This day and yesterday in baseball history

While the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers were edging San Francisco and Pittsburgh in a pennant race that wasn’t decided until the last day of the season, the Baltimore Orioles were cruising to the American League pennant. By Labor Day they led second place Detroit by 10.5 games. They finished 9 games ahead of second place Minnesota after the Twins beat them in three of the final four meaningless games.

The Orioles, though, won only two more games than the Dodgers. Given the superiority of the National League, this might suggest that the Dodgers were the stronger team. However, the Orioles outscored opponents by 154 runs, compared to the Dodgers’ edge of 116. Even taking the NL’s superiority into account, the Orioles should have been viewed as at least as formidable as the Dodgers.

Yet they were not. The Dodgers entered the Series as heavy favorites, probably because they had won two of the last three Fall Classics and because the Orioles young starting pitchers were untested in pressure games.

I was anxious to bet on Los Angeles and would have done, had not my friend, who thought Baltimore would win, backed out of betting. “I want to see how McNally does,” he explained.

Dave McNally was the ace of the Orioles staff and the starting pitcher in Game One, played in Los Angeles on October 5. At age 23, he would also be the oldest starting pitcher used by Birds manager Hank Bauer in the Series.

McNally didn’t do well. The Orioles staked him to an early four run lead against Don Drysdale who had pitched, albeit briefly, three days earlier when the Dodgers were trying to clinch the pennant.

Back to back home runs by the Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, plated three runs in the first. A single by journeyman Russ Snyder improved the lead to 4-0 in the top of the second.

The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the second on a home run by Jim Lefebvre. In the bottom of the third, with one out, McNally walked Lou Johnson, Tommy Davis, and Lebebvre.

That was it for McNally. On came veteran Moe Drabowsky.

Drabowsky, who was born in Poland, started his career well, winning 13 games for a terrible Chicago Cubs team in 1957. But in the following eight seasons, he had been mostly terrible and never good.

Drabowsky was best known for his pranks. His most famous one occurred in 1966, when he called the bullpen of the Kansas City A’s, his former club. Impersonating A’s manager Al Dark, he ordered Lew Krausse to warm up. He then ordered Krausse to sit down, and then to warm up again. Finally, the bullpen figured out that Drabowsky was making the calls.

As I’ve heard the story told, Drabowsky then called Dark and, impersonating owner Charlie Finley, asked the manager what the hell was going on. Dark supposedly told “Finley” it was that idiot Drabowsky who had made the bullpen calls.

Reports of this story prompted a young fan to write Drabowsky: “Baseball needs more nuts like you.”

Drabowsky recovered his pitching form, and then some, in 1966 with the Orioles. After a slow start, he finished the regular season with a 2.81 ERA and 6 saves.

With the bases loaded and one out, Drabowsky struck out Wes Parker, walked Jim Gilliam, and got Johnny Roseboro on a pop up. He had preserved the Orioles lead, which now stood at 4-2.

After that, Drabowsky was virtually unhittable. He struck out the next six batters he faced to tie a World Series record for consecutive strikeouts. In the seventh inning, he gave up a walk to Maury Wills and a single to Willie Davis, but then set down Johnson and Tommy Davis.

Drabowsky was perfect in the eighth and ninth innings. The Orioles won 5-2. In his 6 innings of work, Drabowsky allowed one hit, one walk, and struck out 11 — all swinging.

After the game, Drabowsky seemed as surprised as anyone. He said he had hoped to see a little action in the series, but nothing like this. “Just what is a guy like me doing in fast company like this?” he gushed after the game, his arms around Frank and Brooks Robinson. Asked about his six consecutive strikeouts, he said, “It’s about time I got in the books for something except the wrong end of the record.”

The Dodgers were confident of leveling the Series in Game Two, in which the great Sandy Koufax would face 20 year-old Jim Palmer. But, though no one realized it, the most relevant number might not have been 20, but rather 323 — Koufax’s total innings pitched, with an arthritic elbow, during the regular season (Koufax completed 27 games; the entire Orioles pitching staff 23). Palmer had pitched only 208 innings.

Early in the game, there were few signs of wear and tear. Twenty-five of Koufax’s first 28 pitches were strikes. In the first four innings, he allowed just one hit and one walk. The only hint of less than full effectiveness was his strike out total — just one, by a pitcher who averaged a strike out per inning.

Palmer was as effective as Koufax. Through four innings, he had given up one hit and two walks, one of them intentional.

Fearsome Boog Powell led off the top of the fifth with a sharply hit single to the opposite field. Davey Johnson tried to advance Powell to second, but he popped up his bunt for out number one.

Paul Blair then hit a soft fly ball to straightaway center field, presenting Willie Davis with a routine play. But Davis lost the ball in the sun. Davis managed to get his glove on the ball, but not to catch it. Powell reached third base and Blair second.

Weak-hitting Andy Etchebarren was next up. He managed another weak fly ball to Davis in center field. Again, Davis lost the ball in the sun. Again, it glanced off his glove. Powell scored. Davis tried to throw out Blair at home, but his throw was horribly wild. Etchebarren took second base. Davis had committed three errors on two plays.

Koufax fanned Palmer, but Luis Aparicio followed with a single to drive in Etchebarren. The Orioles led 3-0.

When the inning was over, the Los Angeles crowd booed Davis off the field. In the dugout, Koufax went over to his distraught teammate and put his arm around him.

Young Palmer had all the runs he needed. He went on to complete a four hit shutout.

Meanwhile, the Orioles got one more run against Koufax, this one earned. In the sixth inning, Frank Robinson tripled and scored with one out on a single by Powell.

This would be the last inning the great Koufax ever pitched.

It’s a pity that Willie Davis is best remembered for his defensive miscues in this one game. Davis was actually a wonderful center fielder who won three gold gloves. His raw numbers on offense aren’t impressive. However, as Bill James has pointed out, Davis’ peak years were played at a time when offensive numbers were down in the National League. Moreover, the Dodgers “played in the best pitcher’s park in that league, the worst park for a hitter; the fences weren’t close, the pitcher’s mound was about four feet high, and the foul territory was larger than several national forests.”

Using advanced metrics, this analysis in Baseball Prospectus makes the case that Willie Davis is among the best three dozen or so center fielders of all time, and better than several who are in the Hall of Fame. The article also praises Davis for his speed and stylishness. Having seen Davis play, mostly on television but a few times in person fairly late in his career, I can attest to both.

I should also note that it’s unlikely the Dodgers would have beaten Palmer on this day in baseball history even if Davis had caught the two fly balls hit his way in the fifth inning.

In any event, the Dodgers had lost the first two games of the Series, both at home. The Orioles had beaten their opponent’s two aces, and the Dodgers hadn’t scored in 15 innings.

I couldn’t have been happier that my friend had wanted to see how McNally did.