The 1965 Pennant Race
April - May
In the opening month of the 1965 season, the Dodgers started well. On April 30, they defeated the Giants to win their 10th game in 15 starts. Koufax, Drysdale, and Osteen pitched well and Podres was showing previous form. Wills was ahead of his record pace of stealing 104 bases in 1962. Rookie second baseman Lefebvre made contributions and consummate pro Fairly was driving in timely runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis was off to a slow start, but was starting to feel comfortable at the plate. The club looked to have no problem scoring runs. And then, in an instant, the offense changed for the worse.
The night of May 1st had the Dodgers playing the Giants in front of a large crowd in Dodger Stadium. In the fourth inning, Tommy Davis singled. A grounder was hit to Giant pitcher Gaylord Perry. The Giant pitcher threw to first to retire the hitter but as Davis hustled down to second to avoid a force play, he slid, catching his spikes and severely injured his ankle. As Davis said later, “It felt like my ankle went into right field.Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1965 The capacity crowd went silent as Davis, in obvious discomfort, was removed from the field on a stretcher. Dodger players and fans knew the loss of Davis would be significant. Without him, the Dodger offense would be sorely tested. Frank Finch, beat writer for the Los Angeles Times said, “(Tommy) Davis was removed to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital and the Dodgers were removed from the board in Las Vegas as pennant favorites.”Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1965
Even though the Dodgers won the game that night with three runs in the eighth inning, the club morale was very down on the loss of the hard hitting outfielder. Koufax wrote in his autobiography, “It was a somber mood in the clubhouse.”Koufax by Sandy Koufax with Ed Linn
The Dodgers ended their homestand and traveled to Cincinnati without their regular left fielder and waited to see who would be Tommy Davis’ replacement. General Manager Bavasi called Spokane, Washington where Peter O’Malley, the future President and Chairman of the Board of the Dodgers, was the current president of the Spokane Indians and told O’Malley the Dodgers wanted to promote outfielder Lou Johnson. O’Malley then called Johnson, also known as “Sweet Lou”. O’Malley thought he had good news for Johnson and informed him he was to report to Cincinnati. “Sweet Lou” didn’t feel so sweet then, because he mis-interpreted the remarks from O’Malley. Johnson mistakenly thought he had been traded to the Cincinnati organization and he knew a team with an outfield of great offensive players as Tommy Harper, Vada Pinson, and Frank Robinson, would give him little chance to play in the major leagues. Johnson told O’Malley he would refuse to report.“Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy “I thought he was just kidding around,”The Sporting News, October 16, 1965 said Johnson. O’Malley clarified his comment. Johnson was reporting TO the Los Angeles Dodgers IN Cincinnati. That was very different and Lou Johnson reported to Cincinnati, now a very happy big league player again.
Johnson was a veteran outfielder who had played at previous times in the major leagues with the Angels, Braves and Cubs, but had never been able to stay there for long. In April, 1964, the Dodgers had traded pitcher Larry Sherry to the Tigers and in return, had received Johnson. Johnson spent the entire 1964 season at Spokane but was never promoted to the major league team. He was not even invited to the 1965 spring training major league camp as a non-roster player. Now Johnson had his opportunity. How important did Sweet Lou become to the 1965 Dodger club? Five months later in the victorious Dodger clubhouse on the day the club clinched the National League pennant, Sandy Koufax said it best, “Johnson’s the guy. If it hadn’t been for the job he did, we might not be here today”.The Sporting News, October 16, 1965
Johnson’s first game as a Dodger was in a modest role, playing the 9th inning in place of left fielder Al Ferrara as Koufax defeated the Reds, 4-2. His expected role was to play late inning defense, pinch-hit against left handers, pinch-run, be the extra outfielder and make the occasional start.
