By Glen Sparks
Harsh sunshine beat down on the Los Angeles Coliseum floor.
Two men, drenched in sweat by the end, practiced baseball drills on a day when L.A. temperatures soared to 100 degrees. Dodgers coach Pete Reiser, the former Brooklyn phenom, pitched balls for hours to 27-year-old shortstop Maury Wills. Reiser and Wills kept this going for a month. It was the spring of 1960.
“You can’t quit,” Reiser said over and over to his pupil. “You have to keep at it. These things don’t come overnight.”
“Overnight.” What did Wills think about that? … Overnight? … Ever?
The son of a Baptist minister and one of 13 children, Maurice Morning Wills grew up in Washington, D.C. Undersized as an athlete, he didn’t care. That just made him work harder. He played football, basketball and baseball at Cardozo High School.
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Wills to a contract in the fall of 1950 and assigned him to the Hornell, New York, Dodgers of the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. He was a long way from the majors.
Wills batted about .280 and stole 54 bases in his rookie season as a professional baseball player. The next season, he hit .300 and stole 54 bases again, this time for the Santa Barbara, California, Dodgers of the California League. “The Dodgers had tabbed me as a definite major-league prospect,” Willis wrote in his 1963 book It Pays to Steal, co-written with Steve Gardner.
The Dodgers promoted Wills to the Class A Pueblo, Colorado, Dodgers of the Western League and, the following year, to the AA Ft. Worth, Texas, Cats in the Texas League. The prospect became suspect in tumbleweed country. Halfway through the season, his batting average stood at just .220 and he began spending more and more time on the bench.
Those struggles earned Wills a trip back to Pueblo. He hit .302 and stole 34 bases in his return engagement. Next stop, Washington state. First, Wills reported to the Seattle Rainers of the Pacific Coast League, and then to the Spokane, Indians, also of the PCL.
Bobby Bragan managed Spokane. He played nine years in the majors (1940-48), for the Philadelphia Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers. The infielder-catcher was known for clashing with Dodgers executive Branch Rickey when Rickey promoted Jackie Robinson and broke baseball’s color barrier. Bragan, though, quickly changed his mind about Robinson. “After just one road trip, I saw the quality of Jackie the man and the player,” Bragan told mlb.com in 2005.
Every day, Bragan helped Wills. He also suggested that the natural right-handed batter turn himself into a switch hitter. The idea, of course, was that the speedy player would be that much closer to first base if he could hit left-handed. Initially, Wills brushed off the idea. “I’m too old to learn,” said Wills, who was 25.
Bragan didn’t buy the argument. “You’re never too old to learn,” he insisted. Wills dutifully stepped into the batting cage and began hitting left-handed in 1958. By June of 1959, he was batting .313, and the Dodgers called him up to the big club. At least one L.A. newspaper offered the rookie a less-than-enthusiastic greeting. The headline read: “Maury Wills … Who are They Kidding?”
But, Wills did OK. He hit .260 in 83 games and fielded well enough at shortstop. The following season, though, he was barely above .200 after several weeks of play. Sometimes, Dodgers manager Walt Alston pinch hit for Wills as early as the fourth inning. “What am I going to do?” Wills asked Reiser after one of many disappointing days.
“Don’t worry,” Reiser said. “Meet me here before practice tomorrow, two hours early, and I’ll do what I can.”
Reiser had once been a hot prospect himself. Coaches and writers predicted that the St. Louis native would turn into a superstar. He played hard and, sometimes, recklessly. He crashed into walls and couldn’t stay healthy. Reiser also missed three prime years due to his service in World War II. Thought of as a future Hall of Famer by some, Reiser played 10 seasons in the big leagues and in only 861 games.
Hired by the Dodgers as a coach, Reiser made his name as an enthusiastic teacher. Wills listened. By season’s end in 1960, he had hiked his average to .295 and led the National League in stolen bases with 52. He also topped the N.L. in steals the next year, and in 1962, he enjoyed his career year.
Wills batted .299, collected 208 hits, and scored 130 runs. He also broke a major-league record with 104 steals, breaking Ty Cobb’s mark of 96 set in 1915. Writers awarded Wills with an MVP trophy. The lean, lithe shortstop shared the credit with his teachers.
“I’ll never forget what Pete Reiser and Bobby Bragan did for me,” Wills said, probably more than once.
He dedicated It Pays to Steal, published in 1963, to Reiser. Bragan wrote the book’s forward. “It was in Maury Wills to become a star from the start,” Bragan wrote. “He is the man who made larceny pay.”
