Posts Tagged ‘Sandy Koufax’

Stability

September 4, 2017

Johnny Bench, Reds

Over at one of my favorite blogs, The Hall of Miller and Eric, they are running a “Mount Rushmore” of each team. As you might expect that means they are picking four players to represent the best of each franchise. But there is a kicker there. The player must have played his entire career with the same team. That means no Warren Spahn at the Braves, no Duke Snider with the Dodgers, no Yogi Berra with the Yanks (he had nine at bats with the Mets).

Now all that, especially the loss of Snider and Dazzy Vance with the Dodgers, got me to looking for players who spent their entire career with one team. Now it had to be significant time with the team, after all Moonlight Graham spent his entire Major League career with one team. I figured it would be loaded with old-time players, players who were faced with the reserve clause. Surprisingly, there were a lot of modern guys on the list. Here’s a list, in no particular order, of just a few of the players who never changed teams.

First base: Lou Gehrig, Jeff Bagwell, Willie Stargell

Second Base: Charlie Gehringer, Jackie Robinson (he was traded but never played for a second team, opting to retire instead), Craig Biggio

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Luke Appling, PeeWee Reese, Phil Rizzuto

Third Base: Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, George Brett, Mike Schmidt

Outfield: Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski

Catcher: Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella

Left-Handed Pitchers: Whitey Ford, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax

Right-Handed Pitchers: Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Mariano Rivera

Not a bad lot, right?

One quick note. Honus Wagner came up with the Louisville Colonels and ended up with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s not quite the same as being traded or leaving via free agency. Barney Dreyfuss owned both teams and when the National League contracted he moved all his good players to Pittsburgh and let Louisville go. I’m not sure how to deal with that, so I left him off. You might differ.

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A Sad Anniversary

October 6, 2016
Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Sandy Koufax’s last Major League game. He lost game two of the 1966 World Series on this date, then retired. It was, when we watched it, or in my case listened to it (I was in school and most of the game was on radio) just another World Series game. True, it was one the Dodgers lost on the way to a four game sweeping by the Baltimore Orioles, but no one knew we were watching and listening to the end of legendary career. And yes, 50 years ago the World Series ended by mid-October, not early November.

Five years later Koufax became a first ballot Hall of Famer, which cemented his status as a living legend. There are few of those. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle are some (although Mantle is now gone). It doesn’t seem like it was fifty years ago that I watched that graceful Koufax delivery or for that matter watched Mantle’s powerful swing.

To those of you too young to see Koufax (or Gibson, or Mantle, or a host of others from my youth) I offer my condolences. They really were that good. And when you reach my age I hope you will be able to say the same thing to your kids about your youthful heroes.

 

Gibby

August 16, 2016
Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson

While researching something else, it dawned on me that I’d never actually sat down and wrote about one of my all time favorites, Bob Gibson. I did a little something a few years back (25 October 2010 titled “Bob Gibson Gets Me a Car”) on how a bet on the 1967 World Series netted me enough to buy a used car (and Gibson was instrumental in that win) but I’d never actually centered something on him. Time to change that.

Gibson came out of Omaha before Peyton Manning made the town a sports word. He did a little work with the Harlem Globetrotters, then joined the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his debut in 1959 against the Dodgers. He worked the last two innings in relief, gave up a couple of runs, including a home run to Jim Baxes, the first batter he faced in the National League. His opponent was Don Drysdale.

Gibson got better. After two seasons with a losing record, he finished over .500 for the first time in 1961 (13-12). Unfortunately, he also led the NL in walks. He made his first All Star Game in 1962 and led the NL in shutouts. In 1964 he won 19 games, was either the ace or the “two” pitcher, depending on your view of Ray Sadecki, and helped the Cards to their first World Series since 1946. He lost his first game, then won two more, including game seven, as St. Louis won the Series and he was named MVP. He got into two more World Series. The one in 1967 saw him win three games, set the single game strikeout record for a Series, and pick up his second World Series MVP award (and a car for me).

In 1968 he was awesome. He was 22-9 (.710 percentage) and led the NL in ERA (1.12), shutouts (13), strikeouts (268), ERA+ (258), WHIP (0.853), WAR (11.2), and about anything else you can do on a mound including raking it. It got him an MVP Award and his first Cy Young Award. He won two games in the World Series, but lost game seven as Detroit stopped the Cards.

