3 Up, 3 Down: J.P. Hoornstra on his book about the top 50 Dodger games of all time

J.P. Hoornstra remembers very little about the Kirk Gibson home run that won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland Athletics. He was 6-years-old and living in the Bay Area, so the one thing he’s sure of is that he wasn’t rooting for the Dodgers. A quarter century later the Dodgers take up much of his time. For the past few years he’s been the Dodgers beat reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Los Angeles Daily News and Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Now he’s covering the team like no one ever has.

The Dodgers have played more than 10,000 games dating back to the 1800s and Hoornstra is the first writer to publish a book about the best ones.

The 50 Greatest Dodgers Games of All Time includes the Gibson game and Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, as well as some lesser known contests, like the time the Dodgers were one of three teams playing at the same time. Hoornstra won’t say what the top game is, but in this edition of 3 Up, 3 Down, we talked to him about what went in to writing the book about the most important games in Dodger history.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

A: It seems so obvious that I was kind of surprised that no one had done it before. You hear people talking about their favorite game or their five favorite games but nobody ever sat down and tried to figure out what the 50 greatest are.

I started working on it like two years ago. The first part was to pick the games and then once you pick the games you can really start to dig in and do the research and I started doing that around spring training of 2014. From there it’s a tough balancing act - writing a book with being a day-to-day beat writer. It’s my first book. I’ve written long magazine stories before.  When they read it, I want people to think I’ve nailed it, I’ve hit all the angles, covered it completely. If I’ve done this right, no one will attempt to do this.

Q: How did you research the games?

A: There was a spreadsheet, no votes, no points. There were a handful of games, 10 to 20 off the top of my head, well this game has to be in there and I’m pretty sure all of them made the final cut.

I saw the ending of the game in which there were four consecutive home runs in the ninth inning. I was on the copy desk that night of the San Bernardino Sun, we were trying to put the paper to bed and the Dodgers just kept playing. That’s the only one I saw live. I didn’t attend any of them personally.

Found some on Youtube. Most of the research was not done by talking to people. Because these were all great games they’ve all been written about. A couple of the older games, like from 1890, went all the way back to the first games. Because all of the games had been written about I started with the written sources first.

Orel Hershiser’s been asked about 1988 before, Kirk Gibson and Dennis Eckersley have talked about that game before. Sandy Koufax has talked about his perfect game before, these interviews for the most part have been done. By the time I exhausted the written sources, I mean literally exhausted every important piece of information about these games there were only a handful of interviews that I felt like I needed to do.

I didn’t want to take the readers through the game inning by inning so much as I wanted to say what happened as much as I needed to without saying what was important – let the reader just figure it out for themselves, ‘oh yeah of course this is huge,’ and maybe it wasn’t for what happened during the game.

One of my games is the last game that Jackie Robinson attended here. It’s the day they retired his number, number 42. All he did was show up here on the field, say a few words – a fan tossed him a baseball to autograph it, it conked him on the head ‘cause he was going blind.  He signed the ball anyway. The Dodgers played the Cardinals that day. They lost, Joe Torre may have hit a home run – but the fact that Jackie Robinson was here, made that so that’s not a game where I care to take the reader through every moment of that game.

The more I dug into Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, I thought the Dodgers were accessories to that but this is one of the greatest moments in baseball history. I’m doing an injustice if I didn’t put it in there.

Q: What games most surprised you?

A: There were two games that didn’t count in the standings that made my book. One was the Roy Campanella tribute game in LA Coliseum in 1959 and the whole backstory of how that happened and how almost 100,000 people showed up to watch an exhibition with the Yankees, the most attended game in history to that point.  But that was one where you check the standings and read about the 1959 season you’ll never find out about that game.

There was another one in which the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants all played each other. Three teams, same time, same field at the Polo Grounds. That was to raise money for World War II. And that had never happened before at least with three major league teams. And not with the importance of trying to raise money for the war.

The Dodgers eliminated the Giants from the playoffs on the day that Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s single season home run record and the more I dug into that the more I thought, well this needs to go in. Go down certain wormholes and in the end I just used my gut. I haven’t heard from a person who’s made it all the way through and asked, “how could you leave this game out?”