Wills spent 14 seasons (1959-72) in the majors, 12 of them (59-66, 69-72) with the Dodgers. He batted .281 lifetime and collected 2,134 hits. Most famously, he swiped 586 bases and led the league in that category six times. Following his retirement, Wills spent some time as a broadcaster for NBC. He served a mostly disastrous stint as manager of the Seattle Mariners (1980-81) and battled drug addiction for years.
Former Dodgers pitcher and alcoholic Don Newcombe helped Wills get sober in 1989. Since then, Wills has spent much of his time teaching Dodgers players about the art of base running. He also wrote a frank autobiography, On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills.
“When I came to the ballpark, my mind was clear,” Wills wrote in On the Run. “Nothing could disturb me. If there was anything that distracted me from my playing, I would eliminate it from my life, even if meant my family. I really believed that.”
Baseball’s Most Valuable Players by George Vescey
It Pays to Steal by Maury Wills and Steve Gardner
On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills by Maury Wills and Michael
By Glen Sparks
This is a story about the day Mickey Owen of Nixa, Mo., dropped a baseball.
It was Oct. 5, 1941. Much of the world was at war. The United States would be, too, in just a few months. Now, though, at least in New York City and among all baseball fans, news about the World Series held sway.
The Yankees, 101-53 during the regular season, were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, 100-54. It was Game 4; New York held a 2-1 advantage in this best-of-seven match-up. Yankees starter Red Ruffing gave up six hits in a complete-game effort in Game 1. Second baseman Joe Gordon drove in two runs, and New York won 3-2.
Brooklyn tied the Series with a 3-2 victory in Game 2. Whit Wyatt scattered nine hits over nine innings; Owen, Pee Wee Reese and Dolph Camili each drove in one run. The Dodgers overcame two errors by Reese at shortstop.
Yankee Stadium hosted the first two games. The World Series moved to Ebbets Field for Game 3 on Oct 4. Marius Russo started for New York, Freddie Fitzsimmons for Brooklyn. Each pitcher tossed shutout ball through the first seven innings.
Hugh Casey relieved Fitzsimmons in the eighth inning. The right-hander from Atlanta didn’t bring his good stuff. He only recorded one out and surrendered four hits. RBI hits by Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller gave the Yanks a 2-0 lead. Reese’s run-scoring hit in the bottom of the eighth wasn’t enough. New York won 2-1.
The following day, Ebbets Field hosted Game 4. The Yanks’ Atley Donald faced the Dodgers’ Kirby Higbe. “Swampy” Donald, a Louisiana guy, went 9-5 in 1941 with a 3.57 ERA in 159 innings. Higbe, from South Carolina, finished 22-9 and posted a 3.14 ERA. Interestingly, he struck out 121 batters in 298 innings and walked 132. Higbe led the National League in victories, walks, games pitched (48), starts (39), batters faced (1,266), earned runs (104) and wild pitches (nine). It was an odd year.
Neither “Swamp” nor Higbe pitched his “A” game in this one. Or, his “B” or “C” game. Donald went four innings and gave up four runs. Higbe, meanwhile, pitched 3.2 innings and allowed three runs. Each team’s bullpen did solid work, though; the Dodgers led 4-3 going into the ninth inning.
Casey, a 27-year-old right-hander with a decent curveball and a better spitball, went out to pitch the ninth. He had thrown 3.1 shutout innings up to that point in Game 4.
The first two Yankee batters grounded out. Right-fielder Tommy Heinrich stepped into the batter’s box. Owen got into his crouch behind home plate. The catcher was 25 years old. He grew up in Nixa, in southern Missouri. As a teen, he lived in southern California for a few years and graduated from Washington High School in south Los Angeles.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed Owen in 1935 and promoted him to the big club in 1937. Owen played four years for the Redbirds and hit .257 in 450 games. The Cardinals traded him to Brooklyn before the 1941 season began.
Owen made the N.L. All-Star team in ’41. He hit one home run on the season, drove in 44 and batted .231, actually an off-year for him. More importantly, he made 530 putouts and committed only thee errors.
Heinrich worked the count to 3-and-2. Casey’s next pitch moved down and in on Heinrich, a left-handed hitter. Heinrich swung and missed for strike three. Owen, though, couldn’t catch the ball. It glanced off his mitt and rolled far enough for Heinrich to reach first base. Instead of strike three and out No. 3, the Yankees had new life. Joe DiMaggio, in the year he hit in 56 straight games, followed with a single. Keller ripped a double to score both runners, and New York won 5-4.