He led the NL in wins one more time and picked up a second Cy Young Award. He started slipping in 1973 and was done by 1975. For his career he was 251-174 (.591), had 56 shutouts, 3117 strikeouts, a 2.91 ERA (ERA+ of 127) a 1.188 WHIP, 81.9 WAR, an MVP Award, and two Cy Young Awards. In World Series play he was 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA 0.889 WHIP, 92 strikeouts, two rings, and two Series, MVP Awards. The Hall of Fame call came in 1981, his first year.

Gibson got to St. Louis at an important time in the team history. Integration had just occurred and there were still problems about it on the team. The stature of Stan Musial, who had no problem with it and went out of his way to make black players welcome on the team, helped some, but the tensions were still there. And to be a black pitcher was, in some circles, almost an affront to decency. Gibson overcame that and became probably the best pitcher in Cardinals history. He did it through determination, grit, and sheer ability. Over the years he’s become famous (or infamous depending on your view) as a fierce, almost violent pitcher who took hits as a personal challenge. If you watched him on the mound the determination showed through even a TV set. Heck, he scared me through the lens. The way he lunged forward when he threw made him even more scary. Of course that kind of determination and desire for domination led to one of his most famous moments. He was hit in the leg, breaking the bone. Unwilling to admit it, he took the ball, set up, and unleashed one last pitch as he fell to the ground and had to be taken off the field. That moment epitomized Bob Gibson unlike almost anything else he did.

He has one of the better World Series records. OK, he has the most strikeouts in a game and in a single Series, but there’s another most people overlook. In his career he lost his first Series game and lost his last. In between he won seven games in a row. No one else, not Whitey Ford, not Red Ruffing, not Allie Reynolds (the other men with seven or more World Series wins) won seven World Series games in a row.

Over the years he’s kind of gotten lost. He was truly the most dominant pitcher in baseball for a very short time. Before him there was Sandy Koufax. Then came Tom Seaver. In between he had to contend with Juan Marichal and Drysdale. It seems to have cost him something of his luster.

He did have the advantage of spending much of his career with Tim McCarver as his catcher. Whatever you think of him as a color guy, McCarver is one of the great storytellers in baseball. He ended up spinning one Gibson tale after another and it helped Gibson remain in the public eye a little more. My favorite story goes like this:

The manager ordered an intentional walk. McCarver held up four fingers, stepped over, held up his glove, and watched the first pitch drill the batter solidly in the ribs. He went out to the mound asking what happened? Gibson told him that he (Gibson) had just saved three pitches. See why I got a car betting on him?

 

And a Happy 80th

December 30, 2015
Koufax, the only 3-time unanimous Cy Young winner

Koufax, the only 3-time unanimous Cy Young winner

Keith just reminded me that today is Sandy Koufax’s 80th birthday (Thanks, Keith). Considering everything, he could probably still strike out the opposing pitcher. 🙂
Happy Birthday, Mr. K.

The End of a Dynasty: Games 3 and 4 (Dodger Stadium)

September 10, 2015

Up two games to none in the World Series, the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers came home in early October halfway to a victory over the New York Yankees. They played the Yanks a number of times before, only winning once (1955). If they could win two of three In LA, they would double that total.

Game 3 (5 October)

Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale

For the third game, Los Angeles led with the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Don Drysdale. For the season he’d been overshadowed by mound mate Sandy Koufax, but he was still a formidable pitcher. He drew 21 game winner Jim Bouton as his pitching opponent.

Drysdale got through the first inning without a problem. Then the Dodgers, as they’d done before in the Series, struck early. With one out in the bottom of the first, Jim Gilliam walked. A lineout and a wild pitch sent him to second. National League batting champion Tommy Davis then lined a single scoring Gilliam with the first run of the game. A foul to the catcher ended the inning with the Dodgers ahead 1-0.

It was all Drysdale needed. He pitched a magnificent nine inning shutout. In the second and the sixth, runners got as far as third, and died on the bag. He was in most trouble in the second when a single, a hit batsman, and an intentional walk with two outs loaded the bases. Drysdale then struck out the opposing pitcher to end the threat. For the game he hit the one man (Drysdale always seemed to hit a lot of batters), allowed the one intentional walk, and gave up only three hits, all singles (and never more than one an inning), and picked off a batter. He struck out nine.

After giving up the run in the first, Bouton was almost as good. He gave up four hits, struck out four, and gave up the one run. He did walk five, one the critical walk to Gilliam in the first. It was a good performance, not good enough.

Drysdale pitched the game of the Series (Koufax’s 15 strikeout performance in game one not withstanding) and gave Los Angeles a three games to none lead. They needed one more win in four tries to claim their second title (the other was in 1959) since arriving in LA. With Koufax on the mound in game four, the odds looked good.

