1959: “We go to Chicago!”
“Big bouncer over the mound, over second base, up with it is Mantilla, throws low and wild! Hodges scores! We go to Chicago!”Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers, September 29, 1959
On a hot fall day in October, in the fourth hour of the 12th inning of a National League playoff game, after a grueling 154-game 1959 pennant race, Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully exclaimed to 36,000 fans and millions more listening on transistor radios his famous line as a team and a city new to Major League Baseball celebrated a National League pennant.
It has been 50 years since the 1959 World Champion Los Angeles Dodger team earned the highest honor in baseball, and yet the season doesn’t often come to mind in the way 1955 does with Johnny Podres, 1963 with the four game sweep over the Yankees, the 1981 comeback triumphs, and the 1988 season with Orel Hershiser. One noted baseball historian said the 1959 Dodgers might have been the worst team ever to win a World Series“It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over, Baseball Prospectus
And yet, if only more was known about the 1959 season, it would receive greater appreciation. In fact, it was really the beginning of a Dodger dynasty, if you are one of those who only count World Series titles as a way of keeping score. From 1959 to 1966, a seven year span, the Dodgers would have the best record in baseball, win three World Championships, win four pennants, miss a pennant by one game and have a strong second place finish in another season.
The 1959 season had remarkable games in an excruciatingly tight pennant race with stalwart individual performances. And when you consider that one fewer win and one more loss in the season sends the team home for the winter, then 1959 takes on greater meaning. And the Dodgers did win the World Championship, making them the best of all 16 teams that season, no matter what a contemporary historian may assert.
How unique was this team and the season? Five players on the 1959 World Series Championship team were in the minor leagues when the season opened. Roger Craig had a World Series win to his credit, but pitching struggles found him in Spokane, the Dodgers’ AAA team. Larry Sherry, who attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, would be a World Series hero with a hand in each of the Dodgers’ four World Series wins. Maury Wills was a longtime minor leaguer who was traded to the Detroit Tigers for spring training. However, the Tigers showed no interest in the player and returned him to the Dodgers for no consideration. Chuck Churn would provide critical relief in four games in September. And finally, Chuck Essegian, acquired in a minor league deal in July, would set a World Series record that still exists today.
There were other players on this team coming into their formative years as major league players. Six seasons later, these players would be there when the Dodgers would win a World Championship in 1965. John Roseboro, Jim Gilliam, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, Sherry and Wally Moon would all be around for those seasons. And, 1959 would be a final World Championship moment for Dodger veterans as Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Clem Labine and a team coach named Pee Wee Reese. Even the 1955 World Series hero, Sandy Amoros, would play in September and have one important RBI.
The journey of the 1959 World Championship season starts with the 1958 season, a dismal one for everyone involved with the Dodgers. A team that had averaged more than 92 wins a season from 1950 to 1957 (approximating 96 wins a season if based on a modern 162-game schedule) won just 71 games. The season started slow, and although they climbed to within three games of .500 in August, they faltered in September. To add insult to injury, they lost 16 of 22 games to the San Francisco Giants.
The 1959 season’s first victory did not come on the field, but rather in the courtroom. On January 13, 1959, the California Supreme Court in a unanimous 7-0 decision agreed the city of Los Angeles had negotiated a proper contract to exchange land with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers would transfer ownership of property to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles along with the obligation to build a 50,000 seat baseball stadium.Neil Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West
However, 1958 did promise bright things on the horizon. During the season, amateur free agents Willie Davis from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, Frank Howard from Ohio State, and Ron Fairly from Southern California signed their first professional contracts.
Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi knew the team needed improvement and acquired left-hand hitting outfielder Wally Moon from the St. Louis Cardinals for Gino Cimoli, and Moon would provide heroics throughout the 1959 season. Bavasi even traded a future Hall of Famer in order to improve the club when he acquired pitchers Gene Snyder and Jim Golden, and outfielder Rip Repulski from the Phillies for second baseman George Anderson. Anderson was a superb fielding second baseman who won the Silver Glove for fielding excellence in 1958 in the minor leagues. Eleven years later, George Anderson would be known as “Sparky” and manage World Championship teams with the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers and be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
When does a pennant race start? Is it the first day of the season? Is a game played in May with the same amount of tension as a game in September? Every game and every win counts during the season, but if there is a real beginning to the 1959 pennant race and the ultimate World Championship for the Dodgers, you could easily point to the night of August 31, 1959 and the emergence of Sandy Koufax.
