When Donald Scott Drysdale walked from the mound after reducing the St. Louis Cardinals to a blob of whipped cream one night last week, he muttered under his breath: "Take that." One has to go back in history almost to Hairbreadth Harry, that comic-strip hero of decades gone by, to find red-blooded Americans who use expressions like "Take that." But Don Drysdale, the No. 2 man in baseball's highest-paid pitching act, is one of them.
This is not to say that Don Drysdale, 78 inches and 216 pounds of carefully regulated malevolence, does not get mad. He gets plenty mad, and not always at the opposition. The subject of his wrath last week was Emil Joseph (Buzzie) Bavasi, general manager of the Dodgers, a highly talented front-office career man who owns several honorary degrees in holding payrolls down, an M.A. in trading nothing for something and a Ph.D. in giving people what is euphemistically known as "the needle."
To comprehend the degree of Drysdale's vituperation, one must know that 1966 has been the most frustrating year of his career. This man who has pitched 173 victories, won the Cy Young Award, worked harder and oftener and more consistently than any other pitcher in baseball for the last 10 years, this man who should be accepting plaques in Pasadena and attending dinners in his honor in Cucamonga suddenly hears boos from the fans and reads insulting remarks in the public prints. "Why should he be subjected to that kind of treatment?" a typical Dodger student says with studied sarcasm. "Just because he's having a rotten, lousy, miserable year? Is it fair to boo a man who's rotten, lousy and miserable? Is this the American way?" It certainly is.
Drysdale's public-relations problem is compounded by the fact that this year he and Sandy Koufax nailed the Dodgers for the biggest salaries ever paid a brace of ballplayers. At first the K-D entry demanded three-year contracts, full ownership of California and Nevada and the Strategic Air Command, plus options on the Mississippi River and Philadelphia, all of which was well above the presidential guidelines. When the smoke cleared and the long holdout ended, the pair signed for simple one-year contracts calling for a simple $120,000 to Koufax and a simple $110,000 to Drysdale. Anyone who thinks that the two pitchers were defeated at the bargaining table is simple.
August 28, 1966
Koufax, the superstar who cannot be compared to anybody but himself, breezed right into the season with one week of spring training, and except for a short period of adjustment moved back into his old overpowering arthritic stride. Drysdale could not make the quick adjustment. "I didn't feel strong," he said. "I didn't have anything. I didn't have a good fast ball. I didn't have a good curve ball. You name it, I didn't have it." A New York columnist suggested that next year the Big D would have to hold out with Nate Oliver, the perennial scrub. A San Francisco newspaperman suggested that Bavasi put Drysdale to work around the ball park to help salvage some of his salary. "His imposing height suggests he could command respect as a gateman or a guard," wrote Prescott Sullivan.
Last week Drysdale assessed the long season. "I'm not giving any excuses," he said at his pocket-sized ranch in Hidden Hills near Los Angeles, while his nine horses cavorted outside and the water splashed down the red-blue-and-yellow-lighted artificial waterfall above his swimming pool. "I've pitched lousy and nobody knows it better than I do. What it gets down to is some pitchers can miss spring training and some can't. I learned that this year. I need the whole six weeks, throwing almost every day. Sandy is different. There's such a contrast between his fast ball and his curve ball that all he has to do is work the ball up and down on each hitter. But I don't have Sandy's stuff, and I have to work around two inches on each corner. If I can hit those spots, I've got command.
"Early in the season I pitched three pretty good games in a row and I had good command—I knew where the ball was going. Then I pitched and won a game in Atlanta, but my command was just terrible. It all had something to do with this long muscle that runs down from the shoulder along the outside of the arm. That's always the last arm muscle to tone in, and while it was toning in I was trying to find a groove. I'd find a groove and the muscle would tone in a little better and I'd have to find another groove. Normally, all this would've been worked out in spring training."
One morning the struggling Drysdale awoke to find himself the holder of a magnificent 8-13 record and an earned run average approaching the range of his salary. Enter the villainous Bavasi, stroking his imaginary mustache like Relentless Rudolph and hurling challenges all about him. "Drysdale doesn't look in shape to me," Buzzie intoned, with a straight face. "He insists that he's in shape, but he doesn't look it. And he's making too many mistakes. He lost one ball game because he didn't cover first base, another because he dropped a ball, another because he hit somebody with two outs, another because he pitched carelessly on an 0-and-2 pitch. Nobody should lose a game on an 0-and-2 pitch. I don't know what it is. Donald seems to have too much on his mind. He's not concentrating. I don't know what he can be thinking about."
