One-on-One with Wes Parker
by Tony Medley
I was at an evening game in
1970 at Dodger Stadium between the Dodgers and Cincinnati. Late in the
game the Reds brought in a 19-year-old rookie lefthander named Don
Gullet. He proceeded to mow the Dodgers down with a fastball that looked
faster than Bob Feller. Aspirins would have been easier to hit.
Up strode Dodger Wes
Parker. Until 1970, Parker had been known as a fancy-fielding,
light-hitting first baseman. But in 1970 he blossomed, ending at .319
for the year. This night, with Gullet throwing bullets, Parker worked
the count to 3-1. Then Gullet threw a fastball across the heart of the
plate and Parker swung easily, knocking Gullet’s fastball into the left
I reminded him of this home
run when we met at The Beach Club in Santa Monica. “You were there that
night?” he asked. “I guessed fastball at 3-1 and was right. That was a
real important home run for me because I was having my best year and
approaching 100 RBI. I don’t remember it because it was off Gullet. I
remember it because of how important it was to my RBI total.”
I asked him how he turned
from the hitter with a .245 lifetime batting average in the spring of
1969 into the guy who hit .319 with 111 RBI in 1970.
He said, “In the spring of
1969, Al Campanis had only recently been named General Manager of the
Dodgers and he was sitting on the bench during spring training talking
with Tommy Lasorda, who was then a coach to Manager Walt Alston. He told
Tommy that I’d never be a great hitter. Tommy jumped up and said, ‘I can
make him into a great hitter.’ You know how Tommy is. Campanis was
dubious, but told him to go ahead.
“So Tommy worked with me
diligently. We worked early, way before game time, and then after the
game. He’d pitch to me and keep telling me that I was going to be a
great hitter. The first two weeks I thought he was crazy, blowing smoke.
But he kept at it, kept repeating what a great hitter I was going to be.
Sometime during the third week I began to believe him.
“Then the next spring
(former Dodger great) Dixie Walker came to camp and worked with me. He
told me I was uppercutting the ball and if I could cure that, I’d be a
much better hitter. I told him I knew that but I didn’t know how to stop
it. So he worked with me like Tommy had and finally, after hours and
days and weeks of practice, I was able to change my swing so that I
didn’t uppercut. The results were amazing.”
That’s for sure. In 1968,
Parker had hit .238. After Lasorda’s tutelage, his average improved to
.278 in 1969. Then after Walker worked with him, his average climbed to
.319 in 1970 with 196 hits.
His last two years his
average plummeted to .274 and .279, not bad, but not .319. I asked him
He revealed, “Being a great
hitter required so much effort I didn’t enjoy baseball any more. I
worked so hard that year, and it required me to put so much
concentration into the game that it was pure work. I wasn’t a natural
hitter; it came hard for me. I had to think about baseball all day long.
Then I had to get off by myself 20 minutes before each game to quiet
down my mind. I had to stop doing clinics and guest appearances. There
was no more of going to dinners and banquets. I could do no socializing.
Just to maintain my focus I had to immerse myself in baseball to keep my
mind totally involved, to the total exclusion of everything else, like
enjoying life. Sure, that was my best year at the plate. But it was also
the most unenjoyable year I had in major league baseball.
“That off season I said to
myself that this game should be fun like it used to be, so I’m going
back to enjoying myself. I still had good seasons the next two years.
From ‘69 on I was an excellent clutch hitter. I adopted the attitude
that it was not how many hits you get; it’s when you get your hits. My
concentration was there when it needed to be, when the game was on the
line and runners on base. But I couldn’t grind out the hits the way I
did in 1970.”
Then at the peak of his
career, when he as only 32, he quit. Why?
- We were no longer
winning. I played in the World Series the first two years I was a
starter, ’65 and ‘66; I was spoiled
- There was only one
player left from 24 who were there when I started 9 years earlier,
Willie Davis; I didn’t want to transition to a new team;
- I didn’t want my
skills to begin declining. I would have been 33 and was already
starting to lose interest and didn’t want to cheat fans or myself.
“Campanis and Peter
O’Malley tried to talk me out of it. ‘We need you,’ they said, ‘to help
with our transition with younger players. You have at least 5 more good
“I said, ‘No, this is the
right time. I’ve thought about it and this is the right time’.”
I asked him what it was
like playing behind the legendary Sandy Koufax.
“Playing behind Sandy was a
great privilege. It was absolutely different from playing behind anyone
else. Watching Sandy pitch was a little bit like watching God. Everybody
felt like that.
“Sandy was quiet, reserved,
standoffish. He was popular because of his talent, not because of his
personality, but he was a good guy. People respected him. He was not a
leader, except by example. Contrasted with Sandy, Don Drysdale was
through and through 100% a leader. Don had a great personality. He was
outgoing, a terrific teammate. With Don, it was all about winning and
unselfishness. He was a terrific storyteller.”
Parker attended high school
at Harvard school in the Valley, where he played baseball. He attended
Claremont College, where he played baseball and was quarterback on the
football team for one year. He gave up football because his father
advised him if he got hurt it could jeopardize any career he might want
in baseball. Because of a family situation, he transferred to USC and
graduated from there.
“I hadn’t thought about
baseball as a career until then. I had worked out with the Dodgers when
I was in high school. Charlie Dressen (who had managed the Dodgers to
two pennants and a tie between 1951-53, when he quit because Walter
O’Malley wouldn’t give him more than a one year contract) was a coach,
had seen me play American Legion, and invited me to Dodger Stadium. I
went as often as I could.
“(Then Dodger first
baseman) Gil Hodges was a very nice man and very helpful. He told me how
to play first base. At the time I did it like everyone else did it then,
switching my feet on the bag depending on where the throw was.
“Gil told me that was
wrong. He said if I was left-handed, I should always touch the base with
my left foot. He showed me how it was so much better, and that’s the way
I’ve done it ever since.
“He also told me that I
should be smooth. While that might have helped me, too, because I know I
was always smooth, I think that’s something you’re born with.
“After I graduated from SC
I called Charlie and begged him to sign me, which he did. I played one
year in the minor leagues and was always over .300, so the Dodgers
brought me up.”
What Hodges told him
obviously worked out well, because Parker was just named the best
fielding first baseman in baseball history by Rawlings, who took a
nationwide poll to pick the all time best fielding team. Garnering 53%
of the votes cast for first basemen, Parker not only got more votes than
all the other first basemen combined, he got more votes than anyone on
the team, including Willie Mays!
After leaving the Dodgers,
Parker played in Japan for a year, was a TV commentator for several
years for the USA Network, became an actor and did lots of commercials.
Then he took a job with the Dodgers as a speaker, which he still does
today. In addition, he donates one day a week working for the Braille
Institute. “I talk to them about sports, about whatever sport is in
season at the time,” he says.
He is still in shape, at
6-1 with a 33-inch waist. He also plays golf and bridge. In fact, he is
one of my bridge partners. I thought I was overly competitive until I
played with Wes. If what I am is competitive, there’s a higher word for
what Wes Parker is.