The Hardluck 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers
The LA Dodgers—led by dual aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale—moved into their new 56,000-seat stadium in 1962. Despite a strong season, the Dodgers hit hard luck leading into the postseason, blowing a lead to the San Francisco Giants and facing them in a three-game playoff for the NL pennant.
~Sandy Koufax (here with Don Drysdale in 1961)
In the first four years since moving out of Brooklyn after the 1957 season, the Dodgers finished—in order—seventh, first, fourth, and second, with a World Series victory in 1959. During that time, they played temporarily out of the mammoth built-for-football LA Coliseum, a venue cursed with an extremely short left-field fence only 250 feet from home plate. The left fielder played a deep shortstop, which barred the speedy Dodgers base runners from taking third base on singles to left.
In 1962, the Dodgers were in their newly finished home: the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, with 16,000 parking spaces, tucked inside Chavez Ravine north of downtown Los Angeles. While in Brooklyn, the Dodgers had been all power and defense, with their pitching often falling short in the clutch. In LA, they reinvented themselves by concentrating on pitching, speed on the bases, and timely hitting.
The 1962 pitching rotation consisted of veterans Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres, Stan Williams, and Sandy Koufax, who had finally fulfilled his potential with 18 wins in 1961 and a National League–record 269 strikeouts. The bullpen held quality throwers Ron Perranoski, Ed Roebuck, and Larry Sherry. In the field, they had the sure-handed, super-quick, leadoff-hitting Maury Wills at short, coming off 35 stolen bases to lead the league. They had dependable hitters in outfielders Wally Moon, Duke Snider, Frank Howard, Willie Davis, and Tommy Davis, with catcher John Roseboro guiding the pitchers. Ron Fairly and Jim Gilliam, along with platooners Daryl Spencer and Larry Burright, rounded up the infield.
After some untimely injuries to key players in 1961, a lot was expected from the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers, who—with a new home and a healthy squad—now had the opportunity to showcase their base-running speed and win some games in Dodger Stadium, where their pitchers no longer had the short left-field wall to worry about.
The season opened with the San Francisco Giants taking an early lead and holding it for 10 weeks, before the Dodgers caught them. First place then changed hands five times between the California teams throughout most of June and early July. After that, the Dodgers pulled away. However, disaster struck the Dodgers in mid-July when Sandy Koufax, on track for his best season to date, was removed from a game in Cincinnati with a numb tendon on the index finger of his left hand.
At that point, Koufax was 14–5 with an NL-leading 2.15 ERA and had thrown a no-hitter against the first-year expansion New York Mets. He didn’t pitch again for two months but wasn’t ready when he did return, starting two games for a combined total of five and two-thirds innings, giving up six runs. Still, the Dodgers had kept the National League lead for two months in his absence and held it by four games over the Giants with seven games left in the September schedule.
Then more disaster descended upon the Dodgers: They won only one remaining game, while the Giants took five out of their last seven to lock both teams in a virtual tie at 101–61, thus forcing a best-of-three playoff to determine who would be facing the New York Yankees, the American League champs. Many Dodgers fans feared another heartbreaking loss similar to the 1951 three-game playoff won by the New York Giants, climaxed by Bobby Thomson’s homer off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ralph Branca to take the pennant after being behind 13½ games in mid-August.
On August 3, 1962, Don Drysdale celebrated after reaching the 20-win mark faster than any pitcher in the National League since 1918.
Due to a worn out pitching staff and with Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres starting the previous games, Manager Walt Alston asked Sandy Koufax to start Game 1 of the playoff set for October 1 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, although Koufax was still experiencing pain throughout his left hand and shoulder.
Koufax gave up two quick homers and couldn’t finish the second inning. The Giants won 8–0 on a Billy Pierce three-hitter. Looked on by a mere 25,000 fans, the Dodgers took the next game 8–7, where a combined 13 pitchers gave up 20 hits. In the sixth inning, the Dodgers sent seven runs home to finally end a 35-inning scoreless drought. Game 3, also in LA, was the controversial one, this time before 45,000 hopefuls.
