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‘Penguin Power’ tells the story of Dodgers great Ron Cey

Los Angeles Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — Ron Cey hit the second-most home runs by a Los Angeles Dodger. He anchored third base for a decade in Los Angeles, part of the longest-running infield quartet in major league history. But it took him some time before deciding on sharing the story of his life and storied baseball career.

“I wasn’t sure whether or not I had a story to tell, or if someone would be interested in reading those stories and what I had to say,” Cey said in an interview with True Blue LA this week.

Cey had several friends who convinced him to tell his story, and he teamed up with longtime Dodgers beat writer Ken Gurnick to co-author Cey’s autobiography, ‘Penguin Power,: Dodger Blue, Hollywood Lights, and My One-in-a-Million Big League Journey’ which was published this year by Triumph Books.

“In some ways, he never got the credit he deserved for being the player that he was,” Gurnick said of Cey in a phone interview. “Equally, I felt that that Dodger team, which I covered at the end of it, didn’t get the credit that it deserved for being a perennial power, even at the time of The Big Red Machine, their biggest rival at the time. They had a great team, and they kept it together for almost a decade. I felt like, in Dodger lore, they sort of fell through the cracks.”

‘Penguin Power’ by Ron Cey, available at Triumph Books
‘Penguin Power’ by Ron Cey, available at Triumph Books

The infield of Cey, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Bill Russell played together for 8½ seasons from 1973 through 1981, a group that won four pennants and one championship. Outside of a brief pregame acknowledgment on the field at Dodger Stadium this June, for the 50th anniversary of their first game starting together, The Infield isn’t as well known to many fans today. Cey, who worked for the team in various capacities for decades after his career ended, no longer has a relationship with the Dodgers.

‘Penguin Power’ does a good job of telling the story of those teams, in one of the most tumultuous times in baseball history.

The 1970s brought the advent of free agency and player empowerment. A few years before full free agency came about, salary arbitration was bargained for between major league players and owners. After the 1974 season, Cey was the first Dodger to go through arbitration.

“Arbitration was really in its infancy. I don’t think the players realized that the baseball people in the front office were going to turn it over to lawyers, and it was going to become a trial instead of a negotiation setting,” Gurnick described. “A lot of them didn’t realize how hostile it would sound coming from the people who all year long would pat you on the back, and now they’re going to tear you apart.”

Cey in the book goes into detail about the arbitration process, as well as various dealings with Dodgers general manager Al Campanis and owners Walter O’Malley and Peter O’Malley. In that arbitration hearing, the Dodgers wanted to pay Cey $47,000 but his side argued and won for a salary of $56,000 in 1975. The experience that stuck with him.

“It did not go smoothly, and it hurt my feelings a great deal. I wanted them to understand that I wasn’t trying to do anything other than resolve the difference. I wasn’t trying to hold out. I was trying to get to spring training on time so that I can move forward, we can move forward,” Cey said this week. “It was nothing personal, other than resolving a difference in opinion about what I should be paid.”

At various points in the book, Cey has a matter-of-fact way of articulating his point of view, a clarity that is often refreshing. That comes with the territory for someone who knew he wanted to be a professional baseball player since his was nine or 10 years old, and put in the work and had the single-mindedness of purpose to make it happen.

There’s no “back in my day” from Cey other than literally describing his past. He even acknowledged that today’s bat-flipping and various celebrations simply didn’t happen when he played but said in the book, “In a way I kind of wish we had celebrated to loosen things up a little bit more during our time.”

“He’s willing to say what he thinks is right and what is wrong, but there’s no bitter tone to it,” Gurnick said. “He accepts the fact that things are going to change, and that his generation changed from the previous generation. He’s not a selfish type who thinks, ‘Our way was the only way,’ because he realizes his way wasn’t the way of the predecessors.”

Part of Cey’s clarity of thought is knowing where he stands in both Dodgers and baseball history. His 228 home runs with the Dodgers was the LA record until Eric Karros passed him, and still ranks fifth in franchise history. Cey made six All-Star teams but wasn’t the star that Garvey was at the time.

“The Dodgers wanted a face on the franchise for promotional purposes, and Garvey was the one who embraced it the most,” Gurnick said. “The other three infielders were lower-key type guys. It was a better match, with what Garvey was looking for and what Garvey was willing to do for them, but I think it did unintentionally take away deserving attention from what the other three guys did.

“I don’t know that any of them would have been as good as they were if all of them weren’t there.”

Cey didn’t hit .300 but he hit home runs and walked a lot, which gave him a higher on-base percentage (.359) than Garvey (.337) with the Dodgers. Cey is fifth in Dodgers history in FanGraphs WAR among position players (49.9), and tops among all Los Angeles position players. By Baseball Reference WAR (47.7), Cey is sixth, behind only Willie Davis among LA players.

Cey in our interview also noted he was the second-best third baseman in the National League during his career, behind only Mike Schmidt. This is true; from 1973-86, Cey was fourth in the majors by both fWAR (55.5) and bWAR (53.7). Schmidt is at the top of both lists, with only American League stalwarts George Brett and Buddy Bell in between.

“I didn’t think that I needed to stand in front of the camera to justify getting an interview, or I thought my play would be good enough, and I was wrong,” Cey said of his playing career. “I thought naively about it, and if I was going to take better advantage of it, I would probably put myself in a better position to be more vocal about my play.”

Cey was a great player and one of the best in the history of the Dodgers. ‘Penguin Power’ does an excellent job of telling his story, as well as the surrounding environment of that period in baseball.

“Today’s Dodger fan would enjoy what that era was like,” Gurnick said, “and if you grew up in that era you’ll really enjoy a trip down memory lane.”