The Bronx Bombers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series. They celebrated a championship after winning Game 5 by a 3-1 margin. It was the ninth World Series title for the Yankees and their fifth in six years. For Brooklyn, it was simply a disappointing end to a pennant-winning season. The Dodgers would not win a World Series until 1955.
Owen went on to play 13 seasons in the majors. He spent five years in Brooklyn and made four All-Star teams. He later played for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. He hit 14 career-home runs and batted .255 with a .318 on-base percentage. Despite that famous play in Game Four, Owen was known as a top-notch defensive catcher.
Later, he started a baseball camp near Springfield, Mo., and served four terms as Greene County sheriff. Arnold Malcolm “Mickey” Owen, born April 4, 1916, died July 13, 2005, at the age of 89.
He talked many times throughout his life about that dropped third strike, of course. He told Dave Anderson of the New York Times that the pitch was definitely a curveball and not one of Casey’s spitters.
“When we got to 3-and-2 on Tommy, I called for the curveball,” Owen said. “I was looking for the quick curve he had been throwing all along. But he threw the overhand curve, and it really broke big, in and down. Tommy missed it by six inches.”
Mickey missed it, too.
By Glen Sparks
That poker game in 1920 changed everything.
Charles Arthur Vance, along with some teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans, took his spot around a card table one evening—undoubtedly sultry—in the Big Easy.
They called Vance “Dazzy.” He picked up that nickname because he once fired a dazzling fastball. That was when his right arm was strong. Now, it was sore. It had been for years. That was why he was pitching in the Southern League at the age of 29. Vance hoped for one last chance in the majors.
He was a decent prospect at one time. Vance, born March 4, 1891, in Iowa, grew to 6-feet-2-inches and 200 pounds. Country strong, as they say. Local scouts liked the young fireballer. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him in 1915; he made his big-league debut later that year. In his one game with Pittsburgh, he tossed 2.2 innings and gave up three runs, all earned. Not too dazzling. The Pirates promptly traded him to the New York Yankees.
Vance pitched in eight games for the Yanks in ‘15, picked up three decisions and lost all three. Over the next few years, he toiled in the minor leagues and nursed his chronically sore arm. Dazzy finally made it back to the Bronx for 2.1 innings in 1918 and made a mess of things, surrendering nine hits and four earned runs. New York sent him from one farm club to another and, finally, to New Orleans.
He couldn’t stay healthy. Luckily for Vance, smacking that poker table turned a chronic pain into an excruciating one. He sorely needed medical attention. (He supposedly won the pot. His exact hand is lost to history.)
Whatever the doctor did, it worked. (One theory is that Vance had some bone chips removed from his aching elbow.) He notched 21 wins for the Pelicans in 1921. The Brooklyn Robins, the forerunner of the Dodgers, purchased Vance’s contract from New Orleans in early 1922. He responded by winning 18 games in each of the next two seasons for Brooklyn.
That led up to 1924. The pitcher, with a big smile and a shock of wavy red hair that he hid underneath his cap, won the MVP award that season. Besides compiling a career-high 262 strikeouts, he went 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA (174 ERA+) and a WAR of 10.4. Vance won 15 straight games at one point and struck out a career-high 15 batters on Aug. 23 against the Chicago Cubs.
Vance flat-out dominated National League hitters. Burleigh Grimes and Dolph Luque, finished second and third, respectively, in strikeouts that season. They fanned 221 batters combined, or 41 fewer than Vance.
The Dodgers’ ace threw a no-hitter in ’25, on Sept. 13. The no-no came on a Sunday afternoon at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, in the first game of doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies. Vance was matched up against Clarence Mitchell, who didn’t record an out in the game. He gave up three runs in the first inning, departed for relief that never came and was on the losing end of a 10-1 blowout. Dick Cox, the Brooklyn clean-up batter, had four hits, while Johnny Mitchell and Jimmy Johnston each drove in three runs.
Vance walked one batter and struck out nine. Philly scored a lone run in the second inning. Nelson “Chicken” Hawks reached on a Johnston error, advanced to second base and ran safely to third following a passed ball by Brooklyn catcher Hank DeBerry. Hawks then scored his unearned run on a sacrifice fly from Bernie Friberg.