On May 10th, the Dodgers started a homestand against the Astros, but Ferrara, the man who replaced Tommy Davis had to be replaced himself in the lineup because of a broken finger. And role player Lou Johnson suddenly got a leading role. Walter Alston showed great confidence in Johnson and hit him fourth in the lineup. Johnson did little in the first nine innings and the two teams were tied, 2-2 in the 10th inning. With two out, the legend of Lou Johnson began. He singled, stole second, went to third on an overthrow and then scored the winning run when Fairly singled. And that was just the start. The next night, Johnson pinch-hit and singled and the Dodgers won. On May 13, 1965, Johnson was back in the starting lineup. He hit a solo home run in the second inning to give Sandy Koufax the lead, but it was in the fifth inning where everyone got a scare.
Bob Bruce, a hard throwing right hander for Houston, struck Johnson in the middle of the forehead with a pitch. Fortunately, for Johnson, he was wearing a strong protective helmet as the pitch virtually shattered the helmet. The helmet was later reviewed in the press box. It was described as having “a dent as big as a baseball.”Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1965 The Sporting News ran a photo of the broken helmet in their May 29th edition. Bob Hunter wrote in The Sporting News, “It (the baseball) struck him squarely between the eyes, but on the helmet, where it broke through the fiber shell, the imprint of the seams of the baseball could be clearly seen. Team doctor Robert Woods said, “Had it not been for the protective fiber helmet, he (Johnson) would have been killed.The Sporting News, Bob Hunter, May 29, 1965 Johnson went into the hospital for three days for observation, but when pronounced fit to play, he was back in the lineup.
Without Tommy Davis and now Johnson, the Dodgers’ offense learned to do a lot with a little. On May 15th, the Chicago Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth was leading 1-0 in the eighth inning and had not yet allowed a hit to the Dodgers. Ferrara was called on to hit by Alston, and despite a recent recovery from a broken finger, hit a three-run home run to win the game. “I was going to use Drysdale,” said Alston.The Sporting News, Bob Hunter, May 29, 1965 “Before the game, Ferrara told me he wanted to play, but the doctor said it would be taking a chance and his recovery could be delayed by another 10 days. However, when you’re desperate, you’re not quite as merciful, so I forgot what the doctor said,” said Alston. It was only Ferrara’s second major league home run, but it came in the right time and the right place and the Dodgers won 3-1. Everyone on the club had to make a contribution. The next day, Don Drysdale was leading 2-1 in the ninth inning when the Cubs tied the game. Not a problem. With two outs in the bottom of the inning, Drysdale doubled to center off Cub reliever Lindy McDaniel. Two hitters later, Parker singled to center, and it was Drysdale who scored the winning run to give himself the win.
May 17th was an unusual game and not because it was the Dodgers’ first game ever played indoors in the Houston Astrodome. Lewis Carlisle made his pilot debut for the Dodgers by taking over the Dodger Electra controls.Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1965 Fans in Los Angeles had a treat as the game was televised back to Los Angeles. In the early 1960’s, the Dodgers rarely televised games that did not originate in San Francisco. The Houston Astrodome had opened that season for the Astros, a domed stadium necessary for the heat and humidity in Houston. Baseball fans marveled at the sight of baseball being played inside a covered stadium with a Texas sized scoreboard and message board. Sandy Koufax said of the Astrodome, “I’ve never heard ballplayers talk about a park as they have about this one. I’m surprised they didn’t build a motel for the visiting teams right inside the park.”Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1965
Koufax started and pitched into the 11th inning and earned a win when the Dodgers scored four runs in the 11th inning with Koufax hitting a single and scoring a run in the tie breaking inning. Bob Miller relieved Koufax to get the final two outs for the save. Two nights later, the Dodgers defeated the Astros, 4-2, but this time it took 14 innings. Ron Fairly’s fourth hit of the game was a two-run home run to be the decisive runs. Five Dodger relief pitchers shut out the Astros over the final 8 2/3 innings, but it was the last Dodger reliever that provided an unusual twist to the game. With a runner on first base and two outs in the 14th inning, Alston brought in Drysdale to face a tough hitter in Astro rookie Joe Morgan. Drysdale struck out Morgan for the final out, and starting pitcher Drysdale earned a save. The victory was also notable because it was the 1,000th win for Dodger Manager Walter Alston in his major league career.Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1965
Things didn’t always bounce their way. On May 23rd in Chicago, the Dodgers scored two quick runs in the first inning, but saw the Cubs tie the game in the ninth inning. The two teams battled until the 16th inning when the Cubs pushed over a run to win, 3-2. Alston used a six-man infield successfully in the 12th inning when he brought in right fielder Ron Fairly to play first base as regular first baseman Wes Parker charged the bunt attempt.Frank Finch, Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1965 Every game was tight because of the strength of the Dodger pitching. And, every game was tight because the Dodgers did not have much offense.
