Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Book for Die-hard Dodger Fans!

The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers, by Michael Leahy.

Michael Leahy's credentials as a sports writer include his much celebrated book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback, which GQ Magazine described as “the best sports book of the year….easily the most fully formed portrait of Jordan ever written and one of the best sports books in recent memory.” David Maraniss has written of his new book, “The Last Innocents is a great American story. Baseball in the southern California sun, Maury Wills stealing, Vin Scully narrating, life spinning and sweeping like a Koufax curveball toward the future---the tableau could not be richer for a writer as evocative as Michael Leahy.”

This book must have presented Leahy with challenges quite different than those of his book on Michael Jordan. That book focused on a single personality and a time period much more limited than the decade-long survey of the Dodgers that Leahy has attempted in this book. Leahy’s ambition here was to evoke a period in baseball history--and our national history--and to bring that era to life in a way we all felt and remembered. To do that, he goes behind the public face of the game to tell us about what we didn’t know was happening at the time, to show us how dominant currents of social and political change in the 1960s impacted the team. He looks at the relationships of the players with each other, a dynamic that made an extraordinary team. He chronicles the changes that were developing between players and baseball management in this transitional period. Above all, he gives us a window into the minds and emotions of the players, letting us understand what drove the performance and what made the period thrilling and memorable. Leahy had exactly the right sense of the task; ambitious, yes, but not overreaching. A lesser ambition would not have resulted in the rich and compelling portrait of the era he has given us here.

Author Michael Leahy was there that night at Dodger Stadium, September 9,1965
to see Koufax pitch his perfect game against the Cubs. Also in the picture,left to right, 
Willie Davis, Wes Parker, Ron Fairly, and Don Le John 
The research is astonishing. Leahy’s dramatic recreation of pivotal games was built on extensive examination of period sports reporting, broadcasts, memoirs and statistical archives, and player recollections. But certainly this would not have been the marvelous book it is if he did not bring all of this home through the lives of some of the major players of the period, something he was able to do through countless hours of interviews with Maury Wills, Wes Parker, Lou Johnson, and others. This book could have been so much less in unpracticed hands. It could have felt like a miscellany, where things lay side by side, but instead we get an adept alchemy of themes and material, a transmutation into something whole and seamless that makes The Last Innocents a compelling and endlessly engaging narrative.

Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, and Willie Davis celebrating Koufax''s

Game 5 shutout against the Twins in the 1965 World Series.
In addition to the vision and skill of this book, it is hard to imagine it feeling the same if it were written by someone who did not live through the era as a boy who was an avid Dodgers fan. Leahy has written with the judgement and understanding of an adult, but you sense he retains the wonder of the 12-year-old boy he once was when he witnessed Sandy Koufax’s perfect game at Dodger Stadium in 1965 against the Cubs. He has retained the sense of excitement, the love of baseball as lore and myth, the attraction to what is ineffable and inexpressible about the meaning of the game, while at the same time giving us an understanding of baseball’s workaday realities and darker moments. Reality hasn’t hurt mythology at all in this telling. They live side by side, in some enriching tension with each other.

The portraits that emerge of certain players--Maury Wills and Wes Parker in particular--are wonderful revelations about the differing motives and struggles players have in relation to the game, something we don’t usually know about and seldom think about. Their stories go far beyond the statistics, and are quite moving. The toughest challenge Leahy faced, it would seem, is how you tell the story of an era in Dodger history when the person who defined the period more than any other doesn’t want to talk about his own career with a reporter.

Don Drysdale celebrates his victory in Game 4 of the 1965 World Series with
two Dodgers who hit home runs in the game, Lou Johnson and Wes Parker.
Sandy Koufax was willing to talk to Leahy about his teammate, Maury Wills, but he made it clear that this was the limit of what he was willing to discuss. And yet Leahy, as he must, still manages to make Koufax the era’s enigmatic and pervading spirit, the not-quite-of-this-world presence who hovers above the earthly events on the baseball diamond. He does this by listening carefully to what other players have had to say about their teammate, by searching out the laconic quotes Koufax made to others and to the press, and by referencing the few times when Koufax has talked about his playing days publicly. Maybe it helped that Koufax remains as reclusive, as other and as distanced as he has chosen to be. The abiding mystery and wonder of Koufax is Leahy’s extraordinary recreation here. I don’t know how he did it, but that’s what good writers do. It’s a kind of magic that cannot be easily deconstructed. Leahy faced every problem and somehow figured a way to overcome it in writing this book. The result is a wonderful and unforgettable portrait of a team and a time in our lives.

Hollywood was quick to embrace the Dodgers and the team became part of the celebrity cult of Los Angeles.
Dodgers had bit parts on television shows and live shows in Las Vegas. Milton Berle would invite
his friends to come along with him on his birthday to a Dodger game.
L-R Dean Martin, Milton Berle, David Janssen, Jack Benny, and Polly Bergen

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