April 23, 1956: Don Drysdale beats Phillies in first major-league start
The shivering crowd got the message from the public address announcer at the end of the seventh inning: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the only game in the major leagues that is being played tonight. All the other games have been called off because of cold weather.”1
It was cold that night, in the low 40s. A look at the next morning’s New York Times weather page and the major-league schedule told the story. Baseball games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Kansas City were postponed because of cold weather. They played only in Philadelphia, and it was the first major league start for 19-year-old rookie pitcher Don Drysdale.
Was Don Drysdale ready for the big leagues? After all, The Sporting News had already rated him as the best young pitching prospect on the Dodgers based upon its coverage of spring-training camps, and included Drysdale among a handful of Dodgers prospects ready for the big leagues.2 Drysdale didn’t know the answer. “But I still wasn’t sure what a major league pitcher was. I hadn’t even seen a major league game yet, at least during the regular season.”3
What did the Dodgers brass think? In a late spring-training game in Evansville, Indiana, against the Milwaukee Braves, manager Walter Alston let Drysdale pitch six innings. He yielded only two runs and demonstrated the poise of a veteran in escaping several jams. The sore shoulders of Billy Loes and Karl Spooner and the uncertain condition of Carl Erskine’s arm were casting doubts on the Dodgers’ starting rotation.4 One day before Opening Day at Ebbets Field, general manager Buzzie Bavasi told Drysdale that he was on the big-league roster. “I’m a Bum in 1956,” as Drysdale put it.5
It didn’t take long for Drysdale to make it to the mound at Ebbets Field. On Opening Day with the banner emblazoned World Champions 1955 Dodgers, waving above the right-field scoreboard, Drysdale pitched the ninth inning in relief. The Dodgers lost to Robin Roberts and the Phillies, 8-6, but Drysdale didn’t show any nerves.6 On 11 pitches he retired the side with only a walk to Jim Greengrass flawing the debut.
Six days later, in his first start, Drysdale faced the Phillies veteran Murry Dickson (0-1, 5.00 ERA), who was twice as old as Drysdale. The 39-year-old Dickson, who made his major-league debut in September 1939, two months after Drysdale’s third birthday, had already lost to the Dodgers four days earlier in the first game they played at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey.7
Things could not have started any better for Drysdale. In the very first inning, he struck out the side, with Richie Ashburn going down swinging and Bobby Morgan, the former Dodger, and Granny Hamner both looking. If that seemed too easy, then the second inning brought Drysdale his first big-league jam.8 With two outs, Stan Lopata and Andy Seminick singled and Ted Kazanski walked on four pitches. Dickson, a career .231 hitter, flied out to short center field and the threat was over.
Meanwhile, Dickson sailed along until the fifth, limiting the Dodgers to two walks and one additional runner as a result of a groundball error. Carl Furillo opened the inning with a walk. Drysdale got the first hit off Dickson, moving Furillo to second. Drysdale had actually failed twice to put down a bunt before getting his first major-league hit. When Jim Gilliam singled to right, Furillo scored and both runners advanced to scoring position on the throw to the plate. Pee Wee Reese followed with a single and both runners scored easily for a 3-0 Dodgers lead.
The story of this game was being told by Drysdale’s control. When he retired the Phillies in order in the fifth, Ashburn lined out to Gilliam in left field on a full count. Ashburn was the second and last batter to see ball three. By the end of the game, Drysdale’s numbers would give the whole story.
The Dodgers added another run against Dickson in the eighth inning. Gilliam opened the inning with a four-pitch walk and was sacrificed to second by Reese. Dickson walked Snider. Gilliam was thrown out at third base in a double-steal attempt. If Roy Campanella actually missed a hit-and-run sign on that play, he made amends with a single to center to score Snider.9 The Phillies finally broke through to end Drysdale’s shutout bid in their half of the eighth. Frank Baumholtz, pinch-hitting for Dickson, opened with a single to right. With one out, Morgan lined a single to center, sending Baumholtz to third base. Baumholtz scored on Hamner’s fly ball to Furillo in right.
