News & Politics

The Triumph of the Nebbish

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

September 15, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 48

The Dodgers: Triumph Of the Nebbish

By Stan Fischler

The Los Angeles Dodgers are Herbie Flam and don’t even know it.

Perhaps it’s better that way.

Herbie Flam, like the Dodgers, was born in Brooklyn and eventually emigrated to Los Angeles. Herbie developed into either the world’s worst good tennis player or the world’s best terrible tennis player. Probably the latter.

Anyway, Herbie once won the Wimbledon championship and once he beat Pancho Gonzalez and once he was finalist at Forest Hills, where he lost to Art Larsen, who was even more neurotic than Herbie. Few tennis players could make ANY of those statements. Few homo sapiens could either!

When Herbie was on his game he was a helluva guy to watch: and I always made it my business to watch him — just as I make it my business to follow the Dodgers, as everyone should — because he did more with less talent than even…well, Jack Paar, for one, and Lyndon Johnson, for another.

I remember watching Herbie play Gardner Mulloy at Forest Hills one September in the late ’40s; Mulloy must have been about 30 but was in his prime (as I’m sure, he is today) and Herbie must have been just past 20 and not quite ripe as an athlete. Mulloy had the lyrical movements of a DiMaggio, or a thoroughbred horse loping alone in a pasture. Herbie dashed around the court in fits and starts like a mountain goat. He was the kind of guy who would look awkward just walking down the street.

Sometime in the third set, when the outcome of the match still was in doubt, Herbie hit a forehand deep to Mulloy and then rushed the net. Mulloy anticipated the move and stroked a perfect return lob — not too high but high enough to clear Herbie’s racquet — that landed on the baseline, kicking up enough dust to indicate this may have been the best lob of all time. Herbie wheeled, sped to the backcourt, and arrived just in time to meet the ball which, then, was inches off the turf.

Herbie had absolutely no business getting there when he did. It was something like a Long Island Railroad train pulling into Penn Station a half hour ahead of schedule. But he walloped the ball back over the net and down the baseline to his opponent’s right.

It’s really a shame Mulloy never got a chance to see Herbie’s replacement. So confident was he that the point was made. Mulloy turned his back to the net and walked toward his serving area. He didn’t realize he had lost it until Herbie’s shot bounced past him and the audience rose for an ovation that, relatively speaking, equaled the greeting Bobby Thompson’s home run received on that infamous afternoon in 1951 when the Giants presented Brooklynites with a lifetime trauma.

Surprisingly Herbie won the match; which is an oblique way of suggesting he was bereft of talent. Actually, he had remarkably strong legs, inexhaustible energy, speed, and a reliable radar unit that quickly detected opponents’ weaknesses which he then exploited above and beyond the call of reality. But his service was so feeble a Central Park player could handle it; his ground strokes, at best, were average, and his net game just passable. Because of his limited weaponry Herbie was compelled to rely on defensive ripostes. He lobbed opponents silly, returned almost every ball hit his way — and some that weren’t, and played a really fair game at the net.

Conceivably, Herbie never was aware of his weaknesses until his late tournament years. One afternoon, several seasons after the Mulloy coup, I witnessed a match between Herbie and Roy Emerson, who, chronologically, was to Flam what Flam had been to Mulloy.

Herbie should have won the match. He still had the legs and the savvy and Emerson was just a kid, although a kid with monumental talents. Well, Herbie was winning the match until the second set when the umpire goofed and ruled one of Flam’s good shots out-of-bounds. It was a bad call but one that wouldn’t have distracted most players.

It ruined Herbie. It was the pin prick that exploded his balloon; the balloon inscribed “Herbie Flam is a Champion Tennis Player.” All his weaknesses suddenly blew out into the open confronting Herbie, destroying his confidence. Now, he seemed to realize he couldn’t serve, he couldn’t stroke, and he seemed to deduce that he should never have been winning in the first place. As it turned out, he never won big again.

That’s why I’m worried about the Dodgers. A sense of imminent tragedy hangs over them. One of these days, I fear, the Dodgers are going to consult the list of Major League Leaders published daily in the New York Times, and wonder just what they are doing at the top of the National League. They will discover that nowhere among the 16 leading batters is there a Dodger. Nor is there a Dodger among the leading home run hitters nor the leaders in runs batted in.

What will happen when it dawns on them that their leading pitcher, Sandy Koufax, suffers from a chronic case of arthritis in the elbow; that Koufax could be disabled for life on any given pitch; that their leading base-stealer, team captain, and setter of the team’s pace, Maury Wills, limps at three-quarter speed because of a badly injured knee; that Jim Gilliam, a coach, has had to be impressed as a player for each of the past two years because of the team’s infield inadequacies; that their leading batter last season, when they won the World Championship, was a pitcher (Don Drysdale); that their most promising outfielder, Tommy Davis, suffered so badly broken an ankle that he has been unable to recapture his erstwhile jitterbug rhythm; that Davis has been replaced by Lou Johnson, who for more than a decade languished in the minor leagues and was prepared to quit baseball last season; that Johnson finally was recalled by the Dodgers when the team’s general manager, E.J. Bavasi thought he was a DIFFERENT Johnson; that Lou Johnson, who shouldn’t have been there, became the World Series star; that several thousand Brooklynites still are invoking gypsy curses on their avaricious owner, Walter O’Malley, for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn and thereby destroying the borough’s identity, spirit, and meaningfulness; and that their manager Walter Alston, played only one major league game in his entire career. On second thought it might have been more appropriate to rename this team the Los Angeles Alfre E. Newmans.

…Whatever happens from here to the end of the season, early in October, they have proven that the nebbish can win, providing he has some virtues. The Dodgers have a few. They have Sandy Koufax, one of the few non-doctors a Jewish mother would appreciate her daughter marrying. When Koufax’s arm is healthy he throws pitches that flit up and down like a newspaper in a hurricane. the Dodgers have other pitchers — Claude Osteen, Don Sutton, Ron Perranowski — who are better than average. And they have Phil Regan, who should either change his name or become an Irish tenor.

…Most important, the Dodgers simply do not realize they are nebbishes. They believe they are champions. They play the game as if they are ordained to win by divine intervention when baseball science fails. Almost every time I consult the box scores it appears that they have come from behind in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning to score. They seem to take great delight in spotting the opposition a couple of runs and then overtaking them.

“They win more games with late inning rallies than any other team, confirms Marv Albert, the baseball analyst for WHN Radio. “They just don’t know when to quit.”

That’s a cliche, but on the Dodgers it looks good. The problem is, one of these days they may suddenly realize just how bad they are.

Or, are they?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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