The Dodger way

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

On the day last November when he was introduced as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Joe Torre, a man who knows his way around the game's history better than most, paid homage to the rich heritage of Dodger blue.

"When I think of the Dodgers, I think of efficiency, I think of pride, I think of measuring stick," Torre said. "It was just ingrained, what the Los Angeles Dodgers -- previously the Brooklyn Dodgers -- meant to the game of baseball. You always measured yourself against the Dodgers, because they always did things right."

Maybe not always. But there was a time during baseball's golden age when the Dodgers were baseball's gold standard. The Dodger Way wasn't just some slick slogan. It was the official bible of how to build, nurture and manage a sports organization so as to consistently contend for championships.

But it was also more than that. It was a blueprint for success based upon integrity and a refusal to cut corners. It was about doing things the right way. That philosophy took a half-century to instil, but Dodger execs of recent vintage have fallen off the path.

The franchise was born in 1890 as the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, a team that joined the National League from the American Association where it had played since 1884. They won a pennant their first year but drifted toward mediocrity through most of the decade.

In 1899, owners of the Baltimore Orioles, then another NL club, bought a controlling interest in the Bridegrooms and set up a merger, bringing over the best of the Orioles players, including Willie Keeler and Hugh Jennings, both now in the Hall of Fame.

Renamed the Brooklyn Superbas, the franchise won back-to-back pennants. But in 1901 the upstart American League raided its top players and the Superbas were never again a force. After 10 years of mediocrity, in 1911, the team was renamed again, becoming the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, a name honouring the citizens of Brooklyn who daily risked life and limb avoiding the many trolleys that crisscrossed the borough.

In 1913, the team name was shortened to Dodgers, a change that lasted exactly one season. In a bizarre decision that makes one wonder if alcohol was not involved, when management hired new manager Wilbert Robinson, the team name was changed to the Robins in honour of the skipper, and would remain unchanged through the next 18 years. When Robinson resigned after 18 seasons and 1,375 victories, in 1931, the name was changed again to Dodgers, the name that has survived the past 77 years.

Three wise men

By the end of the 1937 season, 17 years removed from their previous pennant, the Dodgers were a stumbling, bumbling rudderless outfit. That's when Larry MacPhail, the aggressive, abrasive, yet canny ex-boss of the Cincinnati Reds came on board as executive vice-president. MacPhail had learned under Branch Rickey, whose fertile mind and innovative moves as president of the St. Louis Cardinals had revolutionized baseball.

MacPhail had been fired by the Cincinnati ball club at the end of the 1936 season when, drunk, he took a swing at the team owner which is never a good career move.

A year later, MacPhail was hired to bring the Dodgers organization kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Within months, MacPhail had installed lights for night baseball at Ebbets Field, fired manager Burleigh Grimes and replaced him with Leo Durocher, and begun to establish a farm system, one of Rickey's key building blocks in St. Louis. He even hired Babe Ruth to coach third base, at least briefly until it was realized that Ruth couldn't remember the signs.

At that time, the New York teams, the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers, had a pact not to broadcast games on the radio, believing that free broadcasts would affect gate receipts. When the pact came to an end in 1938, MacPhail blindsided the other two teams by hiring Red Barber away from the Reds and establishing a far-reaching network of stations carrying the Dodgers games, bringing the Dodger name to the masses.

Over the next four seasons, the Dodgers were the talk of baseball, moving up to third place in 1939, second in 1940 and to first in 1941 when they won 100 games but lost the World Series in heart-breaking fashion to the Yankees.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, MacPhail heard the call to duty and enlisted. Branch Rickey, looking for new fields to conquer, left St. Louis to continue his good work as boss of the Dodgers.

With the arrival of Rickey in Brooklyn, the groundwork was being laid for the next 50 years, a period when the Dodger franchise would win 13 pennants and six World Series, second only to the mighty Yankees. More than anyone else, he was the author of The Dodger Way.

Rickey became part owner of the Dodgers, along with Walter O'Malley in 1943 and now was in a position of power to act on his plan to hire the first black player. By 1945, he had settled upon college-educated Jackie Robinson, who had talent, but more importantly, had the kind of character to withstand the pressure, the scrutiny and the fierce opposition of other players and fans.

When Rickey graphically outlined what life would be like for Robinson over the next few years, Robinson asked: "Mr. Rickey, do you want a player who is afraid to fight back?"

And Rickey famously responded: "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back."

If he had done nothing else, Rickey would have been immortalized for his brave bold move in smashing baseball's colour bar, by signing Robinson and promoting him to the big leagues in 1947, the first African-American to play in the major leagues. Robinson's name resonates even today as a pioneer but it wouldn't have happened when it did without Rickey's resolve to make it so.

Under Rickey's guidance, the Dodgers of Robinson, Peewee Reese, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, Joe Black and later Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella -- the famed Boys of Summer -- would win six of the next 10 National League pennants and one World Series in 1955.

But even as the championships mounted up, O'Malley and Rickey were at odds.

In the early 1950s, O'Malley bought out Rickey, sent him packing off to Pittsburgh, and then reaped the benefits of all that talent and structure.

Rickey's Dodger legacy lived on for decades, though only bits and pieces have survived.

Exit, stage left

The Dodgers did not leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles until the end of the 1957 season but the groundwork was being laid long before that. O'Malley had been angling for a new stadium for his suddenly successful team, the class of the National League.

All those pennants but just one World Series in the Rickey-O'Malley era had given rise to the adage "Wait Till Next Year," a phrase deeply entrenched in the Dodger lexicon.

But, after the 1957, even that was gone. There would be no next year.

Spurned by the municipal government in his bid for a new stadium, O'Malley had an offer from Los Angeles which was dangling a 300-acre piece of land in Chavez Ravine where Dodger Stadium now sits.

Eventually the city officials in New York broke down and offered O'Malley a new stadium, but it was on land in Queen's, not Brooklyn. It was the last straw for O'Malley who saw far greener pastures on the West Coast.

From a business standpoint, it became a bonanza. The Dodgers of Hollywood have been a gold mine over the past 50 years, lining the pockets of the O'Malley family and successive owners. Brooklyn? It has never gotten over the loss of the Dodgers.

Joe Torre was a 17-year-old high school student at St. Francis Prep School who played third base on the school ball team. A self-admitted New York Giants fan growing up, Torre still remembers the emotional devastation.

"It was like a death in the family," Torre said. "I am acquainted with people who are still bitter and will hold that bitterness the rest of their lives."

On the West Coast, Phillies GM Pat Gillick was attending University of Southern California, in his senior year when the Dodgers moved west to begin the 1958 season.

"It was huge to finally get a big-league team here," Gillick said. "I had always been a Brooklyn fan. That first season I saw a lot of games but then I went off to play (minor-league ball in the Baltimore chain)."

A half-century later, Gillick is still in the game and the Dodgers are still one of the game's wealthiest organizations, at least in dollars, if not recent championships. They carried their rich winning tradition through the 1960s and 1970s but stalled in 1988.

In 1997, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bought the franchise and stadium from the O'Malley family. In 2004, real estate developer Frank McCourt paid $430 million US to acquire he Dodgers.

Just recently, a California newspaper ranked the past 50 Los Angeles Dodger seasons from best to worst and only one team from the past 20 years -- the 1988 World Series champions -- made the top 20.

Maybe someday Torre's arrival on the scene will be viewed as a pivotal point in Dodgers fortunes, prompting a return to past glories. Then again, maybe not. Many have tried and failed, but at least Torre is one of a dwindling circle of baseball men who knows The Dodger Way actually existed.


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