Sunday, 15 May 2016

BASEBALL’S DYNAMIC DUO

 Exhibit card of Sandy Koufax.
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)
From 1962-1965, in the era before player agents, teammates Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the best one-two pitching punch in baseball. Shrewd businessmen, they knew their worth to the Los Angeles Dodgers and they were going to do something about it for the 1966 season. 

In the first half of the decade, the combination of Koufax and Drysdale accounted for half the Dodger starts. On an all-pitch, no-hit, small-ball team, left-hander Koufax was the finesse pitcher of the two. Never one to deliberately throw at a batter, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound hurler born and raised in Brooklyn was a fastball-curveball man with blazing speed, followed by outstanding control. Owner of four no-hitters to date (one a perfect game), he had just come off four straight seasons winning the ERA title, with 1963 his first quality season: 25 wins, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts and 11 shutouts, all NL-best stats; plus an MVP and Cy Young Award, when the latter was given to the best pitcher in both leagues combined.

In 1965, he had won 26 games, completed 27, struck out a record-setting 382, and had held the National League opposition to a 2.04 ERA, all league-best. He had also won both the National League MVP and another Cy Young.  In the 1963 World Series, a four-game sweep over the favored New York Yankees, Koufax had won two games: the first one by striking out a record 15 hitters, as well as the Game Four 2-1 finale. In the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins, he had won two games, both shutouts, including the seventh, a masterful three-hitter.

The second part of the duo, the temperamental right-hander born and raised in California, Don Drysdale never held back from throwing his devastating fastball “inside” to batters using his distinct sidearm fashion. He was a workhorse, starting at least 40 games and throwing at least 300 innings in each season since 1962. One of the game’s most intimidating hurlers, he stood 6-foot-5, appearing more like 10 feet tall in the days when the mound was higher than it is today. To Drysdale’s way of thinking, he owned the inside and outside parts of the plate, leaving only the middle to the hitter. So, back off mister!  And they did, terrified they could get killed by one of his bullets.
     
“Big D” had taken the Cy Young Award in 1962, posting a 25-9 mark with 2.83 ERA, 41 starts, and 232 strikeouts in 314 innings, good enough to lead the league in these categories except ERA. In 1963, he had won 19 games, lowered his ERA to 2.62, and won Game Three of the World Series by shutting out the Yankees 1-0 on a three-hitter combined with nine strikeouts. In 1965, he had won 23 games, thrown seven shutouts, and won a crucial Game Four to even the World Series at two apiece, after the Dodgers had lost the first two games in Minnesota to the Twins, the best-hitting team in the American League.

Exhibit card of Don Drysdale.
Exhibit Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)
 
Following the 1965 World Series, Koufax and Drysdale, at the top of their game, decided they now had the leverage to take on the Dodgers at the contract table. For decades, going back to their years in Brooklyn, Dodger management were notorious cheapskates. Now they were the best draw in baseball, bringing in at least 2 million fans since the new 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium had opened in 1962. During the 1965 season, Koufax had made $85,000 and Drysdale $80,000. When they met with team GM Buzzie Bavasi in mid-October at Dodger Stadium to discuss their futures, they unfolded a well-conceived plan by demanding that they were a package deal. Neither one would sign unless they both agreed. They also said they had an agent, Koufax’s lawyer, Bill Hayes, who had determined that his clients were worth an extra $1 million in revenue to the Dodgers whenever they pitched. Furthermore, Koufax and Drysdale insisted on a three-year, no-trade, no-cut contract for $1 million, which worked out to be $166,000 per year each. In shock, Bavasi countered by saying that he would not deal with any agent, that $1 million was too much and there would be only one-year contracts, the same as what everybody else in the organization received. Basis offered $100,000 to Koufax, and $90,000 to Drysdale. The players said no, and the meeting broke off.

The three met again in late November at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel restaurant, where Koufax did most of the talking for the two: $200,000 each in the first and second year, then $100,000 in the third year.

“But, that’s still a million,” Bavasi said.

“OK, then, $150,000 per year for three years,” Koufax replied. They broke off again. The third conference occurred at the same restaurant, this time in late-February 1966, only a few days prior to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida. Now it was crunch time. Bavasi offered $100,000 each for one year, but no package deal. The players left and were a no-show at spring training when it began February 26, becoming the first-ever dual holdouts.

Most of March went by, and still no money talk from the best one-two pitchers in baseball, except to tell management that they were going to retire and start acting careers if they weren’t better paid. With only a few days left in the exhibition schedule, Bavasi and owner Walter O’Malley began to worry, with good reason. Koufax and Drysdale had won a combined 49 games in 1965, half of the team’s 97 wins. By now, the two pitchers were in the sports news almost daily. Trying to sound firm, calm and collected from Vero Beach, O’Malley decided to call the two hurlers on the phone. He wished them luck at their new ventures outside baseball, then said his goodbyes, hoping that his bluff would work.

Next day, March 30, Drysdale called Bavasi at his Dodger Stadium office to arrange a meeting at a nearby restaurant that same day. There, without Koufax present, Bavasi laid it on the line to Drysdale: “All right, what will it take to sign you boys.”

“One year, $110,000 for me and $125,000 for Sandy,” replied Drysdale, letting the Dodger GM know he was acting also on Koufax’s behalf. Not surprised by the numbers, Bavasi called O’Malley in Vero Beach. The deal was made on the spot, and a press conference was arranged at Dodger Stadium where Bavasi, Koufax, and Drysdale appeared to let the writers know that the “Don and Sandy Show” was back in town. After holding out for 32 days, they had made history as the first pitchers to earn $100,000 a year when the average National League salary was $17,000. And they also started something: the beginning of collective bargaining in baseball.

The 1966 regular season--50 years ago--began with Koufax starting the second game and Drysdale starting the fourth, neither one with a decision. But they quickly got into the swing of things after that and helped lead the Dodgers to another pennant. While Drysdale slipped to 13-16 and 3.42 ERA, Koufax had his best year ever, winning his fifth-straight ERA title with a stingy 1.73. He won 27 games, the most for a National League southpaw since 1900, and led the league with five shutouts and 317 strikeouts, his third 300-plus strikeout mark in the last four seasons. In addition, he won his third Cy Young Award, all three times unanimously.

The World Series in 1966 wasn’t good to the Dodgers, however: They were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in four games. Summing it up, in the five-season stretch from 1962-1966, Koufax and Drysdale combined for an incredible 209 wins, 53 shutouts, 2,551 strikeouts, four Cy Young Awards, six individual World Series wins, three pennants, and two MLB championships. After 1966, the Dodgers wouldn’t win another pennant until 1974.

Koufax, at 31, announced his retirement from baseball a month after the 1966 World Series, fearing future permanent damage to his throwing arm--bone spurs in his elbow--which had been giving him trouble for the past several seasons. No such thing as “Tommy John Surgery” then, otherwise he could’ve gone on to win 300 contests. Before games, he had to apply massive heat to his elbow, then ice packs after, with painkiller shots and pills in between that often left him “high” on the mound.

Drysdale continued until August 1969, when he retired due to a nagging shoulder injury. He was the last player on the club who had started his Dodger career in Brooklyn. He had his last hurrah in 1968 at the age of 32 throwing 58 and two-thirds consecutive shutout innings (six shutouts), a record that stood until another Dodger hurler, Orel Hershiser, extended the mark by one-third of an inning in 1988.


Two pitchers as different as night and day, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale are Hall of Fame members, making their way to Cooperstown in 1972 and 1984, respectively. 

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