Game 4 (6 October)

Jim Gilliam

Jim Gilliam

To begin game four both teams did what they needed to do, they started their aces: Sandy Koufax for the Dodgers and Whitey Ford for the Yanks. Both men were on that day. Through four innings, no one scored. In fact no one got beyond second base. In the bottom of the fifth, LA finally broke through when big Frank Howard crushed one to deep left to put the Dodgers up 1-0. It held up until the seventh, when Mickey Mantle connected for a long drive to left that knotted the game 1-1. It was a historic home run because it tied Mantle with Babe Ruth for the most home runs by any player in World Series history (15).

In the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers struck again and as was usual for this Series, Jim Gilliam was in the middle of it. He led off the inning with a roller to third. New York third baseman Clete Boyer picked it up and fired to Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone. In 1963 most male baseball fans still wore white shirts to public events. It was a warm enough day for most of them to shuck their jackets and Pepitone swore he lost the ball in the sea of white shirts. Whether he did or not, he missed the ball and by the time it was retrieved Gilliam was safe at third. Willie Davis followed with a long sacrifice fly that gave the LA a 2-1 lead.

The Yanks tried to rally in the eighth. With one out, Phil Linz singled, but was erased on a double play. The Dodgers failed to dint the scoreboard in the bottom of the eighth, leaving them ahead by one run with three outs needed to clinch the World Series. Bobby Richardson led off the inning with a single, then Koufax struck out two Yanks to put the Dodgers within one out of a championship. An error put runners on first and second and brought up Hector Lopez. He rolled a grounder to short and a throw to first made the Dodgers champs. For his two complete game victories, Koufax was named Series MVP.

It’s very difficult to call a four game sweep a great Series, but 1963 was certainly a very good World Series. Three games (all but the first) were very close and New York had a lot of chances to tie or win games. It was also, as is appropriate for a 1960s World Series, dominated by pitching. The Dodgers pitchers had a collective ERA of 1.00. They gave up four total runs, all earned, walked five, struck out 37, and gave up 22 hits. The Yankees weren’t much worse. Their ERA was 2.91 with 12 earned runs (one unearned), with 11 walks, 25 strikeouts, and only 25 hits given up.

But in fairness to the hitters, they didn’t do all that badly either. LA hit all of .214 for the Series, but had thee doubles, two triples, and three home runs (of 25 total hits). New York hit only .171 with five extra base hits. Jim Gilliam was an unsung hero for the Dodgers. He hit only .154, but scored three runs on two hits and three walks. Willie Davis and John Roseboro had three RBIs, as did Yankees castoff Moose Skowron. No New Yorker scored more than one run and only Tom Tresh had more than one RBI (he had two–both on his home run), but Mickey Mantle did tie Babe Ruth for total World Series home runs.

For New York it was the first World Series loss in three tries under Ralph Houk. It signaled the beginning of the end for the Yankee dynasty that had dominated baseball for four decades. They would get to another Series in 1964, but lose it also. Then there would be a long dry spell until 1976 (which they also lost) and 1977 when they were able to win another World Series (and get revenge on LA). For the Dodgers it was the first of three pennants in four years and the first of two championships (the other was 1965).

 

The End of a Dynasty: Games 1 and 2 (Yankee Stadium)

September 8, 2015

After a brief hiatus to look at my ongoing Hall of Fame project, it’s back to the 1963 World Series. It’s very difficult to say an ordinary World Series is decided in the first two innings of the first game, but in 1963 it’s possible that’s true. Between the pitching of Los Angeles’ ace and the Dodgers hitting the tone was set for the entire Series.

Game One (2 October 1963)

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax

For game one, the New York Yankees sent ace Whitey Ford to the mound against the Dodgers. Los Angeles countered with their own ace, Sandy Koufax. With the twin aces toeing the rubber, most people expected a pitcher’s duel. In the top of the first, Ford set down Los Angeles on two strikeouts and a grounder. Koufax was even better striking out Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, and Tom Tresh in order. In the top of the second with one out Frank Howard doubled to center. Ex-Yankee Moose Skowron, playing first, singled to score Howard. Another single by light hitting Dick Tracewski sent Skowron to second, then catcher John Roseboro slugged a three run home run to right field. A fly and a strikeout got Ford out of the inning. Then Koufax went back to doing what he’d done in the first inning. He struck out Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris for five consecutive strikeouts to open the game. Elston Howard finally hit the ball, a foul to the catcher, as the Yanks went down in order.

