Excerpt from “Fairly at Bat”, My 50 years in baseball, from the batter’s box to the broadcast booth
Foreword by Tommy Lasorda
Copyright © 2018 Back Story Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved
A month before spring training started, I received a phone call from Carl Furillo. Remember, he was the player who told me, on the day I reported to the Dodgers, that he wasn’t ready just yet to relinquish his position.
Now, he was asking me if I would like to come to Dodgertown, the team’s spring training headquarters in Vero Beach, Florida, a couple of weeks early to work out in the mornings and do some fishing in the afternoons. I didn’t have any fishing equipment or experience, but I said, yes, sure. Sounded like a great opportunity to get an early jump on the others who were hoping to make the team.
Most of the players called up at the end of the season are sent back down to the minor leagues the next spring, and that included me.
I still had to prove to the front office, the manager, and the coaches that I could play at the major league level. Part of that was showing them how much I wanted to play.
When I landed in Melbourne, someone from Dodgertown picked me up and drove me to Vero Beach, 34 miles south. Entering the Dodgers’ facility, I saw old, gray barracks along the road surrounded by row upon row of orange and grapefruit trees. Frankly, I was expecting something a little nicer.
In 1929, a local businessman named Bud Holman was one of the key movers and shakers in the decision to build an airport in Vero Beach. When World War II broke out, the U.S. Navy, looking for a place on the Florida coast to set up a flight training base, chose Vero Beach, partly because it had an airfield. The Navy commissioned the Vero Beach Naval Air Station in 1942 and built those barracks to house 2,700 Navy and Marine personnel, and 300 WAVES and female Marines. The airport was enlarged from 100 to 2,500 acres.
The sky was soon filled with dive-bomber and fighter pilots training for duty overseas, but unfortunately, more than 100 of them lost their lives in flight-training exercises originating from that site. Though they never left our shores, their sacrifice was every bit as meaningful as those of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives in combat overseas.
When the war ended, the facility was turned back to the city. The timing was just right because the Dodgers were looking for a training facility. Holman, convinced they would be the ideal tenant for the property, contacted Branch Rickey, then president of the team, who sent Buzzie Bavasi, then the general manager of the Dodgers’ minor league team in Nashua, New Hampshire, down to look at Vero Beach and several other Florida sites. Holman wasn’t about to let this big fish get away from his coastal city. He lobbied hard, making the case that there was enough land to handle the more than 600 ballplayers in the organization, and the necessary housing, in the form of the Navy barracks, was already built.
Holman also included a name for the site in his proposal: Dodgertown.
Bavasi bought in to the idea, and so did Mr. Rickey. “We had our own plane then and we could walk from the airport to (Dodgertown),” said Bavasi. “The other places were trying to sell us something. Vero Beach was trying to give us something.”
A key factor for Mr. Rickey was the fact that Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier when he joined the team in 1947, would be free in Dodgertown of the segregation he would be subjected to in other southern sites in Florida.
In 1948, the Dodgers held their first spring training in Dodgertown.
When Walter O’Malley, who became team president in 1950, decided to build a small stadium in Dodgertown in 1953, he returned the favor to the man who had named the facility, naming the ballpark Holman Stadium.
Wandering around the facility in my first trip there in 1959, I found the team offices, a lobby, and a cafeteria situated in the middle of the barracks. In the lobby were two pool tables, several lounging chairs, and card tables surrounded by large photos of Dodger greats past and present on the walls.
Our rooms in the barracks had no heating or air-conditioning. The major league players stayed in what had been the officers’ quarters while the minor league players were in the rooms that had housed noncommissioned servicemen. In the major league section, two players were assigned to each unit, which had separate bedrooms. The showers, plastered with stucco, were so small that you had to stand diagonally if you didn’t want to scrape your elbows on the walls.
The floors were wooden. At night, you could hear the steps of anyone walking down the halls.
Carl, having arrived the day before, left me a message at the front desk to meet him in the clubhouse at 9 a.m. to work out. I couldn’t wait, I was there at 8.
The exterior walls of the clubhouse were painted gray with Dodger blue trim. Inside, the rectangular room, like the rooms in the barracks, was small with no insulation in the walls. There were small, wood-framed lockers along the walls with chicken wire separating them. There was just enough room to hang your street clothes and one uniform. When I got there, uniforms were hanging in the lockers even though they wouldn’t be needed for several more weeks. A strip of tape with a player’s name on it was attached to the top of each locker and, alongside, a dozen of his personal bats. Large trunks filled with baseball equipment and a potbellied stove sat in the middle of the room. I got a rush of adrenaline just seeing all those blue and white uniforms.
