If you have attended any games at Dodger Stadium this season or even if you have watched them on TV, you have probably seen several of the Dodger Stadium 50th anniversary video clips highlighting the greatest moments in Dodger Stadium history. Now I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love these short video clips, and if you have been watching them closely, you noticed that they all have something in common… Mark Langill.
Mark is a full-time employee of the Dodger organization and has indisputably the most unique job title of any other Dodger employee – he is the Dodgers official Team Historian.
I recently sat down with Mark for an in-depth interview and learned a great deal of history about the guy who brings us the history about the Dodgers:
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RC: I have been a Dodger fan my entire life and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became aware that the Dodgers even had a team historian. Are you the first and only Dodger team historian?
ML: I’m the first person to have that title but in the long years of the franchise, there’s no way that I would consider myself the first historian in terms of the people who built the franchise. With people like Larry MacPhail and the O’Malley family, there have been enough people around over the years in different eras to have a historical perspective, and I think I’m just lucky enough to have the title right now.
RC: How did you come to get this incredible job?
ML: I covered the team (as a beat reporter) for the Pasadena Star News for six seasons from 1989 until 1993 and I had done it part-time starting in ‘87. I went to school at Pasadena City College and Cal State Northridge so I had to get that out of the way first. I knew what I wanted to do but it was very important to go to school. I covered the team and then after the ‘93 season there was an opening in the publications office at the stadium and so it was… do you still want to cover the team or would you like to go inside and put the publications together? I took the publications job, starting in January of ’94.
The team historian thing came about after a couple of ownership changes. In 2002, Derrick Hall, who is now in charge of the Diamondbacks, said “You seem to know all this miscellaneous stuff about the franchise and you have an interest in the history, would you consider being the team historian?” I said absolutely. It has really opened so many doors in terms of… the franchise goes back to the 1880s, so it could be a question as simple as something that happened last night or something that happened 120 years ago.
The other question I get a lot is “how does one go about becoming a team historian?” and I joke… I say in my case it was very easy… if you don’t hit the ball well in Little League, you’re well on your way to being a team historian. People think I’m being funny, but anybody who saw me play in Little League would say “No, that’s pretty much it.” I knew everything about baseball except how to hit one.
RC: That you are aware of, do other teams have a team historian?
ML: I don’t think necessarily the title (team historian)… the title is not a common one, but I think in most cases, teams have somebody that they can rely on or have a point person as far as what has happened in the past… and if they don’t, I think it’s a good recommendation for teams at any level. Being able to see the type of affect that history has on people and how generations can follow a sports franchise of any kind at any level, I think is important for any sports team to have an awareness of what’s gone on before them.
RC: Like most Dodger fans, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching your video clips of the team’s history during this 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium. Is the material in these video clips something that you already knew or did you have to research it?
ML: It’s stuff that I already knew… it’s just a matter of putting into a form that you can use because you only have a limited amount of time for the video. I would write them out ahead of time and the video department would work with me in terms of what they wanted as far as the length and the presentation. We wanted to give it range, too, because it’s not just about the baseball events. There have been many non-sports events here too… the Beatles, Elvis, the Globetrotters, the Olympics, concerts, Moto-cross and many other events have been held here as well.
RC: How many videos or topics did you cover?
ML: We made fifty of them. We’ve gotten good response from them because people like to smile and remember either where they were in the ballpark when that occurred or where they were listening. Whether it’s an R.J. Reynolds bunt or whether it’s a four home run game, the fans take ownership of these great moments and we all can enjoy and remember where we were when these great moments occurred.
RC: I have a daughter who lives in New York and when I went back to visit her, I had an opportunity to go to new Yankee Stadium and saw the awesome in-stadium museum that they have there. Do you envision the new owners adding a museum or a Hall of Fame at Dodger Stadium?
ML: I think it is on their radar. Serving fans with what they want and knowing the historic nature of the ballpark, I think it’s an absolute natural. You could see the interest that people had last year when the Gary Cypres collection was here on display on the Club Level. We have the items in the archives; it’s just a matter of presenting them in a way that makes sense logistically so that people can enjoy the presentation. I definitely believe that it is on their radar in terms of something that the fans would want.
