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Mudville: May 25, 2024 9:47 am PDT

Fred Claire II

"It’s a game, but the real point of the game is the people of the game.”

For many, the Christmas season is about family, giving back and reflecting on another year on the calendar coming to an end. It’s only fitting that we wrap a year of interviews with a fellow who embodies that spirit year-round.

Dodgers legend Fred Claire, who has been on a mission in recent years promoting and giving back to City of Hope Hospital, joins us for Part II of a special year-ending Spitballin’.

Last week, we got into Claire’s childhood, how he became a Dodger and his relationship with other Dodger icons. Today we fast forward to the late 1980s and pick up from there.

While Claire’s baseball accomplishments are incredible, his fight against cancer and how he has been able to turn that into something positive for City of Hope has been truly remarkable.

As Claire puts it, he’s been lucky to be part of two championship organizations: the Los Angeles Dodgers and City of Hope Hospital.

Claire has detailed his experience with the Dodgers and City of Hope in his book, Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team. All net proceeds from his book are donated to City of Hope.

The 86-year-old Claire has been tirelessly and enthusiastically sharing his improbable cancer success story and the great work that City of Hope is doing and we’re honored to play our role in helping those efforts.

So before you enjoy some holiday cheer this Christmas weekend, let’s go Spitballin’ with Fred Claire.

Closeup portrait of Los Angeles Dodgers Fred Claire at Dodgertown. Vero Beach, FL 2/24/1988 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X36197 TK1 R13 F16 )

Last we talked, we were discussing Dodgers greats of yesteryear who bridged the gap between Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Moving forward now, I wanted to get to your role as Dodgers General Manager. You began the role mid-1987 and by ‘88, the Dodgers were World Series champions. Could you talk about constructing that roster?

Part of that came from my own feeling about it. I was with the Dodgers for 20 years before I became the General Manager. Having had the experience of knowing Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine; through my years with Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, one thing I fully understood was the importance of the individual character of a player. We can see talent and can have a disagreement on the assessment of his talent, but the character of the individual doesn’t change.

The 1988 Dodgers had only one All Star in Orel Hershiser and no Hall of Famers on the World Series roster. Was there a conscious effort to bring in guys who might not have been high-level superstars, but winners on and off the field?

The first person I signed was Mickey Hatcher. I knew Mickey Hatcher from the time he was with the Dodgers previously. I knew what he was all about. Then there was the three-team trade where we got Jay Howell, Alfredo Griffin and Jesse Orosco. We picked up John Shelby and Tim Belcher. All of those players, then and today, are just outstanding people.

I felt that at our 30-year reunion a few years ago. They’re people you could rely on and trust. They’re people who just wanted to beat your butt on the field. We had others who fit with the players that we brought in too. Nobody was more competitive, knowledgeable or better human beings than Orel Hershiser and Mike Scioscia. People tell me, they weren’t this or they weren’t that. To me, that’s poorly judged. You don’t win a World’s Championship without earning a World’s Championship. It’s not humanly possible.

“For any of us there, and those who have said they were there, it was accurate as it has been judged: one of best moments in the history of baseball.”

That’s a great point. A couple of questions about winning that World Series… First, where were you when Kirk Gibson hit his home run?

My wife Sheryl and whoever we were with had walked down to the club level to be closer to the exit. I was all alone in my box and when Kirk hit the home run; it was a surreal scene. I left my box and walked along the club level down the third base line to the Dodgers offices. I could hardly believe this and I had never seen this before. Everyone was standing in front of their seats. Nobody was moving and there was a cheering that seemed to sway the stadium.

I signed Kirk; there was nothing more for me to do at this point. There was no reason for me to go down to the clubhouse to say congratulations. I wanted the players to enjoy the scene. I walked to my office, got my car keys, got to the parking lot and nobody was in the parking lot. The cars that had left, had already left. Everyone else was still at their seats. I got in my car, drove to Pasadena and it seemed like I could hear the crowd noise during my eleven-mile drive back home. For any of us there, and those who have said they were there, it was accurate as it has been judged: one of best moments in the history of baseball.