Vance improved to 22-7 following that victory. The Brooklyn ace lost his last two games of the season but 22-9 isn’t shabby, especially for a team that ended up 68-85 and in sixth place. He led the N.L. with 221 strikeouts and four shutouts. Writers voted him fifth in the N.L. MVP race.
Dazzy combined a hot fastball with a 12-6 curveball. Batters couldn’t catch up to the heat or make any sense out of the breaking stuff. He finished first in ERA in 1928 (2.09) and again in 1930 (2.61) at the age of 39. Following a 12-11 season in 1932, Vance left the Robins for the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Cincinnati Reds. He returned to Brooklyn for one more season, 1935, before calling it quits at the age of 44 with a career won-loss mark of 197-140 and a 3.24 ERA (125 ERA+).
All told, Dazzy led the National League in strikeouts a record seven straight seasons (1922-28). He topped it in K/BB ratio eight times (1924-31) and in K/9 ratio eight times (1922-28, 1931). Vance put together an incredible (and overlooked) career that began slowly, got rolling in the heart of the Jazz Age and ended during the Great Depression.
Sabermatrician Bill James rated Dazzy the 35th best pitcher of all-time in the 2003 paperback edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, just ahead of Bert Blyleven and Hal Newhouser. Baseball writers elected Vance to Cooperstown in 1955. The Hall of Famer died Feb. 16, 1961, in Florida. He was 69.
By Glen Sparks
Gil Hodges, one of the fabled Boys of Summer, put together a career that many baseball fans argue is worthy of Cooperstown.
The first baseman belted 370 home runs over 18 seasons, mostly with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and topped the 30-homer mark six times. He drove in more than 100 runs for seven straight years (1949-55). As a manager, Hodges led the 1969 New York Mets–the Miracle Mets of ’69–to an improbable World Series championship.
This man’s man (U.S. Marine Corps, 16th Anti-Aircraft battalion, Okinawa, Bronze Star) from Princeton, Ind., enjoyed his greatest day in the big leagues on Aug. 31, 1950. He went 5-for-5, cracked four home runs and accumulated 17 total bases.
The Dodgers were at home that afternoon, at cozy Ebbets Field in Flatbush. They were playing the Boston Braves. A 23-year-old Carl Erskine, in just his third season in the big leagues, faced 29-year-old Warren Spahn, a five-year veteran with one 20-win season already on the books and 12 more to go. Erskine was a right-hander, Spahn a lefty.
Brooklyn went into the game with a 68-50 record and in second place, 6 ½ games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. Boston was 68-53 and in third place, eight games out of the top spot. Each team looked to get hot over the final month of the season.
Dodgers Manager Burt Shotton placed Hodges sixth in his batting order, between right-fielder Carl Furillo and catcher Roy Campanella. This was Hodges’ fifth season in the big leagues and his third year as a regular. He came up for a two at-bat cup of coffee in 1943, fought in World War II in ’44 and ’45, spent 1946 in the minors and played in just 28 games for Brooklyn in 1947.
During his first year as a regular, in 1948, the converted catcher hit 11 homers, drove in 70 runs and batted just .249. The next year, he ripped 23 home runs, drove home 115 and hit .285. Hodges went into the game on Aug. 31 with a .293 batting average, 19 homers and 75 RBI.
It didn’t take him long to get things going against the Braves. He ripped his first home run in his first at-bat, after Furillo singled to lead off the second inning. That put the Dodgers up 2-1. Jackie Robinson led off the third inning with a base hit, and Furillo rapped another single. That ended Spahn’s tough day. Boston skipper Billy Southworth called on Normie Ray to provide some relief.
Hodges didn’t oblige. The right-handed hitter crushed a three-run home run. Brooklyn led 6-1 and tacked on four more runs that frame. The route was on.
Then, things stayed quiet until the bottom of the sixth. That’s when Hodges knocked his third home run of the game, a two-run job off Boston relief pitcher Bob Hall. By the end of the inning, it was 14-1 in favor of the Dodgers.
Hodges probably disappointed the Ebbets Field crowd of 14,226 when he came to back in the seventh inning. He merely hit a single. He did, however, come around to score after Billy Cox reached base on an error. The Dodgers added to more two runs that frame.
Boston scored twice in the eighth to make it 17-3. Hodges knocked his fourth homer of the game, and his third two-run dinger, in the bottom of the eighth, this time off Johnny Antonelli. Final score: Dodgers 19, Braves 3. Erskine improve to 2-3 on the season; Spahn dropped to 16-15.
