The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers awakens feelings of empathy that we all have. In Leahy’s case, we empathize with the starting line up and pitching staff for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s in Leahy’s book that we get to know players like Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Wes Parker. By the end of the book, readers not only have a better understanding of who these men were on the field, but who they were off the field, too.
Leahy expands on what many die-hard baseball fans already knew about the Dodgers of the 1960s: the team was a powerhouse. I knew that Maury Wills was an excellent base runner, but I didn’t know that managers like San Francisco Giants’ Alvin Dark ordered the Candlestick Park grounds crews to hinder Wills' base-stealing attempts by watering down the base paths. I knew that Sandy Koufax was as quiet off the field as he was dominant on the mound, but I didn’t know just how serious his arm troubles were, and how unsatisfied he was about his yearly salary, a sentiment that he shared with teammate Don Drysdale. The book expands on this sentiment by discussing the fractured relationship between players and owners in a time when the reserve clause was very much alive. I knew that the 1960's saw the Dodgers re-ignite their October rivalry with the New York Yankees that stretched back to their time in Brooklyn, but I wasn’t aware of just how much had changed between the two teams, especially for Dodger veterans entering the twilight of their careers.
Leahy’s sketch of the Dodgers is enhanced by the team’s connection to the political and social dynamics of the 1960's. He paints a vivid picture of how events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the escalating Vietnam War, and race relations in Los Angeles had an indirect but significant impact on the team, especially the non-white players. But unlike a lot of books about the history of baseball, Leahy succeeds in shaping a connection between his readers and the players in a way that not only sheds new light and perspective on who they were as Dodgers, but who they also were as men. This multi-viewed perspective is where the book thrives. By its end, readers feel for players like Koufax, who wasn’t paid nearly as much as he was worth, and Wills, who endured years of racism in the minors only to emerge as one of the greatest base runners in the history of the game. Above anything else, Leahy writes in such a way that you care about Maury Wills the same way you care for that friend whose confidence level isn’t where you know it should be. That’s not to say Wills carried with him a low self-esteem throughout his career, but it’s easy to scratch your head at Wills’ notion that, “We were champions, but we were kind of nobodies to ourselves.”
We all have that friend we care more about than he cares about himself, partly because he thinks he’s a nobody. By the end of the Leahy’s magnificent and moving book about a bygone era filled with challenges on and off the field readers will look at Dodgers like Koufax and Wills as anything but nobodies. Instead, readers will gain a new appreciation for Koufax, who left the game in the prime of his career to avoid further damaging his arm, and Wills, who felt betrayed by the team’s decision to send him to Pittsburg, and battled drug and alcohol addiction later in his life. After they set the book down, readers will have a much stronger sense of just how significant the political and social aspects of the 1960's, from Fidel Castro to Milton Berle, had on the Los Angeles Dodgers, and baseball in general.
Leahy’s The Last Innocents reminds us of what good baseball journalism looks like and will no doubt be recognized as a classic in years to come.