RC: Knowing the stadium as you do, would something have to be built for a museum or is there an existing area that could be utilized for this?
ML: You never know. I think they’re going to look at everything in terms of the way the ballpark is laid out, the way things are for the fans, the flow of people and whatever amenities might be available. You don’t necessarily have to have a big museum in one place, you can have little display cases in different parts of the ballpark. Dodger Stadium is a very large area… you could have something portable in the parking lot, you can have something on different levels, you can do things with the pillars and flat spaces here. I think that with any type of history element, you would work with the architect and look at the rest of the ballpark as far as what they’re planning down the road for this venue.
RC: Obviously you were a Dodger fan long before you became the team’s historian. What is your single greatest Dodger memory?
ML: That’s easy; it was September 15, 1974. My favorite player was an outfielder named Jimmy Wynn, “The Toy Cannon.” The Dodgers were battling the Cincinnati Reds. It was a Sunday afternoon game and I was sitting in the box seats. The Dodgers lost the first two games of the series. Remember, the Dodgers had a big lead early in the year and Jimmy Wynn and (former Cy Young Award winner) Mike Marshall were on the cover of Sports Illustrated at different points in the season. And suddenly the lead has whittled down to a game and a half, so if the Reds win that Sunday game, it’s down to a half a game. I’m only eight years old so this is life or death to me – you can’t blow this lead! It was a close game and Jimmy Wynn hit a grand slam off Pedro Borbón and Garvey followed with another home run and the Dodgers won the game 7-1. I can remember the crowd going crazy when Wynn hit the homer.
RC: I was sitting right over there in the Right Field Pavilion that day.
ML: There’s a scene in “Pride of the Yankees” where Lou Gehrig promises to hit a home run for a kid and you can just see in the movie suddenly (Gehrig) gets caught up in the applause because the moment that he is supposed to have a home run… when your guy hits a home run like that and you’re eight years old, it stays with you forever. Somebody gave me a copy of the audio of the home run and the post game show as a birthday present and I think that was the neatest thing.
The postscript to this story is that fifteen years later, I went to an old-timers day banquet when I was with the Pasadena Star News and I went up to Jimmy Wynn to tell him my story. I said “Jimmy, you were my favorite player and I was there that September afternoon when you hit the grand slam,” and he looked at me and said “I never hit a grand slam with the Dodgers.” I said to him “Jimmy, this is the cornerstone of my childhood. I guarantee you that you hit a grand slam,” and he’s thinking about it and he is being very polite and says “No… no, I don’t think I did.”
The next day they were going to play the exhibition game. A friend of ours had given me their L.A. Times sports page (the day after the home run) and I clipped out the photo and it had the caption ‘The Grand Moment’ and there’s Jimmy Wynn hitting the grand slam… he’s doing the follow through and Johnny Bench is extending his glove for a ball that he’s not going to catch. I showed the photo to Jimmy and he said “What do you know… I guess I did.”
RC: Do you think he was messing with you?
ML: No, I don’t think so. Five years later, Baseball Digest comes in the mail and they have a feature every month in their issue called “The game I’ll never forget.” The headline on the cover is “The game I’ll never forget by Jimmy Wynn.” I thought “well, he’ll probably talk about the Astros or something like that,” and I turned to the page and it says “They game I’ll never forget by Jimmy Wynn – It was September 1974…” and I was laughing because I thought, “well finally he remembered.”
That gave me a very valuable lesson in terms of later working for the team and working with the former players and the current players. The current players have blinders on right now… they can’t worry about their place in history because it’s a very fragile thing about your confidence and wondering about how long your career is going to last. You can pick any player on that field and it could last another five days, it could last five years, it could last twenty years. They have to be in that moment and think of themselves as a player. A lot of times when these young players set records, they’re not in the moment like we are on the sidelines. For example, Koufax when he’s going after the strikeout record, he’s not thinking about Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants when he had the season when he first set the National League record of 269 strikeouts; he’s just trying to do his thing. It’s the same thing with Kershaw and people like that. They can’t yet worry about these names from the past, they just have to go out and perform.
