The 1977 Dodgers are not the first Dodger team to get off to a blazing start. In fact, the fastest starters in baseball history were the '55 Brooklyn Dodgers, who made a mockery of the pennant race almost before it had a chance to get under way. The following is an account of how that star-studded team broke from the gate.
April 13, 1955 was a dismal day at Ebbets Field, cold and wet, with wisps of fog at upper-deck level, and only 6,999 fans showed up to watch the Dodgers open the season against the Pirates. For Walter Alston, beginning his second year as manager, it was essential that the Dodgers get off well if he were to keep his job. Brooklyn had won pennants under Charley Dressen in 1952 and 1953, but when Dressen had asked owner Walter O'Malley for something sweeter than a one-year contract, he had been let go. Alston was a former minor league manager whose major league experience was limited to one time at bat. He struck out. Alston's role was a ticklish one. He had to handle high-salaried stars such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo, and in 1954 Alston had not measured up. He was outman-aged by Leo Durocher, who directed the Giants to the National League pennant.
The Dodger players also were anxious to start well in '55, because they had something to prove. Reese and Robinson were 36, Furillo and Campanella 33, Hodges 31. Preseason polls had favored the Milwaukee Braves, who were led by Eddie Mathews and young Henry Aaron, to win the pennant. The Dodgers were considered too old.
On that dank Opening Day in Brooklyn, Alston handed Home Plate Umpire Lee Ballanfant the following lineup: Junior Gilliam 2B, Reese SS, Snider CF, Hodges 1B, Sandy Amoros LF, Robinson 3B, Furillo RF, Campanella C, Carl Erskine P. For 6½ innings Erskine and Max Surkont battled to a 1-1 tie, but then the Dodgers exploded. Gilliam homered, Reese doubled. Snider walked. After Hodges had struck out and Amoros had flied to deep center, advancing Reese to third, Robinson beat out a bunt past the mound to score Reese. Furillo then put the game away with a home run.
May 15, 1977
The next afternoon the Dodgers were at the Polo Grounds against the Giants. It was a wild affair, Brooklyn winning 10-8. Newcombe gave up 12 hits but contributed two home runs. Campanella and Furillo had one each. Sal Maglie took the loss.
Then it was 6-3 over the Giants again, 6-0, 10-3 and 3-2 over the Pirates and 5-2, 7-6, 3-2 and 14-4 over the Phillies. The last of those wins, the Dodgers' 10th in a row, set a major league record that still stands for consecutive victories at the start of a season.
On Friday, April 22 the Dodgers finally lost a game, the Giants scoring five runs in the eighth to win 5-4, helped by a pair of spectacular catches in center field by Willie Mays. The next day Erskine beat Maglie 3-1, but the Giants bounced back to win an epic battle, scoring two runs in the ninth inning to tie at 5-5 and six more in the 10th to apparently win with ease. But the Dodgers rallied for five runs to make the final score 11-10.
Although Brooklyn had an 11-2 start—better than Alston could have dreamed of—its lead over second-place Milwaukee was only 2½ games. However, the second wave was about to begin. From April 27 through May 10 the Dodgers played 11 games and won them all. In the last of these, Newcombe pitched a near-perfect game, yielding one single and no walks to the Cubs. That made Brooklyn's record 22-2 and put the Dodgers 9½ games ahead of the Giants, who were second.
During the remarkable 24-game stretch, Brooklyn played every team in the league and lost only to the Giants. They averaged seven runs a game. Snider had 30 runs batted in, Campanella 26 and Furillo 23 to rank 1-2-3 in the league. Snider was tops in home runs with nine, Furillo next with eight. Erskine, 5-0, had a 1.33 earned run average. Newcombe was 4-0. The team batting average was .272, second to the Cardinals, but the Dodgers were first in homers and runs.
Although their .917 pace inevitably slackened—the Dodgers finished the season with a 98-55 record and a .641 percentage—they were was never seriously threatened, leading by 11½ games at the All-Star break and clinching the pennant on Sept. 8 when their lead over the Braves was 17. And, as all old Brooklyn fans will recall, the 1955 team went on to the Dodgers' first World Series victory, beating the Yankees in the seventh game with Johnny Podres pitching and Sandy Amoros...ah, but that's another story.