank Howard was being assembled.
Howard did not clank into Los Angeles until his season in the minors had ended. Actually, the Dodgers were in Philadelphia when he first came up, and Vin Scully told us all about it on the radio. He said that Howard stood 6'7" and weighed about 255 pounds, and he described how all the action on the field stopped when he took batting practice. This, Scully suggested, was an honor accorded only great hitters. Events soon indicated that perhaps Howard belonged in such company. He hit a homer that landed on a laundry roof in back of the left-field fence at Connie Mack Stadium.
A few days later Howard came to bat with Snider on third. Scully described how the Duke was taking his lead wide of the foul line to keep out of Howard's range. The instant Scully stopped talking, Howard hit a shot that dropped Snider like a pedestrian on the freeway.
By the time the Duke's bruises had healed, I had moved to Salt Lake City. I got to see Carlos Bernier play again, and the hometown Bees were the 1959 Pacific Coast League champions.
But that triumph paled beside the World Series the Dodgers won in '59. I wish I could have seen them then, instead of in 1958. I feel particularly bad that the last memory I have of the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles is Snider's lights going out. My only consolation is that perhaps it is the last thing the Duke remembers of the season, too.