“THE YEAR OF THE PITCHER”
After Koufax retired in the fall of 1966, little was expected of the Dodgers, and that was what they delivered. They were mediocre in 1967 and not much better in 1968. In 1969 they contended in the “Wild, Wild West,” the new division format that was exciting because, while the New York Mets (amazingly) won 100 games to take the East, the Braves, Giants, Reds, Dodgers and even the Astros, battled it out for the 93 wins needed to win the West.
America, the city of Los Angeles, baseball . . . the times they were a-changin’, as the song went. The Dodgers, so much a part of baseball’s past, failed on and off the field to meet the requirements of change. They were old school. Even when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the team of Jackie Robinson held out until public opinion was so heavy against them that there was no choice but to cancel a game scheduled the night of his funeral.
But there was one major highlight. That was Don Drysdale’s extraordinary six consecutive shutouts and 58 2/3 scoreless innings streak of 1968. It was Drysdale’s “last hurrah,” although he did not know it at the time. Not yet 32 years of age, it seemed that Big D had emerged from Koufax’s shadow to establish himself as L.A.’s all-time ace pitcher. The rugged Drysdale could attain all the career records that Koufax was prevented from winning due to injuries.
But Drysdale’s sidewinding, twisting pitching motion put a lot of strain on his arm. He came down with the curiously named “tennis elbow” injury in 1969, calling it quits.
1968 was one of those years in which the world turned, for better or worse is still up for debate. The Vietnam War raged after the Tet Offensive of January. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for President Dr. King and LBJ’s likely successor, Senator Robert Kennedy, were both shot and killed. Campuses exploded in protest, the streets were race riots, the country split apart. Richard Nixon was elected President on the strength of the “Silent Majority” vote.
The Soviets invaded Prague. The North Koreans captured an American submarine and held the sailors hostage for a year. Nobody in the American or National League could hit the baseball worth a lick. It was the “Year of the Pitcher.”
It was as if Koufax and Drsydale had so dominated the hitters throughout the decade that everybody forgot how to swing the bat. The combined earned run average of 20 Major League teams in both leagues was below 3.00. The All-Star Game was a 1-0 affair (Nationals). The American League batting champion, Carl Yastrzemski was, at .301, the only .300 hitter in that league. Detroit’s Mickey Lolich won three World Series games to earn the MVP award. The MVPs of both leagues were pitchers. In the A.L., it was 31-game winner Denny McLain, the first to achieve that magic number of wins since 1934 and to this day the last to do it. The N.L. winner was Bob Gibson, who despite winning “only” 22, had a better year than McLain.
Gibby threw 13 shutouts and had a scoreless inning streak of 48 straight innings. His ERA, 1.12, is by far the greatest in baseball history, a record that may stand forever. In the World Series, he was even better in his first two victories than Koufax had been in previous Series games, if that is possible. In game one he broke Sandy’s Series strikeout record when 17 Tigers went down like Eastern Europe under Stalin. Still dominating in a 0-0 game seven duel with Lolich, bad defense betrayed him and he was finally beaten.
But as great as Gibson, McLain and a host of other 20-game winners, strikeout specialists, no-hit, even perfect game pitchers and microscopic ERA artists were in ’68, it was Drysdale who captivated the baseball world at a time, frankly, when the world needed a distraction from reality: war, RFK’s assassination, and racial hatred.
But as great as Drysdale was in 1968, there seemed to be another pitcher better, and that was whoever pitched against L.A., particularly Drysdale. The 1968 Dodgers were so pathetic at the plate as to make the ’65 team look like the later Lumber Company in Pittsburgh, or Cincy’s Big Red Machine. Drysdale just pitched with no runs time and again. After seven starts his lone win was a 1-0 decision over the lowly Mets. At that point, it was the only run scored by Los Angeles in its last four games.
Dan Hafner of the Times wrote that in order for Drysdale to win, he had to pitch shutouts, so that was what he did. The Cubs fell, 1-0. Asked if he had “20 shutouts” in him, Drysdale reiterated earlier comments that nobody should expect him to fill Koufax’s shoes and that “I couldn’t stand something like this every time out. I’m too old for that.”
