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Tales from the dugout: Ron Fairly

The former Dodgers star on playing with The Boys of Summer, the brilliance of Koufax and Drysdale, and what really happened between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro 

After five decades in Major League baseball, Ron Fairly has more than a fair share of baseball stories to tell. From his first season as a player—the very first season of the Los Angeles Dodgers—to a broadcasting career that spanned nearly three decades, the two-time All-Star has lived an extraordinary life in the Major Leagues. In his new book, Fairly at Bat: My 50 years in baseball from the batter’s box to the broadcast booth, Fairly covers everything from winning world championships alongside Dodger legends such as Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, to playing with the expansion Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays, to 30 years of calling the action the way he sees it.

What was it like to play for the Dodgers during their first season in Los Angeles?
Those guys were special. I watched those guys play in the World Series for years as a kid. Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, right on down the line. They were in the World Series practically every year. All of a sudden, I’m looking around, and I’m in the same clubhouse, wearing the same uniform! I was in awe! I had to keep reminding myself, “Don’t ask for any autographs.”

You spent less than a year in the minors before you got called up to the Dodgers at age 19.
I played baseball at USC in 1958, and we won the national championship. That spring, I attended the first LA Dodgers game at the Coliseum. By the end of the year, I was on that team! It was just remarkable. It all started with the captain. Pee Wee Reese. He said, “You’ve got to show me you want to play baseball. If you don’t, then will give your uniform to someone else, and we’ll give them a try.” And of course you had Gil Hodges, who was a big marine. If you did something on the field where you screwed up, Gil would just look at you. Wouldn’t say one word. He’d look at you, and you were in the doghouse. These guys expected to win.

All photos courtesy of Back Story Publishing

Was it intimidating to walk into a team like that at that young an age?
I joined the Dodgers in Philadelphia at Connie Mack Stadium. When I got to the ballpark early, I met Walter Alston, the manager. I asked him “Where do you want me to go on the field?” He said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you go to right field.” So I went out to right field and caught a few balls in batting practice. Afterward, I came in an introduced myself to Carl Furillo. He didn’t say hello, how do you do, or anything. He says, “They tell me that you’re pretty good.” I said, “Mr. Furillo, I don’t know. I’m just happy to be here.” And he said, “Well, I’m the right fielder on this team. And you can have it when I’m finished, but I’m not finished with it yet.” And then he walked away! I wasn’t expecting that, but obviously he felt I was a threat to his position, and he wasn’t giving it up.

The following spring training, Furillo gave me a call before spring training started in Vero Beach, Florida, and asked if I wanted to work out a couple of weeks early and do some fishing. I had never been fishing in my life, but what was I going to say, no? So we went to Vero Beach two weeks early. We’d work out in the morning—take batting practice, do our running, throwing, talked about playing the outfield. Then we went fishing. We became very good friends. When Furillo did retire, I asked to wear his number 6 out of respect to Carl, because if I was going to wear it, I needed to play like him. When I left, I told our clubhouse guy, “If you give this jersey to somebody, give it to somebody who can hit.” He gave it to Steve Garvey. So Garvey, Furillo and I wore that same number for close to 35 years.

It seems like as tough and competitive as those Dodgers were, there was also a kindness to them. Growing up in Brooklyn, I would hear stories about how nice they were to people.
They sure were. I mean, take Duke Snider. Duke was fantastic. I roomed with Duke for a couple of years. When we went back to New York to play the Mets the first time the Dodgers were in town, you realized how big he was in New York City. We’re walking down the street, a cab driver pulls up, honks his horn and says, “Hey Duke, welcome back to New York!” and drives off. Everyone knew Duke.

Despite all the talent on the team, that first year in Los Angeles, the Dodgers didn’t fare well.
They had a bad year. They finished 7th in 1958.

But you won the World Series in 1959. Did you sense that the team could win that year?
I didn’t, but I sensed we had a bunch of guys who can play. I made the team simply because we could carry 28 players the first month of the season. It’s not like today where you have to be down to 25. Duke had water on his knee and Furillo pulled a calf muscle. I had a good spring, and they needed an extra outfielder. I was scheduled to go down, but the injuries changed the plans.

The transition the Dodgers made from the “Boys of Summer” teams of the 1950’s to the championship teams of the 1960s was almost seamless.
We had great pitching. I mean we had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. But Walter Alston would take the lineup card to the opposing manager before the game, and would say, “Here’s my lineup. See if you can beat them.” We knew we had the pitching and could do the little things that other teams weren’t as efficient at doing. We had Frank Howard, Tommy Davis, Maury Wills, and not enough credit ever goes to Jim Gilliam. Maury stole a lot of bases, God bless him. But Jim Gilliam hit behind Wills all year. He was always hitting with two strikes on him to give Maury a chance to figure out the pitcher and to steal bases. Jim would take pitches right down the middle of the plate that he could hit. He was incredible.

