Ron Fairly was a better player than you probably realize. In 21 major-league seasons he hit .266/.360/.408, with 215 home runs, while spending the prime of his career in an extreme pitcher’s park, in an extreme pitcher’s era. Overshadowed by big-name teammates, he quietly helped the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1959, 1963 and 1965.
Fairly is also a good storyteller — especially when the stories pertain to the Dodger-Giants rivalry. When Juan Marichal attacked John Roseboro with a bat, Fairly was there. Ditto when Sandy Koufax was dominating hitters, and Don Drysdale was knocking them down. What did it feel like to get drilled in the back by Bob Gibson? What hitting advice did he get from Ted Williams? What did Duke Snider say about Roy Campanella? Well, now you’ll know.
David Laurila: You had a productive a career that looks even better after accounting for era and park factors. Were you underrated?
Ron Fairly: “I think everybody feels that maybe they weren’t appreciated as much as they should have been for the contributions they made to ball clubs. I think it goes without saying. A lot of players feel that way.
“I think my numbers would certainly be better today. 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. 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.”
Laurila: Sandy Koufax put up his numbers in that same environment. While he was obviously a great pitcher, was he maybe a little overrated?
Fairly: “No. Sandy was an exception. There were games that Sandy did not win because we did not score any runs for him. I know there was one stretch — just to give you an idea about Dodger Stadium — that the magic number was three. If you scored three runs or more, you won 62 percent of your games.”
Laurila: [Don] Drysdale one year had a record of 18-16 and lost four 1-0 games, and three 2-1 games. That’s seven games that easily could have gone the other way and he’d have been a 20-game winner with room to spare.
Fairly: “Dodger Stadium was a tough ballpark in which to score runs. Yes, it helped our pitching staffs, but take a look at what Sandy did in some of the other ballparks. Dodger Stadium didn’t have too much to do with the performance of Sandy. He was fabulous.”
Laurila: You faced Juan Marichal many times. What was it like to hit against him?
Fairly: “I thought, for a long time, that Juan was the toughest pitcher I had to hit against. He had a great screwball that he would use with me a lot. It would get to a 2-2 count, or something like that — and obviously you have to look for the fastball — and he’d come back with that screwball and get it over. I had a rough time hitting him, for quite some time, until finally, toward the tail end of when I faced Juan, I had a talk with Ted Williams about hitting.
“Williams asked me, “Ron, who is the toughest pitcher in the National League for you to hit?” I said that it was Juan Marichal. Ted, with his dislike for pitchers, asked, “Well, what makes him so tough?” So I told him. I said that Juan could get me out any way he wants to. Ted’s response was, “Why do you let him?” I said, “Why do I let him? There’s not much I can do.” Ted asked, “What does he throw?” I said that he throws a fastball, a curveball, a slider and a great screwball. All of them are top [quality] pitches. His answer to that was, “Ron, if he’s going to get you out with all four pitches, why don’t you take two of them away and reduce the odds.” In other words, either look fastball-slider — something that’s going to come to the plate hard — or look curveball-screwball, something that’s going to come to the plate slower. He said, “If you’re an out man already, take two of those away; let him try to figure out whether you’re looking for something hard or something soft. If you get either one of them, and you’re looking for either one of them, you should be able to put the ball in play hard somewhere.” He was right. I took that approach against Juan and had more success against him a little bit later on.
“I remember one time Marichal was going to face us — and I had the flu; I felt miserable — and I came out of the clubhouse, which was in the right field corner at Candlestick Park. He was warming up and I said, as I walked by, “Juan, I don’t care what you throw me, but don’t try to finesse me because I’m going to swing at every pitch you throw.” I ended up getting a coupe of hits that day, even though I felt terrible. And I did swing at just about every pitch he threw. It was one of those quirky days.”
Laurila: Was Bob Gibson the most intimidating pitcher you faced?
Fairly: “Bob was intimidating, although I had a reasonable amount of success against him. But there were some other guys who were really intimidating. Stan Williams was probably as intimidating as anybody. Stan was a little wild anyway, and Stan could throw hard. I also wasn’t too sure what was going through his mind sometimes. You had to be careful of Stanley. Not only was he big, he used to keep a book on players and if you did something he didn’t like, he gave you a star. When you got to five stars, he was pretty liable to flip you up at the plate.
“One time — this was a spring game — Stan was batting and a pitcher hit him square in the ribs. Stan just stood there with the bat in his hands after the ball dropped to the ground. He didn’t even flinch. Then he calmly tossed the bat aside and trotted to first base. Halfway there, he turned to the mound and said, “Now it’s my turn.” And he meant it.
“But getting back to Gibson, Bob was one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen, in any sport. He probably had as good of a slider as anyone in the history of the game of baseball. He was no-nonsense; he did not like talking to the opposing team. I was different. I was the type of player who did like talking to guys. I played first base and would talk to them when they got on.
“I remember one particular night that I got a base hit my first time up. An inning or two later he got to first base and I said, “Hi Bob, how are you tonight?” His response was, “You sure have a lot to say. Why don’t you shut up.” That was Bob.