Neither the Dodgers nor the Braves could catch up to the Phillies in 1950. Philadelphia ended the year 91-63 to capture the National League pennant and then got swept in four games by the New York Yankees in the World Series. Brooklyn came in second with an 89-65 mark. Boston fell to fourth place by season’s end, 83-71.
Hodges’ game in the late summer of that campaign remains one for the ages. He joined Yankees great Lou Gehrig as the only player since 1900 to hit four home runs in one game. (Since then, 14 other players have joined the club.) His 17 total bases rank him fourth on the all-time single-game list. (Another Dodger, Shawn Green, set the record with 19 total bases in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 23, 2002.)
Hodges smacked 32 home runs and drove in 113 that season. He went on to play in eight All-Star games and on two World Series winners (1955 and ’59). He was never better than on Aug. 31, 1950.
By Glen Sparks
Tim McCarver, the former catcher and long-time talkative baseball analyst, cleared his throat on a broadcast the other day and recited a few lines from the song “There Used to be a Ballpark.”
And the summer went so quickly this year.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark here.
Joe Raposo wrote this nostalgic ditty. (Raposo also composed the Kermit the Frog anthem “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” and “C is for Cookie” for Sesame Street. He wrote the theme song to the 1970s sitcom Three’s Company and Halloween Is Grinch Night. Raposo, who died of died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 52, was a talented guy.)
Legendary crooner Frank Sinatra recorded “There Used to be a Ballpark” for his 1973 album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. The album soared nearly to the Top 10 on the Billboard chart.
Anyway, McCarver insisted that the song laments the demolition of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, home of the Dodgers, and the loss of baseball in that proud borough following the 1957 season. From what I’ve read, that seems to be a popular opinion. It fits in with the old-fashioned feelings of baseball, Brooklyn and the Bums. Producers of The Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush used “There Used to be a Ballpark” in that HBO documentary.
Supposedly, though, Raposo told retired yackmaster Larry King that the song is about the Polo Grounds, the old home of the New York Giants, located in upper Manhattan. The article that mentions this does not offer any sources, however. (This accompanying YouTube video takes a decided pro-Ebbets stance on this issue.)
Now the children try to find it.
And they can’t believe their eyes
‘Cause the the old team just isn’t playing,
And the new one hardly tries.
Ebbets Field hosted its final Dodgers home game on Sept. 24, 1957. The Dodgers knocked off the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0 in front of 6,702 dedicated fans. Soon after, Brooklyn’s beloved team left for the sunshine of Los Angeles and the Memorial Coliseum.
A wrecking ball finally crashed—again and again–into Ebbets Field in the late winter of 1960. This most romanticized of ballparks, christened on April 9, 1913, sat in rubble. The Ebbets Field Apartments (later renamed the Jackie Robinson Apartments) opened in 1962.
Northwest of Brooklyn, up near famous Coogan’s Bluff in Washington Heights, sat the Polo Grounds. Built in 1890 as the third park named the Polo Grounds (and, yes, designed to play the game of polo), this oval-shaped stadium hosted Giants baseball and football games for decades.
Baseball attendance at the cavernous Polo Grounds (The Grounds expanded to 55,000 seats by 1923.) rarely met the expectations of ambitious owners. In 1947, average attendance topped 20,000 fans (just barely at 20,790) for the first and only time. By 1956, yearly attendance slipped to 629,179 (8,171 fans per game). Owner Horace Stoneham decided to follow Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to California. His team also left after the 1957 campaign, bound for windy, cosmopolitan San Francisco.
So, which stadium was it? Ebbets or the Polo Grounds? The song may offer a few clues. Some lyrics remain ambiguous, though, perhaps purposely so. These words, for instance, probably describe any fun day at the ballpark of your choice:
And the people watched in wonder
How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer.
But what about these aforementioned lyrics?
‘Cause the the old team just isn’t playing,
And the new one hardly tries.
The old team just isn’t playing. Neither team was playing at its old park by time Sinatra sang Ramposo’s song. And the new one hardly tries. Well, this is interesting. The Polo Grounds sat mostly vacant for the first few years following the Giants’ flight to the west coast. (The NFL’s Giants took their football and exited for Yankee Stadium in 1956.) The expansion-club New York Mets moved in for the 1962 season and promptly became a 40-120 laughingstock. And the new one hardly tries.
