The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers
When I was a kid back in the ’60s, I wanted to be a baseball player. My buddies and I would study the statistics on the bubble gum cards, which sometimes would include a “fun fact” about the athletes, like an unusual hobby or accomplishment. We didn’t think about the money; as the saying goes, we would have played for nothing. We also didn’t consider the tensions of the era, protected from bad news about war, racial problems and assassinations by our youth and innocence. Michael Leahy forces us to open our eyes, retrospectively, with his masterful recap, THE LAST INNOCENTS: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If Roger Kahn made Dodger nostalgia a cottage industry with his classic THE BOYS OF SUMMER, then Leahy --- author of WHEN NOTHING ELSE MATTERS: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback and HARD LESSONS: Senior Year at Beverly Hills High School --- offers a much gloomier view. He focuses on a handful of players --- stars and scrubs (with all due respect) --- to represent how difficult life could be on and off the field. He gives readers a glimpse of the heroic Sandy Koufax that has heretofore gone unreported in such depth. Most of the material deal in generalizations, commenting on his toughness in the face of unyielding pain. They do not go this deeply into Koufax’s persona and how he was perceived by his teammates, which was overwhelmingly positive, but laced with a tinge of darkness that makes him all the more human (there is enough on Koufax in this book’s 450-plus pages to make for a stand-alone biography).
Other profiles include California native Wes Parker, who was brought up with a silver spoon in an otherwise broken home. Leahy reveals him to be a terribly insecure young man. He battled physical and mental challenges, including severe allergies and social anxiety disorders, putting all his energies into becoming a major leaguer with absolutely no backup plan. Backup infielder Dick Tracewski was just happy to be on the team, where he could count such swell fellows like Koufax as a friend.
"It is rare to find such depth in a sports book. They usually gloss over the surface, not wanting to do much more than highlight an individual, team or event, or perhaps throw in a bit of gossip for added heat. This one breaks the mold."
In fact, the theme of insecurity and self-doubt runs through just about all of these stories. Many focus on the players’ concerns over job security and the inability to get a salary commensurate with their accomplishments in the days before free agency and multi-million-dollar deals. Maury Wills, who broke Ty Cobb’s record for most stolen bases in 1962 and was the rock of the infield, was afraid to rock the boat too much. “To be a ballplayer in the 1960s meant always having to reconcile defending oneself against a club owner’s abuses while taking pains not to trigger his wrath,” Leahy writes. There was always the tacit threat that some hungry minor leaguer was waiting in the wings. This was even true for next-level stars like Koufax and Don Drysdale, which led to a perpetual “virtual staring contest” to see who would back down first.
A more insidious form of insecurity was the experience of the Dodgers’ African-American players, such as Wills, Tommy Davis, John Roseboro, Lou Johnson and others at a time when race relations were threatening to explode. A few of the black players grew up in communities where race was not much of an issue and were appalled by the situation they encountered in Vero Beach, Florida, where the team held spring training, and other minor league towns in the South. (There is also a fair amount of reference to Koufax’s Judaism and what role, if any, it might have played in how he was treated by Dodgers’ manager Walter Alston, even after the pitcher had established his stardom.)
Amid the larger panorama of more impactful events of the 1960s, Leahy writes just as dramatically about a few key games during this span --- the 1963 World Series contest against the Yankees, in which Koufax struck out 14 batters to establish a new record; his 1965 perfect game; and the finale of that year’s Fall Classic against the Minnesota Twins, in which Koufax passed on his opening game assignment because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
The chapter recalling the 1966 campaign “The Last March” effectively wraps up the Dodgers’ story. A National League pennant was followed by a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. But that paled in comparison to the shattering news that Koufax --- their emotional and spiritual rock --- would retire at the age of 30. With his departure, management knew they would not be able to compete and began dealing away players, starting with Wills and Davis. The team finished in eighth and seventh place over the next two seasons.
“As the 1960s rolled along, the Dodger players’ indignation over their front office’s dictates and missteps not only presaged a discontent that would roil their games but perfectly reflected young America’s growing distrust of the establishment everywhere,” says Leahy as he inserts Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy into the mix, giving the book an even more depressing air than a simple exercise in the rise and fall of a group of young athletes.
There are times when THE LAST INNOCENTS comes on a bit too earnestly in trying to relate the heavy atmosphere of the era. Nevertheless, Leahy’s overview of the troubled times through the prism of one of the marquee sports franchises deserves attention not just from baseball fans, but from anyone who appreciates the kind of literature published by a David Halberstam or David McCullough. It is rare to find such depth in a sports book. They usually gloss over the surface, not wanting to do much more than highlight an individual, team or event, or perhaps throw in a bit of gossip for added heat. This one breaks the mold.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on June 3, 2016