In the venerated classic The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn recounts the Los Angeles Dodgers’ best seasons during the 1950s—the team’s wondrous glory years—and documents player triumphs and challenges in that golden era.
Flash forward to 2014. As the baseball season begins and this year’s incarnation of the Dodgers unfurls, the team is the odds-on favorite by many to win the World Series for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president.
Could the glory years of Hall of Fame players and World Series wins return?
With their $228 million payroll and a lineup studded with All-Stars, it’s not a stretch to believe the Dodgers could take it all this year. If so, how does this year’s version of the team rank with the best Dodgers squad ever—the 1955 World Champs that featured five eventual Hall of Famers?
Make that seven if you count the young, seldom used wild-armed southpaws Sandy Koufax and Tommy Lasorda.
For all of you fantasy gamers and history geeks, here’s one perspective on how the 2014 Dodgers stack up against the franchise’s first World Series Champions, the legendary Boys of Summer:
First base: Adrian Gonzalez vs. Gil Hodges
Gil Hodges had a typically strong season hitting .289 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI in ‘55. Adrian Gonzalez meanwhile, enters 2014 with lifetime averages of .294, 23 homers, and 85 RBI.
Who would you rather have at first base? It’s a virtual toss-up, with some believing that Hodges has long been overlooked as a Hall of Fame player and Gonzalez showing sparks of brilliance in his 10-year career.
Hodges gets the nod by a thin margin.
Second base: Dee Gordon and Alexander Guerrero vs. Jim Gilliam
Dee Gordon seems to have won the battle over the newly signed (and newly optioned) Alexander Guerrero as the starter. But who knows how long that will last?
It’s a moot point, though, when comparing the two to Jim Gilliam. Junior was Mr. Steady in the field during his 14-year Dodgers career and was the ’53 Rookie of the Year.
The switch-hitter ended with a solid .265 lifetime average, mostly in the leadoff position. Both Gordon and Guerrero are young, unproven and have a long way to go to match Gilliam’s stature. Give it up to the Dodgers’ retired number 19—Gilliam.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez vs. Pee Wee Reese
Hanley Ramirez—one of many injury plagued stars for this year’s Dodgers—is a conundrum. When healthy, there are few better shortstops in the game today. But in the last three years, he’s missed an average of 50 games per season.
Conversely, Pee Wee Reese—the Little Colonel—was the epitome of consistency throughout his 16-year Hall of Fame career. So in a match-up of flash vs rock-solid dependability, it’s Reese, hands-down.
Third base: Juan Uribe vs. Jackie Robinson
No contest. We’re talking Jackie Robinson here, one of the true icons of the game. And while he’s mostly known as a second baseman, in ’55, he primarily was the starting third baseman.
He was nearing the end of his remarkable career, but still—we’re talking Robinson here.
Juan Uribe, while somewhat dependable in most cases, only has a .253 lifetime average and his power numbers are long past their peak of 24 homers in 2010.
Clearly, give the gold to Hall of Famer Robinson.
Outfield: Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig vs. Sandy Amoros, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo
At first glance, with their overcrowded outfield roster comprised of four potential All-Stars, this year’s Dodgers look like a lock in those positions, particularly when you factor in the weak-hitting Sandy Amoros in the ’55 lineup. But take a closer look and you’ll see a glaring edge for the old-timers: the Duke of Flatbush.
Given Matt Kemp’s status on the disabled list when the season opened this year, the Duke Snider vs. Kemp matchup may still be the most captivating comparison of all.
Snider is considered by many to be the Dodgers’ best overall player, period. His Hall-of-Fame career boasts stats that include being the team’s all-time leader in home runs and RBI.
Yet, the injury-plagued Kemp might be right there with The Duke—if he could avoid the DL. Witness his 2011 season when he hit .324 with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, which closely mirrored Snider’s great ’55 season with a .309 average, 42 homers, and 136 RBI.
So while Snider amassed his numbers over a storied career, the jury is still out on Kemp’s long-term significance, as eye-popping as the potential might be. Snider gets the vote over Kemp.
In left field, Carl Crawford—when he’s healthy—easily wins the battle against Amoros, a defensive standout in the ’55 series. Right field is a different matter, even when pegging both Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier against Carl Furillo.
Thanks to Puig’s amazing rookie year last season and Ethier’s always glittering potential, this is another intriguing matchup. But Furillo wins going away buoyed by his .299 lifetime average, spanning 15 seasons.