In the third, Jim Gilliam led off with a single, was erased on a fielder’s choice that left Willie Davis on first. A single by Tommy Davis sent Willie Davis to third. An out later, Skowron singled again to plate Willie Davis with the fifth run. In the bottom of the third Koufax must have tired or something because he recorded only one strikeout. The other two outs were recorded on a grounder to second and another foul. Ford got out of the fourth without giving up a run, then Koufax, who’d made one of the outs in the top of the fourth, went back to the mound and struck out three more Yankees.

The fifth was critical. Ford got out of a jam and New York finally got a hit off Koufax. after a strikeout (what else?) and another foul out (again, what else?), the Yanks put together three consecutive singles to load the bases. Koufax then proceeded to strikeout pinch hitter Hector Lopez (hitting for Ford) to end the threat. In the sixth reliever Stan Williams set Los Angeles down in order, then Koufax did the unthinkable, he went through an inning without striking out a man. He gave up two walks but twin pop outs, one to second, the other to third, got him out of the inning. In the seventh he added one more strikeout.

The Yanks finally broke through in the eighth. Needing six outs for a shutout, Koufax struck out one, gave up a single to Kubek, struck out another, then gave up a two run blast to Tresh to make the score 5-2. Los Angeles went in order in the top of the ninth. A line out, a single, and a fly brought up pinch hitter Harry Bright. Koufax proceeded to strike him out (of course he did) to complete the victory.

It was Sandy Koufax’s game. He gave up two runs, on six hits, walked three, and struck out 15. The strikeouts were a World Series record (replacing former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine). But it’s important to recall Moose Skowron’s two singles which plated two runs and set up Roseboro’s big home run. As a former Yankee who’d been let go from a World Series champion, it must have been a true joy to help bring down the team that let him go.

Game 2 (3 October 1963)

the Moose with some guy named Musial

the Moose with some guy named Musial

The second game of the 1963 World Series saw a contrast on the mound. New York started rookie Al Downing, famous as a flamethrower. Los Angeles sent 1955 Series MVP Johnny Podres to toe the rubber. Podres’ rookie campaign was 1953 and it had been a while since anyone described him as a “flamethrower.”

Flames or not, Downing was in trouble from the beginning. The Dodgers put up two runs in typical Los Angeles fashion in the top of the first. Maury Wills led off with a single, then stole second. Jim Gilliam followed with a single that sent Wills to third. Yankees right fielder threw the ball to home in order to keep Wills from scoring. Gilliam took the chance and advanced to second. Willie Davis then doubled to right to score both runners. Downing then settled down to pick up the three outs without Davis scoring.

Podres also let a man on in the first, but he didn’t get beyond first. Then for the next two innings the teams matched zeroes. In the top of the fourth, Dodgers first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron led off. He’d played nine years for the Yanks, but was let go at the end of the 1962 season. Signed by LA, he’d gotten into 89 games, hit .203 with four home runs, and 19 RBIs (all career lows). Looking for something like payback, he smashed a Downing offering deep into the right field seats to make the score 3-0.

Through the next three and a half innings, the pitchers dominated the game. There were a few runners, but only one man reached second (on an error). In the top of the eighth, the Dodgers picked up one more run on a Willie Davis double and a Tommy Davis triple. Podres got through the bottom of the eighth without significant damage (he gave up a single), then LA went out in order in the top of the ninth. The Dodgers needed three outs to take a 2-0 lead in games.

Mickey Mantle led off with a long fly to left that Tommy Davis corralled for out one, then Hector Lopez smashed a ground rule double to put a man on second. For the first (and only) time in the Series, the Dodgers made a pitching change. Out went Podres, in came relief ace Ron Perranoski. He immediately gave up an Elston Howard single to plate a run for the Yankees. Then a fielder’s choice recorded the second out. That brought up Clete Boyer who fanned to end the game with a 4-1 score and give the Dodgers their 2-0 lead in games.

Podres had pitched well. He gave up the one run on six hits and one walk. Lopez’s double was the only extra base hit he allowed. He also struck out four. Downing went five innings, gave up three runs, on seven hits (one each double, triple, and home run) and one walk. He struck out six and took the loss. Wills’ leadoff single, stolen base, and advance to third followed by Gilliam taking the extra base on a throw home and the single by Willie Davis (who had two RBIs and one run scored in the game) was typical for how the power strapped Dodgers scored. They may have been the winning runs, but Skowron’s blast was decisive (and much more Yankee-like).

