By Marshall Garvey
Any cursory glance at the history of the Dodgers franchise reveals a litany of baseball titans. Robinson, Newcombe, Campanella, Reese, Alston, Koufax, Drysdale, Wills, Garvey, Sutton, Valenzuela, Hershiser, Lasorda, Piazza, Kershaw. From Sullivan Place in Brooklyn to Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, the Dodger lineage is one of the proudest in baseball.
Any franchise with a tradition of winning is defined as much by lesser known heroes as they are by superstars. Wally Moon, who recently passed away at the age of 87 on February 9, is a perfect example of an underrated hero. Despite being a crucial bat for the 1959, 1963 and 1965 championship teams, his moniker is one that isn’t universally known. But for anyone who bleeds Dodger Blue, it’s a name to be remembered and cherished.
A native of the small town of Bay, Arkansas, Moon started his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954, replacing Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter in the outfield. Displeased Cardinals fans chanted, “We want Slaughter!” as he strode to the plate for the first time on April 13. Moon would respond by slugging a home run. It was a harbinger of things to come, as Moon notched a .304 batting average, 12 homers and 76 RBIs that season. That line proved enough to earn him National League Rookie of the Year honors for the 1954 season, beating out Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Gene Conley.
While the Cardinals are second only to the Yankees in terms of championship prestige, the 50’s were a strangely barren decade for the Redbirds. Moon would have to head west in order to experience postseason play. And after a sub-par 1958 season, he was traded to the Dodgers at year’s end. The franchise had recently made their historic transplant from Brooklyn to L.A., but missed the postseason the past two seasons after the 1955 Brooklyn championship and another pennant in 1956.
Of course, this was the brief period where the Dodgers had to play at the L.A. Coliseum before Dodger Stadium’s opening in 1962. Given the oval shape of the field, this forced players to adjust. Especially with the bizarre disparity between left field and right. It was a meager 250 foot distance to left and 440 to send a ball over the right-field fence. Being a left-handed batter, Moon would seem destined to struggle further in these conditions. But with advice from his mentor Stan Musial, he adjusted his hitting to take advantage of the short left field.
The benefits to the Dodgers were immediate. In only their second season on the west coast, the team claimed the National League pennant in 1959. This in no small part thanks to Moon’s 19 home runs and league-leading 11 triples. Moon’s towering fence-clearers were aptly dubbed “Moon Shots”, and he saved the best of them for last in the World Series against the Chicago White Sox. He only notched one round-tripper in the series, but it came at a perfect time. Moon launched one deep in the sixth and final game to help the Dodgers clinch their second championship in franchise history. And it would be the the first in their storied tenure in Los Angeles.
Moon continued to be a steady presence at the plate for the Dodgers all the way through the 1965 season. He continued to hit at a solid clip as the franchise moved from the Coliseum to Elysian Park. They won two more World Series titles during this span. One in 1963 against the New York Yankees and 1965 against the Minnesota Twins. During a time when charismatic Dodger stars like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale frequently appeared in television shows, Moon himself even landed a role in a 1960 episode of Wagon Train, playing a sheriff who gets hit by a bullet during a shootout with the villain.
After his retirement following the 1965 World Series, Moon returned to MLB as a batting coach for the San Diego Padres during their inaugural 1969 season. He later worked as a baseball coach and athletic director at John Brown University. Moon was also a coach and executive for the minor league San Antonio Dodgers. He lived much of his later life in Bryan, Texas, happily married to his wife Bettye and raising a family of five children and seven grandchildren.
Moon may never occupy an epochal spot in our collective conscious quite like Koufax, Garvey, Valenzuela and others. In a year where the Dodgers seek to reclaim their championship prestige, it’s even more important to remember Wally’s contributions.
Rest in peace, Wally. Your Moon Shots, while measurable in terms of the distance they traveled over outfield walls, are immeasurable in how much they elevated the Los Angeles Dodgers to becoming one of the sports world’s crown jewel organizations.
[button color=”red” size=”big” alignment=”center” rel=”follow” openin=”samewindow” url=”man.com”]Still to Come[/button]