On this team. I'm the stopper," said an all-American boy named Donald Scott Drysdale one summery day in 1959. He was facing facts, not bragging. "When the Dodgers drop a couple of games, I pitch. When we want to get off to a good start in a critical series, I pitch. I'm not supposed to lose."
Man and boy, these words pretty much tell the talc of the Dodgers' mule-strong right-hander, and they are truer than ever this year. The Dodgers began the season twice blessed with the finest pitchers in baseball: Drysdale on the right hand, Sandy Koufax, the wizard of outs, on the left. But Koufax, in the midst of his most impressive year (14 wins and 5 losses, 209 strikeouts in 176 innings), has been benched since mid-July by a circulation disorder in his pitching hand. On the spot, 26-year-old Don Drysdale (see cover) has had to scrap the notion that he's "'not supposed to lose." If the Dodgers are to win the National League pennant, he cannot lose. "Let Don get a sore arm between now and September," Manager Walt Alston said sorrowfully a few weeks back, "and I might as well pack my things and head home."
Last week Drysdale's throwing arm was as sound as his $35,000 paycheck (the most ever paid a Dodger pitcher). He has lost only five games this year, and in seven starts since Koufax was pulled out of the lineup, he has lost only one. He won his 21st of the season—and his 11th straight—just the other day. Moreover, two other Dodger starters, Johnny Podres and Stan Williams, have been holding their own, the lineup (pronounced Frank Howard and Tommy Davis) has been hitting, and the San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers' closest league rivals, have been backing and filling.
Still, it was Don Drysdale who was the star. The man who won only 13 games last year—and had never won more than 17—could contemplate his 25th win by Labor Day, possibly his 30th by Series time. In the crisis he had done even more than was expected of him. It was the first time it ever worked out that way.
The trouble with being Don Drysdale is the trouble with being anyone who is pushed. Because of his size (6 feet 6, 205 pounds), his pitching speed and his undeniable talent, people have been clamoring for a 20-win season ever since he came up to the old Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Till now he had never lived up to his press. The headlines that repeatedly asked "Can This Be Big D's Year?" were losing readers over the years, and Drysdale himself was losing sleep over his now-you-see-it-now-you-don"t fulfillment. He has reacted to failure in the past by indulging in epic fits of wrath and self-flagellation. When seized with anger, his pitching declined apace, and it became a maxim around the league that if you couldn't beat Drysdale on your own, get him mad and he'd beat himself. But this year that sort of psychology is not working. Maturity and a fine opportunity to be the man of the hour have apparently hit Drysdale together. There were other reasons for his improvement—a new ball park, a modified delivery, a strong offensive team—but Drysdale, having learned to swallow his gorge, had reached a kind of middle-aged serenity. To see him calmly ignoring the home run ball sailing over his head was like seeing Ted Williams tipping his hat for Sears Roebuck. It just didn't happen that way in the old days.
Don Drysdale was born and grew up (and up) in Van Nuys, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. Females make appreciative noises when observing his creamy good looks and his hair-tonic hairdo, and he is a made-in-Hollywood version of the boy next door. When not pitching, he is polite, relaxed and easygoing to a fare-thee-well, nurses no grudges and finds questions about his fabled temper tiresome in the extreme. "I wish," he has said, "I could be like a milkman and be myself once in a while." As himself, Drysdale is free of extravagant ideas and habits, and his tastes (Mexican food and western music) and pleasures (swimming and the sports page) are run of the mine. His only true interest, it appears, is playing baseball or capitalizing upon his fame in that game by endorsing male toilet articles and accepting bit parts in TV oaters. Well-fixed, you may believe, he lives in a $50,000 house and pool in Van Nuys with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, and his off-season work as a public relations man for an ice cream plant is well suited to him, since he tends to talk in slogans. "I give 100% when I pitch, and that's all I can give," he may say, or "Baseball has been good to me," or, of course, "I couldn't win without the other eight guys behind me." The overall impression is that Drysdale is just barely three-dimensional, but as any Dodger will tell you, "He's the nicest boy on the club."
