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November 6, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Marathon Men: When the '58 Giants and Dodgers Played Nine in a Row

by Jeff Polman

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Jeff Polman is an ex-newspaper editor, produced screenwriter, budding novelist and cat lover who now spends a lot of time writing pieces for The Huffington Post, Seamheads, and other Interweb locales, playing a lot of Strat-O-Matic and creating fictionalized baseball replay blogs like this one and this one and currently this one, set largely in 1958 San Francisco. His first of these efforts, 1924 and You Are There! also became a book. His favorite movie ever is the 1960 version of The Time Machine, which explains a lot. Jeff can be found in Culver City, CA, and though he abhors the expression, can be reached out to at jpolman54@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @mysteryball58.
 

The Giants and Dodgers have an odd rivalry these days. Not exactly a civil one like the Cubs and Cardinals, but nowhere near as serious, historic, and media-consuming as the Red Sox and Yankees. In a way, it’s passive-aggressive, like many Los Angeles drivers. Or simply a dormant volcano.

With the Giants getting all championshippy lately, their fans seem to be having too much fun at AT&T Park to move the rivalry past the clichéd “Beat L.A.” chants. Down south, many Dodger fans are too removed from the games and standings or jaded from recent ownership shenanigans to get riled up or even fill the park when their rivals are in town. It took the Giants closing in on their second title in three years for Bill Plaschke to realize they had a better franchise than the Dodgers and write a Los Angeles Times column about it.

Still, aside from a certain famous Shot Heard Round the Five Boroughs in 1951, the vast majority of Giants/Dodgers legend and lore resides on the left coast. We’re talking watered-down basepaths and a fabulous playoff series in ’62, a bat-wielding Hall of Fame pitcher in ’65, Morgan’s winning homer at Candlestick in ’82 that knocked the Dodgers out of the division race, Piazza returning the favor (twice) off Salomon Torres in ’93, Finley’s division-winning walkoff in 2004, and most recently and repulsively, an Opening Day beating in a parking lot.

But did you know that in 1958, the year they migrated west, a nine-game, home-and-home series was played between the two clubs over Labor Day weekend? I stumbled upon this rare scheduling gem while doing research for my Mystery Ball ‘58 blog, and the first question that came to mind was: Why the hell hadn’t I ever heard about this?

Maybe it was because of the way the standings stood when the teams took the field for the first of six at old Seals Stadium on August 29th. The Giants, their roster peppered with exciting, talented minority players like Willie Mays, Leon Wagner, rookie Orlando Cepeda, and Ruben Gomez, were 65-60, in third place behind the Braves. The Dodgers, saddled with a mishmash of upcoming, undeveloped stars (Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Junior Gilliam, John Roseboro) fading Brooklyn veterans (Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine), and no doubt still dealing with the emotional aftermath of losing Roy Campanella to a wheelchair, were four games under .500 and 13 games out. On top of that, the Giants had largely beaten the pants off the Dodgers all year, crushing Drysdale on Opening Day 8-0 and outscoring them 107-63 in their first 13 meetings—of which the Giants had won 10.

The teams had actually begun 1958 with a six-game home-and-home affair, the Giants winning two out of three at both Seals and the L.A. Coliseum. The Labor Day marathon would see the first six games in San Francisco, including day/night separate admission twin bills on Saturday and Monday, with the final three at the Coliseum. The Los Angeles Times wasn’t exactly riddled with exciting talk about the series. One wag called it “the worst bit of scheduling in major league history.” Frank Finch, the hard-working and amusing Dodgers reporter for the Times, at least did his part to excite the masses. “What with pitching staffs less than brilliant, you can look for some free-swinging scuffles in the stadium, a spot comparable to the Coliseum for home-run rappers.”

Cecil Smith’s Times TV column reported that all of the away games would be on KTTV Channel 11, featuring “Jerry Doggett and Vin Scully, whose KMPC radio broadcasts of the game have made the summer bearable.” L.A. viewers surely had other entertaining options that first night, such as Channel 2’s Schlitz Playhouse production of The Town that Slept with the Lights On with Edmund O’Brien, and Channel 13’s screening of Buckskin Frontier, with Richard Dix and Joan Wyatt.

Up north, at the often cold and clammy corner of 16th and Bryant,Don Drysdale threw a gem in front of 18,433. Before the game, manager Walter Alston had told Finch, “We’re hurtin’ for pitchin’.” Indeed, with Stan Williams out with a bad shoulder, Danny McDevitt throwing with a bad elbow, and Koufax cursed with control trouble, “Drysdale and Johnny Podres [were] the only dependable flingers in the L.A. fold at the moment.”

Bob Stevens in the San Francisco Chronicle was a little less kind, referring to the “tall and wicked Don Drysdale,” as the Dodgers got their “fourth win in 14 battles with their Westward Ho pioneer brothers from the Polo Grounds.”

The most shocking development in the first game was Giants skipper Bill Rigney keeping Mays out of the lineup. As the Times noted, he was “jus’ tired,” but it didn’t stop Rigney from sending him up as a pinch-hitter in the seven to try and cash in a budding rally. The next day, Finch gave the moment his signature treatment:

Wielding 32 ounces of cured ash, it must have resembled the entrance into the Colosseum of a Roman gladiator paired against a one-armed Christian. Well, Drysdale made a Christian out of Willie, as the saying goes.

Mays was called out on strikes, and the Giants went on to drop the opener 4-1.

Ruben Gomez got some revenge for the home folks on Saturday afternoon, throwing a three-hit shutout until Roseboro singled and Snider bashed a two-run homer in the ninth.  Al Worthington was hailed to retire Hodges and save the 3-2 Giants win.

