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DODGERTOWN : It's Modern Now, but Many Recall the Days of Barracks, Pizzas, the Green Phantom and Seabiscuit the Cockroach

March 09, 1986|BILL SHIRLEY | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — When Los Angeles baseball writers first came to this town for spring training in 1958 they called it Zero Beach.

Their irreverence was excusable. Vero Beach was the smallest town in America serving as a spring training base for a major league baseball team. It still is, in fact, with about 17,000 souls.

"There wasn't much to do then," said Frank Finch, a former Times baseball writer who covered the Dodgers their first season away from Brooklyn.

There was even less for the players, club officials and press to do in the winter and spring of 1948 when the Dodgers, then based in Brooklyn, N.Y., first traineD on thE former Naval base that came to be known as Dodgertown.

In those early days, the population was closer to 3,000. There were no bright lights. There was one movie theater and little else. A few affluent visitors from the North lived here in the winter, mostly in big houses on the 25-mile-long barrier island that is part of what is now known as the Treasure Coast.

The town and the training camp were called a lot worse than Zero Beach in those days. Stories and jokes abound about the Spartan life the players led in the old barracks.

When Bobby Bragan got his first look at Dodgertown, he said: "Where are the barbed wire and dogs?"

Leo Durocher took his first look and cried, "Help!"

Although he came along much later, catcher John Roseboro caught the flavor of the place. "It's just six weeks in stir," he once said of spring training here.

The barracks were so crowded with minor league players in 1948 that they slept six to a room.

"They blew a whistle to wake us up," Danny Ozark, a former player and coach, recalled. "Dinner was at 5:30."

Wives of players and officials who got letters from Dodgertown swore the mail smelled musty.

Recreation was limited to badminton, horseshoes and fishing.

Eleven years later, not much had changed.

"There was nothing to do on the base," said broadcaster Vin Scully. "The players relied upon each other for fun. They sat around at night and talked baseball or shot pool. The camaraderie was incredible."

The two-story wooden barracks had no heat or air-conditioning. "The floors creaked, the plumbing was shot and the water often was rusty," Finch said.

The roof leaked and rain often poured into the upstairs rooms.

"The barracks were modern," The Times' Jim Murray once wrote. "They had running water, sometimes too much of it."

Coach Monty Basgall recalled: "You could hear Dixie Walker snore and Maury Wills play his banjo down the hall. The walls were virtually paper. You could hear everything anyone said."

The walls were so thin, in fact, that club officials held meetings in the clubhouse dressing rooms so that players wouldn't know if they were being shopped around the league.

Dodgertown to Murray was just another name for Andersonville. "I lived in Cellblock 7," he said.

He wondered why Sherman hadn't burned the barracks down and wrote, "I didn't know the Confederacy had a navy."

When he learned that the late Walter O'Malley had paid only $1 a year to lease the base, Murray wrote: "It's the worst case of rent gouging I ever heard of. At night you sit around and listen to the plumbing drip."

The Dodgers had a midnight curfew in those days, and some of the funniest Dodgertown stories are told about players trying to slip back into the barracks without being caught.

Late in the 1961 training season, pitchers Larry Sherry and Sandy Koufax left the base to get some pizza at Port San Lucie, about 30 miles from Vero Beach.

"We were ignoring the time," Sherry said the other day. "It was later than we thought and we missed the curfew."

They had just slipped into their room when Manager Walter Alston began pounding on the door.

"He really banged on it," Sherry said. "We didn't open the door quickly enough to suit him."

Alston was sore, Sherry said, because they had awakened him, but Koufax, listening to the story, disagreed. "Stan Williams' card game already had him up," he said.

The visit to the pizza parlor ultimately cost Sherry and Koufax about $10 a wedge, since Alston fined them, but it cost Alston more. He pounded the door so hard that he lost the diamond out of his 1959 World Series ring.

Johnny Podres once took off his shoes and tried to tiptoe into his room after curfew, only to find that his roommate, Al Ferrara, had locked him out.

Podres was caught another time when he, Duke Snider and Don Zimmer, riding in a Volkswagen, took a shortcut back to the base, drove along some railroad tracks and got stuck.

"Their excuse was they had gone to a drive-in movie," said Bob Hunter, a long-time L.A. baseball writer and columnist. "But three big guys in a Volkswagen? Nobody believed their story. They had gone to the dog races in West Palm Beach."

Fresco Thompson, then director of the Dodgers' minor league teams, went to great lengths to catch curfew breakers, Hunter said.

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