Posted June 25, 2013

Remembering the Longest Running Infield 40 years after the Dodgers quartet debuted

Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda
Dodgers' Steve Garvey tagged out by Yankees' Thurman Munson in 1997 World Series

Manning first base for the Dodgers’ Longest Running Infield, Steve Garvey (6) had six season of 200-plus hits. (John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated)

In the age of free agency, keeping a homegrown core of players together for more than a few years is a difficult task. So it’s worth noting this past Sunday, June 23, marked the 40th anniversary of the debut of the Dodgers’ so-called “Longest Running Infield.” First baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Davey Lopes, shortstop Bill Russell and third baseman Ron Cey stayed together for nearly nine seasons (1973-1981). The quartet anchored four pennant winners and one world champion, and kept the National League All-Star team well-stocked during a period where it didn’t lose a game to the American League.

The unit owed its genesis to Al Campanis, who served as the team’s scouting director from 1957 to 1968 before effectively taking over from Buzzie Bavasi as the team’s general manager. (Fresco Thompson, for decades the team’s director of minor league operations, died of cancer less than six months after taking over for Bavasi, at which point Campanis officially took the reins.) A disciple of Branch Rickey, Campanis tutored Jackie Robinson on the finer points of second base while the two were teammates in Montreal in 1946. As a scout, he signed frontline talents such as Roberto Clemente, Tommy Davis and Sandy Koufax. As the field director of spring training, he authored the organization’s instructional textbook, The Dodger Way to Play Baseball. As scouting director, he oversaw the Dodgers’ transition from the bonus era, a period in which the team’s vast resources gave them a distinct advantage at procuring talent, to the amateur draft era, which began in 1965 and leveled the playing field.

Russell was the first to join the organization, chosen in the ninth round of the 1966 amateur draft out of a Kansas high school. Garvey, Lopes and Cey were all drafted by the Dodgers in 1968, though at that point, the annual draft process included two phases in January and two in June. It gave previously drafted players more leverage via secondary drafts at a time when Major League Baseball was worried about challenges to the legality of the process.

Lopes, previously drafted by the Giants in June 1967 out of Iowa Wesleyan College, arrived in the second round of the January secondary phase. Garvey, first drafted by the Twins in June 1966, was chosen as the 13th pick of the June secondary draft in 1968 out of Michigan State. Cey, first drafted by the Mets in June 1966, came in the third round of that same phase out of Washington State.

Also part of the Dodgers’ bumper crop in 1968 — one hailed as the most successful in draft history — were pitchers Doyle Alexander and Geoff Zahn, first baseman Bill Buckner and outfielders Joe Ferguson, Tom Paciorek and Bobby Valentine. All spent at least 10 years in the majors. Campanis eventually traded Paciorek, Buckner and Ferguson in deals that brought back Dusty Baker, Rick Monday and Reggie Smith, respectively — a powerful and productive outfield that complemented the Longest Running Infield during the latter years of their run.

The Longest Running Infield as we know it took years to coalesce because all but Cey needed to move from their original positions, a practice dating back to the Rickey era Campanis called “coconut snatching.” Once the team was convinced a player would be able to hit major league pitching, they moved him to fill an organizational need, even if it meant shifting to a tougher position on the defensive spectrum. Ferguson, for example, was made into a catcher due to his powerful throwing arm and the team’s limited options behind the plate.

The other factor forestalling the Longest Running Infield’s assembly was the original plan to build their infield around Valentine, the fifth pick of the regular phase of the June 1968 draft out of a Stamford, Conn., high school. Managed by Tommy Lasorda, Valentine won Pioneer League MVP honors as a shortstop at Ogden in 1968 and matched the feat with Spokane of the Pacific Coast League in 1970, but he never duplicated that success in the majors, largely due to injuries.

Russell reached the majors as an outfielder in April 1969, but his bat was light for the position, and after experimenting with him at third base and second base, the Dodgers made him their regular shortstop in 1972. Garvey debuted in September 1969 and was in the majors for good as of 1971, but defensive woes at third base — 42 errors in 164 games in 1971-1972 — doomed him to part-time status. Cey debuted in late 1971 but was blocked by Garvey until winning the third base job in early 1973. Lopes, an outfielder, debuted in late September 1972.

