All Star baseball authors Jason Turbow and Ron Rapoport teamed up for an Author Night on June 6 at the South Pasadena Public Library Community Room.
Turbow told the tale of the Dodgers’ crazy 1981 season that’s documented in his “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen.” Rapoport told the story of Ernie Banks, the first ballot Hall of Famer and All-Century shortstop that he wrote about in “Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks.”
Here’s a conversation with Turbow.
1981 was an awesome year. People love the Dodgers, and Kirk Gibson was unforgettable.
I’ve actually encountered this notion frequently while preparing the book for launch, even though Kirk Gibson’s iconic homer against the A’s happened seven years later, in 1988. The closest the ’81 Dodgers came to an epic blast was Rick Monday’s home run to beat the Expos in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Championship Series (which was momentous enough to give the game its own nickname in Montreal: “Blue Monday”). When it came to intrigue and story lines, however, those 1981 Dodgers stack up with anyone.
What made them so special?
Apart from winning the World Series in the first year that baseball featured a divisional playoff round (necessitated by a mid-season strike, which we can discuss later), the main thing going for those Dodgers was the sudden and explosive presence of Fernando Valenzuela. Also, it was Tommy Lasorda’s first championship, and the first (and last) title for the most durable infield in baseball history, in its final season together. Los Angeles in 1981 was a hell of a backdrop.
Let’s take those one at a time. Start with Fernando. He ended up pitching for six teams, won 20 games only once over 17 years, and spent an entire season in the middle of his career pitching in Mexico. Was he really that special?
In 1981 he was. In the early going there was nobody better—not just that season, but ever. Fernando made his first-ever major league start on opening day and shut out the defending division champion Astros on five hits. By the time he’d beaten Montreal in his eighth start, on May 14, his numbers were beyond staggering: An 8-0 record, seven complete games (plus nine innings in the other, which went 10 and in which Fernando picked up the victory), five shutouts, 8.5 strikeouts per game against only about two walks, and a 0.50 era. It was the best start to a pitching career in baseball history.
Valenzuela himself was a curiosity, a chubby lefthander who in no way resembled a professional athlete. His Mayan features were accentuated by bushy black hair spilling straight down from his cap, and his windup included a unique hitch in which he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. Fernando was 20 years old, from a truck farm on the dusty plains of Mexico, and spoke no English, requiring Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarin to translate at every turn. He was also entirely unflappable, going so far as to blow bubble-gum bubbles in the middle of his delivery. That his out-pitch was a screwball seemed somehow fitting.
But that’s only part of the story. The other has to do with an LA fanbase that was startlingly devoid of local Mexicans despite their civic abundance. Los Angeles was home to more Mexican nationals than anyplace outside of Mexico City, yet the Dodgers had been almost entirely unable to tap into that market, despite increasingly fervent efforts to do so. This was largely due to the land upon which their stadium sat having once been home to a thriving community of Mexican ex-pats, who’d been forcibly evicted in a government seizure that ended up placing Walter O’Malley’s team from Brooklyn square in theheart of Chavez Ravine. The local Mexican population never forgave the Dodgers … until a lefthanded screwballer from Sonora set the world afire in the spring of 1981.
So Valenzuela is the star of the book?
Actually, no. His ascendance is the primary storyline of 1981, but the figure with the most outsized role in this tale—and perhaps in the entire history of the Dodgers—is Tommy Lasorda. Starting when he joined the system as a pitcher in 1949, Lasorda’s main goal seemed to be making himself invaluable to the organization. He pitched through 1960 (three major league cups of coffee buffeting 284 minor league starts), scouted for a few years, and then managed at minor league outposts from Pocatello to Ogden to Spokane. By the time he joined the Los Angeles staff in 1973, first as a coach, then as manager, he’d become one of the biggest personalities in the sport, lauding the merits of the franchise every step of the way. The phraseBleed Dodger blue?Lasorda’s. The Big Dodger in the Sky? Also his. Lasorda so loved the Dodgers that upon first signing on as skipper, he informed the assembled media that Walter O’Malley had botched contract negotiations. “If you’d have waited just a little longer,” he told the owner in front of the press, “Iwould have paidyouto let me manage.”
Lasorda’s enthusiasm was unsurpassed, and his methodology as a manager—doing things like hugging players after home runs—was considered by many to run counter to the way things should be done. It would never last, they said. Ultimately, it lasted for 21 seasons.
By 1981, however, Lasorda’s teams had followed two straight World Series defeats to the Yankees (with teams thought by many to be superior to New York’s) with a dispiriting 1979 campaign that bordered on mutiny, and a 1980 season that also fell short of the playoffs. The idea that Lasorda was incapable of winning the big one started to gather momentum, and, with an aging roster, chatter indicated that he, along with numerous veterans, might be sent packing. Whether or not it was true no longer matters. The 1981 title put an end to all of it and cemented Lasorda’s presence in LA for decades to come.
But Lasorda wasn’t the only longtime Dodger seeking his first title …
That’s true. Because the roster had been so stable for so long, the only player on the team with a championship ring was Jay Johnstone, who’d won his bybeatingthe Dodgers while with the Yankees in 1978. The most notable unit among LA’s lineup was the infield: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, who’d been playing together since 1973. This is noteworthy given that the next-most durable quartet in baseball history had lasted only about half as long. Heck, the most famous infield ever—the Cubs’ Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combo—ran only from 1906 to 1910. (Despite their durability, LA’s infielders could barely stand each other. Pretty much the only place they had cohesion was between the lines.)
By 1981 the Dodgers’ quartet had collectively made 19 All-Star appearances and had long been considered among the sport’s very best units, but age was catching up. Lopes was 36, Cey 33, Garvey and Russell 32. With an outrageously talented farm system behind them, each veteran knew his days were numbered. That’s part of what made the run-up to the 1981 championship so special: It was the Dodgers’ last chance as currently constituted, and they knew it.
Let’s go back to the strike. What happened, and how did it affect the season?
The short of it: Owners wanted to tamp down the recent advent of free agency through extensive penalties for teams that signed players, and the players wouldn’t stand for it. When management refused to budge on their insistence that large swaths of major league rosters be made available as compensation for teams that lost free agents (effectively turning the entire process into a player trade rather than a player signing), the union went on strike in mid-June.
The owners were more or less fine with the decision since they’d purchased strike insurance for just this eventuality, which actually made canceling games more profitable than playing them for some teams.
The players, however, had no such security. Most veterans had some money socked away, but young players had to scramble to make ends meet. Dodgers rookie Dave Stewart ended up working for a hardware manufacturer. Jay Johnstone made deliveries for his father-in-law’s auto-parts store. Ron Cey, even though he was financially secure, used the downtime to film a part in a David Carradine B-movie called “Serpent: The Ultimate Thriller.”
Ultimately, the strike was the best thing that could have happened to the Dodgers. Their division lead over Cincinnati had been inexorably shrinking across late May and early June and was down to a half-game when the players struck. Had the walkout occurred a day or two later, it’s entirely possible that LA wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all.
As it was, when the strike was resolved and the season resumed, MLB decided to crown two champs per division, one for each half, which locked the Dodgers into a postseason spot with six weeks still to play. (They needed it, considering they finished fourth in the second-half standings.) It also ended up costing the Reds—who ended the season with the best record in the National League—a chance at the playoffs, given that they were unable to capture either the first-half or second-half crowns.