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Mudville: June 13, 2024 4:08 am PDT

Fred Claire

I said, “Hey Lasorda, you chicken-blank, I didn’t come here to coach first base.”

The phrase “Dodger Blue” means many things to many people.

To older fans, it is all about Koufax, Drysdale, Campanella and the legends of yesteryear. For today’s generation, it’s the same principle, but the names are Kershaw, Bellinger, Turner and Betts.

To all, it’s the dignity of Jackie Robinson and the enthusiasm of Tommy Lasorda, who may have uttered the phrase more than anyone ever had.

When Gil Hodges was finally elected to the Hall of Fame, “Dodger Blue” again transcended generations as tears flowed proudly for one of the franchise’s favorite sons.

But have you ever wondered where “Dodger Blue” originated?

The man behind the simple genius and incredible legacy of the phrase “Dodger Blue” – Fred Claire, joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.

It’s true that the phrase originated with Claire and we’ll get into that in Part II of this interview, which will run on Christmas Eve. But this week, we examine Claire’s introduction to the Dodgers and his relationship with some franchise icons.

More importantly, the 86-year-old Claire is on a mission of spreading awareness for the City of Hope National Medical Center and the heroes there who helped saved his life as he defied tremendous odds to defeat an aggressive form of cancer in recent years.

Claire has written of his battle, his experience as a longtime Dodgers executive and the great work done by the City of Hope in his new book, Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team. Proceeds from the book are donated to City of Hope National Medical Center.

Claire has detailed his battles with cancer heroically in a very public forum. According to the City of Hope’s website, “Claire’s years-long experience with cancer and treatment at City of Hope was challenging, again and again. After his initial surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in 2016, Claire hoped he was out of the woods. But the cancer came back aggressively, spreading to his neck. An immunotherapy clinical trial saved his life. But then an infection forced him to undergo even more extensive facial reconstructive surgery, replacing his jawbone with a bone from his leg.”

In talking with Claire, two things strike you immediately. First, there is no impairment in speech despite the extensive procedures he endured. Second, he’s an incredibly sharp and fantastic storyteller. This is not only a testament to Claire’s toughness, but also the incredible work of what Claire calls the “championship team” at City of Hope.

Claire’s experience with the Dodgers began in the 1960s and his fingerprints were all over the franchise for three decades. Heck, they’re still there to this day. Tommy Lasorda may be the person most associated with the phrase Dodger Blue, but it originated with the understated genius of Claire.

He is as big a source of inspiration and history as we’ve come cross at BallNine, so come along as we have the honor of going Spitballin’ with Fred Claire.

[On Sandy Koufax] “I always respected Sandy as a person and valued our friendship. I never tried to intrude on that. He’s a magical figure and a perfectionist in every way.”

We have so much ground to cover considering how much you have accomplished in the game, but I wanted to start with your own childhood. Did you play baseball as a kid?

I grew up in Jamestown, a small town in Ohio. At the beginning of my life I always had an interest in playing sports. We had a small school; there were only 30 of us in our graduating class, and the big sport back then was basketball. I loved basketball because that was the attraction. We had a gym that seated about 500 and our town had about 1,500 people who lived there. But the gym was full for every game. It felt like the whole town was there. I loved sports, but basketball where my interest was.

How did you become a baseball fan?

One of the people I give credit to was my older brother Doug. He became a fan of baseball before I did. His favorite player was Stan Musial and his favorite team was the Cardinals. He kept a scrap book one year around 1948. I would have been 13 then. He would clip the box scores and save them. That impressed me the way he was following the Cardinals and Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Kurowski. My brother was a tall, left-handed first baseman and I was a shortstop and we were always competitive in everything we did. I became a fan of the Cincinnati Reds. He had all these glamorous Cardinals teams and I had Ewell Blackwell, Virgil Stallcup, Grady Hatton, Bobby Adams and many people I got to know later in life. I also felt like I had to get an American League team, so I became a great fan of the Boston Red Sox. My brother had Musial and I had Ted Williams.

That was the beginning for me. My first game was at Crosley Field and I still have pictures that I took from a little camera. When I saw Crosley Field and Major League Baseball, I truly was star-struck by the experience. It was the most attractive thing for a kid from a small town in Ohio to walk into Crosley Field. I was hooked for the rest of my life.

Could you explain how you got your start working for the Dodgers?

I wanted to figure out early on how I could be connected with sports for a lifetime. That was a driving force for me at an early age. My father owned a drug store, but I didn’t see myself working as a pharmacist; sports was my love. I became interested in writing and part of that was because of sports. After my family moved to California my sophomore year, I became interested in working on the school newspaper because that was a connection to sports.

I went to junior college at El Camino and Mt. San Antonio then transferred to San Jose State because they had an outstanding journalism program. That led me to my first job with the Whittier Daily News as a sports writer. That background ultimately led me to an opportunity to cover the Angels in 1968 and then I switched to the Dodgers beat in 1969. After a couple of months, I got hired by the Dodgers as the Director of Publicity. That was my start of 30 years with the Dodgers.

And an incredible 30 years with the Dodgers it was! I wanted to ask about a few of the Dodgers legends you worked with. I’ll just throw some names out there and you can take it away. Let’s start with Sandy Koufax.

Sandy has been a great friend. He is a very private person. When I joined the Dodgers, I noticed that everyone wanted to migrate to Sandy. I took a different approach. I liked everything about him, but it seemed like so many people were pressing forward with him, so that was the last thing I wanted to do. We had a friendship, but I never pressed that in any way. I can remember a being at Dodgertown when I started. There was a little bar area where people would stop before dinner and one or two times Sandy came up to me and asked if I wanted to have dinner. Of course I would love to… and did.