The Series took a day off as the teams flew to Los Angeles. The Yanks need a pair of wins to send the Series back to New York. Los Angeles needed to go 2-1 to end the World Series at home.

The End of a Dynasty: the 1963 Dodgers

August 29, 2015
Ron Perranoski

Ron Perranoski

There are a couple of misconceptions about the 1963 Dodgers. One is that they were never supposed to make the World Series. A second is that all they could do was pitch. In 1962 the Dodgers had taken eventual champion San Francisco to a three game playoff before losing the playoff in the third game. So reality is that Los Angeles was a formidable team a year early with both the MVP (Maury Wills) and the Cy Young Award  winner (Don Drysdale). Additionally Tommy Davis won the 1962 batting title and led the National League in RBIs. Allegations that the team could pitch but not hit fail when you understand that Davis repeated the batting title in 1963, the team finished first in stolen bases, and in the middle of the pack (in a 10 team league) in hitting, OBP, runs, hits, and even home runs (seventh). It wasn’t the 1927 Yankees, but the team could hit a little.

Walter Alston was in his 10th year managing the Dodgers. His record was 99-63 (almost a duplicate of 1962’s 101-61). He’d managed the Dodgers’ two previous World Series victories (1955 and 1959) and had supervised the move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958.

John Roseboro was the catcher. He’d replaced the legendary Roy Campanella in 1958 and maintained his job into 1963. He was solid, unspectacular, a good teammate and hit all of.236 with nine home runs and an OPS+ of 91 with 1.9 WAR (BBREF version).

The infield was also solid, and occasionally spectacular. Ron Fairly was at first. He hit .271 and had 12 home runs, good for third on the team. His 77 RBIs were second, while his OPS topped out at .735 (OPS+ 120) with 2.8 WAR. Jim Gilliam, a Brooklyn holdover, was at second. He hit .282, stole 19 bases, bunted well, was third on the team with 201 total bases, had 5.2 WAR (good for second on the team), played an excellent second base and did all those things managers wanted the two hitter to do. Maury Wills was the spectacular part of the infield. He hit .302, scored a team high 83 runs, stole 40 bases, and was credited with reestablishing the stolen base as an offensive weapon. It wasn’t really true but it was believed. Third base was in flux. Ken McMullen ended up playing more games there than anyone else, but hit all of .236 with neither power nor speed. By the time the World Series came around he was out of the lineup with Gilliam replacing him at third. That left second open and Dick Tracewski took over the position. He was a good fielder but hit .226 with one home run and 10 RBIs.

The outfield had two Davis’s and a Howard. The aforementioned Tommy Davis was in left field. He hit .326 to repeat as batting champion, and his home run total was second on the team at 16. His RBIs had fallen off to 88, but it still led the team. His OPS+ was 142 with a 3.9 WAR. The other Davis was center fielder Willie. He was generally a good fielder who could run. He hit only .245, but stole 25 bases and scored 60 runs, which equaled his RBI total. The power came from Frank Howard who was a genuinely huge man for the era. He played right field, hit .273, led the team with 28 home runs, had an OPS of .848 (easily first on the team), led all everyday players with and OPS+ of 150 and had 4.1 WAR.

The bench was long, if not overly good. Six players (including Tracewski mentioned above) were in 50 or more games and three more played at least 20 games. Wally Moon, at 122, played the most games. He hit .262 with eight home runs, 48 RBIs and 41 runs scored. Former Yankee Moose Skowron got into 89 games and had 19 runs scored, 19 RBIs, and four home runs. Doug Camilli was the primary backup catcher.

But no matter how much the Dodgers hitting was overlooked, the pitching dominated the team. Don Drysdale was the reigning Cy Young Award winner and went 19-17 with an ERA of 2.63 (ERA+ 114), 315 innings pitched, 251 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.091, and 4.7 WAR. But he’d ceded the ace title to Sandy Koufax. Koufax was 25-5 with an ERA of 1.88 (ERA+ 159), 11 shutouts, 306 strikeouts, 0.875 WHIP, and 9.9 WAR. All, except ERA+(which was second) were first among NL pitchers. All that got him the NL MVP Award and a unanimous Cy Young Award in an era when only a single Cy Young Award was given. The third pitcher was 1955 World Series MVP Johnny Podres. He went 14-12 with an ERA of 3.54, 1.311 WHIP, and 0.3 WAR. Pete Reichert and Bob Miller, neither of which figured in the World Series, were the other pitchers with double figure starts.