Yes, the clubhouse was small and old, and reeked with the smell of baseball, but I loved it…
When Carl showed up, we went out to the fields, did some hitting against Iron Mike pitching machine, went through fielding drills, then headed to the nearby Indian River for an afternoon of fishing. Carl loved to fish and he taught me to love it as well, showing me everything from how to make my own lures to the best poles to use and how to bait my hook. We would bring what we caught, mostly bluefish and tarpon, back to Dodgertown, where the team cooks prepared the fish for our dinner and took what was left home to their own families…
I don’t know what I enjoyed more, practicing on the diamond or fishing with Carl…It was the most relaxing way possible to get ready for the arduous season ahead. Playing for the Dodgers sure had its benefits.
Those peaceful, lazy days on the river showed me that Carl, although he was one of the strongest, toughest men I ever met, had a soft side in him as well…
In those first few days I was in Vero, he worked with me tirelessly on getting to a ball quickly and making the kind of throw that could either cut down a runner or at least prevent him from getting an extra base. He knew what he was talking about. He played his position flawlessly and had one of the most powerful arms of any outfielder in baseball. Born in a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania, he earned the nickname “The Reading Rifle” for his bullet throws from right field…
Carl wore the number six on his jersey and, when he left the Dodgers, I asked if I could wear that number out of respect for him. I wore it proudly for years and, in addition to paying tribute to him, it motivated me. I felt that if I was going to wear his number, I had to play like him.
The tranquil hours on the Indian River were cut back drastically when spring training officially started. Along with Carl and me, there were suddenly more than 600 players taking the field, counting the minor leaguers. Branch Rickey had created the farm system during his days with the Cardinals, and he placed just as much emphasis on it when he joined the Dodgers in 1942. It was still flourishing and creating bumper crops of young prospects long after Rickey and the Dodgers were gone from Brooklyn.
We had 9 ½ diamonds, sliding pits, batting cages, and a dozen pitching mounds. The schedules were tight. Every half-hour, teams would rotate from location to location. Each day was different, with one group going to the batting cages, another to live batting, a third to infield practice. The pitchers threw off one of the many mounds, or ran.
Among my favorite moments in Dodgertown were those I spent in Campy’s Bullpen.
A Hall of Fame catcher, three-time National League MVP, and one of the leaders of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Roy Campanella never got to be a Los Angeles Dodger. He had been so excited about the opportunity to help lead his team, the only big league team he had ever played for, into this new phase of existence.
But that opportunity was lost forever on a cold January night in 1958. Campy was driving home at 3 a.m. from the liquor store he owned in Harlem to his Glen Cove, Long Island, home. He skidded on a wet road a mile from his house. His car crashed into a telephone pole and flipped over.
Campy had two fractured vertebrae. It took five surgeons to perform the 4½ hour operation that saved his life.
Had the injury occurred one inch higher, he would probably not have survived.
As it was, at the age of 36, Campy was paralyzed from the shoulders down. He was scheduled to report to Vero Beach just two weeks later, when, for the first time, he would have put on a blue Dodger cap that, instead of the familiar letter B emblazoned in white on the front, would have had the now familiar interlocked letters L and A.
It would have been understandable if Campy had never returned to Vero Beach after that. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for him to sit in his wheelchair and watch his teammates run and throw and swing a bat knowing that he would never again be able to even stand on a baseball field.
Yet Campy did return, not just as a spectator, but as an active participant, an unofficial coach still contributing, still leading.
Every evening, he would sit outside the kitchen and talk baseball with anyone who dropped by. He told stories about his playing days, teaching so many of us about baseball in particular and life in general.
Campy was particularly good with the younger players like me. During the day, he would watch us work out and, in the evening, he would critique our performance.
He came up to the Dodgers in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier. Knowing the kind of pressure Campy, another black man, had been under to produce, and what he accomplished, we were eager to listen to this legendary figure we held in awe.
“Now lookie here, young man,” he would say before giving advice or asking us questions. He told young catchers how to block pitches in the dirt, and how to set up hitters. He made us think about game situations. “The count was two balls and no strikes,” he would say about an at-bat one of us had in a game earlier that day. “Why did you swing at that pitch low and outside? Wait for a better pitch. Give yourself a chance. The next pitch might be right down the middle of the plate.”