Giants Manager Al Dark—the Giants shortstop from the 1951 playoff—selected right-hander Juan Marichal, while Alston chose lefty Johnny Podres. Going into the ninth with the Dodgers up 4–2, LA reliever Ed Roebuck opened the inning by giving up a single to pinch hitter Matty Alou, bringing up the next batter, Harvey Kuenn. Immediately, rookie second baseman Larry Burright was instructed by the bench—Leo Durocher, according to sources—to move closer to first. Burright complied, taking several steps away from second.
The strategy left many players baffled, including Duke Snider—the Dodgers center fielder in 1951—who had left in the eighth inning with a pulled thigh and was sitting in the dugout beside pitcher Don Drysdale. Something didn’t make sense to most of the bench because Kuenn batted right. What were the chances he’d hit to the right side?
Then a screaming, two-hop grounder was hit straight at Wills playing short, a perfect double-play ball in most cases. However, he had to wait for Burright to race back an extra 10 feet to the bag. Burright got the force, but his throw to first was too late to snag Kuenn. After Willie McCovey and Felipe Alou both walked to load the bases, Ernie Bowman pinch ran for McCovey.
Worried, Snider said to Drysdale, “Don, go down there and tell Alston you want to warm up. We could lose this thing if we’re not careful. It’s only 4–2. In ’51 it was 4–1 and we lost.”
Drysdale replied, “I already told him. He wants to save me for tomorrow.” Drysdale, of course, meant the first game of the World Series against the Yankees.
“There might not be a tomorrow. Go tell him again,” Snider demanded.
Drysdale tried once more, but Alston shook his head, insisting that Roebuck was his man. Dodgers coach Leo Durocher—ironically the winning Giants manager in 1951—also pleaded with Alston to get Drysdale ready. But Alston stood firm. Willie Mays then singled, driving in Kuenn to make it 4–3 Dodgers. This forced Alston to finally make a pitching change, calling for Stan Williams.
Now everything unraveled. A sacrifice fly by Orlando Cepeda, a wild pitch, an intentional walk to Ed Bailey, and a bases-loaded walk to Jim Davenport made it 5–4 Giants. Ron Perranoski came in to face Jose Pagan, who reached first on a Burright ground ball error, scoring Mays from third. Mercifully for the Dodgers, Bob Nieman struck out swinging, ending the home team’s nightmare and the Giants half of the ninth with the visitors up 6–4.
In the bottom half, Giants lefty ace Billy Pierce shut down the Dodgers 1–2–3, taking the game, the three-game playoff, and the National League pennant only to see his team lose a close seven-game World Series to the Yankees. For months afterwards, the Dodgers players and fans were left in shock as well as angry for the questionable defensive decisions made in the ninth.
And so the Dodgers blew the 1962 pennant, despite a 102–63 mark and setting an MLB attendance record of 2.7 million fans crowding into Dodger Stadium during its inaugural year. Individually, the Dodgers were outstanding. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the league with 230 hits, 153 RBIs, and a .346 batting average. He also hit 27 doubles, nine triples, and 27 homers. Switch-hitting Maury Wills won league MVP honors and a Gold Glove at shortstop, while stealing a record 104 bases (caught only 13 times) and hitting .299 with 208 hits and 130 runs scored, besides leading the NL with 10 triples and 695 at-bats.
Pitching ace Don Drysdale won the Cy Young Award at a time when it was awarded to only one pitcher in the entire Majors. He led the league with 25 wins, 41 starts (19 were complete games), 314 1/3 innings, and 232 strikeouts, while losing only nine games and finishing fourth in ERA with 2.83. His teammate, Sandy Koufax, led the NL in ERA (the first of five consecutive years doing so up to his retirement in 1966) posting a 2.54 mark, along with a won-loss of 14–7, 11 complete games, and 216 strikeouts in 184.3 innings.
The following season, the Dodgers got their revenge on the league and the Majors by taking the pennant by six games over the St. Louis Cardinals, then whipping the New York Yankees four straight in the World Series, with Koufax (healthy all year) dominating the first and last games, while climaxing his breakout year in which he led the league in wins (25), ERA (1.88), strikeouts (306), and shutouts (11). The Dodgers went on to win pennants in 1965 and 1966 with Koufax continuing his control over batters despite arm troubles plaguing him until his retirement.
Battery Sandy Koufax and John Roseboro celebrate after the final out of the 1963 World Series.
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