August 31, 1959 should be considered a modern classic. It was an unusual type of game, the last game of a three-game series with the Giants, ending on a Monday instead of the weekend. The announced attendance in the Coliseum was listed at 60,194, but that total did not take into account more than 22,000 complimentary passes issued by the Dodgers to three service organizations and the total attendance was a breathtaking 82,794. No one asked for a refund.
Bob Hunter described it as” One of the Dodgers’ most magnificent and significant victories.Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 1, 1959 The Los Angeles Times’ Frank Finch was less modest. “One of the most momentous victories in their glorious history last night before a roaring mob of 82,794 coronary cases at the Coliseum.” Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1959
The Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax and the Giants’ starting pitcher, Jack Sanford, both allowed a run in the first inning. Koufax, one start removed from fanning 13 Phillies, struck out the first two hitters of the game, then allowed doubles to Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda for the Giants’ first run. The Dodgers scored a run without the benefit of a hit as Gilliam walked, stole second, went to third on a passed ball, and scored on an infield out.
In the second inning, Koufax walked one, but struck out Sanford, the Giants’ pitcher. The third inning for Koufax was approximately as the second inning. He walked one, but left the runner stranded at first with two ground ball outs and a foul out. After three innings, Koufax had fanned three. So far, a nice start, but nothing record setting.
Koufax’ fourth inning had him in a slight jam when the Giants led off the inning with two singles. Koufax left the runners on first and second, getting a foul pop and then fanning the number eight and nine hitters in the Giants’ lineup, Danny McConnell and Sanford. In the fifth inning, Koufax fanned Jackie Brandt to start the inning, but the Giants’ great rookie and future Hall of Famer, Willie McCovey, broke Koufax’ strikeout string with a solo home run and the Giants gained a 2-1 lead. Sandy then fanned Mays and Cepeda for the final out of the fifth.
The Dodgers did little with Sanford of the Giants. Koufax went to the mound in the sixth inning still behind 2-1 and he struck out the side. The last eight outs by the Giants had been strikeouts with only the McCovey home run to break the run. In the seventh inning, Koufax allowed a leadoff double and after a sacrifice of the base runner to third, he kept the Dodgers close as he struck out Brandt and McCovey.
For all that pitching, Alston came ever so close to removing Koufax from the game in the bottom of the seventh inning. Roseboro singled to lead off the inning and Wills intended to sacrifice.
If Wills had gotten the sacrifice down, moving Roseboro to second, Alston would have sent a pinch-hitter for Koufax, removing him from the game. However, Wills bunted into a force play, leaving him at first, and Alston stayed with Koufax and allowed him to hit. Koufax did sacrifice successfully, but Sanford again kept the Dodgers from scoring, but Koufax, more importantly, stayed in the game.
Sandy talked about the incident. “(Walt) Alston called Carl’s (Furillo) name. I knew he was going to have Furillo hit for me. To myself, I silently prayed he would let me keep going, but even more I wanted victory for the team.” When the sacrifice attempt by Wills was not successful, Koufax was not quite ready. “I heard him (Alston) yell for me and I almost fell down getting my helmet and bat before he changed his mind.”Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 2, 1959
Koufax walked to the mound to start the eighth inning with 13 strikeouts in the game and he added two more to his total as he fanned the first two hitters. He retired the side, still trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth. Sanford had kept the Dodgers at bay all night, but his own wildness led to the Dodgers tying the game. Moon had walked to lead off the inning and was sacrificed to second. During an at bat with Snider, Sanford threw two wild pitches. The first moved Moon to third and the second plated the tying run.
The greatest broadcaster in the history of sports, Scully had thousands listening to him on transistor radios at the Coliseum and maybe millions more from Southern California to Las Vegas and Arizona were tuned in as he described Koufax against the Giants in the ninth inning.