In 1964, workers gathered at the Polo Grounds. They brought the same wrecking ball that pummeled Ebbets Field. Painted to look like a baseball, this instrument made a quick wreck out of the Polo Grounds.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark here.
Maybe the song really is about the Polo Grounds. Or, yes, Ebbets Field. Maybe it is simply about that sense of nostalgia that we all carry. Maybe it is about every long-ago, long-lamented field of play.
By Glen Sparks
Don Drysdale turned an at-bat 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. Drysdale 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 rather drill the guy and save three pitches.
Big D glared at hitters the way a drill instructor glares 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, 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 321.1 innings, a career-high. 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 and a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+). He tossed 49 shutouts and hit 29 home runs. Drysdale took the ball every game 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 number of 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, you were one tough pitcher.
By Glen Sparks
Jazz pianist David Frishberg released a catchy little tune in 1969, “Van Lingle Mungo.”
Supposedly, Frishberg wrote the melody first. He couldn’t decide on the lyrics, though.
So, he did what any good songwriter might do. He picked up a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. There, he found the name Van Lingle Mungo. Well, that had some ring to it. It was certainly unusual.
Maybe, Frishberg figured, that name might just make for a song.
Now, Mungo had been out of major league baseball since 1945. The high-kicking right-hander, born on this date in 1911 in Pageland, S.C., compiled a 120-115 won-loss record over 14 seasons and an ERA of 3.47. He won 102 games as a Brooklyn Dodger (1931-41) and 18 as a New York Giant (1942-42, 45).
The 6-foot-2-inch Mungo hurled a hard fastball. He led the National League in strikeouts in 1936 with 238. Twice (1934 and ’36), he won 18 games. Twice (1933 and 1935), he won 16. The guy tossed a two-hit shutout in his debut, against the Boston Braves, and struck out 12.
Mungo was usually around the plate. Well, near it, anyway. Ok, he was very often in the general vicinity. Mungo led the N.L. in walks three times. Over his career, he gave up 868 free passes and fanned 1,242, a K/BB ratio of 1.43.
Baseball knew Mungo for his fastball and his fast temper. The pitcher once estimate that he paid out $15,000 in fines during his playing days, a princely sum if true.
Mungo hurled insults and punches. He was a tough guy in an old-school, put-up-your-dukes sort of way. The solid son of the South bickered with and bedeviled teammates, managers and opponents. He didn’t mind putting his long-suffering wife into the middle of it all, either.
Mr. Mungo took it personally one day when Brooklyn outfielder Tom “Long John” Winsett made an error. The miscue cost Mungo a victory. So, the pitcher, still sore about the loss, raced to the local telegraph office. He sent a message to Mrs. Mungo: ”Pack up your bags and come to Brooklyn, honey. If Winsett can play in the big leagues, it’s a cinch you can, too.”
Mungo peaked in 1936 and suffered an arm injury in 1937. From 1938-43, he went a combined 13-25. Following a stint in the Army in 1944 during World War II, Mungo regained some of his old form and enjoyed a 14-7 comeback season in 1945 with the Giants.
By the spring of 1946, Mungo was out. He feuded with Manager Mel Ott, got suspended and was eventually released. Later, he managed for one season (and got suspended for taking part in a melee that escalated into a riot) and operated a few business in his native South Carolina.
He probably was mostly forgotten by time Frishberg wrote his song, done with a Bossa Nova flair. Thirty-six other players get mentioned in “Van Lingle Mungo.” Part of it goes like this:
Johnny Vander Meer
Van Lingle Mungo
You get the idea. The tune continues on that way. Van Lingle Mungo is the final name in each verse.
Frishberg, who also wrote songs that Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney have recorded and who wrote the Saturday morning classic “I’m Just a Bill,” said he once met Mungo. Frishberg was appearing on The Dick Cavett Show in New York City, and the producers flew in the title character.
Mungo and Frishberg talked for a few minutes. The old ballplayer wanted to know if he might be seeing some money down the road. Nope, sorry, Frishberg said. “But, it’s my name,” Mungo said.
Frishberg told Mungo to go home and write a song titled “Dave Frishberg.” Mungo brightened up. “I’m going to do it!”
Mungo died Feb. 12, 1985, at the age of 73. If he wrote a song, he kept it to himself.
(Trivia: Eddie Basinksi, included in Verse 4, is the only one of the ballplayers mentioned in Van Lingle Mungo who is still living. The former infielder from Buffalo, N.Y., is 93.)