Koufax in his best season never had a “run” like Drysdale was embarking on. He tossed three more shutouts, setting his sights on the big league record of five set by Doc White of the White Sox in another “year of the pitcher,” 1904 (Waddell struck out 349, Jack Chesbro won 41).
46,000 fans packed Dodger Stadium, and L.A. actually led San Francisco, 3-0 entering the ninth. His fast ball was fluky in its tailing movement, which led many to believe he threw spitballs. The first place Giants would not go down easily. Willie McCovey walked and went to second on Jim Ray Hart’s single. A walk loaded the bases with no outs. Alston would have removed Drysdale but he wanted the record to be broken. Nevertheless, he played the infield at double-play depth, conceding a run on a grounder.
Dick Dietz worked a 2-2 count. A wicked Drysdale sinker flew through the night sky, landing on his elbow, walking in the run to end the streak. But home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt said Dietz, half way to first base, had made no effort to avoid the pitch, and under the rules it was called ball three. It is a rarely called rule, and suspicious under these circumstances, but Dietz’ short fly to left was unable to score the slow McCovey from third.
Ty Cline’s hard smash was fielded by Wes Parker, who threw home for the force out. Jack Hiatt popped to Parker. Drysdale had wiggled out of the jam, just as he had done in an earlier game with Houston. The Giants were livid, accusing Drysdale of doctoring the ball and the umpire of pulling for the record. In a tight race they would eventually lose to St. Louis, San Francisco needed every win they could muster.
Drsydale then shut out Pittsburgh, 5-0. He was past Carl Hubbell’s National League record, and two behind the Major League record for consecutive scoreless innings (56) by Walter Johnson.
On June 8, 1968, Drsydale took the hill before a big crowd at Dodger Stadium, but it was different this time. Bobby Kennedy had been killed just a few days earlier and only a few miles away, at the Ambassador Hotel. Drysdale was a Kennedy admirer. He was shaky with his control, a Drysdale rarity, but pitched out of an early jam. Johnson’s record fell when Drysdale got through the third, and he added 2 and 2/3 innings more before Howie Bedell’s sacrifice fly scored Tony Taylor in the fifth to end it at 58 2/3 innings.
Phillie manager Gene Mauch claimed Drysdale was throwing a Vaseline ball, which may have been inadvertent. His hair was slicked with gel, and in touching his head he got the gel on his fingers, causing crazy things to happen. The umpire ordered him to keep his hands away from his cap or hair.
The Dodgers won, 5-3. Drysdale’s streak lifted them into second place, but after that he and the team faltered. They finished in the second division.
DID YOU KNOW . . .
That by 1969 Walter O’Malley was the most powerful owner in baseball, reputed to have personally chosen Bowie Kuhn as the Commissioner of Baseball? O’Malley, not Kuhn, had the greatest influence on the game over the next years. It was his hard-line stance on the fledgling Player’s Union and free agency that created conditions leading to major strikes in 1972, 1981 and eventually 1994?
BY THE NUMBERS
31 – Willie Davis’s 1969 hitting streak, breaking Zack Wheat’s club record.
What mid-season trade ended over two years of Dodger doldrums, propelling them to contention in 1969, reviving the club?
A: Under Buzzie Bavasi, L.A. had not made a significant mid-season trade since acquiring Sal Maglie in 1956. With Billy Grabarkewitz not hitting, O’Malley okayed the trade of Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich to the expansion Montreal Expos for the “disloyal” Maury Wills and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Manny Mota.
DID YOU KNOW . . .
That in 1971 the Dodgers traded for “troublemaker” Dick Allen, a fabulous hitter with the Phillies (and St. Louis in 1970) but not a player in the normal Dodger mold? It was a bold move for a franchise that traditionally avoided controversy, but Allen provided needed power for a club that had not had a home run threat since Frank Howard. He then was traded for Tommy John, which worked out well for L.A. as well as the Chicago White Sox, where Allen was the 1972 American League MVP.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism