Monday, May 21, 2012


Exactly fifty years ago today (May 21, 1962), the Los Angeles Dodgers began a nineteen-game stretch over sixteen days, during which time they went 17-2, making up four games in the NL standings against the San Francisco Giants, setting the stage for one of baseball's most memorable pennant races.

People remember that race due to the post-season playoff between the two teams, but the early going in 1962 has gotten a bit hazy. It was the stretch beginning on this day fifty years ago that signaled exactly how remarkable the race between the longtime rivals would be.

The Giants got off to a great start, winning 19 of their first 24 games, fueled by a ten-game winning streak from April 25 to May 4.  With Willie Mays hitting homers at a lusty pace, they averaged just under seven runs a game in April, despite barely giving Willie McCovey any playing time. Their bats stayed hot into May, and they were flirting with a .300 team batting average midway through the month, on a pace to score more than a thousand runs in the newly elongated season.

On May 21st, the Giants came to Dodger Stadium for the very first time. They were 28-11. The Dodgers (23-15) were four-and-a-half games behind. Maury Wills was hitting only .230. Manager Walt Alston was juggling infielders, looking for the right combination: at the moment he was riding a hot streak from a young second baseman named Larry Burright. (It would prove to be Larry's only such hot streak.)

Contrary to one of the great received myths of sabe-tinged baseball history, Sandy Koufax did not simply arrive at Dodger Stadium in a blaze of glory when Walter O'Malley's gift from the Los Angeles City Council opened its doors on April 10, 1962. Building on his 1961 breakout season, Koufax pitched well over the first six weeks of the season, but his home ERA going into his start against the Giants on May 21st was 2.95, only slightly better than his road performance at that point (3.18).

This game is the true beginning of the Koufax that the world now remembers. While it didn't come close to his most spectacular performances (four no-hitters, 15+ strikeout games, etc.), Sandy would begin an astonishing skein of pitching beginning with this five-hit, one-run, ten-strikeout outing against the Dodgers' high-flying arch-rivals.

The QMAX season excerpt shows how dominating Koufax would be during this skein, which would be interrupted by his celebrated finger injury--a condition that, in actions diametrically opposed to what a baseball team would do today, Koufax would pitch with for more than a month before it would force him onto the disabled list for nearly two months.

And it's this time frame that began the Dodger Stadium dominance that Koufax is known for--in some cases to his detriment. His ERA over these thirteen starts was 1.49, but that figure was 0.79 in his friendly new home park (as opposed to 2.36 on the road).

But we're really not here to reopen the long, lingering numberologist nit-picking about Koufax and his home park. It needs to be noted that Koufax was only one of three starters who pitched well (but not spectacularly) from May 21st to June 6th as the Dodgers pushed their way into a pennant race with the Giants. Sandy's best pitching in 1962 would occur from mid-June to mid-July, and the Dodgers would push into the lead as the Giants would suffer from that infamous "June swoon" that has periodically visited them.

The numbers indicate that the Dodgers primarily put their hitting clothes on during this nineteen-game stretch. Particularly notable in this area are Ron Fairly, Tommy Davis, and Jim Gilliam. And this marks the turning point for Maury Wills, too--he would hit well and go on a stolen base rampage over the last two months of the season.

The Dodgers took a page out of the Giants' playbook and averaged nearly six and a half runs per game over this span--a figure that will induce double- and triple-takes from those who remember the anemic offenses that the L.A. boys were sporting throughout the rest of the 60s.

But this was 1962, the year before the strike zone change, and the Dodgers were still a team with a lot of offensive weapons. That was amply apparent in this stretch of the season, and it was their hitting that propelled them into what by June 6th had become an exciting, see-saw race with more drama than just about anything outside of a double-barrelled collapse that came down to the final day (as in September 2011). The '62 race had all that--and more. Three more games, in fact.

[NOTE: Dodgers hitting and pitching stat slices courtesy of David Pinto's Day-By-Day Database.]