This was notably evident in 1963. Managed by Walter Alston, the Dodgers overcame a sluggish start to win the National League pennant and surgically sweep the vaunted New York Yankees in a stunning World Series. They did it with a predominantly black lineup, the first time that had happened.
Catcher John Roseboro, second and third baseman Jim Gilliam, shortstop Maury Wills, left fielder Tommy Davis and center fielder Willie Davis were pillars in a swift and dynamic outfit that always seems to get overlooked when historians discuss the greatest teams ever. These five men provided toughness, leadership, speed, athleticism, power, defense ... and memories that carry to this day for Southern Californians old enough to recall their glory days.
If the presence of five black starters drew little notice at the time, it was partially due to the dominating presence of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the popular faces of the franchise.
Koufax, the best of the era and arguably the best ever in his prime, ruled October in 1963. He claimed Games 1 and 4, outdueling the great Whitey Ford in blowing away the Bronx Bombers. Johnny Podres and Drysdale took Games 2 and 3. The Yankees scored just four runs in the four games, with Mickey Mantle's Game 4 homer off Koufax the sum total of their offense in the final two games at Dodger Stadium.
"When you have talent," Wills, now a special instructor with the Dodgers, said in July, "you always have the opportunity to do something special. We had tremendous talent and drive on our teams in the '60s. Everything came together in '63. We didn't think anyone could beat us."
Those Dodgers were no offensive juggernaut. They produced 12 runs in the World Series after averaging just 3.9 runs per game in the regular season, sixth in the NL. Only five of the 20 teams in the Majors hit fewer home runs.
But they scored enough to win, and they did it when it counted. Tommy Davis, a two-time batting champion, led the way against the Yankees with six hits, including a pair of triples. Roseboro crushed a three-run home run off Ford in the opener, the decisive blow of the Series.
Best-sellers have been written about the 1964 Cardinals and their role in the integration movement, with Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Bill White playing prominent roles. That great team needed seven games to dispatch the Yankees in the World Series.
Let's shine the light on the five black stars who fueled the Dodgers' 1963 sweep of the Bronx Bombers alongside the incomparable Koufax.
A tough-minded, hard-edged athlete from Ashland, Ohio, Roseboro succeeded legendary Roy Campanella, one of the original racial pioneers in Brooklyn along with Robinson, Don Newcombe and Joe Black. Campy taught Rosey everything he knew.
After 35 games as Campy's apprentice in 1957, the team's final season in Brooklyn, Roseboro was ready when the great one's tragic auto accident opened the door wide in 1958. An All-Star as a rookie, Roseboro hit .271 and showed rare speed for a catcher with 11 steals and nine triples while playing his home games in the vast Coliseum.
The speed would gradually erode, but Roseboro's overall skills expanded over the years. A superior receiver, he ran the pitching staff that would dominate the league while delivering clutch hits from the left side throughout his 14-year career. His three RBIs in the 1963 World Series were matched two years later when the Dodgers subdued the Twins in seven games behind more Koufax magic.
Known as "Gabby" to teammates for his quiet nature, Roseboro became a national figure as the victim in an ugly incident with the Giants in the heat of the 1965 pennant race.
Giants ace Juan Marichal lost his composure on a Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park and cracked his bat over Roseboro's head in a wild donnybrook requiring the intervention of Willie Mays to prevent even more mayhem. In a memorable scene, Mays took Roseboro, the enemy, to the visitors' dugout in his arms for treatment of a gash over his eye, bringing order and sanity to the madness.
It speaks volumes about Roseboro's humanity that he later forgave Marichal and they became friends in their later years. Roseboro, who played in six All-Star Games and won two Gold Gloves, was traded by the Dodgers to Minnesota after the 1967 season, spending two seasons with the Twins before ending his career in 1970 with the Washington Senators under manager Ted Williams.
"John was a rock," Wills said. "He was my roommate when I came up to the big leagues [in 1959]. He broke me in. I'm grateful to John for all he did for me. He was a great teammate."
Roseboro was 69 when he died in 2002.
While never as flamboyant or spectacular as Robinson and Wills, Gilliam was a winner, a ballplayer's ballplayer. Nobody respected him more than his manager. Alston made him a coach after his sterling career ended in 1966.
Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Gilliam, who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award at 24 in 1953, was a smart, versatile athlete, spending his entire career in Dodger Blue.
A leadoff man in his early years, Gilliam slid seamlessly into the No. 2 spot behind Wills, his discipline enabling Wills to steal a record 104 bases in 1962. Gilliam had 1,036 career walks against only 416 strikeouts, and he was equally adept at second or third base and left field.
Like Roseboro, Gilliam was a serious-minded, no-nonsense leader. His 40.9 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) by Baseball-Reference is testimony to his advanced skills and production.
When Gilliam suffered a brain aneurism and succumbed on Oct. 8, 1978, at age 49, it was a profound loss to the Dodgers. Dedicating the postseason to his mentor, Davey Lopes hit five homers, drove in 12 runs and stole three bases in 10 games against the Phillies and Yankees, batting .341 and slugging .750.
"Jim was a great man who died much too young," Lopes, now a Dodgers coach, said. "He meant the world to me and a lot of other guys. He was irreplaceable."
Wills' speed and daring served, with Gilliam as his accomplice, to revolutionize the game and pave the road for men of steal such as Lou Brock, Lopes, Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson.
It took him 8 1/2 years in the Minor Leagues to reach "The Show," but once he did, Wills was a showstopper. His speed and quickness were valuable tools at shortstop as well as on the bases. The NL Most Valuable Player Award winner in 1962 in a crowded field that included Mays, Tommy Davis and Frank Robinson, Wills paid a price the following season with knee issues limiting him to 134 games, but he was still the driving force en route to the championship.
Taking his role as captain seriously, Wills cracked the whip, and his teammates responded. He collected 11 hits, batting .367, in the seven games against the Twins in the 1965 World Series.
Wills was dealt to Pittsburgh after the 1966 season, spending two seasons with the Pirates and a half-season in Montreal before a 1969 traded returned him to L.A. He wrapped up his career as a Dodger in 1970 and received his highest Hall of Fame vote, 40.6 percent, in 1981, his fourth year of eligibility.
"Maury was a force," said Al Downing, who worked Game 2 of the 1963 Series for the Yankees. "He set a tone for that team with his aggression and attitude."
A back-to-back batting champion in 1962 and '63, Davis was the lethal bat in the heart of the order. He led the NL in hits (230) and RBIs (153) in 1962, and he could run like the wind before fracturing a leg sliding early in the 1965 season.
Dealt to the Mets after the 1966 season, the Brooklyn native was never quite the same after the injury slowed his wheels. But Davis remained highly productive as a hitter for a decade with nine other Major League teams.
"Tommy Davis was my idol as a kid growing up in Riverside [Calif.]," said Dusty Baker, who would go on to star in left field for the Dodgers and emulate Davis as a total player and clutch hitter. "I always wore No. 12 because of Tommy. He was cool -- and he loved the pressure. He always seemed to come through when it mattered most."
Davis works for the Dodgers in community relations, spreading good cheer wherever he goes.
A world-class sprinter widely acknowledged as the fastest player of his time, Willie D. took long, loping strides and made it look easy -- too easy, perhaps.
Judging Davis against the other Willie up the coast, the incomparable Mays, critics assumed he didn't care enough. He probably didn't help his image when he spoke the truth. "It ain't my wife, and it ain't my life," was Davis' standard reply to those who criticized his cool manner on the field.
Yet it was that jazz-master demeanor and style that endeared Davis to his fans. An inner-city L.A. kid from Roosevelt High School, Davis broke into the big time at 20 in 1960 and was a star two years later, leading the league with 10 triples while producing 21 homers, 85 RBIs and scoring 103 runs.
The vast expanse of Dodger Stadium was made for Willie D., who roamed deep into the gaps to turn extra-base hits into outs. Nothing in the sport was more exciting than No. 3 flying into third with a triple. Davis had a NL-high 16 in 1970 and managed to deliver 10 triples at age 36 for the Padres in 1976. He finished his career with the Angels in 1979, fittingly legging out a double and scoring in his final big league at-bat in the American League Championship Series against the Orioles.
Davis' career WAR of 60.7 is a strong response to those who felt he was an underachiever. The man who answered to "3-Dog" could play. He was 69 when he died in 2010.