I think it’s very important to remember that what we remember in the stands they might not necessarily remember as ball players. They play 162 games and spring training and they might not remember these iconic things that we take for granted because they are so important to us.
RC: It’s real easy to find people who absolutely loathe former owner Frank McCourt, but a lot of people don’t realize that it was Frank McCourt who brought back a lot of former Dodger players into the organization in a variety of capacities. Of all of the former players that are back with the organization, who do you enjoy talking with the most?
ML: That’s a very good question. I would say, off the top of my head, I enjoy talking baseball with Ron Cey because it’s always very thoughtful, he’s never the star of the stories, and he really gives you an insight as far as… like for example, at the end of the 1973 season, he was talking about how well they played but Cincinnati just won more games down the stretch and it wasn’t a feeling that they had lost it… it was “Hey, you’ve got to give them credit .” He really has a level head in terms of analyzing things. I was honored when he accepted my request to write the chapter in the coffee table book on the 1970s. Very thoughtful, good sense of humor and he really makes you appreciate seeing the game through the eyes of a ballplayer. I enjoy talking to so many of the ballplayers and I love it when they share their stories about behind the scenes and things like that and I think Cey has a really unique perspective, which I really enjoy.
The other former player I enjoyed talking with was Don Drysdale. He had an amazing mix between competitor and somebody with a wonderful sense of humor. He took his job seriously but he didn’t take himself seriously. He treated everybody the same. It was a privilege to know him and I really enjoyed his insight as well.
RC: Along those same lines, I had the honor and privilege to meet Sandy Koufax while attending Adult Baseball Camp in Vero Beach, FL last fall. How come Sandy is not back with the organization like a lot of his former teammates are?
ML: My understanding is he’s the type that’s been put on such a pedestal that he just wants to live his life. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the fans in terms of their memories and the attention and the praise. I think the best example I can give was at John Roseboro’s funeral. Maury Wills came running over to me and said “Mark! Mark!” and I said “What do you want, Maury?” and all of a sudden he pointed and right next to him was a teammate and he said “Have you ever met Sandy Koufax?” Sandy had that look like I was going to ask him to autograph my bible or something and I said “Sandy, it’s not that I’m not glad to see you, but I try to leave you alone because nobody else does,” and he smiled and said “Thanks, I appreciate that.”
When Jane Leavy worked on her biography of Koufax (A Lefties’ Legacy), she was just blown away by so many people who had such great respect and admiration for him. I just think he’s a wonderful person but he wants to be able to live in the year 2012 and he’s not the type just to set up a card table and sign autographs all day and tell stories from 1965 and game-7 in Minnesota, or the perfect game… things like that. I think he has so many interests outside of baseball and I don’t think he wants to be put in this little corner and be put on a pedestal. Anybody that you talk to who knows Sandy Koufax just marvels at what a wonderful, humble and nice person he is.
RC: Aside from the many former players now working within the Dodger organization, there are several non-players who have been with the organization for a long time; none greater than Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully. Vin’s memory of Dodger history is uncanny. Does he get his material from you or do you get your material from him?
ML: I’ll describe it this way: he probably uses 2% of whatever is in front of him. By that I mean he’s prepared for everything, but he doesn’t need to show you his preparation… and that’s really the genius, he doesn’t need to show you all that he knows, but if there’s a certain situation that comes up, he’s prepared for it. He’ll know if the opposing third baseman had a favorite cocker spaniel in third grade named ‘Lefty’ or something. He doesn’t force it and I think that’s really the key. He still shows up every day at three o’clock… the shirt and tie, the sport coat, ready to go, ready to prepare, and he’s always looking forward to the next day’s game.
