Ron Fairly, RIP: See ya later

2019-11-03 RonFairly
Ron Fairly. (Seattle Mariners photograph.)

There’s plenty to be said for a fellow whose baseball life involves over seven thousand games, as a player and a broadcaster. There’s more to be said for Ron Fairly, who died at 81 on the morning the Nationals—for whom Fairly once played when they were the infant Montreal Expos—won the World Series last week.

Fairly was a solid first baseman and outfielder who studied the game as attentively as he played it. When he became a broadcaster, his habits included calling walks by saying, “Those bases on balls, they’ll kill you every time.” Fairly should have known if anyone did: his playing statistics include 1,022 walks to 877 strikeouts. That’s a 0.83 strikeout to walk ratio, .84 below the Show average in his 21 seasons.

A lefthanded hitter with more than a little power, and blessed with almost the perfect surname for a major league hitter, Fairly was killed at the plate by his two Dodger home parks, the Los Angeles Coliseum (the baseball field shoehorned into the football emporium was hell on portsiders who didn’t always hit the other way) and Dodger Stadium (heaven for pitchers, hell for hitters) from 1959 (his first full season) through 1968 (his final full year as a Dodger).

And he knew it.

“I played in an era— the 1960s—that might have been the most difficult in which to make your living, as a hitter, of any in the history of the game of baseball,” said Fairly to FanGraphs interviewer David Laurila in 2011. “I played in Dodger Stadium, which was a big ballpark where the ball didn’t carry very well. It doesn’t take many [lost] hits during the course of a season for your average to drop a little bit, and you weren’t going to have as many home runs or RBIs there.”

He probably had the one of the most quiet instances of World Series shining of them all. Seven Dodger position players played all seven games of the 1965 Series and Fairly out-hit all of them, including Maury Wills, first base mainstay-to-be Wes Parker, the season’s super-sub Lou Johnson, and veteran Jim (Junior) Gilliam, who’d come out of retirement to play most of the season at third base and made a key play to save Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s Game Seven shutout.

Fairly’s 1.069 OPS for that Series was the tops among the Dodgers by far, well enough beyond Johnson’s .914. He went 11-for-29 with three doubles and two home runs against the Twins and drove six runs home while he was at it. It was a Series that threatened to become an all-home-team-winning set before Koufax’s Game Seven shutout.

“We started Sandy instead of [Hall of Famer Don] Drysdale, and the reason is that Sandy was more muscular and it would have taken him too long to warm up,” Fairly remembered to Laurila of that game. “Drysdale could warm up a lot faster if Sandy got into trouble.”

Koufax did struggle in the early innings, finding his vaunted curve ball unreliable and deciding to go strictly fastball the rest of the way. “It wasn’t until about the sixth or seventh inning that Sandy started to settle down, loosen up and get it going,” Fairly said. “On two days’ rest, he probably threw 140 pitches—maybe 160—and he was throwing better in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings than he was in the first three innings.”

(Don’t go there: before you start lamenting that today’s pitcher’s haven’t got the kidney to work like that, be reminded that Koufax would pitch only one more season to come, then retire after it, at thirty, beyond the top of his game. Among other things, continuing to be a human medical experiment to keep him pitching despite a then-unfixable arthritic pitching elbow was liable to compromise something a little more important to Koufax—like the rest of his life.)

Fairly also scored the only Dodger run in Game Two (which Koufax pitched after declining Game One because of Yom Kippur); he scored the first Dodger run in Game Three; he sent the first of four Dodger insurance runs home off Twins relief mainstay Al Worthington; his RBI double off Jim Kaat in the third gave Koufax a 4-0 Game Five cushion.

And he followed Johnson’s fourth-inning Game Seven homer with a double before coming home when his first base successor Parker bounced one over Twins first baseman Don Mincher’s head immediately to follow. Said Fairly, “[T]hat was it. Sandy took care of the rest.”

Fairly also remembered the ugliest moment of that 1965 season, the Candlestick Park brawl that climaxed a weekend of tensions between the Dodgers and the Giants, kicked off when Dodger catcher John Roseboro threw a return pitch to Koufax that zipped right past Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal’s head in the batter’s box—when Marichal was still looking ahead of and not behind himself.

Marichal had knocked Fairly down at the plate in the third inning, a little pushback after Koufax—who generally preferred domination over intimidation, but answering for a knockdown of Maury Wills in the first—sent one sailing over Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s head in the second. Marichal was less than thrilled, too, that Wills opened the game bunting for a base hit and Fairly drove him home two outs later.

When Marichal eventually came up to hit leading off the bottom of the third, Fairly was stationed in right field and occupied mostly by the wind that afternoon when Koufax threw Marichal a strike inside that Roseboro let get past him.

“After the pitch was made to Juan,” Fairly told Laurila, “I looked down because the wind was blowing so much, and all of a sudden I heard this roar. I looked up and here was Juan swinging the bat and both teams were running out of the dugout.” The return throw tripped Marichal’s trigger when he realised how close he’d been to a hole in the head.

