Saturday, July 23, 2016

This Day in Baseball History (Don Drysdale, Dodger Heat Hurler, Born)

July 23, 1936—Don Drysdale, a pitcher who used a sidearm delivery, blazing football and brushback pitch to command the strike zone and earn a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, Calif.

It took me a while to find a photo that caught the mound essence of this legendarily intimidating righthander for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. Ninety-five pictures out of a hundred showed a handsome man with a genial smile, a guy that Hollywood featured in a Leave It to Beaver episode (the star chats with The Beav long distance) or as a guest on the TV western The Lawman.

The photo accompanying this post comes closer to a starter who described his own personality this way: "I hate all hitters. I start a game mad and I stay that way until it's over."

Even that quote might not be sufficient. Drysdale could look so mad, you’d think he suspected you of robbing the food from his family’s table.

Drysdale might put a batter on his rear end in retaliation for an opposing pitcher hitting his teammate. He might send a hitter to the ground for stepping in and out of the batter’s box, as he did with the Phillies’ Wes Covington. Or he might engage in a form of psychological testing, as he explained in retirement in a 1979 interview with Dave Anderson of The New York Times: “The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid, and if he is timid, he has to remind the hitter he's timid."

Yet Drysdale could also render great players nervous, such as Mickey Mantle. "I hated to bat against Drysdale,” the Yankee centerfielder admitted. “After he hit you he'd come around, look at the bruise on your arm and say, 'Do you want me to sign it?'"

Even without the brushback pitch, Drysdale possessed enormous skills or physical assets that led many to predict success for him early on. There was his 6-ft.-5-in. frame, for instance, which gave batters less time to react to his pitches; his sidearm motion, “all spikes, elbows and fingernails,” according to a 1962 Sports Illustrated profile, which also termed it “an enfilading action against plate-crowding right-handers”; and a fastball that he threw consistently in the mid-90s.

Yet, for a while, the pitcher who became famous for playing with hitters’ fears couldn’t conquer his own. Even after helping the Dodgers win their first World Series in Los Angeles in 1959, Drysdale would rage against himself over a mistake, then lose his concentration and, perhaps, the game. Only with the 1962 season, when he notched a 259 record and a Cy Young Award, did he finally break through and really fulfill his vast promise.

With lefthander Sandy Koufax, Drysdale formed one of the great starting pitching tandems in history. They also acted as a team against Dodger management, with each holding out for a $500,000 three-year contract. The fact that Dodgers Vice President Buzzy Bavasi finally came to terms with them, at a time when management held the upper hand in baseball, derived from their crucial leadership in the prior four years, when the Dodgers won two World Series championships.

Drysdale was forced to retire midway through 1969 because of a rotary cuff injury. (“A torn rotator cuff,” he noted at the time, “is a cancer for a pitcher and if a pitcher gets a badly torn one, he has to face the facts, it's all over, baby.") Only the season before, he had achieved another extraordinary mark: 58 straight scoreless innings (including six straight shutouts), a record that would not be bested until another Dodger pitcher, Orel Hershiser, came along 20 years later.

After retiring, Drysdale became a broadcaster for the White Sox, Rangers, Expos, Angels and Dodgers. While other pitchers had exceeded his 209 career victories, few were his equal at his zenith. It was recognition of that fact that led to his eventual induction into Cooperstown in 1984. Nine years later, his second wife, Ann Meyers, was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, making them the first couple to achieve induction into the Hall of Fame from any of the four major American sports: football, hockey, basketball and baseball.

The couple did not have long to enjoy this dual honor. Less than two months after Ann’s induction, Drysdale died of a heart attack in Montreal at age 56. He was remembered as a fearsome competitor within the lines and an easygoing, quotable raconteur outside them.

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