If you listen to less partial observers, Drysdale is not, however, the nicest pitcher who ever lived. He has a felonious career record of 77 men hit by his pitched balls, and last year he nailed 20—more than any National League pitcher since 1909. Some of the people he has hit are fairly certain the element of chance was lacking, and some umpires go along with the thesis. "The trick is to hit him before he hits you," says Orlando Cepeda, and the lyrical pitcher, Jim Brosnan, has said: "Don's idea of a 'waste' pitch is a strike." Drysdale's sidearm delivery does resemble an enfilading action against plate-crowding right-handers and, though he grants his pitches can be a mite tight, he disavows evil. Unfortunately for him, umpires are always forgetting his beneficence and remembering his temper. In translation, brushback is coming out beanball, and Drysdale, down the years, has been fined 190 beans and was once suspended for five days. Inasmuch as he has lately discovered, as he puts it, that "they don't shoot you for letting a guy hit the ball," he's saving money. His pitches are as tight as ever, but Drysdale has hit only six men this year (including the Giants' able third baseman, Jim Davenport, whose hand he broke last Saturday). Since his disposition is sweeter, there have been no fines or repercussions.
If Drysdale has indeed cast off the yoke of his temper, it has been a long bondage. The first tantrum anyone can remember was a minor eruption when Don was 2. It cannot be found in Spock, but the discipline his father administered at the time was a wet washcloth in the face, and, according to Don's mother, Don and his temper thereupon parted company. For that matter, the whole Drysdale family is united in the beliefs that 1) Don has no temper, and 2) any reports to the contrary are fabrications of a hostile Los Angeles press corps. This, if nothing else, shows that blood gets mighty thick sometimes.
In 1957, for example, before Los Angeles was in on the act, Drysdale and Milwaukee's Johnny Logan, another perfect gentleman, put together a fine old-fashioned brawl in Brooklyn. Another time (as Don tells it) Drysdale kicked a bag of bats in the privacy of the locker room, hurt his toe and threw bag and bats down the steps. Once, shortly after a home run was hit off him, Drysdale threw the ball into the stands. "It slipped," he says. In 1959 Drysdale publicly threatened to sue the National League for hiring umpires with the cheek to say he threw beanballs. "That's character assassination," a lawyer friend advised him, while a thousand pitchers cheered. Later Drysdale told the hostile Los Angeles writers that he'd like to be traded to Cucamonga (he was in a pet that day over the Coliseum's left-field screen) and they printed it. When asked to comment. Dodger President Walter O'Malley shrugged wearily. "It is traditional with our club that odd behavior is the general rule, not the exception." Such incidents are not displays of temper, says the Drysdale clan, but are merely the hints that betray Don's highly developed "will to win" and "strong competitive spirit." "He plays Santa Claus at the children's hospital, you know."
Don Drysdale has a will to win, no doubt about it, because that virtue, and excellence in baseball generally, have been drilled into him for the past 21 years, principally by his father, Scott Drysdale. Scott was a minor league pitcher in the early '30s, but gave up the professional game in Ponca City, Okla. in 1935 and got a job with the telephone company in Los Angeles, where he still works. "His back was hurting, wind in the Dust Bowl was stinging his eyes and he came down with the measles," says Scott's mother, Mrs. Myrtle Drysdale. "I told him to come on home, and he did. He would have been a great player in the majors." ("Nonsense," says Scott Drysdale, who is a part-time scout for the Dodgers. "My mother is like all the rest, and by that I mean you can never trust them when they start talking about how good their boys are.")
Scott Drysdale also denies that he is "a frustrated father trying to realize myself through my son," and says if he had had his way, Don would have gone to college. Nevertheless, from the day Don could catch and throw (he could at 5), Scott and the boy played backyard ball by the hour. When Scott was at work, Don's mother would catch for her son, a practice she kept up until 1955 when "Don's fast ball became too hot to handle." (Don's mother helped out another way: accused of throwing a spitball last week by Gene Woodling, Drysdale denied it and added, "Anyhow, my mother told me when I was a little boy never to put dirty fingers in my mouth, and I've always lived by that.") For her part, Don's grandmother sometimes spelled him on his paper route so he wouldn't miss a neighborhood game.
Ahead of his time. Scott Drysdale spared his son the misfortunes of Little League Elbow by keeping him on second base until he was a senior in high school. But, once allowed to pitch, Don used his infielder's sidearm motion with such precision that every team in the majors, plus two California universities, bid for him. Don ignored all but the Dodgers, on whose junior team he had been playing, and signed a contract for a $4,000 bonus and a $600 monthly salary in June of 1954. He was 17.