I think in a way he is a lot like Koufax; Vinny’s all about the moment… Vinny’s all about the next game… and Vinny’s all about the crowd noise and preparation and things like that. You don’t hear him talk about the old days as far as just holding court; he weaves it into the broadcast if it can help the broadcast, but he’s not the type just to sit there and tell stories just so he can tell everybody either what he knows or what he’s witnessed… it all comes out natural.
I have a dream job and it’s a privilege to be here. Vinny was my favorite personality as a kid and I always remembered hearing the phrase “It’s not always good to meet your hero because you might be disappointed,” but having had a chance to meet Vinny and to see him behind the scenes, that phrase doesn’t apply to Vin Scully. He is just a wonderful man and I think knowing the person he is just made the experience that much better… having idolized him as a kid and then finding out in person what a truly great guy he is.
RC: I recently finished reading your book “Game of My Life – Memorable Stories of Dodger Baseball.” In it, you cover several other non-players such as Jaime Jarrin and Nancy Bea Hefley. What was the experience like in doing research on them for the book?
ML: Putting that book together was kind of like making a quilt. I think it’s very important to draw from all of the aspects of Dodger baseball – whether it’s Helen Dell or Nancy Bea, Roger Owens the peanut man who’s not in the book but is still a staple at the ballpark, and Jaime Jarrin. Even though I don’t listen to Jaime’s broadcasts, I know how important he is not only in the community, but just like Vin Scully, the experience that he provides for people who can’t come to the ballpark and listen to his work on the radio. I think people forget the near tragic auto accident in 1990 and the amazing comeback that Jaime had… a spring training auto accident and he just willed himself to get better and by the All-Star break, he’s in Chicago ready to resume his baseball life.
While doing research for the book it was kind of fun to find out that Nancy Bea had perfect pitch at age four and that she would mimic what her parents would play on the piano. Buzzie Bavasi, an executive… people like that are still so important to the fabric because they either make important decisions or, in the case of Nancy Bea, we hear her music day after day. There’s a danger to take these people for granted; you think you can just flip on the radio and they’re always going to be there but they won’t always be there. To be able to just close your eyes and listen to Nancy Bea and the organ music, or you’re in the loge section and there’s Roger Owens throwing the peanuts… all of these people at the ballpark, when it all comes together, that’s what makes it so special. Just like Lasorda said “You can have a great ballpark and yes, you can have a great team, but you still need to have other elements to make it special.”
If (the Dodgers) won every single game it would be nice but it would be awfully boring. You just have to have all of these different elements in the ballpark to have a special experience. Like I said, you can’t win every game – you need to have some highs and you need to have some lows because it’s the ultimate reality show. You have no idea what’s going to happen when you come out to the ballpark… what’s going to happen on the field. It could be 12-11 like Steve Yeager’s first game on August 2nd, 1972 against the Giants or it can be 1-0… you never know.
RC: As the team’s historian, do you travel with the team on their road trips?
ML: I stay here in Los Angeles and if I need to go to spring training I will. When I was with the Star News covering the team I would go to all of the National League cities and the All-Star Game and things like that, but I’ve had my fill of travel.
During Spring training 2008 the Dodgers were planning on going to China and I really had my heart set on going on that trip, but I didn’t want to ask or put somebody in the awkward position of feeling that they had to take me. I was hoping to get that tap on the shoulder saying we want you to go on the trip. I still remember how excited I was when Scott Akasaki, the traveling secretary, said to me “You better get your passport.” That was such a once in a lifetime experience. I can remember being on the Great Wall of China and it just didn’t seem real. We were in Florida on a Wednesday morning and then in Arizona on a Sunday night, and in between we went to China. It was a whirlwind trip and I was just lucky to be able to witness something historic like that.
When I went to China, I didn’t know what my lasting impression was going to be. I took about 1,500 photos and it turned out my favorite photo was a shot of a mother taking her young son who must have been five or six years old by the hand and they’re walking into the ballpark. The look on the kid’s face… it was just sort of wonderment, like “what is this… what’s going to happen today?” I think that’s a universal feeling for anybody who comes to any ballpark at a young age because it really could open up a whole new world for them if they decide that’s really what they want to do.