Koufax had struck out 15 Giants through eight innings. He was two strikeouts from the National League mark of 17 set by Dizzy Dean and he had to fan the side to tie the major league record of 18 in nine innings by Bob Feller.
Eddie Bressoud leads off in the ninth inning and he went down on three pitches as the 16th strikeout. Koufax’ strikeout of Bressoud set a new major league record for most strikeouts in two consecutive games with 29, breaking the mark of 28 by Feller. Next, Danny O’Connell struck out on three pitches for the 17th strikeout, tying the National League record of 17. As Koufax threw strike one to Sanford, Scully noted, “Koufax is shooting for all the marbles.”Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers, August 31, 1959 Koufax missed the plate with a ball and then threw a second strike past Sanford, Scully reported, “This crowd just ready to lift the Coliseum! 1-2 pitch, fastball, got him swinging!Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers, August 31, 1959
Koufax needed only 10 pitches to strike out the side in the ninth inning and his 147th and last pitch of the night tied the major league record of 18 strikeouts in nine innings.
As the cheering of the crowd subsided, Scully admitted on the air, “Boy, I never thought I’d see it. I never thought I’d see a man strike out 18 major league players in a game. And Sandy Koufax did it. After 8 ½ innings, it’s a 2-2 tie.”Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers, August 31, 1959
The game was still only tied, not won, and yet, with one out, Alston let Koufax hit and he singled to left. After Gilliam singled to left to put Koufax in scoring position, the left hand-hitting Moon homered a “Moon shot” over the screen in left field and the Dodgers had an ecstatic, wondrous, 5-2 win and moved the team to within one game of first place. As Scully said at the end of the broadcast as the team celebrated, “What a night!”Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers, August 31, 1959
Columnist Mel Durslag compared the Koufax 18-strikeout game finish to the 1951 Bobby Thomson home run and called it a “radiant moment.” He also said there was a second great moment in the game when he caught a foul ball hit into the press box by Mays.Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 2, 1959
An interesting sidelight to Koufax tying the major league record was later revealed. Koufax admitted “That was the best game I ever pitched” and that he had been nursing a cold all week.Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 1, 1959 What did Sandy do after his 18-strikeout win? “I shaved and showered and went home to bed. I just wanted to go to sleep to see if it was a dream.”Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 2, 1959
Bob Hunter also uncovered a discrepancy in the pitching mound for the game with the Giants. The football Rams had played an exhibition two days earlier, and the pitching mound at the Coliseum was removed to provide a level field. However, the burden to get the mound to the 15 inch regulation size within 24 hours was more difficult than realized. Efforts to stabilize the mound for the Sunday and Monday games would only succeed if there was additional height and the mound became feasible at 17 inches, two above the league rules. Giants’ manager Bill Rigney admitted he noticed the difference in the height of the mound in the game on August 30th and could have protested, but in his words, “Decided to forget it.”Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 1, 1959
Moon, the ninth inning home run over the left field screen was nothing new to the left hand hitting outfielder. Moon explained, “When I came to the Coliseum, I started hitting to right and center like other lefties. But with the size of the fields out there, this was really battling the odds. So I started to work on something new.”Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 1, 1959
Mel Durslag described Moon’s new swing. “Moon says he adjusts to a left hander (pitcher) merely by crowding the plate a bit, thus giving a better shot at balls that break away…..The result has been a calculated slice in which Moon keeps his hands close to his body and maneuvers his wrists in such a way as to crack the ball to the opposite field.”Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 1, 1959 Moon told writer Frank Finch “I changed my style in the Coliseum early in the season after I ripped some pretty good shots the right fielders turned into easy outs. If you want to slice the ball, it’s simply a matter of bringing the hands closer to the body and slightly delaying the swing.”Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1959
August turned into September. It is only a day of difference, but to ballplayers in a tough pennant race, it’s significant. August days are long, hot, and frustrating, but to be on a ball club in September means just a little more interest to go to the ballpark and the promise of cooler days and nights and a possible October of games.
And after that dramatic, rousing 5-2 win over the Giants that pushed the Dodgers to within one game of first place, the Dodgers opened September with a thud by being shut out by the Cardinals’ Larry Jackson, losing a half game in the standings.