Ron Perranoski was the ace of the bullpen with a 16-3 record and 21 saves. His ERA was 1.67 (ERA+ 179) with 4.5 WAR. Larry Sherry (another World Series hero–this time in 1959), Dick Calmus, and Ed Roebuck were the other bullpen men with 20 or more appearances. Sherry had three saves.

The Los Angeles hitting was underrated in 1963, but the pitching was first rate. If the pitching did its job, and the hitting did much of anything at all, it was a team that could compete with the New York Yankees in the World Series.

The Koufax Aura

June 18, 2015
Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax

Recently there’s been discussion on the greatest living player and on pitching in general. One of the more hotly debated people is Sandy Koufax. There are some who argue he was the greatest pitcher ever, others who say he was the greatest pitcher of the post-World War II era, others who say he was overrated. Take your pick, team.

But without question he is one of the most well-known, most respected players of his generation. His legend overwhelms almost all aspects of his career. He has what I call an “Aura”. The Koufax Aura moves him from the list of quality pitchers of his era into almost holy status. He goes from being Koufax to being KOUFAX!!! (said in James Earl Jones stentorian tones with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being played in the background). I believe there are a number of reasons for this and want to point them out to you. Some are legitimate, others not so much, but they make up the KOUFAX!!! Aura and have to be dealt with.

1. First, he really was really very good. His six-year stretch from 1961 through 1966 is one of the better set of campaigns in baseball history.

2. He pitched in an era of great pitching and held his own with the likes of Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale.

3. There are those three Cy Young Awards, all unanimous. First, in his era there was only one Cy Young Award, not one per league, and secondly no one else has ever won three unanimously.

4. There’s an MVP in both the regular season and the World Series (two in the Series). There are also two second place finishes in the regular season MVP race.

5. His Los Angeles team won three World Series and lost one (and went 1-1 when he was in Brooklyn–he didn’t pitch in either Brooklyn Series), giving him the glow of a winner. It is important here to note that the Dodgers won the first in 1959 when he was Koufax, not KOUFAX!!!

6. He played for the Dodgers, one of the more famous Major League teams.

7. He was the first great Los Angeles star in the sport most sports fans watched. Basketball was still a niche sport in the era, and dominated by the Celtics, while professional football, although making great strides, was still secondary to college football in ratings.

8. He had those three no hitters and the perfect game. That total of four was the most ever (until the coming of Nolan Ryan, a pitcher who was more like Koufax than a lot of people remember).

9. He held the all-time record for strikeouts in a single season when he retired (it’s since been broken by Ryan, by a total of one strikeout). He also held the record for most strikeouts in a single World Series game and for a complete World Series (also both since broken).

10. He retired at the top of his game. I think this one is key. I remember Willie Mays falling in the outfield in the World Series, I remember Tom Seaver (maybe the best pitcher I ever saw) when he was done. He was a shadow of the great pitcher of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember Greg Maddux as a great, great pitcher, but I also remember him as a middle of the rotation pitcher who wasn’t all that good at the end of his career. I remember Steve Carlton as a  reliever and trying to learn the split finger just so he could stay in the Majors. There are no memories like that of KOUFAX!!!. There are no memories of a curve ball that didn’t curve or of a fastball that was slow. Your lasting memories of the man are of greatness, not fallibility. That, I believe, colors all our thoughts of the man and the pitcher.

11. He got a great biography. Leavy’s 2002 biography is one of the better baseball biographies of the last 50 years.

12. His most famous games are moments of greatness. The perfect game stands out, as does the game seven shutout in the 1967 World Series, a game pitched on short rest.

13. The Yom Kippur moment showed us an athlete who stood for something other than his sport. Don’t see a lot of that in any sport.

14. He disappeared when he retired. He did a little broadcasting, and he coached a little, but basically he left the public eye. That means there were no drunken episodes, no “gee, look at that poor guy who used to be such a great ballplayer” moments. He didn’t do those things that keep an athlete in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.

I could add more, but I hope you get the idea. Was  he the greatest pitcher ever, or of his own era? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Will Clayton Kershaw be a better pitcher? Again, it doesn’t matter. As long as Koufax is KOUFAX!!! he will continue to have the Aura and continue to be the center of raging baseball debates.

Shutting ’em Out in Game 7: Apex

October 3, 2014
Zoilo Versalles

Zoilo Versalles

 

The 1965 Minnesota Twins were on the verge of winning the first World Series in Minnesota history. The team, which just a few years ago were the Washington Senators, had never taken an American League pennant since moving to Minneapolis. The last time the team tasted postseason was 1933, when they’d lost to the Giants. The only time they’d ever won it all was 1924. So for the team this was new territory. They were home to play game seven against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Standing in their way was Sandy Koufax.