The last 11 games of the 1972 season saw the Dodgers start Lopes, Russell and Cey, with Paciorek at first base. Garvey was an afterthought at this point, though a Sept. 29, 1972 pinch-hitting appearance marked the first time all four names appeared in the same major league box score. When the 1973 season opened, the team was using Buckner at first, Lee Lacy at second and Ken McMullen at third. But after five games, Cey took the reins at the hot corner. At that point, the Dodgers began a brief experiment with Garvey in leftfield. On April 22, after being limited to bench duty for the season’s first two weeks, Lopes took over as the starting second baseman. Garvey continued to wile away his time on the bench through the first 70 games of the season, getting just 59 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter and occasional outfielder. In the second game of a June 23 doubleheader, manager Walter Alston wrote him in as the first baseman. He went 2-for-4 with a double in a 5-1 win over the Reds, and the Longest Running Infield began its run.

The Dodgers had gone 85-70 in the strike-shortened 1972 season, finishing second in the NL West. Bolstered by their new infield, they went 95-66 in 1973, but fell 3 1/2 games short of the Big Red Machine. They won 102 games and their first pennant together in 1974, with Garvey hitting .312/.342/.469 with 200 hits, 21 homers and 111 RBIs. He won the NL All-Star voting at first base as a write-in candidate, won All-Star Game MVP honors by going 2-for-4 with a double, a run and an RBI. He won season MVP honors as well. Cey joined him as an All-Star starter. The only thing that would have made the season an even greater success would have been defeating the A’s in the World Series, but they fell in five games to the two-time defending champions.

With Lasorda, who managed all four infielders at Ogden, Spokane or Albuquerque, taking over from Alston at the end of the 1976 season, the Dodgers unseated the Big Red Machine in 1977. They bolted from the gate at 22-4 to build up a double-digit NL West lead and then coasted home with 98 wins. They won the NL pennant but lost to the Yankees in the World Series, and repeated the feat again in 1978. After a sub-.500 finish in 1979, they nearly returned to the playoffs the following year but lost a one-game play-in to the Astros. On the strength of Fernando Valenzuela’s hot start, they were leading the NL West when the 1981 players’ strike hit. Awarded the first-half flag, they wound up avenging their 1977 and 1978 losses by beating the Yankees in six games.

Lopes struggled that year due to injuries, hitting just .206/.289/.285 and losing time to heir apparent Steve Sax. After the season, the 36-year-old second baseman was traded to the A’s, thus ending the infield’s epic run. Though he appeared to be near the end of the line, he stuck around for another six mostly productive seasons as a part-time utilityman for the A’s, Cubs and Astros, making the playoffs with both Chicago and Houston. In 1985, at the age of 40, he stole 47 bases in 51 attempts. He finished his 16-year career with 1,671 hits, 155 homers, 557 steals (26th all-time), a .263/.349/.388 line, four All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove. Caught stealing totals weren’t official until 1951, but among players with at least 300 stolen base attempts since then, his 83.0 percent success rate ranks seventh. He set a record with 38 consecutive steals without being caught in 1975, a mark that stood until Vince Coleman swiped 50 straight in 1993. After waiting years for a crack at managing, his career as a skipper flamed out in two-plus seasons in Milwaukee (2000-2002), but he’s become one of the game’s premier first base coaches. He received much credit for the Phillies’ baserunning success during their rise as an NL East power when they led the league in stolen base percentage in all his four seasons there (2007-2010).

Garvey departed via free agency following the 1982 season, signing with the Padres and helping them win a pennant in 1984. A remarkably consistent and durable player, he was the most heralded of the quartet in his day, earning All-Star honors every year from 1974-1981 and again in 1984 and 1985. He topped 200 hits six times and 100 RBIs five times during that initial eight-year run. He also won Gold Gloves in the first four of those years. From Sept. 3, 1975, to July 29, 1983, he set an NL record with 1,207 consecutive games played, a streak that still stands as the majors’ fourth-longest behind those of Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Gehrig and Everett Scott. He finished his career with 2,599 hits, 272 homers, a .294/.329/.446 regular season line, and a .338/.361/.550 postseason one. Those numbers appeared as though they might carry him to Cooperstown, but he never got higher than the 42.6 percent of the vote he netted in his third year on the ballot. A messy divorce, a pair of paternity suits and further legal problems tarnished his apple-pie image, which didn’t help.

