Happy Birthday to the Late Don Drysdale

By Glen Sparks

Don Drysdale turned at-bats into nasty business. He stood six-feet, six-inches and hurled 95 mph sidearm heat. The Dodgers right-hander struck out 2,486 batters in his 14-year career and hit 154.

You’ve heard of an uncomfortable 0-for-4? Drysdale was a terrifying 0-for-4. He liked to talk about his 2-for-1 policy. You hit one of my guys, he’d say, I’ll hit two of your guys. Drysdale didn’t like to issue intentional walks. He’d drill the guy and save three pitches.

Big D glared at hitters the way drill instructors glare at buck privates. He looked like a tiger in need of a steak. He squinted in for the sign like a great white shark squints to find a lonely surfer.

Batting against Drysdale was like a day at the beach. On jellyfish day. He hit guys like Joe Louis hit pikers from Palookaville.

Drysdale hailed from Van Nuys, Calif., born July 23, 1936, a Valley boy from a different time. He probably scared off half the kids from Burbank and Sherman Oaks. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1954 for a $4,000 bonus and $600 a month.

The Dodgers promoted Drysdale to the big club in 1956, a 19-year-old, all arms, legs and fastball. He promptly went 5-5 with a 2.64 ERA (152 ERA+) in 99 innings. The kid was good. The next year, he went 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA (153 ERA+).

Going Back to Cali

In 1958, the Dodgers moved to L.A. The California guy went home. In 1959, following a down year (12-13, 4.17 ERA), Drysdale won 17 games and struck out 242 batters, the most by a National League pitcher in 35 years. He led the Dodgers to a World Series title against the Chicago White Sox.

Over the next decade, Drysdale solidified his Hall of Fame career. He only led the National League in wins once, but topped it in strikeouts three times. No. 53 fanned a career-high 251 in 1963. He hit the 200-strikeout mark six times.

Drysdale and Sandy Koufax made a magnificent 1-2 combo. Koufax, left-handed and elegant, Drysdale, right-handed and fierce. They started games in the warm twilight at Dodger Stadium, hurling unhittable pitches fired into sunlight and shadow. For opposing line-ups, it was more like a California nightmare than a California dream.

In 1962, Drysdale won 25 games and took home the Cy Young Award. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. Drysdale and Koufax led the Dodgers to World Series championships in ‘63 and 1965. They didn’t get much help from the offense. The Dodger attack was about as scary as your cousin Sissy’s pet beagle. The Dodgers made it home about as often as Robinson Crusoe.

(Supposedly true story, probably apocryphal: On June 4, 1964, Drysdale lost an 11-inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he gave up just four hits. He then left the team to take care of some personal business in Washington, D.C. On June 5, unbeknownst to Drysdale, Koufax threw a no-hitter. Some guy at the hotel told the big guy. Drysdale: “Did we win?”)

Drysdale probably put up his best year in 1964. He compiled an 18-16 record, but he attached a 2.18 ERA (147 ERA+) onto that over a career-high 321.1 innings. He gave up an average of just 6.8 hits per 9 innings, a career low.

In 1968, in his next-to-last season, Drysdale set a major league record. He threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and put up a 2.15 ERA (128 ERA+). And, if he threw a few extra spitballs that year, well, then so be it. He wasn’t the only one.

Big D started off 5-4 in 1969 with a 4.45 ERA. His strong right shoulder had thrown enough. He called a press conference, shed some tears and said he was done. Drysdale, who looked a movie star, retired with a 209-166 record, a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+), and 2,486 strikeouts. He tossed 49 shutouts and hit 29 home runs. Drysdale took the ball every fourth day and led the league in starts from 1962-65. He made eight All-Star teams.

Retired from playing, Drysdale turned to broadcasting. He called games for a few teams, including his beloved Dodgers. The writers finally voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1984.

On July 3, 1993, Drysdale died of a heart attack at his hotel room in Montreal, hours before a game that evening between the Dodgers and Expos. Vin Scully announced his death over the radio. He began it this way: “Friends, we’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve had to make a lot of announcements, some more painful than others. But never have I ever been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart.”

Reporters asked Tommy LaSorda, the Dodger manager, a long-time friend and former teammate of Drysdale’s, for a comment. There’s Tommy sitting on a stool, his uniform top partly unbuttoned, the bags heavy beneath his eyes, his eyes tearing up, his voice trying to stay strong. He looks up at the camera. He says this of Drysdale: “He was a man’s man.”

Drysdale stands out today as a legendary pitcher from a tougher, by-gone era in baseball, one of inside fastballs and black-and-blue rib cages. Orlando Cepeda said the trick to an at bat against Drysdale was this: “Hit him before he hits you.”

Donald Scott Drysdale was one tough pitcher.

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