The season thus far had been a series of heroes on the team: Drysdale, Koufax, Craig, Sherry, Wills, Hodges, Snider, Gilliam, Neal, and Moon, but September would find room for role players who had not received much attention. The first player to step forward would be pitcher Chuck Churn.
To be formal, his full name was Clarence Nottingham Churn and he was pitching in his 11th pro season. He had brief stops at Pittsburgh and Cleveland in previous seasons, but he had not pitched well and did not stick in the majors. Churn had been acquired by the Dodgers in May 1959 from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for minor league pitcher Dick Hanlon. Hanlon would later have a distinguished scouting career for the Dodgers and was the signing scout for standouts as Dave Stewart and John Wetteland.
Churn had been a steady workhorse at Spokane and had good control and was to provide “mop-up” help. In four of his first five games on his arrival in August, he pitched in Dodger defeats, providing capable relief. But for three weeks in September, he was as valuable as any Dodger pitcher.
On September 2nd, the Cardinals scored five runs in the third inning off Danny McDevitt and led 5-1. By the fourth inning, the Dodgers had tied the game at 5-all, and in the fifth inning, after the bases were loaded with one out for the Cardinals, Churn induced the hitter to hit into an inning-ending double play. The Dodgers scored four runs in later innings and Churn finished the Cardinals off with 4 2/3 innings and one run to gain his first major league win in a 9-6 Dodger win. The journeyman pitcher would play a larger role later in the month.
All pennant races have their highs and lows and 1959 was no different. One day your club is invincible, ready to take on the entire world, and the next day it is the lowest of lows, and it seems as if all is lost. On September 3rd, with actor Jimmy Stewart and film director Mervyn LeRoy in the press box, the Cardinals stopped the Dodgers, 5-3. After two days off, the Dodgers met the Cubs in a Sunday doubleheader and two former Dodgers hurt them.
In the first game, pitcher Art Ceccarelli threw 10 scoreless innings to defeat the Dodgers, 3-0 when Ernie Banks hit a three-run home run off Sandy Koufax in the 10th inning. Koufax had shutout the Cubs for nine innings and made 159 pitches before the Cubs broke through. Ceccarelli never pitched for the Dodgers but signed his first pro contract with the Dodgers in 1948. In the spring of 1959, he had gone to camp with the Giants, but he didn’t make their club and instead pitched for the Cubs. One writer said of Ceccarelli, “Yesterday he may have won the pennant for the Giants.”Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 7, 1959
In the second game, the Dodgers came as close to winning the game without winning. Don Drysdale held a 3-2 lead with two out in the ninth inning. Two Cubs were on base by singles and with two strikes on the hitter, Walt (Moose) Moryn. The slugging outfielder who had signed his first pro contract with the Dodger organization then swatted a three run home run for a 5-3 Cub lead and later the win. The only thing easing the sting of the double defeats was a Giant loss to St. Louis, but the rough day pushed the Dodgers three games out of first place.
The writers’ mood matched the state of Dodger fans. “It’s now three down (from first place) and 18 (games) to go and the calendar is running out of days,” said one writer.Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner, September 7, 1959 Another wrote, “The odds against the Dodgers rescuing the pennant at this stage are distressingly long.”Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 9, 1959 The columnist went on to say that no one in the Dodger organization had given up. “It’s going to happen like this,” said one of the fighting administrators (of the Dodgers). “We’ll lick them three straight in San Francisco.” The columnist responded, “It is indeed a beautiful dream.”Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 9, 1959
The Giants were in the process of the construction of their new stadium and were hoping to finish the building of Candlestick Park so it could be ready for the World Series. The columnist concluded, “The first World Series at Candlestick (in San Francisco) may not be so easy to forget….. The series will definitely be played at Candlestick.”Mel Durslag, Los Angeles Examiner, September 9, 1959
But, this is a pennant race where anything can happen. On September 8th, a hero from the 1955 World Series returned to play for the Dodgers. Sandy Amoros, whose catch in the seventh game was the deciding factor for the Dodgers’ first World Championship was promoted after a fine 1959 season at Montreal in the International League. Amoros hit 29 home runs for the Montreal Royals and his experience, speed, and left side hitting ability would provide a small, but significant difference in a one-run win over the Braves.