That was only Game 1. There were still three more wins to get against a very talented A’s team. Of course, you guys won in five games. What satisfaction did you have putting together a World Series winning team?

We had been through a rough period in 1986 and ’87. We were 16 games under .500 both years. 16 games! I can remember during the postseason, I thought to myself that I was going to have an opportunity to thank the people who were responsible for 1988. I’m gonna have a chance to thank our scouts, our player development department, our manager and coaching staff, all of our trainers, our players and fans for their support. That’s what I thought about.

I have seen the clip where Bob Costas asked me what I was thinking, and surprisingly, that was exactly what I said. I wanted to pay tribute to the people because I knew we had taken the Dodgers from one of the darkest spots, back to the top of the baseball world.

You definitely need that full organizational effort for such a great accomplishment. I also wanted to ask about something that might not be so pleasant. Ten years later, the Dodgers traded Mike Piazza. Can you talk to our readers about how that all went down?

I was in my box at Dodgers Stadium and I got a call from Bob Graziano, who was the President of the Dodgers at the time. He told me there had been a trade and told me what it was. Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich and Charles Johnson. He told me it needed to be announced tonight. I said, “Well Bob, then there will be two announcements tonight. If you’re asking me to announce that trade, I am then going to announce my resignation because this is not the way you run a baseball team.” I had been there nearly thirty years and knew that was wrong.

I guess even as the General Manager there was nothing you could really do to change things at that point. What did you do from there?

I went back to my office knowing my world had changed. I got a call from Derrick Hall, who is now the President of the Diamondbacks. He was our publicity guy at the time. He told me that trade couldn’t be announced because Sheffield had a no-trade clause. I said, “Of course he has a no-trade clause. Every General Manager in baseball knows that.” I wasn’t going to leave the Dodgers in that position, so I stayed on to work my way through the trade because I couldn’t change it.

Then on June 21 – easy to remember because it’s my daughter Jennifer’s birthday – I was told to stop at Dodgers Stadium after the game on a Sunday night. I was being relieved of my General Manager duties. I called my wife and said, “Sheryl, pick me up at Dodgers Stadium because I am no longer a Dodger.”

Wow. Incredible that after 30 years, that’s how it all came to an end. What a tremendous legacy you have though. I learned a big part of your legacy doing research for this interview. I read that you coined the phrase “Dodger Blue.” Is that right? How did that come about?

It is true and I actually thought about that last Saturday because the University of Michigan deserves some credit for that too. I was in marketing and what I really wanted to do was bring a collegiate feeling to a professional team. I thought that colleges have such a tremendous spirit because of their youth and followers. The Dodgers had been in Brooklyn and it was all about the clown and “Dem Bums.” There wasn’t an identity that captured the spirit of the Dodgers and Dodger fans. So I thought, what better way than Dodger Blue?

I started to create that theme and we had the right guy to spread it in Tommy Lasorda. I knew we had it made when Union Hall had a bumper sticker. After about a year of planting all these seeds and promoting it, I saw this bumper sticker. There was no baseball and no logo. It simply said, “Think Blue” and everyone in Los Angeles seemed to know that meant Dodger baseball.

The stories you have told over the past two weeks are beyond incredible. Lucilky for fans, you have written about some of those as well as your own health and fight against cancer in your book Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team. Could you first tell our readers about the health problems you have been fighting recently?

I had been blessed in my life with great health, but at the age of 80, I had a little spot on my lip that seemed very minor. You could barely notice it, but I could feel it. I went in to see my dermatologist and he wanted to take a biopsy. The biopsy led to a Mohs procedure, which removes all the margins of the spot. The procedure didn’t get all the margins and after a year and a half, it moved into my jaw bone. In 2016, I went to City of Hope and they told me I had a very aggressive cancer in my jawbone that needed to be removed immediately. In 2017, the cancer came back in my neck.

It’s terrible to hear you have had to endure that, but great to hear you’re doing better now and using your experience to spread awareness about skin cancer and City of Hope. Could you tell us about your book Extra Innings and how that all came about?

