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 heat. The Los Angeles 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 smack 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 the way a great white shark squints to find a lonely surfer.

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

Drysdale hailed from Van Nuys, California, born July 23, 1936, a Valley boy from a different time. He probably scared off half the kids from North Hollywood 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-for-5 with a 2.64 ERA (152 ERA+) in 99 innings. The kid was good. The next year, he went 17-9 and had a 2.69 ERA (153 ERA+)

Going Back to Cali

In 1958, the Dodgers moved to L.A. The California guy went home. Following a down first year at home (12-13, 4.17 ERA), Drysdale won 17 games and struck out 242 batters in 1959, the most by a National League pitcher in 35 years. Even better, 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 topped the N.L. in wins once, but he led it in strikeouts two more times. Drysdale won 25 games in 1962 and took home the Cy Young Award. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. No. 53 fanned a career-high 251 the next year.

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.

The dynamic duo led the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1963 and ’65. They didn’t get much help from the offense, either. The Dodgers’ attack was about as scary as your cousin Sissy’s pet beagle. The Dodgers made it home about as often as Gilligan and the Skipper.

(Supposedly, true story, probably apocryphal: On June 3, 1964, Drysdale lost an 11-inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he went 10.1 innings and gave up just four hits. He then left the team to take care of personal business in Washington, D.C. On June 4, 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 won-loss 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 nine innings, a career low.

In 1968, in his next-to-last season, Drysdale set a major-league record. He hurled 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and put up a 2.15 ERA (128 ERA+). And, if he tossed a few spitballs that year, well, 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 pitches. He called a press conference, shed some tears, and said he was done. Drysdale, who looked like a movie star (guest star on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch and Experiment in Terror with Glenn Ford and Lee Remick, among other Hollywood credits), retired with a 209-166 record and a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+). 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 games.

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

On July 3, 1992, Drysdale died of a heart attack at his hotel room in Montreal, hours before a game that evening between the Dodgers and Expos. Legendary broadcaster 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 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 Dodgers’ 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, tearing up, the voice trying to stay strong. He looks at the camera. He says this about 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 baseballs 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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