With the exception of that team from the Bronx and, perhaps, the Red Sox, no baseball franchise in history is as storied as the Dodgers — especially the incarnation that played at old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn until the club’s abrupt (and, for countless Brooklynites, unforgivable) move to L.A. in 1958.
Those Brooklyn teams from the 1940s and ’50s — filled with players bearing names like Reese, Campanella, Snider, Robinson, Newcombe, Hodges, Stanky, Reiser, Furillo, Branca and so many more — hold a special place not only in the memories of millions of fans of a certain age, but in the annals of the game itself. Dem Bums, after all, won eight pennants and one World Series during those two decades, and probably would have won a few more championships if they didn’t have to keep facing (and losing to) the powerhouse Yankee teams of the era.
Here, however, LIFE.com offers a series of photos — many of which never ran in LIFE — not of well-known, Hall of Fame-worthy Dodgers but, for the most part, long-forgotten young hopefuls at spring training in 1948, the very first year the team trained at the “Dodgertown” complex in Vero Beach, Florida. (The Los Angeles Dodgers left Dodgertown in 2008 to hold their spring training in Arizona — ending 60 years of tradition.)
The photos here, by LIFE’s George Silk, are marvelous for a number of reasons, not least because, quite simply, they’re just damn good pictures. There is energy in the images, and a genuine playfulness as well as terrific personalities — captured by an acknowledged master of sports photography. But the real pleasure to be derived from these shots is the glimpse they afford us of baseball in the post-WWII era in America. To be sure, the players and coaches pictured here are all very, very white. Jackie Robinson had only broken the color barrier the previous year, and in 1948 there were only three (that’s not a typo) black players in the National and American leagues.
But the rather jarring racial uniformity aside, the photos in the gallery serve as a welcome reminder of the game’s inimitable appeal for fans who might have forgotten why they first fell in love with baseball in the first place: the sound of bat against ball, and ball against glove; the mingled smells of wood, dirt, grass and leather; warm sunshine, and the cool of the dugout; the thrill of competition and the beauty of teamwork; the pure geometry of the diamond — all of these pleasures are, to varying degrees, illustrated or suggested in Silk’s spirited pictures.
The cover story in which a few of these photos first appeared, meanwhile, in the April 5, 1948, issue of LIFE, made it plain that while professional baseball is certainly a game, it’s also undeniably a business — and it’s often nearly impossible to tease the two apart, and to tell where one aspect of the national pastime stops and the other starts:
Last month 550 fresh-faced young Americans, supercharged with ambition to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, began pouring into Vero Beach, on the east coast of Florida, to participate in one of the most extensive talent roundups ever undertaken. The Dodgers paid the players’ fares to Vero Beach from every corner of the U.S., then fed and housed them, for eight weeks in an abandoned wartime naval station which they renamed the baseball city of Dodgertown. There Branch Rickey, parsimonious panjandrum of the Brooklyn National League club, personally superintended the operation of a baseball stock farm devised to improve the breed of the Brooklyn Bums, win at least five National league pennants in the next 10 years and enrich the company’s coffers by several hundred thousand dollars.
Branch Rickey himself did not succeed as a major-league field manager (with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1925), but that was because he had too many scientific theories about how baseball should be played and too few good players to make the theories work. Dodgertown proved to be the ideal place to test all of Rickey’s ideas. At the outset he laid down the law to his 35 instructors on how he wanted Dodgertown run — i.e., with metronomic precision. Everybody had to bounce out of bed at 6:45 a.m. After breakfast there was a classroom session on the intricacies of “inside baseball,” followed by mass calisthenics. Rickey wandered all over the camp, shaking hands briskly with the kid pitchers, not just to be friendly but to test their grip as well.
Some of [the prospects] will be playing for Brooklyn three years from now if by that time Rickey, a past master at turning baseball talent into gold, has not sold them to other major-league teams at a handsome profit. When Dodgertown breaks up, Rickey and his staff will know, or think they know, how far every player can go in the Brooklyn baseball chain and how fast he can get there. Almost all of them will get a chance to make the grade in 1948 with one of the 25 minor-league farm clubs operated by the Dodgers. But a disappointed few will be taken aside and quietly advised to forget the whole thing and get a job in a filling station.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.