A late night in May showed two great pitchers against each other. On May 25th, Drysdale started for the Dodgers against the vaunted Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. Curt Flood singled to open the game for the Cardinals, but was later stranded at third base to end the inning. Flood might as well have waited all night at third base for his Cardinal teammates as Drysdale did not allow another hit the rest of the night in the 2-0 shutout win. Only one other Cardinal hitter reached base, and that was by an error. Drysdale did not walk anyone and even singled and scored a run. How great were the two pitchers that night? They played a nine inning game in one hour, 41 minutes.
How many ways did the Dodgers need to score runs? On May 27th, the Dodgers scored the winning run in the ninth inning to defeat the Braves, 3-2 when Al Ferrara coaxed a one out walk from Brave pitcher Denny LeMaster. The Braves had eight hits, four of them doubles, but lost. The Dodgers had just six singles and no extra base hits, but Johnny Podres, still showing he had the touch, kept the Braves off balance and pitched a complete game win. Two nights later, Lou Johnson’s second home run of the game helped the Dodgers to a four-run eighth inning and they defeated the Braves, 5-3 as Drysdale pitched a complete game and struck out 12.
A big moment for the club came on May 28th when Jim Gilliam was activated as a player from the coaching ranks. The popular Gilliam had been named as a Dodger coach late in the 1964 season as one of the first African-American coaches in major league history. The 1953 National League Rookie of the Year still had enough ability to play in the major leagues. He was expected to play in a utility role, but on May 31st, he played in 16 innings of 18 innings in a doubleheader. Gilliam had just one hit in his first 10 at bats, but regained his batting eye quickly. He hit safely in his next 11 of 13 game appearances with 20 hits in 48 at bats and gave the Dodgers a valuable lift. Alston said of Gilliam, “It’s his experience that makes him so valuable.”Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1965
The team had been healthy coming out of spring training, but injuries were popping up. May 30th added to the strangeness of the 1965 season. The Dodgers and Reds opened a three-game series on a Sunday with the teams playing a Memorial Day doubleheader the next day. The Dodgers broke a 2-1 game open in the third inning with six runs and with Koufax on the mound, they opened a 10-1 lead. In the fourth inning, a leg cramp suffered by Willie Davis led to the scariest moment of the game. Ferrara came into the game to play left field and Lou Johnson moved to center. The Reds had scored twice and with two men on base and two out, shortstop Leo Cardenas hit a line drive to left center. Left fielder Ferrara and center fielder Johnson both converged on the ball and collided hard, the ball falling free for a triple and two more runs scoring. Johnson was badly shaken up and remained in the game, but Ferrara was knocked out and removed from the game by stretcher. When Ferrara came to in the clubhouse, the competitor in him demanded, “Who took me out of the game?” It was Drysdale who told him, “It was six guys, on a stretcher.”The Sporting News, Bob Hunter, June 12, 1965
As the Dodgers moved to a three game lead over the Giants on May 31, someone told sportswriter Bob Hunter, “Now I see how they’re doing it. With a minor leaguer from Spokane (Lou Johnson), another who was ticketed there (Al Ferrara), a coach (Jim Gilliam), a rookie playing his first year (Jim Lefebvre), and a utilityman (John Kennedy).”The Sporting News, Bob Hunter, June 12, 1965