RC: How old were you when you attended your first Dodger game?
ML: Here… let me show you. The screen saver on my phone is the ticket to my first game when I was a kid. It’s always a neat reminder. It was July 15, 1972, Dodgers vs. Expos and I’m in aisle 44 row M seat number 1. We went for my sister’s birthday and I think that my parents were just looking for something for us to do, and according to them I was looking at the people in the next row and I was wondering why they were writing in the middle of their magazine, and it turns out that they were keeping score. I was wondering why they were doing that. I was just seven and I guess I just picked up on it and I thought what kind of place is this? When I was a kid I thought it was the neatest place in the world and then when you’re older, when you can see the world, you have a better perspective. It turns out I was right… I hit the bull’s eye at a young age.
RC: My first ticket went the same route as my baseball cards… on the spokes of my bicycle tires. Looking back on it now, I wish I had that stuff. It’s great that you had the foresight to keep things like that at seven years old.
ML: It’s very hard to keep track of time. When you have Scully, when you have Jaime Jarrin, when you have Tommy Lasorda, Billy Delury… all these people who’ve been here for so long, it suddenly dawns on you how long it’s been, and when you look at something like my ticket stub, you realize “My goodness, that was forty years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
RC: Who is your all-time favorite Dodger?
ML: It would have to be Vin Scully because you didn’t say player.
RC: You’re right, I didn’t. Who is your favorite current Dodger player?
ML: The one I enjoy watching the most now is Clayton Kershaw. At a very young age he had a very unique perspective. I remember when (Dodger photographer) Jon SooHoo needed to take his mug shot at spring training in 2008, I drove Clayton in a golf cart from one part of the camp to another. I said “You know, they’re trying to make another Koufax out of you and I don’t mean they as far as the Dodgers, but the fans,” and he said “They mean well.” It was such a mature thing to say.
They’re all very nice but there was just something about Kershaw that said keep your eye on this kid because with all of the expectations that they’re putting on him, and especially a hard throwing lefty with a last name that starts with K which can stand for Koufax and strikeouts, you knew that he had a good head on his shoulders.
RC: Many are comparing the 2012 Dodgers to past great Dodger teams like the 1981 and 1988 teams. Do you see any similarities with this year’s team and past Dodger teams?
ML: I think the only thing you can do is compare in segments. I think you can only take their track record through X number of games and yes that would be a comparison because the season is so long. There have been many times where a big lead like 1991 suddenly turns into the miracle Atlanta Braves… and things like that.
It’s very nice for them to be off to a good start but if you’ve seen enough baseball and you’ve seen enough seasons, anything can happen. For me I’m always the guarded optimist – you always hope for the best, but when you know about history and you know what can happen, you just have to let the season play out. You may have guarded optimism but that’s not being a pessimist because on the flip side, the team could be in fourth place in August and you just can’t give up because there are so many miracle comebacks… you look at the ’78 Yankees, you look at the ’51 Giants, you look at the Cardinals last year – all these teams that people didn’t think had a chance and suddenly they have a burst of energy at the end and success… like the L.A. Kings in the playoffs – from the number 8 seed to the Stanley Cup Champions; that’s a great lesson as well.
Normally I break up the season into three parts – the first couple months try to stay healthy. The second part, what are you going to do at the trading deadline? Are you going to give up prospects? Are you going to roll the dice and make a trade that you don’t necessarily want to but you think you can catch lightening in a bottle? And the third part is if you do get in the playoffs, are you going to run the table? Anything can happen, so I think of it as three segments.
It’s very unlikely that the team that you see right now will be the exact same team that you will see in October because of injuries, roster moves, and other type of strategies. It’s common now for teams to shuffle the decks in all of baseball at the trading deadline because you never know what player might be available.
RC: For the true fan, baseball is timeless and records are constantly being challenged or broken. In your opinion, are there any records that you believe are untouchable?