Cey, who earned All-Star honors for the Dodgers for seven straight seasons (1973-1979), was traded to the Cubs after the 1982 season. He helped Chicago reach the playoffs in 1984 and played through 1987, winding up his career with the A’s. He finished with 1,868 hits, 316 homers and .261/.354/.445 line, not bad for a player nicknamed “The Penguin” for his waddling gait and what Bill James described as “knees the height of a seven-year-old’s.” Indeed, while Garvey received more accolades during their time as teammates due to his .300 batting averages, Cey was the more valuable player due to his superior power and high walk totals. From 1973 through 1981, he was the majors’ sixth-most valuable infielder in terms of Wins Above Replacement. His 43.7 WAR trailed only Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich and George Brett. By comparison, Garvey and Lopes are tied for 13th at 31.5. Cey finished his career with 53.3 WAR and ranks 22nd among third basemen via my JAWS Hall of Fame system. Garvey, who finished with 37.6 career WAR, ranks 48th among first basemen in JAWS. Lopes, at 42.0 career WAR, ranks 36th among second basemen.

As for Russell, the company man of the group remained the starting shortstop through 1983, then spent three more years as a part-timer, finishing his career with 1,926 hits, 46 homers, a .263/.310/.338 line, and three All-Star appearances, all of it with the Dodgers. He never won a Gold Glove due to the presences of Larry Bowa, Davey Concepcion and Ozzie Smith — a trio that combined to win 11 such awards during his 12-year tenure as a regular. But via Baseball-Reference.com’s Total Zone defensive metric, Russell was estimated as being 50 runs above average in the field during his career. Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average holds him in even higher esteem at 104 runs above average. He joined the coaching staff in 1987 and had the unenviable task of replacing Lasorda in mid-1996 when a heart attack forced the latter’s retirement. Russell piloted the Dodgers to a wild-card berth and then an 88-win season in 1997. He was axed in mid-1998, however, when the incoming News Corp management cleaned house by firing both him and general manager Fred Claire. He has since served as a coach for the Devil Rays and now works in MLB’s umpiring division.

In the annals of major league history, the closest analogue to the Dodgers’ quartet is probably the Cubs infield of the early 1900s. Shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance — the trio of fabled verse — served as the Cubs’ regulars from 1902 through 1910, with Harry Steinfeldt the regular third baseman for the last five of those seasons. The Cubs were a powerhouse in those days, winning pennants in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910, and World Series in 1907 and 1908. Tinker, Evers and Chance are all in the Hall of Fame, though as much due to the popularity of Franklin Pierce Adams’s 1910 poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” as to the numbers they put up.

On a more modern note, the Reds’ Tony Perez, Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion played together as regulars for five seasons (1972-1976) but went through three third basemen, the last of which was Pete Rose. After Perez was traded to the Expos in December 1976, Morgan, Rose and Concepcion served as regulars for four seasons together (1975-1978) before Rose departed as a free agent. The current Phillies combo of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins is in their ninth season together, but they lost nearly half of last year due to injuries to Howard and Utley and are on their fifth different regular third baseman of the run.

None of those units could keep it together anywhere near as long as the Dodgers did, and with free agency and amateur bonus limitations, the conditions to create similar quartets that can stand the test of time may no longer be possible. All the more reason to hail the Dodgers’ group.

2 comments
jeffm.chpn
jeffm.chpn

I lived in LA during the glory years of Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey -- brilliant combination which changed the Dodgers m.o. of strong pitching and merely average hitting. I am surprised that no one has note one of the most amazing offensive years for these four great players. Namely, they were the first infield in which all four players hit  at least 20 HRs.

Michael10
Michael10

Vince Coleman broke Lopes's record in 1989 not 1993. He started the season with 44 consecutive swipes (after having stolen six straight to end the 1988 season).