Friday, November 4, 2016

Fifty Years Ago the Orioles Stunned the Dodgers With the Most Dominant World Series Pitching Ever

 When the Indians pitching staff threatened to send this postseason back into the deadball era after the first four games, I was reminded that it was exactly fifty years since the greatest World Series pitching performance by a team: 1966, Baltimore vs. L.A.

The Orioles had been in existence barely a decade and although they had threatened in recent years, this was their first pennant. They had bludgeoned the American League and clinched with weeks to spare. While they still relied on the Paul Richards-Oriole Way foundation of defense and great pitching, the 1966 version of the batting order had some definite muscle, and not just that provided by the great off-season addition of Frank Robinson. All season, the one-two-three punch of Frank, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell had devastated opposing pitchers. At least two of the three were hot at any one time. Brooks finished with 23 homers, 100 RBIs, Boog 34 and 109, and Frank ended with triple crown numbers: 49 homers, 122 RBIs and a .316 average. They were 1, 3 and 4 in the league in RBIs. Brooks would finish second to Frank in the MVP voting, with Boog third. In addition to their offense, the Oriole defense boasted one of the best infields in history, with perennial Gold Glovers Robinson and Luis Aparicio making the left side near impenetrable and soon-to-be Gold Glover Davey Johnson at second.

             The Oriole pitching staff, while solid, was considered to be a potential weakness going into the Series. Twenty-year-old Jim Palmer led the staff with 15 wins and lefty Dave McNally was second with 13. The rest of the Orioles starters had battled sore arms all year, with manager Hank Bauer cobbling together whoever was healthy at the time to fill out his rotation.
             While the Orioles coasted through September, the winner in the National League was not decided until the Dodgers won the second game of a double header the last day of the season. The Dodger strength was their legendary pitching staff. Sandy Koufax boasted a record of 27-9 in 1966, with an ERA of 1.73 and 317 strike outs. In addition to Koufax, the Dodger rotation contained two other future Hall of Famers, Don Drysdale and twenty-year-old Don Sutton, as well as 17-game winner Claude Osteen.  
The Dodger pitching was rock-solid, but their ability to score runs was an entirely different matter. Second baseman Jim Lefebvre was the big gun, so to speak, of the L.A. offense: a .274 batting average with 24 home runs and 74 RBIs. Lou Johnson was second on the team with 17 homers and 73 RBIs. The Dodger game plan was to play a brand of small ball more suited to marbles, stringing together enough bunts, steals and infield hits to squeeze out a run or two and then hope their pitching staff could hold on. It was a formula that had worked well enough to win a tough National League pennant race, but no one was confusing them with the '27 Yanks.        
The Dodger hitters indeed did nothing to inspire fear, except among their own fans. In a bit of foreshadowing to the series, the New Hampshire Forestry Division sent a message to the Dodgers congratulating them for being the major league team “which has done the most to conserve wood—one of our most important natural resources.”
            Although the Orioles were strong, the Dodgers were still, well, THE DODGERS, winners of the World Series in 1963 and 1965.  Among the Orioles, only Frank (Cincinnati in 1961), Aparicio (Chicago in 1959) and reliever Stu Miller (San Francisco in 1962) had been to a Series before and none had played on a winner. And so, despite the anemic L.A. offense, bookmakers had the Dodgers favored 8 to 5. Few could have predicted what would happen.

Because the San Francisco Giants had rudely refused to concede, winning their last six games, the Dodgers had entered the second game of a double header October 2, the last day of the season, needing a win to avoid dropping into a tie. Sandy Koufax had been pressed into service and threw a complete game, so he was not available on two days rest for Game One of the World Series. Dodger Game One starter Don Drysdale, Robin to Koufax' Batman, was not viewed as a huge step down, however. With his menacing presence on the mound, 6-foot-5, featuring a whip-like delivery that was almost side-armed, Drysdale had the ability to keep right-handers loose in the box and was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career of his own. 

But in the top of the first inning with one out and Russ Snyder on first, the Robinson boys struck. Frank bombed a home run. Brooks stepped in. Drysdale, snarling and nasty, threw the obligatory duster high and inside. The second pitch was a fastball and Brooks turned on it and drove it seven rows deep in the left field stands giving the Orioles a quick 3-0 lead. The Dodger Dogs were barely warm in the concession stands and the Orioles had already scored as many runs as the Yankees (one in two games) and the Twins (two in three games) had in the past two World Series in Dodger Stadium. No one knew it at the time, but the Series was essentially over.
But there was still a little drama. After watching his lead grow to 4-0, Oriole starter Dave McNally experienced control problems and was soon in deep trouble. Unable to get used to the severe slope of the mound, he was consistently wild-high. He gave up a run in the second, then walked the bases loaded in the third, throwing only three strikes to his last four batters. Oriole reliever Moe Drabowsky then walked out of the bullpen and into baseball history.
            . Drabowsky had been a flame-throwing phenom when signed in 1956 by the Cubs, but arm trouble quickly hampered his progress. By 1966, he had bounced between four different teams and had not had a winning record since 1960. After being converted to a full-time reliever by the Orioles, Drabowsky had turned in the best season of his career, going 6-0. 
              Drabowsky struggled with his own control initially, walking Jim Gilliam on a 3-2 count to force in a run, and going 3 and 2 on John Roseboro. The Dodger catcher then fouled off an obvious ball four and popped out on the next pitch to end the inning. Drabowsky had a good arm and, when he was right, possessed an excellent fastball that was capable of overpowering hitters. It quickly became apparent that Moe was throwing particularly hard on this day. When Dodger teammates asked Lou Johnson, who struck out leading off the next inning, what Drabowsky’s pitches were doing, he replied, “They aren’t hitting the bat.” Drabowsky proceeded to have the best game any reliever has ever had in a World Series—he struck out eleven men (all swinging) over the last six and two-thirds innings (six in a row at one stretch) while limiting the Dodgers to one hit. The Orioles won the game 4-2.
 Game One set the tone. The rest of the Oriole staff, including Game Two starter Jim Palmer, couldn't help but note that what their advance scout Jim Russo had told them about the Dodgers was true--they could be beaten with high hard stuff.   