“I knew after I got that base hit, and drove in a couple of runs, what to expect the next time up. Joe Torre was catching and I told Joe, “I’m not going to like this at bat.” Joe had a little bit of a beard behind his mask, and those great big coal eyes of his, and he didn’t say anything. The first pitch from Gibson hit me right in the back. It hit me right in the middle of my number. I looked back at Torre and he had a great big smile on his face. I said, “I told you I wasn’t going to like this at bat.” I tossed my bat aside and went to first base.”
Laurila: Going back to Marichal, did his deceptive delivery make him even harder to hit?
Fairly: “It didn’t bother me when a pitcher had a high leg kick. Warren Spahn had a little bit of a leg kick, too. There were a few guys that did that. I just didn’t like [Marichal’s] attitude on the mound. I think that bothered me more than anything else. Plus, there’s the fact that he was a Giant. The Dodgers and Giants — that’s oil and water. It doesn’t mix. It seemed to me that when Marichal was winning, he kicked the leg up just a little bit higher. That just aggravated the hell out of me.”
Laurila: You were there for the John Roseboro incident [August 22, 1965].
Fairly: “Yes, I was actually kind of the one that got it started. Marichal knocked me down — obviously on a pitch up and in — and then I ended up getting a base hit. I hit a bloop down the left field line that fell in for a double. I don’t know if Juan heard me or not, but I hollered at him: “Who the hell are you going to scare with that stuff?”
“About an inning or two later, when Juan came to the plate, Koufax threw a pitch that was almost a strike — inside, but almost a strike. When Roseboro threw the ball back to Sandy [close to Marichal’s face] all you-know-what broke loose. It was here we go.
“It was a real windy day at Candlestick and I was in right field. After the pitch was made to Juan, 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 Marichal swinging the bat [at Roseboro] and both teams were running out of the dugout.
“I remember that Orlando Cepeda brought a bat out of the dugout. So did Tito Fuentes. Our third base coach was Danny Ozark, and he was a big, strong guy. He was stronger than he looked, and he was big. He had been in the Battle of the Bulge, in World War II, so I don’t think a little scuffle was going to scare Danny too much. Not after being over there in Europe. He told Cepeda, “You put that bat down, or I’m going to.…” You can fill in the blanks after that. Cepeda wisely put the bat down.
“[Willie] Mays and Len Gabrielson were the two guys on the Giants who tried to break that fight up. 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.
“I talked to Roseboro the next day. One of the security guys in our clubhouse asked Roseboro, “Is there anything I can get you?” He said, “Yes. Bring Marichal in the room and then get out.”
Laurila: What kind of guy was Roseboro?
Fairly: “His nickname was Gabby, because he didn’t say very much. John Roseboro was a good, solid baseball man. He was a heck of catcher who could block the plate as well as anybody. He was also one of the best receivers of his day. 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. 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.”
Laurila: I understand that you have a lot of good Duke Snider stories.
Fairly; “I was lucky enough to room with Duke for a couple of years and he used to tell me about things that happened at Ebbets Field. There was one game where he was going up to hit — [Roy] Campanella hit fourth and Duke hit third — and he looked back and saw that Campanella had his shin guards and chest protector on. Duke looked at Campy and said, “I know that there are two out, but don’t you think I can hit this guy?” Campy said, “No, that’s why I’ve got my shin guards and chest protector on.” Duke wouldn’t get in the batter’s box until Campy took them off. 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.
“Another time Duke told me about when he first came up to Ebbets Field. He had two strikes and was trying to protect the plate. He choked up on the bat and ended up popping the ball up to left field. He came back into the dugout and Pee Wee Reese said to him, “What are you doing up there?” He said, “Well, I had two strikes and was trying to protect the plate.” Pee Wee said, “No, no, no. I hit like that. You go up there and swing from your ass. Turn the bat loose.” After Pee Wee said that to Duke, he started to hit all of those home runs and became The Duke of Flatbush.”
Laurila: You played in the 1965 World Series against the Twins.
Fairly: “Yes, I played in all seven games. I had 11 hits and led the Series in home runs, RBIs and extra-base hits, so I had a good series. That’s when Sandy pitched [Game 7] on two days’ rest. We started Sandy instead of Drysdale, and the reason is that Sandy was more muscular and it would have taken him too long to warm up. Drysdale could warm up a lot faster if Sandy got into trouble.
“Sandy actually did get into trouble; Drysdale was up in the bullpen twice. Sandy was struggling. In his history, Sandy generally struggled in the early innings, but once he got it going, it was pretty much lights out. That game, he was all over the place in the first few innings. And all day long he had a rough time getting his curveball over. He threw very few curveballs for strikes. It wasn’t until about the sixth or seventh inning that Sandy started to settle down, loosen up and get it going. 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.
“The game was in Minnesota. Lou Johnson hit a home run for us in the fourth inning. It was down the left field line and hit the foul pole. That gave us a 1-0 lead. I followed with a double. Wes Parker was trying to get me over. They had [Don] Mincher playing in, at first base, and Parker bounced the ball over his head. I scored and that was it. Sandy took care of the rest.”
Laurila: Maybe we can close with a Drysdale story?
Fairly: “Well, you know Don’s reputation. He learned a lot about pitching from Sal Maglie. One day there was something going on and the umpire walked out to the mound and said to Don, “Don’t hit this guy. If you do, I’ll fine you $50. Don said, “That’s OK. I’ve got a pocket full of fifties.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.