"They were the greatest guys in the world. I loved playing against them, and I loved the guys on my team."
In 2007, Major League Baseball decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rawlings Gold Glove Award by selecting their all-time Gold Glove team.
Players who played between 1957-2007 were eligible and, to nobody’s surprise, icons like Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Brooks Robinson were runaway winners.
Hall of Famers were selected at eight positions, including pitcher where Greg Maddux beat out Jim Kaat.
The first baseman stood out as a surprise to some, but if you saw him play, the name was not a shocker at all.
Wes Parker of the Los Angeles Dodgers was named the best fielding first baseman of the Gold Glove era and he is our guest this week on Spitballin’.
While the Dodgers were busy winning the 1963 World Series, Parker was playing his only full season of minor league ball, splitting time between Santa Barbara and Albuquerque.
Walter Alston, who was notoriously stingy with compliments, heaped praise on Parker during Spring Training in 1964 and by the time the season started, the defending champs had a new first baseman.
Parker spent just nine seasons in the Majors and won a Gold Glove in each of his final six years. In just his second year he helped the Dodgers to the 1965 World Series championship by delivering an important insurance run in Game 7 for Sandy Koufax, who was busy ripping through the Twins lineup.
His Hollywood looks and smooth defense made him a fan favorite and also landed him roles in The Brady Bunch, The Six-Million Dollar Man and Police Story among other shows.
For all his accomplishments though, his legacy was defense.
Parker handled 10,380 chances at four different positions over his career and made just 45 errors. In 1968, he made just one error on a bad hop out of the 1,009 chances he took on at first base. When he retired, his .996 career fielding percentage at first base was an all-time record.
No matter how you slice it, Wes Parker could pick it with the best of them.
So, lace ‘em up with our guest correspondent Craig Moropoulos and I as we go Spitballin’ with Mr. Steady, Wes Parker.
“I want to tell you that Roberto Clemente was my favorite player to play against. Just watching the way he moved, he was like a jungle animal. Something beautiful like a tiger or lion. Just so beautiful to watch. You could have taken a photograph of him at any moment of him doing anything and it would be perfect…”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Parker. I have a guest correspondent here with me today, Craig Moropoulos, and he may be the biggest Wes Parker fan in California. Let’s start at the beginning. Did you have a favorite team growing up?
I grew up in Los Angeles before the Dodgers moved to town, I rooted for the Hollywood Stars. They were the Pirates minor league team, and they had many Major Leaguers come through there. Guys like Bill Mazeroski and Dick Stuart.
Craig Moropoulos: You were such a great defensive first baseman; one of the best ever. Was that the result of a lot of hard work or were you just always so good around the bag?
It came natural to me, but I developed it as a kid in my front yard growing up in Brentwood. We had a front yard as big as a baseball infield and my brother would hit balls to me all day. This went on for ten years, from when I was about eight until I was 17. Then I discovered girls.
But my parents were great athletes. My mother was a golf champion and my father lettered in four sports as a freshman. I had a lot of athletic genes and that helped me. But I struggled with my hitting because we couldn’t hit in our yard or we’d lose the ball. We only had one ball to play with every two weeks, so we had to make it last.
CM: You were a solid switch hitter, which I always thought was really difficult. How much of a challenge was it to learn that?
Again, that came naturally too. I started when I was in Pony League at about 13 and was a natural right-handed hitter. I tried swinging lefty and my coach told me that I looked good and to keep doing it. It was only later that I learned that it was an advantage to do that as a hitter.
You had just one season in the minors really before coming up to the Dodgers in 1964. What was that like coming up to a team that had just won the World Series and had guys like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills on the roster?
I watched them a lot because I lived in LA. I was playing for my hometown team. I actually worked out with them a couple of summers, mainly shagging balls, so I wasn’t completely starstruck when I was with them.
But I really wanted to make their team. I wanted to be with them because they had been so nice to me when I worked out with them. Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Clem Labine, Johnny Roseboro. These were my buddies and I wanted to stay with them. Only one guy I was starstruck by and that was Sandy Koufax.
A mystery girl runs out on Dodgers Field as Wes Parker was up to bat in the 2nd inning. Parker hides behind home plate Umpire Bill Williams. The girl chased Parker around the field, caught up with him, and kissed him.
The three years you played with Sandy Koufax, he went 72-22 with a 1.85 ERA and two Cy Youngs. In your opinion, where does Sandy stand with the all-time greats?