Drysdale spent his first half year at Bakersfield, in the Class C California League, and there won eight games, lost five. The next year Alston elevated him to the Triple A Montreal Royals, and there he lost half of the 22 games he pitched. He had a good reason. In mid-season the falling lid of a soft drink cooler broke two bones in his right hand. Rather than miss any games—he was already 10 and 3—he told no one, managed to endure the pain of pitching by half-freezing his hand between innings with a pressure can of an anesthetic refrigerant. His do-it-yourself stab at bone setting not only deformed his fist but temporarily demolished his record—he lost eight of his next nine games. "I was a young dummy," says Drysdale now. No one called Drysdale a dummy when he was brought up to the Dodgers the following spring. He shut out the Braves in a training exhibition, won his first regular season start 6-1 against the Phillies. In two years in Brooklyn he won 22 games and lost 14, and when the team moved to Los Angeles Drysdale was the best pitcher on it.
But for Drysdale, the move was a mixed blessing. He was home again in California, and he was soon to meet and marry Ginger Dubberly, a pretty model who can be seen nowadays tinting her hair and taking showers on TV commercials. But his back was up against the left-field screen (the PR men said it was a fence) in the remodeled Coliseum. For four years that screen, 251 feet from home plate, hunkered on Drysdale's right shoulder like a personal haunt. "A man could hit a ball with his knuckles," says Drysdale. "and ping! Over the fence she went." Drysdale, who possesses the unusual self-command to "never blame anyone for my mistakes and never get mad at anybody except myself," found plenty to fault in the wire contraption. "When I was growing up, the Coliseum was a football field, and it still is," he said at the time, and his record at the end of his first year there was dismal: 12 wins, 13 losses. Trying to accommodate his delivery to the peculiar problem lurking behind him, he pitched one way on the road, another way at home, sometimes felt the onset of panic when he faced opposing batters while his family looked on. "I would make a little mistake and that would be all I could think about," he said the other day. "I would throw, not pitch, and pretty soon I had done another fool thing." When things really got bad, Drysdale would commence to paw the ground, beat up the resin bag, talk too much and disport himself generally. Naturally, while everybody booed, the boys in the press box gleefully wrote it all down and sometimes, carried away, could sell their stories to the front page—banner headlines, pictures, the works. "With me around," says Don, "Eisenhower had trouble getting in the paper at all." Presently, Drysdale was losing more and enjoying it less—17 wins in 1959, 15 in 1960, the dark 13 of 1961. This year when he first drove down to the new Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine he felt like an Israelite on the Red Sea Freeway.
On the theory that it takes more than modern architecture and an even disposition to beat teams like the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, everybody has his own idea about the new Don Drysdale. Only, with the Dodgers, there seems to be a compulsion to list things. "The single most important change in Don this year," says Lefty Phillips, the scout who signed Drysdale, "is three things." Says Pitching Coach Joe Becker: "I'd say there were four reasons why...." "Basically, Don is different in these three areas..." says Walt Alston. Drysdale himself lists five, "not necessarily in that order." What they're all talking about, in one form or another, are the misty mystiques of pitching techniques and Drysdale's physical condition.
As a full sidearm pitcher, Drysdale's fast ball bears in on right-handers as though there was something personal between them, but left-handers can shoot it like pool. In times past, in fact, Drysdale has been so vulnerable against left-handers that unscrupulous managers have been known to take advantage of him. Solly Hemus, for instance, when managing the Cardinals, once loaded his lineup with old-gaffer left-handers, and even called on himself. Five hits, three runs—and one out—later, Drysdale was all through. To counter this weakness, Drysdale has learned to deliver his pitches from the three-quarter position midway between sidearm and overhand. "We've been working on that for years," says Becker, "and I think he's finally mastered it. And it's helped his fielding, too; he's no longer off balance to the left after he delivers his pitch. But we had to show him movies of himself before he got the hang of it."
"Well, yeah," says Lefty Phillips, "but Don's also snapping his wrist more this year. And he's got rhythm. That's the word. Rhythm." Sums up Manager Alston: "Drysdale has simply got more stuff than ever before."
In another sense, Drysdale's got less stuff this year. They didn't call him Porky Drysdale in high school for nothing, and if he doesn't watch out they can start calling him that again. Determining that his best pitching in past seasons has been in July, Drysdale checked his medical records, found out his weight was always lowest (205) at that time of year. "The extra weight I had before and after July," he says, "bunched up around my shoulders and my chest. It had the same effect as if I were wearing a tight jacket. The fat bound my arms and hampered my delivery."
Fat arms, maybe. But what hurt Don Drysdale most of all was thin skin. Says the convalescent Sandy Koufax, probably touching the nerve of the matter: "Who's gonna get mad when they're 21 and five?"