After a break to empty the 16,905 Seals fans and prepare for the 9,865 arriving for the night game (a rainout makeup from May), the clubs played another tight one, with the Giants prevailing 3-1. The bigger story on Saturday night, though, was Podres throwing a temper tantrum in the Dodger dugout after Alston removed him for a pinch hitter in the seventh. Podres had thrown six innings of two-hit ball, the Giants scoring in the first on a Felipe Alou leadoff double and two ground outs, and while Frank Finch reported him “tossing things about,” the Giants’ coverage in the Chronicle didn’t even mention it. Labine took the hill and surrendered a Davenport single and Mays homer in the eighth to lose it.

Sunday provided an absolute pasting, Giants-style, or in the words of Frank Finch: “The Giants must have slurped a few bottles of Geritol, for their blood wasn’t tired when hostilities resumed.” Mays, who “needs a rest like Israel needs Nassar,” walked, homered, and singled twice in five trips. Cepeda also had three hits and four other Giants had two. Sandy Koufax started and lasted but two-thirds of an inning, and at one point, reserve outfielder Don Demeter was warming up. It was beyond ugly. Carl Willey won for the Braves that day, shutting out the Pirates in Milwaukee, but the Giants had climbed into a second-place tie with the Bucs, eight and a half out.

Nobody was thrilled about playing another doubleheader on Labor Day, particularly Frank Finch. Calling them “a couple of holiday hassles,” he whined that the first game, “the ham-and egger, will begin at the ghastly hour of 10 a.m. After a spot of tea, action will resume.” He also pointed out that “Leon Wagner puts on quite a slapstick act as an outfielder,” without elaborating, but whatever. It would be an endless day for all concerned.

Clem Labine started the morning game and gave up eight hits and four runs in four innings.  Erskine later gave that up in one inning, and Mays went 5-for-5 with two doubles and his 26th homer to do the Dodgers in again, 8-6. (Finch: “The $75,000-a-year fielder…has commenced his 1959 salary drive.”) Actually, after his initial day of rest, Mays’ OPS for the entire nine-game marathon would be 1.580.

But what better way to finish off six games in four days than going four and a half hours and 16 innings in the finale? Yes, after Bob Schmidt’s two-run homer off Fred Kipp knotted the score at 4-4 in the last of the ninth, no one scored until Furillo doubled in Gimo Cimoli off Mike McCormick in the top of the 16th. Undaunted, Whitey Lockman tied it up again with a leadoff homer, Ray Jablonski singled, and when Gomez dropped down a pinch-hit bunt, first Roseboro and then Furillo threw the ball away to score the game-winner.

Over 19,000 Giants fans were ecstatic, despite the fact that 58-year-old San Francisco Police Chief Frank Ahern had died of a heart attack while sitting behind home plate one inning earlier. As Herb Caen wrote a few days later, Ahern saw 40 of 72 home games at Seals and “took every one as hard as Manager Bill Rigney.”

The weary teams chartered down to L.A. late Monday, where once again, Drysdale mopped the floor with the Giants in the opener.  Notching the Dodgers’ “fifth shutout in the grotesquely laid-out Los Angeles Coliseum” (Stevens), Drysdale allowed just five hits, while his mates scored three of their four runs off 25-year-old Venezuelan Roman Monzant.

On Wednesday night, it was Koufax’s turn to redeem himself, throwing seven innings of two-hit relief and getting the win 5-3 when Snider hit a trot-off homer vs. Al Worthington in the last of the ninth. “I quit trying to steer the ball,” Sandy said, “and began throwing it again for a change.”  The game also featured a light moment (according to the Chronicle’s Stevens), when Drysdale pinch-hit for Babe Birrer in the second, was called out on strikes, and then ejected. “He wept long and bitterly, and umpire Augie Donatelli spanked him on his backside and threw him into the clubhouse to dry his tears.”

Rigney had given his team a pep talk when they got to town, stressing the importance of finishing in second place, reminding them it would mean $2,000 more per man. By Thursday, they had gotten the message. The marathon’s finale was played in the afternoon, “under eye-watering, smog-filled skies” (Stevens) because the Dodgers had a game in St. Louis the next day while the Giants were heading to Chicago.

It was another massacre. Podres, Johnny Klippstein, and Erskine gave the Giants eight runs in the top of the first, Alou, Davenport and Mays went 8-for-19 at the top of the lineup, and San Francisco rolled out to the airport with a 13-3 win under their belts.

Even though as Finch put it, the game was a “loosely-played fracas before 12,441 Coliseum kibitzers,” the Dodgers managed to draw 382,731 in their 11 home dates with the Giants that year. Walter O’Malley wasn’t thoroughly satisfied, declaring in The Sporting News that week that his Dodgers “would be in first place today if a proper park had been ready” for him to use.” Giants owner Horace Stoneham had to be elated, though. Playing in a park with less than 23,000 capacity, they surpassed the million mark on August 24 after drawing only 658,923 to the Polo Grounds in all of 1957.

What’s more, by taking six out of the nine marathon games, they had decidedly won the first west coast season series with their rivals 16-6. The following year, no Giants-Dodgers series was longer than four games, and the ‘59 Dodgers would surprise everyone by beating the Braves two straight in a two-out-of-three playoff and winning the World Series against the White Sox. With Candlestick Park opening the following year and Dodger Stadium in 1962, the arenas were set in place for further combat.

It would be nice to know what the crowd atmosphere was like at Seals Stadium and the L.A. Coliseum for those nine straight games in ’58 that capped off the first year of the west coast war. Civility seems like an educated guess. Still, I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing the dormant volcano erupt again—in moderation. A nice little Giants-Dodgers postseason playoff series is all we need, because nine straight meetings these days might get a tad testy.

Related Content:  Giants,  Dodgers,  1958

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