I’m a big student of baseball history, so I can’t say outright he was the best ever. I can say he was the best during his time. As to whether he’s the best ever, I didn’t see Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson, but there was no one like Sandy.
Nolan Ryan was probably the closest. Those two were very similar to me. Ryan took longer to develop, and he never became quite as polished as Sandy, but he didn’t have the good teams play behind him the way Sandy did. He would have won more games if he did.
When their stuff was on, they were on a totally different level. If there was some type of higher Hall of Fame, they would both be in it.
In just your second year, the Dodgers won an incredibly tight pennant race in a great National League. That was your first season as a full-time first baseman. What was that season like?
It was a real struggle; one of the hardest summers I ever spent in baseball. There were four other teams that I thought were better than us: Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Cincinnati. They had monster lineups. We had to win with pitching and defense and not make mistakes.
We have that history of winning and there was always a demand that we win a championship. Here I was a first-year starter in the Majors just trying to solve Big League pitching and stay in the starting lineup. I knew we had to win; we absolutely had to win. That was expected of us and it made things extremely difficult.
If the regular season was that much pressure, what was it like going into Game 7 of the World Series against the Twins?
Oh, there was pressure alright. The thing was that Drysdale was scheduled to pitch Game 7; it was his turn. But then in the pregame meeting, Walter Alston told us that Sandy was gonna pitch and I felt much better about that. I knew we only had to score a run or two and we could win. Drysdale sometimes we had to score five or six runs. I felt relieved. I knew we would win when I found out who was pitching.
You mentioned only having to get Koufax a run or two and you were right. You played a big role in it too. You hit an RBI single to make it 2-0 and knock Jim Kaat out of the game. That ended up being the final score. How good did it feel to play such a key role in the Game 7 win?
I was really proud of that. Ron Fairly hit a double with nobody out and Alston told me to hit to the right side to get him over. I just happened to hit it on one bounce over Don Mincher’s head at first. I didn’t hit it hard, but I hit it in a great spot and got the job done. I did what I was asked to do, and I was awfully glad that run scored.
It was a relief to win it. Joy, too, but more relief at first. We had done what we were supposed to do. Then we got on the plane and flew back to LA and it was just sheer joy that we had done it.
Wes Parker of the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1965 season. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
The next season you made it back to the World Series, but the Orioles swept you. What did it feel like to drop that World Series?
Well, honestly, we were exhausted. Baltimore had clinched the pennant with about ten days left and we won on the very last day of the season. We only had two days to get ready and they had two weeks. We had done what we set out to do, which was win the National League.
The World Series was kind of anticlimactic to us. We wanted to win of course, but we were exhausted. They took advantage of that and played great; I can’t stress that enough. It happened so fast and it didn’t really register. I still feel don’t even feel like we were there. But we had won the year before, and that was the proud moment.
After the season, Sandy Koufax surprised everyone by retiring. Did you know he was considering that? What was it like to be his teammate when he walked away at his peak?
I had no idea he was gonna do that. I read about it in the paper and I was very surprised. The minute I saw that I knew that was the end of the winning. It was the end of an era. From 1947-1966 the Dodgers just dominated.
You had some legendary coaches and I read Dixie Walker and Walter Alston meant a lot to you. What are your thoughts on those guys?
I loved them both. I never would have had the career I did without each of them. Alston was a very patient manager and he always believed in me. He stuck with me and kept me in the starting lineup when I was hitting in the .230s and that’s hard to do. That’s at first base too where you’re supposed to hit a lot of home runs and I didn’t. He stuck with me through those lean years and I loved him for that.
Then Dixie Walker was a terrific batting coach. He helped me enormously. I wouldn’t have had that great 1970 season without him. He got me to hit the ball on the ground instead of in the air because I didn’t have home run power. He taught me to take advantage of my speed by keeping the ball on the ground and he was right. He worked with me every day for six weeks in Spring Training until I got it.
You mentioned the 1970 season, which ended up being pretty historic. You finished fifth in the MVP voting too. How satisfying was it to have that kind of offensive season?
Very satisfying. By then I was known as an all-field, no-hit player. I really wanted to prove to people that I could be a good hitter because I just always thought I could. I had some flaws in my swing and I had problems with my health and stamina, and I had to work on that. Dixie Walker worked on my swing and it was just a matter of proving to everyone what I knew I could do; hit Big League pitching in a way that would help us win.
