Baseball greats say so long to camp, to an era
By Dennis McCarthy, Columnist
The Boys of Summer sat in front of their lockers Friday morning, slowly buttoning up their white Dodgers home uniforms for the last time.
They're all in their early 80s now. But Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca will never grow old for generations of baseball fans who followed their exploits as the scrappy Brooklyn Dodgers of the early to mid-1950s.
The Boys of Summer.
Their arms may be shot, and their legs and power long gone, but there's nothing wrong with their minds. They're sharp as tacks.
As they dressed for the last day of Dodgertown fantasy baseball camp in Vero Beach, Fla., they talked about what this place - an old Navy base that Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley converted to a sprawling spring-training ground in 1948 - has meant to them.
How it's going to be sad to leave these old baseball fields, bunkhouses and locker rooms where they began their careers 60 years ago as young men and rose to the top of the baseball world.
Next season, the Dodgers will move their spring-training facility closer to Los Angeles in Glendale, Ariz.
But that's next year. Friday, they took one last walk around Dodgertown with me to relive old memories that will never die.
Erskine stood on the same mound where Branch Rickey, the legendary Dodgers general manager who brought Jackie Robinson up from the minors and integrated major league baseball, watched him pitch with an eagle eye.
"I was a rookie and scared to death of not making the club," Erskine said. "I pitched my heart out that day and won the game. I made the 1948 Dodgers on that win and spent the next 14 years with the club before retiring."
When the Dodgers began these fantasy camps for the public to attend 25 years ago, Erskine and many of the Boys of Summer returned to mingle and play ball with campers at Dodgertown for the week.
"I told Peter O'Malley one camp that he was paying me better to do these fantasy camps than his dad did when I was pitching," Erskine said with a laugh.
But it wasn't all laughs, Branca said. Getting money out of Branch Rickey was like getting blood out of a turnip, he said.
"I won 21 games one year and made $6,500," said the man who gave up the shot heard 'round the world to the New York Giants' Bobby Thompson in 1951 that cost Brooklyn the pennant.
After his playing career ended, Branca would return to Vero Beach with his family on vacations, stopping by Dodgertown during spring training to catch a game or two.
"I'd pay to get in," he said. "A few people from Brooklyn recognized me, but to most I was just a guy watching the game.
"I got invited back for the first fantasy camp in 1983 and have only missed one since.
"Campers like me. I've got a good sense of humor and talk funny," Branca said in the locker room as he put on his uniform.
A few campers walked up and asked for his autograph. Branca growled.
"I'm not signing any autographs today. Get the hell out of here," he said, before breaking out into a laugh. "Nah, I'll sign them, just let me get my pants on first."
A few lockers away, Duke Snider smiled and shook his head. Duke is as quiet as Branca is brash. The men couldn't be more different, but they share one common trait: class.
Neither man plans to travel to Arizona for future fantasy camps when they are available there because it's Vero Beach that means everything to them.
"This is where our fans came to see us play," Snider said. "Glendale (Ariz.) doesn't mean anything to us. It'll never be as good as Dodgertown. This place is special."
He spoke about a gully behind center field at the old main stadium and how he would have to run down into it to grab a long fly ball.
"I went back to get the ball one day, and there was a snake down there right next to it," he said, laughing. "I came out of the gully without the ball. I hate snakes."
Leaving Dodgertown will be hardest of all on Erskine. It was here he used to bring his young son, Jimmy, born with Down syndrome.
Jimmy is 47 now and a mainstay at all fantasy camps, given the honor every year of getting the last hit of camp and rounding the bases for a home run, and then doing a belly flop at home plate as everyone applauds. "He saw Tommy (Lasorda) do it at one camp and loved it," Carl said.
"I don't know how I'm going to tell Jimmy we're not coming back here anymore. It's going to break his heart."