ML: Well, we’re doing this interview on June 15th which is the anniversary of Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter, so if you look at that record from a technical standpoint, you’d have to pitch three consecutive no-hitters to break that record and I just don’t see that ever happening. In fact, Vander Meer said that in the game after his second no-hitter when the guy got a hit, he could have walked over to first base and given him a hug because the pressure had been so intense and he was so glad it was over.
The record for strikeouts in a game is 20 in a nine inning game which means there’s still some wiggle room… a perfect strikeout game would be 27 because you get 27 outs, so I think that could be done.
There are quite a few people with four home runs in a game and I think the hardest thing about five home runs in a game is, would an opposing pitcher pitch to a guy after he’s already hit four home runs? Probably not.
Obviously Cal Ripken’s playing streak… that’s a hard one because of durability, and the Pete Rose career hitting record is another hard one, but I would say that Vander Meer’s record is unbeatable.
RC: You and I are blessed to have lived during a time when the most sacred of records have been challenged and broken. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of these records are under suspicion of being broken because of Performance Enhancing Drugs. As such, do you feel that those who broke these records should be excluded from the Hall of Fame?
ML: Regarding the Hall of Fame, I’m not that political of a person in terms of whether or not somebody gets into the Hall of Fame since I am no longer a voter for things like that. I figure that’s up to the writers and that voting group. It’s not something that I’m going to lose any sleep over as far as if somebody gets in or not because I just enjoy the moments. You can see great moments live and I love it when ESPN cuts in on a no-hitter and you’re watching it live; and suddenly people gather around the television… even if they don’t have an interest in these two teams, just the thought of somebody going for a no-hitter, or hey this guy has a chance for his fourth home run, that type of thing… that’s what I worry about more… the actual moments. As far as the politics with awards and things, it’s always subjective.
I was thinking about Gil Hodges the other day. Vin Scully cannot understand why Hodges is not in the Hall of Fame. If you’re a Hodges fan it drives you crazy because not only did he have a great playing career with the Dodgers but he wins the World Series with the Mets in 1969; but then he passes away at a relatively young age in 1972 at age 47. Now he’s not around and a lot of guys who became broadcasters after their playing careers and received a lot of public awareness did get into the Hall of Fame.
There are people out there who turn these things into crusades… the crusade for so and so… get them in the Hall. I’m not really the type to have these causes away from the field… that somebody should be in, especially when I can’t control what’s going to happen.
You can debate the issue and it doesn’t mean that either side is wrong; if that’s what they honestly feel, ok. It’s like an election, let the electorate decide. I don’t have a problem as long as each side can present their argument, and as long as the baseball writers… and they’re the gate keepers right now in terms of who gets in, let them decide. They all need to be accountable for their ballot because I believe those ballots are now becoming public in terms of who votes for who or who left off who. Now if you leave so and so off your ballot, you might have to answer for it if that gets out.
RC: What is the single greatest moment in Dodger history?
ML: That would be April 15th, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game. It sounds trite to say that because it was a bigger moment… not for the franchise, not for the sport, but for the entire country. As the years go by and you see the T-shirts, and you see the commemorative jerseys, and you see the posters, and things like that, and you realize that Jackie has been gone since 1972. I just don’t think, as time goes on, people understand the magnitude of what he went through… the pressure that Branch Rickey felt and others within the organization to sign an African American. And then for Jackie to put himself out there on the field, and it’s not just a matter of is he going to succeed on the field. You have to go back in time and when you look through the FBI file and everything like that and realize that he was always concerned about his personal safety, it makes you wonder how on earth was he able to perform as well as he did with constant death threats or taunts and things like that.
Every other ball player that comes out on the field, they can just do their thing and if it’s 4 for 4 or 0 for 4, they’re still a ball player, but Jackie in 1947 was doing something that was so courageous on his part, I just think as time goes on it’s easy to celebrate his accomplishments on the field, but I just don’t think people appreciate the courage and see the magnitude of basically putting his life at risk to do what he did, and then to have to not say anything for a couple years by the agreement of Branch Rickey. Far and away the most important moment in Dodger history was Jackie Robinson’s first game.
RC: Thank you for your time, Mark.