The Twins lineup for 14 October had Don Mincher at first, Frank Quilici at second, MVP Zoilo Versalles at short, and Hall of Fame third baseman Harmon Killebrew. The outfield was Cuban refugee Tony Oliva in right, Joe Nossek in center, and Bobby Allison in left. Earl Battey was catching 18 game winner Jim Kaat. Al Worthington and Jim Perry (Gaylord’s brother) were available in the bullpen. Killebrew, Mincher, and Allison all contributed 20 or more homers to the team with Versalles slugging 19. Oliva was two-time batting champion and led the AL in hits. Despite a couple of exceptions (Quilici and Nossek both hit less than .220) it was a reasonably formidable lineup.

And it had to face the most formidable pitcher in 1965 baseball. Koufax was 26-8 with a National League leading ERA, eight shutouts, and a record-setting 382 strikeouts. He was also coming off a perfect game in September. Unfortunately for the Dodgers he was also pitching on two day’s rest, rather than his normal rest. He had around him a team that was dead last in the NL in home runs. They were also in the bottom half of the league in average, slugging, OBP, OPS, doubles, triples, and hits. They did lead the NL in stolen bases and didn’t strike out a lot. The lineup for game seven saw Wes Parker at first, Dick Tracewski at second, Maury Wills at short, with utility man Jim Gilliam at third. If you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ll remember Gilliam was critical in game seven of 1955. The outfield was Lou Johnson, Willie Davis, and Ron Fairly from left around to right, and John Roseboro did the catching.

The Dodgers put a man on in the first, but failed to score. In the bottom of the first, Koufax got out of the inning by striking out two after having walked two. In the second he struck out two more, then gave up his first hit in the third, a single to Versalles. Then he struck out two more to end any threat. In the top of the fourth, Lou Johnson led off with a home run. Fairly followed with a double, then came home on a Parker single. That took Kaat out of the game and brought in Worthington who got out of the inning without further damage.

The score was still 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, when Quilici doubled (Koufax’s second hit allowed), and pinch hitter Rich Rollins walked.  A pair of grounders got him out of it. The Dodgers had a couple more scoring chances but failed to touch home. Koufax pitched well into the bottom of the ninth. Oliva led off the inning with a groundout, then Killebrew singled. Koufax proceeded to strike out both Battey and Allison to end the game and the Series. On two days rest, Koufax had pitched a three hit shutout with 10 strikeouts. He’d also allowed three walks, but only one after the first inning. He was named World Series MVP (for the second time–1963).

For both teams the 1965 World Series was an apex. The Twins managed to win a couple of more division titles after divisional play began in 1969 but didn’t get back to the World Series until 1987. They won that one and the one in 1991. In both cases they won all four home games and lost all three road games. For their history the Twins are 0-9 on the road and 11-1 at home. Game seven of 1965 is the only home loss by a Twins World Series team.

For the Dodgers it was also an ending. They won a pennant in 1966, but lost the Series to Baltimore. They won a couple of more pennants later, but didn’t notch another World Series championship until 1981. They’ve won once since (1988).

It was also the apex for Koufax. Over the years the 1965 Series has become his defining moment, and game seven his defining game. Other games, like his perfecto or his 15 strikeouts in game one of the 1963 World Series, are somewhat well-known, but it is the seventh game of 1965, along with his Yom Kippur stand (also in the 1965 World Series) that have become his trademark moments. He had one more great year in 1966 then retired. He made the Hall of Fame on his first try.

 

 

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Bums Win

September 25, 2014
The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

Game seven of the 1955 World Series is arguably the most famous game in Brooklyn Dodgers history. April of 1947 is its only rival. Finally, after years of frustration going back to 1901 the Dodgers finally were World Champions. It had last occurred in 1900.

The Dodgers were playing the Yankees for the sixth time (’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53 are the others) and were 0-5. Some had been good Series’ (particularly 1947) but Brooklyn always lost. The 1955 team was still very much the same team as the 1952 and 1953 teams but there were significant changes. First, Walter Alston was now the manager. He’d been a minor league manager for a while, but in 1954 took the leadership of the team. The infield was different from the more famous “Boys of Summer” infield. Gil Hodges was still at first and Pee Wee Reese still held down shortstop, But Jim Gilliam now spent more time at second than anyone else. He could also play the outfield in for game seven he was in left. Utility man Don Zimmer was at second. Jackie Robinson now was the primary third baseman, but for game seven he was on the bench with Don Hoak at third. Carl Furillo and Duke Snider were still in right and center field, but Sandy Amoros did most of the work in left. As mentioned earlier, on 4 October 1955 he started on the bench. He didn’t stay there. Roy Campanella having his last good year, was the MVP winning catcher.