As John Rosengren (in The Fight of Their Lives) and others have attested, both Marichal and Roseboro were buffeted by off-field events. Marichal was haunted by that year’s civil war in his native Dominican Republic, where his cousin was a presidential running mate; Roseboro was haunted by the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

And when Marichal wheeled around screaming “Why you do that??” he saw Roseboro advancing toward him, knowing Roseboro was karate trained, and in one sickening instant was overcome by fear. That’s when he brought his bat down on Roseboro’s head; it didn’t catch Roseboro’s head flush on but struck enough to open a gash over the catcher’s eye.

“Mays and Len Gabrielson were the two guys on the Giants who tried to break that fight up,” remembered Fairly. “Keep in mind, there wasn’t a lot of love between the Giants and Dodgers. We didn’t even like their uniforms. They didn’t like ours.”

Fairly knew how completely out of character the brawl was for both the normally genial, prankish Marichal (whose wife swore he never awoke on the wrong side of the bed) and the quiet but attentive Roseboro. Indeed, Roseboro eventually forgave Marichal, the two became friends, and Roseboro campaigned for Marichal after the great pitcher was denied first-ballot Hall of Fame enshrinement.

“When you talk about all of the great pitching staffs the Dodgers had, keep in mind that Roseboro was the guy putting the fingers down,” Fairly told Laurila. “John was really good at calling games. He was one of the quietest guys I was ever around, but also one of the nicest. His locker was next to mine for years.”

Fairly remained with the Dodgers until 1969, when he was traded to the maiden voyaging Expos in a deal that brought Maury Wills (exiled to Pittsburgh after he walked away from the Dodgers’ winter ’66 tour of Japan) back to the Dodgers. He spent six seasons with the Expos before they traded him to the Cardinals; now already a part-time player, he also spent time with the Athletics (after their ’70s glory seasons), the Blue Jays, and the Angels before calling it a career.

The trade to Montreal affected Fairly negatively. He wasn’t a cold weather fan as it was, he didn’t like losing after those years of Dodger success, and he was haunted, says a Society for American Baseball Research biography, when he showed his then four-year-old son where Montreal is and the boy replied, “Does this mean I don’t have a daddy anymore?”

When he finished with the Angels it didn’t mean the end of his baseball life. Owner Gene Autry offered him a three-year deal in 1979 to broadcast Angel games on television with Dick Enberg and his old Dodger teammate Don Drysdale. Fairly stayed in the Angel booth until 1987, when came the crowning irony of his broadcast life: the Giants, of all people, invited him to take over for play-by-play man Hank Greenwald.

Try to imagine the Dodgers replacing Vin Scully with Russ Hodges (the legendary longtime voice of the Giants) and you have an idea how popular Fairly wasn’t in San Francisco. At least, not until the Giants brought Greenwald back to pair with him. “[We] had a lot of laughs,” Fairly said of their time together, which ended when Fairly moved up the Pacific to step into the Mariners booth. Where he stayed, very popular, until he retired in 2006.

He was known wherever he was on the air for “See ya later” calling home runs (including Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr.’s in an eighth consecutive game) and as a raconteur steeped in baseball history and borne of a fine wit.

A favourite among Mariners fans was Fairly’s recollection of Koufax manhandling Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the 1963 World Series. As the sides changed and Mantle passed Fairly at first on the way back to centerfield, Mantle cracked, “Hey, Red, tell the bastard to lighten up, he’s making me look bad.”

Fairly made one more return to the broadcast booth, when the Mariners’ Hall of Fame announcer Dave Niehaus died unexpectedly after the 2010 season and Fairly filled in for a third of 2011. After that, it was home to Palm Springs and a quiet life of grandchildren and golf until esophageal cancer invaded and at last overtook him. “He had seemingly beaten the disease,” writes Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) columnist Larry Stone, “but friends say it was the radiation that did him in.”

As a hitter, Fairly looked on the surface as though he cratered almost completely after Koufax’s retirement. He told an interviewer it was sort of Drysdale’s fault:

Drysdale told (general manager) Buzzie (Bavasi) that we should lengthen the grass and slow down the infield. I thought that was crazy. We were a ground ball/line drive team. We didn’t hit the ball in the air. Well, Buzzie lengthened the grass and it killed me. I didn’t have the speed to beat out infield hits and ground balls that had been getting through for me were winding up in infielders’ gloves.

Obviously, as a baseball theoretician Don Drysdale was one helluva pitcher.

Early in his career, Fairly had the distinction of rooming with Hall of Famer Duke Snider, a California native who also became a broadcaster after his playing days. Snider loved to regale the kid with tales from Ebbets Field where Snider’s prodigious power hitting and handsome looks earned him the nickname the Duke of Flatbush.

According to Laurila, Fairly remembered Snider saying he was batting in Ebbets Field with Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella on deck—with his chest protector and shin guards still strapped on. Campanella apparently didn’t think Snider could hit the pitcher in question with two out.

“Duke wouldn’t get in the batter’s box until Campy took them off,” Fairly said. “A few pitches later, Duke popped the ball up in the air. As he was running to first base, he was hollering at Campy, and Campy was laughing at him.”

I hope Fairly is giving them all a little friendly hell about it while they share a drink in the Elysian Fields now. Then, I hope Campanella gets to horn in with some jokes, and Mantle asks them to tell some bastard to lighten up, when Fairly, Drysdale, and Snider get to call some more games together up there.

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