I always respected Sandy as a person and valued our friendship. I never tried to intrude on that. He’s a magical figure and a perfectionist in every way. Sandy was aloof towards many people, but formed such great friendships with his teammates. There has always been that great mutual connection between Sandy and his teammates. It’s that mutual respect you have when you play together.

He’s a magical figure indeed. Up next, how about Roy Campanella?

Roy was a dear, dear friend that I had the utmost respect for. He actually was part of one of the key decisions that I made early on as a Dodgers General Manager. I took over as the Dodgers General Manager in 1987, but my first Spring Training was in ’88. We had a decision to make at catcher. We had Alex Trevino, who had a guaranteed contract. I had signed Rick Dempsey as a non-roster player to give him a chance in the Spring. We got to the end of Spring Training and had to make a decision on who to keep as a backup catcher to Mike Scioscia. We were actually sitting in the Roy Campanella Room and I went around asking the opinions of coaches, Tommy Lasorda and some of the scouts that were there. I got to Roy and asked him what he thought. He said, “Fred, you don’t have a tough decision here. Your best player for that position is Rick Dempsey.” So, I made the decision to release the player with the guaranteed contract. It’s not lost on me that it was Rick Dempsey who caught the last out of the 1988 World Series.

Pretty incredible how that worked out. You mentioned Tommy Lasorda, so let’s move on to him next.

Tommy and I had a close relationship from day one. Spring Training 1969 he was the manager of Spokane and I was writing for the Long Beach paper covering the Dodgers. We formed a friendship and would go out to dinner. One night I told Tommy I wanted to take infield with his Spokane team. I had played a little high school baseball and probably elaborated a little too much. One day in Spring Training I was waiting on the bus to go cover the Dodgers playing the Twins. Tommy’s Spokane team was playing on a field in Dodgertown and he saw me getting on the bus. He said, “Hey Fred, we’re playing Bakersfield today, I thought you said you wanted to play a game for us.” I said, “Tommy, I told you I wanted to take infield.” True story, he says, “OK, you chicken-blank. Get on the bus and never mention it to me again.”

Now, you don’t want to challenge me, so I took two steps off the bus and said, “OK, where do I get my uniform?” I got my uniform and came back and he told me to warm up. I came back and he told me to go coach first base. I said, “Hey Lasorda, you chicken-blank, I didn’t come here to coach first base.” He says, “OK pal, next inning you replace Bobby Valentine at shortstop.” Tommy said to the umpire Billy Williams, who would go on to become a National League umpire, “Wait until you see this guy. He’s out of Stanford and we paid $100,000 for him.” The catcher looked at me and said, “You were with the big club last year weren’t you?” I said, “Hey kid, just have him throw the ball.” This left-hander threw three pitches past me and that was the end of my first at bat. I stayed in the game though. That was part of the bonding between Tommy and myself. A love of competition, a love of the game and a forever friendship.

What a great story and experience! How about your relationship with Jackie Robinson?

Jackie undoubtedly has been the most influential player in my life. I had the opportunity to be with him in 1972 when we retired uniform numbers for the first time in Dodgers history. It was Sandy, Roy and Jackie, three guys we talked about. There was an incident before the game that is forever in my mind. Jackie was suffering from diabetes and could barely see. A fan had come down and wanted Jackie to sign a ball. He was saying, “Jackie, Jackie, sign this for me, please!” He tossed Jackie the ball and it hit his shoulder and glanced off his head. He couldn’t see it. Everyone was irate. They were screaming, “Get that guy! Throw him out!” I’ll never forget, Jackie said, “Calm down. Give me the ball and give me a pen.” They gave him the ball and a pen and Jackie signed the ball. He said, “Give this ball back to that gentleman.” I thought, if that isn’t perfect Jackie. In all that turmoil, having the calmness of his mind and spirit, I couldn’t imagine painting a better picture of Jackie.

Amazing that he had that kind of character all the way to the end. You were also there when he made his appearance in 1972 at the World Series, right?

Yes, I was very fortunate to be there. Jackie’s vision deteriorated even more but he was going to throw out the first pitch. Before he was going to go out on the field, this fella was approaching Jackie. He was about ten feet away and Jackie didn’t recognize him. Someone whispered in his ear, “It’s Pee Wee.” Jackie’s vision was so bad that he didn’t recognize Pee Wee Reese. That day, Jackie spoke and he acknowledged that baseball had made good progress in diversity, but he wouldn’t be happy until a Black man was managing. There’s a video of this on YouTube. Jackie died nine days later.

When I had gone through cancer, I had raised money through the City of Hope and I wanted to have a Celebration of Life Award. One of the reasons I wanted to have the award was so I could place a quote on the award from Jackie. The first year we gave the award to Rod Carew and the second one went to Tommy Lasorda. The quote is “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie’s role in the game is just a small part of his role in society. What he stood for and the values he believed in remain today and are greater than ever.

Dodgers' President Peter O'Malley congatulates Hideo Nomo after the Dodgers signed the RHP with Dodgers' GM Fred Claire and Don Nomura enjoying the festivities.

Join us next Friday on Christmas Eve when we continue our conversation with Fred Claire. We talk about the 1988 Dodgers, the origin of the phrase “Dodger Blue” and Mike Piazza’s exit from Los Angeles. In addition, we go into detail of Mr. Claire’s battles with cancer, how he beat the odds and how the City of Hope hospital continues to help him and so many others in their battle.

Claire’s book, Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team, is available now. The book parallels his baseball life with his fight against cancer and highlights the championship teams with the Dodgers and at City of Hope. Proceeds from the book are donated to City of Hope National Medical Center to help those who are fighting their own battle.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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