The pitching staff was in transition. Don Newcombe was still the ace, Carl Erskine was fading, Billy Loes was still there, but a key newcomer (he’d been around awhile, but wasn’t anything like a star) was 22-year old Johnny Podres. Ed Roebuck and Clem Labine did the bulk of the bullpen work, but 19-year old bonus baby Sandy Koufax was on the roster (he didn’t pitch in the Series). Podres, the game three winner, got game seven.

He faced a Casey Stengel New York Yankees team that, after a string of five consecutive World Series victories, had finished second in 1954. They were back with a new lineup that included Moose Skowron at first, Gil McDougald at second, Andy Carey at third, and shortstop Billy Hunter. Gone was Johnny Mize while Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Collins were on the bench. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were in center field and right field with Irv Noren doing most of the work in left. Elston Howard had finally integrated the Yanks in ’55 and now backed up in left.

MVP Yogi Berra caught a staff that included Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Tommy Byrne, Bob Grim and Don Larsen. Ford was the ace, with Turley a close second. Larsen was still learning (and would figure it all out in one game the next World Series). Byrne had a good year but as usual walked more than he struck out. He drew game seven which was played in Yankee Stadium.

Both pitchers got through the first inning without incident. Byrne gave up a walk in the second and Podres gave a double to Skowron, but no runs came across. It stayed that way to the top of the fourth. With one out, Campanella doubled, then went to third on a grounder to short. Hodges then singled to left scoring Campy with the initial run of the game. In the bottom of the fourth New York got a runner as far as third before a pop up to short ended the threat.

Reese led off the top of the sixth with a single then went to second on a Snider bunt. An error by Skowron made Snider safe. Then a Campanella bunt put runners on second and third with only one out. Byrne intentionally walked Furillo to load the bases, then gave up the mound to Bob Grim. Hodges hit a long sacrifice to right center that scored Reese with an unearned run. A wild pitch (that didn’t allow Snider to score) and a walk reloaded the bases, but pinch hitter George Shuba grounded out to end the inning. As a short aside, it’s a measure of how much the game has changed that both Snider and Campanella, the three and four hitters, laid down bunts in a critical situation.

Shuba’s pinch hit was critical to the game. It removed Zimmer from the lineup and forced Gilliam to take second. That brought Amoros into the game in left. That immediately made a difference. Martin, playing second in this game, walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth and went to second on a bunt by McDougald, who was safe at first. Berra then slammed a drive down the left field line. Amoros, a left-hander, got to the line, stuck up his glove (on his right hand) and snagged the ball. A toss to Reese and a relay to Hodges completed a double play. Bauer then grounded out to end the threat. Most experts agree that Gilliam, with his glove on his left hand, would have never been able to make the play in left, but southpaw Amoros became an instant Brooklyn hero.

It was the turning point of the game. Podres allowed two base runners in both the seventh and eighth innings but worked out of both jams without damage. In the ninth a comebacker to the pitcher, a fly to left, and a ground out short to first ended the game and brought Brooklyn its first World Series championship. Brooklyn went crazy.

The big heroes were Amoros with a great catch and throw, Campanella with a run scored and a key bunt, Hodges with both RBIs, and Reese with a run and a fine relay on Amoros’ catch and throw. But the biggest hero was Podres. He’d pitched a complete game shutout. It was true that it wasn’t a masterpiece. He’d allowed eight hits (the Dodgers only had five) and walked two, but he’d also struck out four and pitched out of each jam. It was the first year an MVP for the World Series was awarded. Podres won it easily.

The Yanks played well. McDougald had three hits, but was doubled up in the sixth on Reese’s relay. Skowron had a double, but also an error, while Berra had the only other extra base hit for New York and smashed the ball to left that started the double play that was so pivotal to the game.

The game marked the high water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year they were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. In 1957 they had a bad year and by 1958 were relocated to Los Angeles. They did well there winning again it 1959. A handful of the 1955 winners were still around: Snider, Furillo, Gilliam, Zimmer, and Koufax among others. Most notably for fans of the 1955 team, so was Podres. He pitched two games and picked up the win in game two.