The book is really about the City of Hope. By 2017, I had seen enough of City of Hope that I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing place.” I wanted to have a golf tournament to raise money for City of Hope. My wonderful wife Sheryl said, “You gotta be the only person here at City of Hope with a 20% chance of survival who is playing a golf tournament.” I said, “We’re gonna give it a run and do what we can.” In two tournaments, we raised over a half million dollars for the City of Hope. We donate all the net proceeds from Extra Innings to City of Hope as well.

With the book, I had walked into the Biller Center at City of Hope where patients go for information. I asked for the most recent book on City of Hope and was told there wasn’t one. I said, “Well, there needs to be one.” The City of Hope got together with a publisher and I said I’d be happy to be the person who tells the story of City of Hope and it’s been a wonderful experience.

That’s so awesome that as you’re going through your own fight, you wanted to highlight and tell the story of City of Hope. Could you talk a little more about what City of Hope does?

There are so many wonderful hospitals in our country, but I had been so blessed that I never had any experience at any of them. I never spent any time in a hospital. When I saw all the care and met the doctors and saw how they worked, I was so impressed. I can remember at our first golf tournament, having had a life-saving experience, I think of the words I said about City of Hope. I said, “I have been very blessed to be a part of many great Dodgers teams and a great organization, but the City of Hope is the greatest team I ever had the chance to be a part of. That’s the way I think about City of Hope.

Strangely enough, when I walk into City of Hope for therapy and scans, I almost feel like I’m walking into the Dodgers clubhouse. The reason is that they put a band on your arms that says that you’re a patient and you have an appointment. We are all there fighting a common opponent. There is a bond of being together with a common cause. It felt natural because I’ve always loved being part of a team. I feel that every time I walk into City of Hope. I’ve gotten to know many doctors and staff and they’ve been so supportive of the golf tournament.

It sounds like an amazing place and just using you as an example, it seems like they do incredible work.

They’re great doctors. They change the lives of people every day. I met a man named Dr. Foreman. He is a long time City of Hope oncologist. When I first met him, he asked me, “Fred, what does the number 42 mean to you?” I said, “Dr. Foreman, that’s easy. That’s Jackie Robinson.” This goes back a few years, but he said at the time, “Fred, this is our 42nd bone marrow transplant program.” They invite people who have donated bone marrow to those who needed life-saving bone marrow transplants. If that doesn’t fit under Jackie’s quote, “A life is not important except the impact it has on other lives,” then I don’t know what does.

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 20, 1988: General Manager Fred Claire, second from left, of the Los Angeles Dodgers being interviewed by CBS sports broadcaster Bob Costas, second from right, while Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, far left, and manager Tommy Lasorda (C) holds the world series trophy after the Dodger beat the Oakland Athletics in game 5 to win the 1988 World Series, October 20, 1988 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Dodgers won the series 4-1. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

That’s unbelievable how that all ties together and of course the symbolism of 42 with Jackie. Mr. Claire, this has been absolutely incredible. I appreciate you taking the time to share your Dodgers stories and of course City of Hope and Extra Innings. I just have one final open-ended question. What are your final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?

When I think about the good fortune that I have, I think about the importance of the game to so many people through all the years. I think the final message I want to convey are the words that a veteran baseball player once said to me when I asked him about the game. He said, “Respect the game. Respect your teammates, your opponents, the umpires, the fans. Respect the game. The game has earned our respect.” That’s the way I think about baseball through all of the changes. I have been blessed to be a part of, in my mind, of the greatest game of all time. I see that and feel that and had a share in the joy of those who accomplish things in the game.

I feel very, very fortunate to have spent a lifetime in the game and meeting so many wonderful people. I called Vin Scully recently to wish him a happy 94th birthday. We had a wonderful conversation. Thinking of someone like Vinny, who devoted his life to the game. He started the way I did, as a fan. It’s a game, but the real point of the game is the people of the game. That’s why I tried to do everything I can to promote the game and give back the game. I want to encourage young people to get into the game. As a teacher, one of my main themes is to follow your passion. That’s what I did with baseball.

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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