    Sandy Koufax took the mound for the Dodgers under the bright West Coast sun for Game Two. Koufax had just completed one of the most dominating four-year stretches in major league history, with a record of 97-27, leading the league in ERA all four years (his worst ERA of that stretch was 2.07). Facing Koufax was twenty-year old Jim Palmer. Nicknamed Pancake that year due to his superstition of always eating pancakes the day he pitched, he had inflamed a tendon in his right shoulder while painting the nursery in his house earlier in the season (he was making $7500 that year and could not afford a painter). He entered the World Series concerned about his arm.
But Koufax had concerns of his own. Although he was still a young man, only 30 years old, his left arm had aged in dog-years. It was not fully known at the time of the Series, but he had been in severe pain all year. He had thrown 323 innings during the season and had started seven games in the last 26 days of the season—the Dodgers had needed every one of them as they battled to the last game for the pennant. The World Series start was his third in eight days.
While Koufax was not overpowering in Game Two, he was still good enough to win, had he gotten a little support with the leather. The Orioles could not manage a run through the first four innings, then in the fifth they received a gift. Dodger center fielder Willie Davis lost two consecutive fly balls in the sun, then picked up the ball and made a bad throw to third for another error. When the carnage was over, Davis had a World Series record three errors in one inning and the Orioles had a 3-0 lead.
            The comedians in the press box were having a good time at Davis’ expense. When he was late coming out for the next inning, one of them asked, “Do you suppose he may be about to commit suicide?” Another answered, “Hope not, he might miss and kill an usher.” A third pondered, “I wonder if Davis will be able to catch the plane to Baltimore.”

The Dodgers were unable to score off Palmer and the Orioles added three more runs, courtesy of a total of six Dodger errors. Palmer finished with a complete game four-hit shutout. 

           The teams traveled to Baltimore for Game Three. The Orioles’ Game Three starter, 21-year-old Wally Bunker, had been 19-5 in 1964, but had experienced arm trouble ever since. Although not technically a power pitcher, he smartly followed the recipe of Drabowski and Palmer and fed the Dodgers fastballs. And once again the recipe produced a masterpiece. Bunker was in control the whole game, scattering 6 hits and a walk. Only two Dodgers reached second base. Dodgers pitchers Claude Osteen and Phil Regan nearly matched Bunker, giving the Orioles only 3 hits, but one was a big one, a fifth-inning home run by Paul Blair. The blast stood up as only the third time in history a 1-0 World Series game had been decided by a home run. After the game Bunker sat in front of his locker, all but neglected by the press. “I guess shutting out the Dodgers isn’t news anymore,” he joked. Apparently, it wasn't.
            In Game Four the Dodgers came back with Drysdale, holding Koufax ready for the next game if needed. A fourth-inning two-out Frank Robinson home run gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead. Boog Powell followed with a towering drive to deep center field that appeared to add to the lead. Willie Davis turned his back and ran to the fence, waited, took five steps to his right--just in front of the 410 sign--and jumped. With the armpit of his fully extended right arm above the fence, he caught the ball to rob Powell of a home run.

The great play in center field gave the Dodgers a spark of life as they prepared to hit. Jim Lefebvre opened the inning with a single. The next batter, Wes Parker slapped a bouncer into the hole to Aparicio’s right. Brooks Robinson ran to his left, stretched and stabbed the ball, stumbled, took a couple of steps to regain his balance, then delivered a perfect chest-high throw to Johnson at second who relayed it quickly to first for a double play. The Dodger momentum was over.
There were still tense moments, however. In the eighth, Lefebvre drilled a long fly to center that looked like a tying home run. Blair ran back, leaped at the fence and robbed him (a spectacular play, but not quite as good as Davis’ at nearly the same spot in the fourth). In the ninth inning, with one out and the Orioles clinging to a 1-0 lead and starter Dave McNally still on the mound, pinch hitter Al Ferrara singled to center and was replaced by a pinch runner. McNally walked the next batter, giving the Dodgers their most serious threat in nearly a week. Willie Davis then popped out to right field, too shallow for the runners to advance. With the crowd roaring on every pitch, Lou Johnson worked the count to 2-2, then lifted a can of corn to Blair in center to end the series. 

            The pitching dominance was startling. Throwing mostly high fastballs, Oriole pitchers had blanked the Dodgers for the final 33 innings of the Series—giving them no runs after the fourth inning bases-loaded walk in Game One. More astounding, the Dodgers only advanced one runner to third base over the final 25 innings. Palmer, Bunker and McNally threw consecutive shutouts. The Series set a record for low batting averages: .147 for the Dodgers and .200 for the winning Orioles.
            The Orioles did not commit an error in the four games. Manager Hank Bauer, playing the hot hand, used only 13 men the whole Series and--modern managers take note--used a grand total of four pitchers the entire Series.



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