Wednesday, August 26, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Introducing a Kid Named Koufax

On August 27, 1955, Sandy Koufax won his first major league game, doing so by shutting out the Cincinnati Reds, 7-0, on just two hits, walking 5, but striking out 14. His victory ended a three-game losing streak that had cut the Dodgers' lead from a season-high 15½ games on August 14 to 10 games. It had been a rough month for runaway Brooklyn. The Dodgers had lost 8 of their previous 11 games and were 9-13 so far in August.

60 Years Ago in 1955: Introducing a Kid Named Koufax

Manager Walt Alston had three starting pitchers he relied on in 1955. Don Newcombe at this point in the season was 18-4, but had lost all three of his decisions in August, although all three were "quality starts." Carl Erskine, the Dodgers' best pitcher the three previous years (two of which Newk was in the service) was 10-6, and Johnny Podres, only 22 years old in his third season, was 8-9. Russ Meyer, Billy Loes, and since the beginning of July, rookie southpaw Karl Spooner, had also contributed as starters to the Dodgers' big lead in the standings. 

The Dodgers had another rookie southpaw all season on their 1955 roster. Fresh out of high school and in Brooklyn only by virtue of being a "bonus baby"—meaning he accepted a signing bonus in excess of $4,000—Sandy Koufax was only 19 years old and very much in a learning mode that more appropriately should have taken place several rungs down the minor league ladder. 

He did not appear in a big-league game until June 24, the 66th game of the season for Brooklyn, in a Dodgers' loss in Milwaukee. His team was already down 7-1 when Alston called upon him for two innings of relief beginning in the fifth. Johnny Logan, the first major league batter he ever faced, singled. After throwing Eddie Mathews' comebacker into center field trying to start a doubleplay and walking Hank Aaron, Koufax found himself in a bases loaded, nobody out situation in his very first game. Still trying for his first out, Koufax escaped the inning unscathed, striking out Bobby Thomson (yes, that Bobby Thomson, now with the Braves), and inducing a doubleplay grounder by Joe Adcock.

Alston next used Koufax five days later to pitch the ninth inning in a game the Dodgers were being blown out, 6-0, by the Giants. Once again Koufax loaded the bases with nobody out on two singles and a walk to Willie Mays, and once again he escaped without surrendering a run as he retired the next three batters, none on a strikeout.

The third game for Koufax was his first start, on July 6 in the second game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh. He lasted only two outs into the fourth inning. Alston came to get him with the bases loaded, the score tied at 1-1, after he walked consecutive batters to force in the tying run. The control problems that plagued Koufax in the early years of his career were certainly evident this day; he walked 8 of the 23 batters he faced and also gave up 3 hits. But under the rules then in place for receiving his big signing bonus, the Dodgers could not send the kid down to the minors to work on his command and control issues. Koufax was spared the loss in his first big-league start because his relief, Ed Roebuck, stranded the bases loaded.

Since then, Koufax had pitched three times in relief in games Alston already considered a lost cause. In four innings, he had given up two runs. When he took the Ebbets Field mound on August 27 for the second start of his big league career, it had been nearly two months since his first.

The Reds were in fifth place, no more in contention than any other National League club, but were an imposing team offensively. Cincinnati ended the season with the second-most runs in the National League after Brooklyn. They had one of baseball's best-slugging line-ups. Ted Kluszewski ended the season with 47 home runs—his third straight year with at least 40 round-trippers; Wally Post hit 40; Gus Bell 27; and Smoky Burgess 20. 

Unintimidated, Koufax pitched the first great game of his career. Kluszewski singled in the first, Sam Mele doubled with two outs in the ninth, and in between only five Cincinnati batters reached base. Before Mele's hit, the Reds had runners in scoring position just twicein the sixth, when Koufax walked Johnny Temple and Burgess back-to-back and committed a balk that put runners on second and third with two out; and in the seventh, when Koufax gave up a pair of two-out walks. He got the third out both times, no problem. Everyone in the Reds' starting line-up went down on strikes except for Temple and Post. Burgess and Roy McMillan each fanned twice, and the left-handed batting Gus Bell was definitely overmatched this day, striking out against Koufax in all four of his at bats. After Mele's two-out double in the ninth, Koufax finished off by getting Rocky Bridges to pop out to the shortstop.

When Sandy Koufax walked off the mound with his first major league win and a record of 1-0 so far in a career whose prospects were still uncertain, the Dodgers led the second-place Braves by 10 games with an 81-45 record. With 126 games down and just 28 to go, Brooklyn was in coast mode on the way to a third World Series in four years. Who they would play was far from certain. The Yankees ended the day tied with the Cleveland Indians for first, and the Chicago White Sox were breathing hard down their necks, a half-game back.


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