Some of the Bavasi quotes reached Drysdale via the newspapers. Others got to the big pitcher through his own private fountains of information. "A lot of things he says get back to me," Drysdale explained, and added, "I've always been a person that if you've got something to say, it's all right to say it, but say it to the person you're talking about, person to person."
Drysdale brooded about Bavasi's cannonade, and then one day blew his top. "Anyone in the front office can put a padlock on my locker anytime they think I'm not giving 100% or that I'm not in shape," Drysdale said for publication. "It looks like he's worried more about cutting me 25% than winning the pennant. That's his prerogative. However, it's also my prerogative to refuse it. When they get into my private life and say I haven't been giving 100%, I don't like it. Anytime I don't go all out I'll take off my uniform and quit." Then he stomped off to face the Chicago Cubs in an afternoon game.
"I was thinking about what Bavasi said the whole time I was pitching that day," Drysdale said later, "and you can imagine how it hit me when the Cubs got two runs off me in the second inning." Drysdale, concentrating furiously, his face contorted and upper lip contracted into a Bucky Beaver grimace, shut out the Cubs through the rest of his nine innings of service and the Dodgers won in the 14th, after Drysdale had departed. Despite this excellent performance, he was still 8 and 13, and an atmosphere of tension hung over the ball club. A day or so later Bavasi sent a short note from the executive suite down to Drysdale in the clubhouse, but Buzzie is no Chamberlain at Munich and all the note said was that he had been slightly misquoted. Not completely, just slightly. Drysdale did not reply. Instead, he took the mound against the Cardinals, his stomach still churning about the boss, and pitched his best game of the year. He did allow one run, knocked in by banjo-hitting Julian Javier, who was completely fooled by a slider, flung his bat at it and squeezed a quail between two fielders. ("That's a whole season's production for Javier against Drysdale," said a press-box habitué. "A squib single and two foul tips.") For the rest, the game was a case of nolo contendere, one of those affairs that are short on dramatic interest for the simple reason that one team's pitcher is so totally domineering that the most unknowing fan can foresee the outcome.
Seated in his plush office the next day, tilting back in his chair, touching the fingertips of his right hand to the fingertips of his left, Emil Joseph Bavasi bore the look of a balding Mona Lisa. He was asked bluntly if he sometimes manufactured such tempests in an inkwell as the one with Drysdale. "You might say that," Buzzie said in the sly manner of W.C. Fields. "Yes, I have been known to do something like that once or twice in my life."
Pressed for a full statement of his guilt, Buzzie broke and told all. "I did it," he said. "I admit it. I had to do something. Donald is not an 8-and-13 pitcher. So I thought, 'Well, needle him a little bit.' So I'm a heel. Who'll remember I'm a heel if we win the pennant? I was just giving him the needle. Donald doesn't need the needle to be competitive—he's always competitive—but he needs it to make him concentrate on what he's doing. And it worked. It worked."
Is there a danger that such stratagems might backfire and cause lasting enmities? "Hell, no," said Buzzie. "I know Donald like a book. He knows I wasn't really mad at him. Where do you think he'd go if he wanted $10,000 tomorrow? And he'd get it, too. He needed a little needle and I gave it to him, that's all. Now he'll go out and help us win the pennant. You watch. And he has plenty of good years left, too."
Donald Scott Drysdale considered the matter with grave dignity in the privacy of his trophy-littered den in Hidden Hills. In his soft California-accented voice he said, "I'd be the first one to admit it, and I'd be a fool not to admit it, that this ball club's been real good to me and my family both, and I'd like to play for 'em as long as I can. They say when you can't do the job anymore, you can see it like a hand in front of your face. Well, I look back over this season, bad as it's been, and I can't see any hand in front of my face."
Was he still sore at Buzzie? Drysdale hesitated. He cracked his knuckles. He looked at the ceiling. He gave the impression that he was trying to be mad. "No," he finally confessed. "I just can't stay mad. It's not in my makeup. I don't carry grudges." The phony war was over.