Welcome back to my new series for Dodgers Nation, the Dodgers NL MVP Annals! In each installment, I will take an in-depth look at every single MVP season by a Dodger and the player who won it. The Dodgers franchise can currently lay claim to 13 National League MVP winners, won by 11 different players. These span from 1913 to 2014, starting in the lean nascent days in Brooklyn to the Guggenheim Era in Los Angeles today.
As the Dodgers’ 2019 season sees them off to a torrid start sure to net a seventh consecutive NL West title (and hopefully the ultimate title in October), I find myself in a state of gratitude for the team’s sustained success this decade. Additionally, I constantly ruminate on the fact that this is but one of many stretches of sustained success going back MANY decades. Yes, as of now they haven’t won a World Series in 30 years. But that doesn’t make me any less proud of their (in my view) under-appreciated track record of winning to a degree most could only dream of.
Yet hard as it may be to believe, there was a time…long, long ago, before many people’s lifetimes…when the Dodgers were far from consistent winners. Very much the opposite, they were consistent losers. For the first several decades of the 20th century, the Brooklyn Dodgers (known by other monikers like the Robins and Superbas) were, with nary an exception, one of the weakest franchises in the National League.
From the first World Series in 1903 all the way until 1940, Brooklyn managed just two World Series appearances in 1916 and 1920, losing both times. Winning seasons were few and far between, the low point coming when they suffered six straight losing seasons from 1933 to 1938. To make matters worse, the arch-rival New York Giants won a bevy of pennants and World Series titles during this time.
That all changed when a man named Larry MacPhail became both executive vice president and general manager of the franchise in 1938. Fresh off turning the Cincinnati Reds from bottom feeders into a World Series contender, he was determined to spin the same magic for the Bums. Even for a man who stole Kaiser Wilhelm’s ashtray on an unauthorized mission while serving in World War I, it seemed a daunting task.
Nonetheless, MacPhail’s magic touch was instantaneous. The Dodgers posted winning records in 1939 and 1940, boosted by a host of brilliant players acquired by their new GM. Aside from Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, the biggest was first baseman Adolph Camilli. Known simply as Dolph, the left-handed San Francisco native had previously played for the Cubs and Phillies, and brought with him a free-swinging style that resulted in as many strikeouts as it did big hits. He even set the National League record for whiffs in 1935 with 113 as a Phillie.
In 1941, MacPhail’s winning ambitions paid off with 100 wins and the franchise’s first National League pennant in over two decades. At the heart of this dominant season was Camilli’s NL MVP performance, leading the league in home runs (34) and RBIs (120) while batting .285, and earning his second career All-Star selection. True to form, however, he also led in strikeouts with 115. The Dodgers’ famously loyal fanbase poured into the streets to show their gratitude for the pennant, and especially Dolph’s role in winning it.
The only downside is the team wasn’t able to complete their ascension from the cellar with a World Series championship. Aided by catcher Mickey Owen’s infamous passed ball, the Dodgers succumbed to the New York Yankees in just five games, a feeling that would soon become all too familiar in October. Camilli’s magic year ended on the sourest of notes, batting a paltry .167 with just one RBI in the series. Brooklyn would have to wait 14 more years until 1955 to savor its first World Series title.
Camilli followed up his MVP year with another stellar one in 1942, his 26 homers and 109 RBIs helping Brooklyn improve their win total to 104. Yet that somehow wasn’t enough to secure another pennant, falling short to St. Louis in one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history. He did, however, get to be a part of the franchise’s expanding global reach when they spent Spring Training in Havana, Cuba. He and other Dodger legends can be seen living it up in the photos provided in the video below:
Camilli’s moment in the Dodger spotlight would come to a sudden end when he was traded the next summer to the New York Giants. Rather than suit up for their hated rivals, he opted to manage the minor league Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He continued to manage in the minors, and later worked as a scout for the Yankees and California Angels.
While Camilli’s time in the majors abruptly ended, the Dodgers continued to be winners through the ‘40s, culminating in 1947 when a guy named Jackie (the subject of the next part of this series on Monday) debuted. The rest, as they say, is history, and the Dodgers haven’t stopped winning since.
Camilli’s contribution to that winning hasn’t been forgotten, earning induction into the Dodgers Hall of Fame in 1984. He passed away aged 90 in 1997 in San Mateo, CA.
In this era of annual postseason play for the Dodgers, it’s worth taking a moment to thank the 1941 team, and especially Dolph Camilli, for setting the tone for almost 80 years of virtually uninterrupted success. Camilli was the first MVP in franchise history whose award-winning season contributed to a pennant, one that ended decades of futility.
Best of all, he was a man who, despite playing for multiple clubs, bled Dodger Blue so much he refused to play for the Giants. He’s a legend for that alone.