The San Francisco Giants breezed into Los Angeles last week like a man walking into a bank to cash a check for a million dollars, only to discover that the check was a phony, a fake, Abner. There wasn't any million dollars. Like the grasshopper in the fable, the Giants should have used the summer to build up a little equity instead of counting on a miracle in the fall.
The Dodgers had a 5½-game lead when the Giants came to town, but never has a 5½-game lead sounded so miserably inadequate. Listening to conversation almost anywhere in Los Angeles, you would have thought that the Giants had maneuvered cleverly to get the Dodgers into this fix, that the league leaders were trapped and that they would have to fight desperately to survive. All the talk seemed to go, "If the Giants sweep..." or "Even if San Francisco wins only three of the four, that means..."
But the Giants did not sweep. They lost the first game 11-1 to Sandy Koufax. Nor did they take three out of four. They lost the second 3-1 to Don Drysdale. After that second game, conversation in Los Angeles changed abruptly. Instead of worrying about the Giants, people were talking about hotel reservations in New York and how Koufax would do against Mickey Mantle. One victory in August should not have such an impact, but this one did. For the first time in almost a year Los Angeles felt that the Dodgers were in.
The decisive moment of the showdown series—and maybe the decisive moment of the pennant race—came in the third inning of that second game. The defeat the night before at the hands of Koufax had not bothered the Giants too much. Curiously, it was the Dodgers who had acted as though they had to win that one; the Giants, with extraordinary confidence, seemed willing to concede one game to Koufax. But the second night was different. Again, the Dodgers acted as though they had to win, and this time the Giants felt the same way. They were using their best pitcher, Juan Marichal. This was a game they needed and expected to win.
They got to Don Drysdale for one run in the first inning, and in the third—the momentous third—they threatened again. With one out, Harvey Kuenn and Chuck Hiller singled, and here was Willie McCovey coming to bat. Drysdale is McCovey's pet. The details of their relationship are worth repeating: McCovey has a lifetime batting average of .431 against Drysdale; he has 22 hits in 51 times at bat, and nine of those hits have been home runs. A mutter of apprehension worried its way up from the crowd, a "Here we go again" mutter. A home run would mean three runs for the Giants and a 4-0 lead for Juan Marichal.
McCovey fouled the first pitch into the crowd. He fouled off the second. Drysdale missed the plate for ball one. He missed again. Ball two. McCovey fouled the next pitch off to the left. The crowd waited. Suddenly, electrically, Drysdale whirled and threw toward second base, low and hard. Harvey Kuenn, 10 feet off the base, scrambled to get back, but Maury Wills, the Dodger shortstop, moving with the instant acceleration for which he is famous, got to the base before Kuenn, took the ball and tagged the Giant out. The crowd watched almost in disbelief as Kuenn trotted slowly off the infield and down into the Giant dugout.
Now Drysdale turned back to McCovey. He had thrown five pitches to him already. Now he threw again, and again Willie fouled off the pitch. And then again, this time down into the left-field stands. Drysdale missed the plate for ball three, a full count. With Willie Mays on deck, waiting to hit, Drysdale threw three times to McCovey with the count 3 and 2. The first was fouled down into the ground. The second was fouled back into the stands. The third—Drysdale's 11th pitch to Big Willie—was a change-up, and McCovey swung and missed. He had struck out. The inning was over, the threat was dead and so, as it turned out, were the Giants.
Spectacular but insignificant
The Dodgers tied the score in the third, went ahead in the fifth, added a third run in the eighth and won the ball game 3-1. Spectacular things happened in the game—six stolen bases, three by each side, a leaping catch of a McCovey line drive by Maury Wills, a throw to the plate by Frank Howard after an outfield error to cut down the tying run at home, a triple by Willie Mays. But nothing was as dramatic—or as significant—as Drysdale stopping Big Willie in the clutch.
Although the series was the biggest of the year in Los Angeles, with the Thursday night crowd of 54,978 setting a record for the Dodgers' magnificent stadium in Chavez Ravine, the players themselves approached the games with an outwardly casual air that was remarkable to see. The Dodgers and Giants had not played one another since mid-June, and when the players came out on the field for practice before the first game, they were like a bunch of kids renewing old acquaintanceships on the first day of school. Dodger players shouted, "Willie, Willie," when Mays came out of the Giant clubhouse. Willie went over to talk to Leo Durocher and in 30 seconds Durocher had him by the thumb, threatening him. Willie, laughing and squirming, protested, "You gonna break my arm." Leo said, with mock anger, "You gonna stop?" Willie, on the ground now, said emphatically, "Yes, Yes." "Okay, then," said Leo, and Willie got up, rubbing his thumb and pouting.
Then the game started—and the fun stopped, at least for the Giants. Two days later they were still hanging around, hoping that somebody would cash that check. But it was beginning to look like a long, wet winter in San Francisco.