You would also sweep the Yankees in the World Series in 1963, which helped bring the Yankee dynasty to an end.
We did. Funny story about that. We sweep the Yankees. In the clubhouse, Fresco Thompson, the director of the minor league system is speaking to everyone on the microphone. Walter O’Malley, the owner of the team walks by and says, “Ron, when Fresco finishes talking, I want you to speak on behalf of all of the players who won’t be here next year,” and then he walks away! I said, “Thanks, Mr. O’Malley, we just won the World Series, and two hours later you’re trying to get rid of me!” He loved to needle guys. And he could take it too!

You were on the field during the infamous incident in 1965 when Juan Marichal of the Giants hit your catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat. What really happened that day?
The Dodgers and Giants don’t like each other. Back then, they really didn’t like each other. When Jackie Robinson got traded to the Giants, he said, “I’ll quit before I play for the Giants,” and he retired. It gives you an idea of how much they don’t like each other.

During the course of the year, a few guys got knocked down at the plate. Don Drysdale probably got the lion’s share of it, and Marichal didn’t like that. He was going to do something about it. At the same time, back in the Dominican Republic, they were having riots. With the chaos that was going on back home, Marichal was concerned about his parents and family. So tensions were high at the time. Marichal came out and said that if Drysdale throws at any of his hitters, he’s going to do something about it. Well, that didn’t mean anything to Drysdale. Drysdale just said, “You know where I am. I’m right there on the mound. Come and get me.”

There was also some kind of tension between Roseboro and Marichal. I was never sure what that was about. When we went up to San Francisco to play the Giants, (National League President) Warren Giles had to tell both teams to knock it off. Too much incendiary type of stuff was being said.

During that game, a couple of pitches were close. Maury Wills got knocked down. I got knocked down, but I ended up getting a base hit that at bat. Koufax was pitching for us. When Marichal came up, the pitch wasn’t close at all. It was almost a strike. But when Roseboro threw the ball back to Sandy, his hand whizzed by the helmet of Marichal. Well, Marichal though Roseboro was trying to hit him, and that’s when everything broke loose. I looked down in right field, then I looked up, and there’s a scuffle at home plate.

Orlando Cepeda came out of the Giants dugout with a bat. Danny Ozark, our third base coach, was stronger than you think. A little scuffle wasn’t going to scare him. He was in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. So Danny told Cepeda, “Either you put that bat down, or I’m gonna shove it up your ass!” Cepeda realized he wasn’t kidding and wisely put the bat down.

When the scuffle was over, Roseboro went in the clubhouse, and had eight stitches put in his head where Marichal hit him with the bat. Our lockers were right next to each other, so we were pretty close. John told the security guy, “Bring Marichal in here, then leave, shut the door and lock it. He really wanted a piece of him! Later on, they became good friends.

There was one thing that was really scary that nobody knows about. When the team went back to Los Angeles, John and I were at a luncheon, and he told me that some black guys had approached him after the incident. They told him. “You say the word, and when Marichal comes out of his hotel next year, we’ll kill him.” John told them, “No, you can’t do that. You must not do that.”

Whoa! And they were serious? They would have killed Marichal?
Roseboro talked them out of doing it! That would have been a really ugly thing. I can’t imagine how bad that would have been. Roseboro had to talk these guys out of killing Marichal. John didn’t want people to even know about it at the time. They ended up becoming good friends!

What was it like playing with Sandy Koufax?
Sandy would throw 94 or 95 miles per hour just for control. He’d get it in a good location to get you out. And then all of a sudden, here comes 102. Where did that pitch come from? Roseboro pointed it out to me. Sandy would get into jam, and he would go behind the mound, pick up the rosin bag, adjust his jersey, adjust his cap. Then here comes that fastball.

One game I remember vividly. We’re playing the Pirates at Forbes Field. Roberto Clemente is up in the ninth inning with two outs and men on base. We have a one or two run lead. Sandy throws a fastball; Clemente fouls it off. Sandy misses with a breaking ball. Clemente pulls a fastball foul by about 50 feet, then he hits one foul by about 30 feet, then he hits one foul that misses by about 10 feet. Sandy steps off, does his routine—rosin bag, adjusts his jersey, his cap. Here it comes, fastball right in on the hands for strike three. Clemente couldn’t even swing at it. Sandy was the only guy who could add that much more to his fastball. No one else could do that.

What was it like playing with Don Drysdale?
Drysdale knew how to get you off the plate. The low and outside belongs to the pitcher. How bad do you want to hit it? If you go down and hit it, you pay the consequences. Don would say, “You could beat me, but you might not enjoy it as much as you think you would (laughs).

When John Bateman was a catcher on the Houston Astros, he hit a home run off Drysdale and stomped around the bases. Bateman told me that the next time he got up, Drysdale hit him in the ribs with a 100 mile per hour fastball. It didn’t even ricochet. It just hit him and fell right at his feet. When Bateman and I were teammates with the Expos, Drysdale was visiting Gene Mauch, and he offered to step in to finish pitching batting practice. Bateman was supposed to get in and hit. He had seven swings and took only three. I said, “John, you got four more swings.” He said, “Ron, I know he has the same uniform on as me. But I know that windup, and I just don’t trust him. Four more swings are not that important in my life (laughs).”

