This day in baseball history

In the old days, before wild card teams, wild card games, and games to play into the wild card game, the World Series almost always featured two excellent teams. This didn’t always produce an excellent World Series, of course, which was unfortunate because until the very late 1960s there was no other post-season baseball. But at least the World Champion was almost always an excellent team, as opposed, say, to a team that played excellent baseball for two months.

The two teams that contested 1963 World Series, which began on October 2, were both excellent. The New York Yankees won 104 games during the regular season, 8 more than their championship team of 1962. They outscored their opponents by 167 runs. They accomplished this even though their best player, Mickey Mantle, missed the majority of the season due to injury. Mantle was available for the World Series.

The Los Angeles Dodgers won 99 regular season games. Considering the superiority of the National League, this return was about as impressive as the Yankees’. And the Dodgers, behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, had the best pitching in baseball, with a team ERA of 2.85. However, the Dodgers outscored their opponents by only 90 runs. Thus the Yankees were justifiably favored to win their third title in a row.

The opening game, played in New York, pitted Koufax against Whitey Ford — a battle between two of the, what, half dozen or so best left-hander pitchers in baseball history. Koufax’s record was 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA. Ford’s record was 24-7, but his ERA was 2.74, nearly a run higher than Koufax’s.

The great pitchers’ duel didn’t materialize. The Dodgers broke the game open in the top of the second inning with 4 runs. Frank Howard smashed a 450 foot-plus double to dead center field with one out. Former Yankee stalwart Moose Skowron (.203 batting average) and light hitting Dick Tracewski (.226 batting average) followed with singles. Johnny Roseboro (.236 batting average and no home runs against left-handed pitching for the season) did the rest of the damage with a home run.

Skowron inflicted more damage on his ex-teammates in the third inning. His RBI single drove in Willie Davis and gave the Dodgers a 5-0 lead.

The Yankees were never likely to come back from that deficit against Koufax, who had fanned 5 of them in a row to start the game. New York entered the bottom of the fifth inning still looking for their first hit.

With two out in the fifth, though, Elston Howard, Joe Pepitone, and Clete Boyer all singled to load the bases. Yankee manager Ralph Houk called on Hector Lopez to pinch hit for Ford.

Koufax struck Lopez out for his 11th strike out of the game. The World Series strike out record of 14, set by Koufax’s ex-teammate Carl Erskine (also against the Yankees), was very much in jeopardy.

Koufax cruised into the bottom of the eighth inning still holding a 5-0 lead and with 12 strikeouts. He added two more strikeouts — Phil Linz and Bobby Richardson — but Tony Kubek singled in between. With two out, Tom Tresh spoiled Koufax’s shutout with a home run to left field. Koufax then walked Mantle, but got Roger Maris on a ground ball.

In the bottom of the ninth, most of the suspense centered on whether Koufax would get the strikeout he needed to break Erskine’s World Series record. Joe Pepitone sandwiched a single between non-strikeout outs by Howard and Boyer.

Up stepped pinch hitter Harry Bright, a former Washington Senator. Koufax fanned Bright on a 2-2 pitch to break the record, complete the victory, and give the Dodgers a 1-0 Series lead.

The Bronx Bombers no doubt expected to fare better in the upcoming games against mortal pitchers. They didn’t realize they had scored as many runs in the opener as they would all Series.

You can enjoy a 12 minute highlight reel of Game One below.


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