Prior to divisional play beginning in 1969, the Major Leagues had a playoff system to determine pennant winners in case the regular season ended in a tie. It wasn’t used all that often. The American League used it all of once (1948) and the National League a bit more frequently (1946, 1951, 1959, 1962). The most famous occurred in 1951. Arguably the best occurred in 1959.
In 1959 the Milwaukee Braves were two-time defending NL champions. They featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter and Warren Spahn. They went into the last weekend of the regular season tied for first, then went 2-1 against Philadelphia to finish the year with a 86-68 record.
Their opponents were the Dodgers, the team they had replaced atop the NL in 1957. But it was a vastly different Dodgers team. First, it was no longer in Brooklyn, having relocated to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. Second, most of the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers were gone. Hall of Famer Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Carl Furillo were still around; but the new team featured Don Drysdale, Wally Moon, Johnny Roseboro, and a wild lefty named Sandy Koufax. Drysdale and Koufax were on the 1956 pennant winning team, but neither was considered a major player on that team. Gone were Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine, a stalwart of the Brooklyn mound who began the year in LA, but retired before the season ended.
The 1959 playoff format was a best of three series with LA getting two home games. The Milwaukee home game was 28 September in County Stadium. The next game was the following day in the LA Coliseum, the first playoff game ever on the West Coast. Game three, an if necessary game, would be in LA the 30th.
With both teams having to win late in the season, the first game saw Danny McDevitt start for the visitors with Carl Willey on the mound for the Braves. With two out and second baseman Charlie Neal on second, Dodgers right fielder Norm Larker singled to drive in a run in the first inning. Milwaukee struck back in the second with two runs on a bunch of singles and an error. The two runs took McDevitt out of the game and brought in bullpen man Larry Sherry. LA got the run back in the next inning on three singles and a force out. In the sixth, Roseboro led off the inning with a home run putting the Dodgers up 3-2. Sherry pitched masterfully shutting out Milwaukee on four hits (and two walks) making Roseboro’s homer the deciding run.
The next day the teams played one of the great playoff games ever. The Dodgers started Drysdale and the Braves countered with Lew Burdette. In the opening frame with an out Mathews walked, Aaron doubled, then Frank Torre doubled to plate both runs. The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the first with a Neal triple followed by a single by Wally Moon. The Braves got the run right back on a single and error by Snider in the second. In the bottom of the fourth Neal homered to bring the Dodgers within a run. Again Milwaukee got the run right back with a Mathews home run in the fifth. It drove Drysdale from the game. The score remained 4-2 until the top of the eighth when catcher Del Crandall tripled and came home on a Felix Mantilla sacrifice fly. The score remained 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. With three outs to go, Burdette stumbled. Moon, Snider, and Hodges all singled to load the bases. Out went Burdette, in came bullpen ace Don MaMahon. He proceeded to give up a two-run single to Larker. Out went McMahon, in came Warren Spahn. A sacrifice fly by Furillo tied the game.
It stayed tied through the tenth and eleventh, the Dodgers managing one hit in the eleventh. By the twelfth, Stan Williams was on the mound for LA and Bob Rush for Milwaukee. Williams got through the twelfth without giving up a hit, but with two out Rush walked Hodges. Joe Pignatano singled moving Hodges to second. Furillo then singled to shortstop Mantilla who was playing short instead of his normal second because of a defensive substitution in the seventh. Mantilla managed an error letting Hodges in with the winning run and putting the Dodgers into the World Series. They would win it over Chicago in six games.
In the years since, playoff games prior to the World Series became a staple of baseball. Now we don’t consider it unusual to see a round of games between the end of the regular season and the Series. Back in 1959 it wasn’t at all normal. It happened three times previously in all of NL history. So there was a level of anticipation that was different from today’s playoffs. And it was the first postseason play (although technically the games counted as regular season games, they were considered by most a playoff) on the West Coast. With game two, the West Coast got a great introduction to playoff baseball.