I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
Why Did Don Drysdale Threaten to Sue the National League?
The 1959 season was one to remember for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Battling to the end of the season to force a tie-breaking playoff series to determine the National League champion, the Dodgers would go on to defeat the Chicago White Sox to win the World Series in just their second season on the West Coast. But along the way, there was ups and downs—one significant down surrounding Don Drysdale, then a 22-year-old outspoken youngster who didn't have the best reactions to some late-season struggles. Mired in a four-start losing streak, Drysdale boiled over in early September after he was accused of deliberately throwing at St. Louis Cardinals standout Joe Cunningham, threatening to sue the home plate umpire and the National League if he were to be fined for the pitch.
"If I'm fined, I'll get a lawyer and sue (umpire Stan) Landes and the league. How can they know if you're throwing at someone? That's a bad rule," Drysdale said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In just the fourth season of his Hall of Fame career, Drysdale had already gained a reputation as one of the league's best pitchers, but also as one of the league's hottest tempers. He used an intimidating sidearm delivery and often pitched inside to keep hitters honest, but those tools that made him so great also led him to trouble more than once during his career.
The Infamous Pitch
The Dodgers were hoping Sept. 3, 1959, would finally be the day Don Drysdale got his season turned back around. After racking up 15 victories through early August, Drysdale struggled to find the elusive 16th win, hitting a dry spell that hadn't seen him victorious in a start since Aug. 8. Taking on the Cardinals in a pivotal game for the Dodgers, who were jockeying for first place in the National League standings with the San Francisco Giants, Drysdale toed the rubber but quickly found himself struggling again. The day finished as Drysdale's third straight start where he couldn't get out of the third inning, but would be remembered for one pitch he made in that fateful inning.
Cardinal outfielder Joe Cunningham wasted no time inflicting damage, socking a solo home run in the top of the first inning to continue his career year, but when he stepped back in to the box for his second at-bat, the action really got interesting. Cunningham was hit by a Drysdale pitch on his right forearm and was forced to leave the game, touching off a shouting match between St. Louis manager Solly Hemus and Drysdale—who both were known for fiery tempers—and leaving all the team's players and coaches milling around near the mound.
"Drysdale had orders to pitch Cunningham tight," Dodger manager Walt Alston said. "He missed by a couple of inches. If he or anybody else had perfect control, you'd never see a base on balls unless it was intentional."
X-rays were negative, but there was concern Cunningham would miss his team's next series against the Giants, ironically a blow to the Dodgers. Cunningham—who earlier in the summer was selected for the only All-Star game appearance of his career—had established himself as a regular .300 hitter as he developed into one of the best Cardinal hitters of the late 1950s, but the 1959 season would his last special season. He'd finish with a .345 average and never hit .300 again before retiring in 1966.
"If he's out of the lineup, we're hurt," Hemus said of Cunningham, who ultimately missed one game due to the pitch. "He was hit flush on the arm. It's bruised badly and stiff. He can't swing a bat. Right now he's getting hot and cold compresses on it. Worst aspect of this is that it may cost Joe the batting championship. ... We're not going to roll over and play dead. Not for anybody. We're playing as good ball as we have all year. We'll battle you. We're trying to win every ball game for ourselves."
Despite the brouhaha, Drysdale wasn't formally warned by home plate umpire Stan Landes, which would have resulted in an automatic $50 fine from National League President Warren Giles, but he was advised to be more careful with his pitches. Drysdale, a side-armer, regularly pitched inside, but also had a history of hitting batters. He led the league in hit batsmen in 1958, and he would do so again each season from 1959-1961. In May of 1959, Drysdale faced a $50 fine after it was determined he deliberately hit Willie Mays with a pitch.
"Cunningham is the easiest batter in the league to hit because he strides into every pitch," Drysdale said. "You have to pitch him inside, because he'll kill you if you do it any other way."
And though it wasn't a formal warning against the Cardinals, it was still a unique exchange between Landes and Drysdale at the mound. According to Landes, his message to Drysdale was: "You'd better watch out where you're throwing the ball." Landes then said Drysdale responded with: "If you're accusing me of throwing at him, I'm going to get a lawyer and sue you and the National League." To this, Landes said he responded: "All I'm telling you is you'd better watch where you're throwing."
Drysdale later said of the incident, acknowledging that he did plan to sue if he was fined: "When Landes told me to be careful after hitting Cunningham, I asked him if he wanted me to throw every pitch down the middle so they could all hit it. I asked right away if he was warning me, and he wouldn't say."
A Ken Boyer home run soon knocked Drysdale out of the game, but Landes' job wasn't finished. St. Louis rookie starter Bob Miller threw the first pitch of the bottom of the third inning well inside toward Wally Moon, forcing Landes to again plead for peace. Benches didn't clear a second time, but tensions remained high.
"That homer wasn't hard hit," Hemus said of Cunningham's first at-bat. "That's what irritated me. But we can't be tin soldiers. If they throw—we throw."
"I'm not answering that question—and don't ask me what would have happened if Drysdale had come up to bat," Hemus later added of Miller's intent during Moon's at-bat. "But I made my position clear once before. ... In respect to beanings, I'm a 'do-unto-others-what-they-do-unto-you' kind of guy."
The beaning incident wasn't the first problematic time for Drysdale during his losing skid. After taking the loss in both games of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 23, Drysdale was the target of what he called "second guessing" by some individuals in the Dodgers dugout.
"I'm sick of second guessing. We've got some guys on this club who really put the best second-guessers to shame," Drysdale said on Aug. 26, two days before he would start in an important game against the Giants and once again take a beating. "Everything on our club is the pitcher's fault."
"I never hear anything said if an outfielder drops a ball or a guy gets picked off base. All you hear about is bad pitches," he added. "If they could win games by talking, we'd be in first place by 17 games now."
Drysdale's comments came one day after a "Sports Parade" column was published in the Los Angeles Times by Frank Finch (filling in for regular writer Braven Dyer). In that piece, Finch asked the question, "What's wrong with Don Drysdale?" before speculating that his arm might be tired and noting his fastball lost some of its "zip." Later on, Finch printed several quotes from pitching coach Joe Becker, who volleyed pointed criticism toward Drysdale.
"It's a control problem with Drysdale," Becker said. "He's given up 13 walks in his last 15 innings, and that's not like Don, at all. Look it up."
"Our club isn't making enough runs to afford bad pitches. In 1955, we didn't worry if we were five runs down in the sixth inning because guys like (Gil) Hodges, (Roy Campanella), (Duke) Snider, (Pee Wee) Reese, (Carl) Furillo and (Jackie) Robinson could wipe out such a lead in a jiffy," Becker added. "We won the pennant the next year, too, even though we scored 179 fewer runs than in '55. Because we had great pitching. But with Snider, Hodges and Furillo unable to play regularly, our offense is weak, and the bad pitches we make stand out like sore thumbs."
Drysdale's frustration with the comments is understandable. Becker should have had the decency to share those thoughts privately with Drysdale, not with a large contingent of readers, but on the same level, Drysdale should have approached Becker in private to discuss his frustrations. All in all, the incident could have sent the Dodgers off the rails down the stretch.
Instead, Drysdale found his rhythm again, striking out 11 in a complete game shutout in his first start after the dustup with Cunningham and the Cardinals. His remaining starts were pretty average—he allowed at least three earned runs over six innings in two of those three outings—but it was enough to help the Dodgers finished tied with the Milwaukee Braves atop the National League standings. Los Angeles won that series, moving on to meet the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
In that playoff series—a best-of-three affair—Drysdale was the starter for the second game. He fell behind quickly, but was bailed out when his teammates scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, then scored another run in the bottom of the 12th to secure the pennant. Drysdale was not exceptionally sharp in his one start in the Fall Classic, surrendering 11 hits and walking four over seven innings of work, but he allowed just one run to cross the plate as the Dodgers were 3-1 winners in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the series and win the first-ever World Series game played on the West coast. The Dodgers would eventually dispatch the White Sox in six games.
Drysdale Blasts Dodger Coaches' Second Guessing. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Aug 27, 1959 · Page 22
Silence in Bus! Dodgers Thinking Finch, Frank Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Aug 25, 1959; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. C1
DRYSDALE VOWS TO SUE N.L. IF FINED: DRYSDALE SUIT Finch, Frank Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Sep 5, 1959; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. A1
Lou Smith's Notes: Hook will Hurl Against Braves. The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) · Sat, Sep 5, 1959 · Page 29
Grieve, Curley. "Sports Parade: Beaning Incident Could Cost LA Pennant: Hemus." The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Sat, Sep 5, 1959 · Pages 17, 19
© 2019 Andrew Harner