And while Puig may have one of the best cannons in baseball today, it was Furillo whose arm was feared by the opposition 59 years ago. From his right field perch in Ebbets Field, no one had a better throwing arm.
So given his longevity, his defensive skills and his solid bat, score one for Furillo.
Catcher: A.J. Ellis vs. Roy Campanella
Another no contest. Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, a three-time NL MVP, wins against just about anyone.
A.J. Ellis is respected, but his offensive numbers are nearly abysmal when viewed alongside Campanella’s.
It’s Campy, who won the National League MVP (barely beating out Snider in a controversial vote) in ’55 by a landslide.
Starting pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett vs. Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Johnny Podres, Billy Loes
This is a category the 2014 team has an edge. With Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the rotation is led by two former Cy Young winners.
With the addition this year of Dan Haren and Hyun-Jin Ryu showing flashes of dominance, pitching is a probable strength, no question. Factor in a return to form by Josh Beckett, and the team could have the best rotation in the entire game, assuming, of course, the arms stay healthy.
The ’55 Dodgers weren’t rollovers, however. Workhorse Don Newcombe and the always dependable Carl Erskine and Billy Loes were formidable, with Newk winning 20 games that year.
Spot starter Roger Craig flashed a 2.78 ERA in 90-plus innings and Johnny Podres, while not over-powering during the regular season, went on to win the MVP award in the World Series.
The Brooklyn staff was a strong, dependable rotation—just not as strong as this year’s group. Trophy: 2014 staff.
Relief pitching: Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, J.P. Howell, Jamey Wright vs. Clem Labine, Ed Roebuck, Don Bessent
With pitching trends changing so much through the years and more status given to short, middle, and long relievers, this is a difficult group to judge. The ’55 staff was solid with Clem Labine and Ed Roebuck leading the way and getting strong help from Don Bessent.
But with relief pitching today being such a unique science, the plus sign here is given to the 2014 squad. Kenley Jansen is working his way toward the top of his class in MLB and Brian Wilson—while not the dominant closer he once was following his second Tommy John surgery two years ago—showed a steadiness last year that could continue.
J.P. Howell and Jamey Wright, when on, can be tough. The gold goes to 2014.
Bench: Scott Van Slyke, Chone Figgins, Justin Turner, Mike Baxter vs. Don Hoak, Don Zimmer, Rube Walker, George Shuba
The Brooklyn team didn’t boast a big bat coming off the bench, and it wasn’t a deep group of reserves. Don Hoak would go on to have a standout career with Pittsburgh, Don Zimmer would go on to have a notable coaching and managerial career, but as players in 1955, they weren’t much. In short, the old-timers didn’t have an outstanding bench.
And neither does this year’s team. Chone Figgins is by far the most experienced, and at age 36, still may be the fastest.
Scott Van Slyke shows power potential and Mike Baxter can be a defensive gem. Justin Turner can fill in at short and second, and depending on whom wins the starter job at second base, watch for either Gordon or maybe Guerrero to fill holes coming off the bench.
For the reserves, it’s a draw.
Managers: Don Mattingly vs Walter Alston
Walter Alston had one at-bat as a player in the major leagues; he struck out. If that’s the comparison to Donnie Baseball, then it’s obviously a no-brainer.
Mattingly was one of the best hitters in the game during his playing career. But we’re talking managers, and Alston is in the Hall of Fame on that accord.
Given that he guided Dem Bums to their first title ever in ’55 and led them to seven World Series appearances during his tenure (always with a one-year contract that lasted 23 seasons), give a heavy nod to Alston. In his third season, Mattingly has yet to reach the National League Championship Series, let alone the WS.
So then, the big questions: Who would win in a head-to-head series? Would smart money be on the old-timers who averaged $10,000 per year in salary (about $87,000 in today’s dollars), or the current Dodgers who earn an average of $3.2 million per player?
It’s not even close.
In this challenge, the Brooklyn roster stomps the current Dodgers 7-2 with today’s team given an edge in the pitching categories. A draw goes to the bench and the manager’s choice heavily tilts to the old-timers.
The 1955 Dodgers overwhelmed their opponents and won the National League pennant by 13.5 games—a huge margin by any measure. They bested the New York Yankees in the World Series for the team’s first ever championship and are regarded by most as one of baseball’s all-time great teams.
The 2014 Dodgers are the epitome of huge potential with powerful bats and dominating arms, some calling them the “best team money can buy.”
And while their history has yet to be written, at this point it’s clear: in an overall comparison vs. the ’55 team, score another win for the Boys of Summer.