I drove in 111 runs in 1970 with only ten home runs, which is a record for most RBIs for someone with 10 homers or less. I don’t think that’s a record that can be broken with the way the game is played today. That record has lasted 50 years already, how much longer could it go?
I wanted to ask you in general about the era in which you played. Guys like Clemente, Koufax and Mays were the old stars while Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell and Pete Rose were just coming in. It was kind of where the 1950s blended into the 1970s. What an awesome time to play. What can you say about that era?
Everybody always says, “Don’t you wish you were playing today with all this money?” I say, no way. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am just so grateful that I played when I did. Not only were they talented, but they were great guys. We lost a lot of them last year and I’ve had a lot of good friends pass, but I can’t say enough good things about them.
We weren’t supposed to chat around the batting cage, but we did. They were all nice guys with a great sense of humor. Guys like Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Bill White and Ernie Banks. Really all of the St. Louis Cardinals, especially Kenny Boyer, Dick Groat and Julian Javier. They were the greatest guys in the world. I loved playing against them, and I loved the guys on my team. Guys like Drysdale, Maury Wills, Jim Lefebvre.
They were wonderful and I would have loved them all even if we never played baseball together. That’s why I valued the 1960s as a terrific time to play.
It really was an incredible era; every team seemed to have multiple icons. What else did you enjoy about the era?
We played a scientific brand of baseball. We did a lot of hit and runs and bunting and it was an exciting brand of ball. You know what else I loved? The uniforms. Milwaukee had great uniforms back then. That era had the best uniforms that the Reds and Pirates ever wore. The Mets uniform was great. Us and St. Louis had gorgeous uniforms. Some teams still do.
Also, the stadiums were great. They were beautiful small antique stadiums. They were smaller and friendlier. The stands were close to the field so fans could really get into the action. They were mostly all replaced by those sterile ballparks, but now they’re modeling the newer parks after the ones from my era.
I want to take a step away from baseball for a second. You had a little acting career and even appeared in The Brady Bunch. What was all of that like?
Well, being in LA and doing so many interviews, people told me I should try acting. They told me I would be good at it. Frankly, I wasn’t that good at it. I didn’t have enough training. But I loved film. I know a lot about classic film and wanted to learn how they were made and how difficult it was to act well. I found out that it was very difficult. You have to be willing to be vulnerable in front of a lot of strangers and that’s not easy.
What was your experience on The Brady Bunch like?
I did not enjoy it. It just took forever and it’s maybe only 30 seconds on screen. It took and entire afternoon to shoot, so it was slow and annoying. That was another thing I hated about acting. It takes so long to put 30 seconds on film that it’s just ridiculous.
CM: Back to baseball, I used to go to the games as a kid and watch everything you did. I remember after warmups every inning you would make a long toss to Jim Gilliam on the bench and he would never have to move an inch. You did it all the time and you never missed. Do you remember that?
You know, you’re not the first one to tell me that you enjoyed watching me do that. It’s amazing how many people have come up to me and told me that same story.
CM: I had one last question for you. In 1972 you were player rep for the Dodgers and were the only player rep to vote against a strike. As a kid, I just thought that was so great that you just wanted to play baseball.
The way I saw it, I signed for no bonus. These other guys had big bonuses and they were kind of spoiled. I had to basically beg the Dodgers to take a chance on me, so I was never going to strike against the organization that allowed me to do what I loved. That was my motivation. I wasn’t trying to prove anything, I was just trying to say to the Dodgers, “Thanks for giving me this chance.”
This has been really incredible, Mr. Parker. I love talking to players from your era. My last question is just an open-ended question. Are there any thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
I want to tell you that Roberto Clemente was my favorite player to play against. Just watching the way he moved, he was like a jungle animal. Something beautiful like a tiger or lion. Just so beautiful to watch. You could have taken a photograph of him at any moment of him doing anything and it would be perfect.
I think the last eight or nine years of Clemente’s career were better than the last eight or nine of Mays’ career. Mays was better in the beginning, but Clemente was better in the end. Just to watch him play and watch him throw a baseball, what a thrill. I couldn’t wait to watch him throw a ball.
He really had a great showcase in the 1971 World Series. He was in Pittsburgh, not New York or LA, so he didn’t get the publicity he deserved. But that 1971 Series, I felt like finally, the world got to see Roberto Clemente. I just want the world to know just how great and what a fine man Roberto Clemente was and that’s my message I’d like to leave to your readers.