In 1969, you would get traded to the expansion Montreal Expos. It must have been tough after all you had been through as a Dodger.
My name was never mentioned in trade rumors up until the last day. What hurt the most was my son Mike, when I pointed out to him where I was going on the map. I’m playing here in Montreal; we live here in Los Angeles. He said, “Does that mean I don’t have a daddy anymore?” That really hurt for a long time.

You have to realize, I was on a winning team in little league, in American Legion ball, in high school, I won the national championship in college, I’m on the Dodgers, a team expected to win 100 games every year. Now I’m going to a team expected to lose 100 games. That was the toughest thing about being on an expansion team. It’s like being on the Washington Generals, and you’re playing the Globetrotters every day.

That kind of losing has to be difficult.
When you’re playing on an expansion team, a lot of those guys are just excited to be in the Major Leagues. Winning is not that important to them. They don’t know what it’s like to win and the daily grind that it takes to win games. For them, it’s all about stats and whether or not you’re good enough to stick around. There’s a huge difference between knowing you belong in the big leagues and hoping your just good enough to hang around.

Is it hard to be a professional when your teammates are more into stats than winning?
What it comes down to is, how tough are you mentally? How bad do you want to play every day? That’s what I tried to concentrate on. How good could I be every single day. It takes a real discipline. When you are on a winning team, you can handle a loss. It’s much harder when you are on a bad team. The losses are brutal.

It’s a testament to your professionalism that you were on two Canadian expansion teams—you were also on the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977—and you made the All-Star team in both cities.
Looking back on my career, I was consistent. When I was in spring training, a manager could look at me and he knew what he was going to get out of me. He knew I could hit with runners in scoring position. He knew I could handle my position. He knew I wasn’t going to give him trouble on or off the field.

You also spent some time with the Cardinals. You must be one of a very few players to have played both with Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson.
Oh my goodness, first game of spring training with the Cardinals! Frank Tavares is leading off the game. I just joined the team. Gibson was the starting pitcher. Tavares goes to push a bunt towards first base, and Gibson hit him right in the heart with a fastball. Down goes Tavares. It took only one pitch, and he almost killed somebody! Afterwards, Gibson said “Practice bunting on someone else. It’s spring training; swing the bat.” That was Gibson. What I found out was that he was a great pitcher, but if you had a different color uniform on, he did not like you. If you tried to talk to him before the game, he didn’t like it. He thought maybe you were talking to him so he wouldn’t want to throw at you, and he hated it.

You were in baseball for nearly 50 years—20 as a player, almost 30 as a broadcaster. How drastically has the game changed from when you started to now?
The money!  The money changed everything! When I signed, the Major League minimum was $7,000. Now it’s $500,000. In 1959, we win the World Series. According to Buzzie Bavasi, our 40 man roster made a total of $850.000. In 1960 we had 16 teams, and the gross salary was $11,000,000 for all teams. One player makes almost three times what our entire league made! The money is the huge difference.

Back then it was more survival. Once you were in an organization, you were stuck there. There was no free agency; you’re there. If you went to the World Series, the extra money meant you didn’t have to get a job during the winter. Before we wore helmets, knockdown pitches were legal. Today players don’t have worry about knockdowns, because it’s illegal, and that’s good. You make good money. There should be no room for throwing at somebody in today’s game. I always felt if I got knocked down, it was because I did something that was agitating the other team like getting hits and scoring runs. If I wasn’t hitting, I could stand with my toes on home plate and not get hit. I would let pitchers have the first pitch. You’re not gonna hit me in the head. Now guys can go up there from pitch one and swing as hard as they can.

In your brief time as a player in the American League, did you feel the designated hitter changed things?
The DH changed things a bit because pitchers didn’t hit. So how do you retaliate? You throw at their best hitter. Let the best hitter go to their pitcher and say, “Stop throwing at them! They are throwing at me, not you!” That’s what Mays used to do. The DH has a lot to do with that now. What bothers me today is watching guys come close to a hitter and then the hitter gets all excited. Years ago, they would have laughed at a guy, if they knew it bothered him. Every pitcher would have done it after that. That was the attitude a lot of pitchers had at the time.

On the Dodgers, Stan Williams kept a notebook, and if you did something that he didn’t like, he’d give you a star. He may not have even been in the game, and he still kept his book. If you got to five stars, he gave you a skull and crossbones. That meant he was going to flip you on your rear end. Stan had clause in contract that said if he threw “x” number of base on balls or less, he would get a $500 bonus. And Stan could throw as hard as Koufax. So when he got to 3-0 on a batter, he would just drill them! There was nothing in contract about hit batters. By the end of the year, the Dodgers figured it out.

How did you get into broadcasting?
I joined the Angels in 1978 and Gene Autry owned the team. He also owned KTLA in Los Angeles, and he asked if I would be interested in working with Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale on the telecast. I had played 20 years, so it was time to start looking toward other things. They offered me a three-year contract. I said, “Three-year contract. One-year contract. I’ll take the three-year contract.” Those jobs didn’t come up very often. I would end up spending the next 30 years broadcasting games, and 50 years in baseball, so I guess it worked out pretty well!

Fairly at Bat: My 50 years in baseball from the batter’s box to the broadcast booth (Back Story Publishing) is available at Amazon.com

 

 

 

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