The Jackie Robinson Celebration Game, a Florida State League contest held each April 15 at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, gives both fans and players a chance to imagine what baseball was like in the days of Robinson, Campanella, Koufax and Drysdale.
But Phil Regan, the St. Lucie Mets' pitching coach, doesn't need to imagine. He was there. He lived it.
The 2015 Jackie Robinson Game featured Regan's Mets as the home team, giving the 78-year-old baseball lifer an opportunity to relive and reflect upon his Dodgertown experiences.
Dodgertown, a former naval barracks, served as the Dodgers' Spring Training home from 1948 through 2008. It was created, under the guidance of legendary executive Branch Rickey, in the wake of Jackie Robinson's debut. It allowed for the Dodgers to train within a racially integrated environment, at a time when Jim Crow was still the norm.
Regan first pitched at Dodgertown in 1966, the first of his three seasons with the Dodgers. This was just one chapter in a nearly six-decade baseball career that, among many other things, has included stints as a scout, Olympic pitching coach and Major League manager (he helmed the 1995 Baltimore Orioles, penciling Cal Ripken's name into the lineup for his record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game).
• Read more on Ben's visit to Vero Beach on the Biz Blog »
I caught up with Regan on April 16 at the St. Lucie Mets' home, Tradition Field. While my intent in interviewing him was simply to get a few quotes for the recap of the previous night's Jackie Robinson Celebration Game, our conversation yielded much more than that.
Regan invited me into the coaches' office and offered a drink from a refrigerator well-stocked with water and Powerade. For the next 20 minutes, he spoke about his Dodgertown memories, the legacy of Jackie Robinson and just how much the game has changed since his debut professional season of 1958. Here are some highlights.
MiLB.com: What was your first impression of Dodgertown? It seems like a unique environment.
Phil Regan: The year I got there , [Don] Drysdale and [Sandy] Koufax never came to Spring Training. That was the year they held out, to make $100,000 apiece. So, when I got there [after six seasons with the Detroit Tigers], I got to pitch a lot and so did Don Sutton. He was a rookie, 20 years old, and because [Koufax and Drysdale] didn't pitch, we both pitched a lot. And we both made the team. I thought I was going to be a starter, but they said, "We're going to make [Sutton] the fourth starter and put you in the bullpen. If he doesn't do well, we're going to send him back to Spokane and you can start again." Well, he did well. [laughs] He had a great career.
But the big thing I remember about Dodgertown was the different way they went about the game. First of all, everybody ate together, and that was a big thing with the Dodgers' success. Because you might sit down with Koufax and Drysdale, and you might be a Class A player. Everybody ate together in that cafeteria. Tommy Lasorda, Walt Alston -- everybody was there.
The other thing that was really unique -- everything was there. They had a golf course there, and every night they brought in a full-length feature movie. And I'm sure it all came about because of Jackie Robinson. That was one of the things they talked about. They wanted everything there so that the players -- Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Junior Gilliam, [Johnny] Roseboro -- didn't have to leave. So there was really a binding of the team. When [Koufax and Drysdale] held out all spring, I never heard one player say anything bad about them. All they said was, 'Well, when they sign we're going to win again.' I think one of the reasons for that was Dodgertown.
Later on, when I was doing advanced [scouting] for the Dodgers, I'd go to Dodgertown a lot. Tommy Lasorda would pick a team of young players and have another guy manage another team. He'd turn the lights on, and say 'Okay, you've got to spot me,' say, five runs. And then he would pitch the game. I actually saw this one night, he was pitching and pulled a muscle in his leg. He pulled a hamstring. He was limping around and Peter O'Malley turned the lights off. He wouldn't let them play anymore.
MiLB.com: When you started your professional career [in 1956], Jackie Robinson was still playing. Did you ever meet him?
Phil Regan: I never met Jackie Robinson, but I met Campanella and Don Newcombe and Joe Black and Junior Gilliam and Duke Snider, all the big Boys of Summer, so to speak.
I started in 1956 with [the] Detroit [Tigers] organization. That was in Jamestown, [New York], but in 1958 I was in Birmingham, Alabama. And this was hard to relate to, but in Birmingham they had a city ordinance that blacks couldn't play against whites. That's 10 years, 11 years [after Robinson broke the Major League color barrier]. So that year we won the [Southern Association] championship. Then we got to the Dixie Series, which was against the winners of the Texas League [Corpus Christi Giants]. And they had three black players, who couldn't play in Birmingham against us. In 1958!
Things are happening that I never really thought you would see. It's happening so fast. Everything. I think back to when I grew up on a farm in Michigan. We didn't have a telephone. We didn't have television. We listened to [Detroit Tigers broadcaster] Harry Heilmann on the radio.
And when you think back to what was happening in Dodgertown at that time, and in baseball, you can't believe the things that are going on now. It's unbelievable. It really is.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.