When Duane Pillette replaced Dickson on the mound in the ninth inning, the Dodgers added two runs for good measure. After Jackie Robinson walked, Furillo lined a double to right to score one. It was the only extra-base hit by either team all night. With two outs, Gino Cimoli lined a single to right for the second run and a 6-1 lead.
Drysdale worked hard in the ninth inning, 21 pitches in all. After Jim Greengrass struck out, Lopata dribbled a hit toward shortstop. Kazanski singled to right and Glen Gorbous came to bat as a pinch-hitter with two outs. Drysdale ended the game just as he had started it – with a strikeout.
When the game was over, Drysdale’s numbers told that complete story, one that sportswriter Roscoe McGowen covered for the New York Times and The Sporting News. Drysdale yielded nine hits, all singles, and as McGowen noted, “Four of them were on the ‘blooper’ order. Not one of the hits batted in a run.”10 The Phillies were swinging early, 19 batters facing three pitches or less and hitting the ball on the ground for the most part. As far as Drysdale was concerned, he was thinking ahead about pitching in Ebbets Field. “They hit only five balls to the outfield, didn’t they? That would be important in Ebbets Field, more than here, where the park is bigger. I felt good about that.”11
Drysdale’s debut performance as a starting pitcher reminded fans of recent years when Karl Spooner (1954), Roger Craig (1955), and Don Bessent (1955) did the same, but on the mound at Ebbets Field.12 Drysdale was just starting to learn how to pitch in the major leagues and surely the maturation process would take its time.
In 1956 it was a great time for a young rookie pitcher on the Brooklyn Dodgers. In mid-May, the Dodgers acquired 39-year-old Sal “The Barber” Maglie from the Cleveland Indians. Maglie was the master of pitching inside to keep hitters off the plate. Their lockers at Ebbets Field were purposely adjacent. In late May, manager Walter Alston sent Maglie and Drysdale ahead to Philadelphia to rest up for a Memorial Day doubleheader against the Phillies. “Just being in his company,” Drysdale noted, “I learned a lot about pitching, a lot about baseball, a lot about life from Sal.”13
After his debut performance, Drysdale pitched to a no-decision and three losses in his next four starts through May, including two in this very ballpark against the Phillies, but he was learning to pitch. Over the next three months, Drysdale pitched both as a starter and in relief. Two appearances against the hated New York Giants stand out for different reasons.
Drysdale pitched the second game of a Fourth of July doubleheader at the Polo Grounds before the Giants’ largest crowd (44,859) in two years.14 He yielded only one run in 8⅓ innings for his first win, 6-1, since his starting debut in Philadelphia in April. The Dodgers’ sweep put them only one-half game out of first place.
Drysdale got his second win against the Giants in a 33-hit extra-inning battle at Ebbets Field on August 16. Drysdale stranded two runners in relief in a scoreless 13th inning before Duke Snider hit a walk-off home run for a 10-9 Dodgers win.
As the calendar turned to September, the heated pennant race had one month to go. The Dodgers found themselves in second place, 2½ games behind the front-running Milwaukee Braves and one game ahead of the Cincinnati Redlegs. How very different this was going to be from the 1955 season, in which the Dodgers occupied first place in the National League virtually from beginning to end.
If you went to the very back pages of the 1956 Dodger Yearbook, you would find the first mention of Don Drysdale, the pitching prospect. “In Brooklyn’s early camp, too, were such highly promising youngsters as Ralph Mauriello, Don Drysdale, Stan Williams, Don Williams, Mel Waters, Bob Lillis and Don Demeter. You’ll be seeing their names in Dodger box scores of the future.”15 His performance in his very first start earned Drysdale not only a place in the box score, but headlines in the press, including one full page in The Sporting News.16
A SABR Baseball Games Project essay is a research paper with a story. The story of Don Drysdale’s rookie season in the major leagues is told in two essays. See the second story: September 9, 1956: Don Drysdale homer, three-hitter beat Giants for the fourth time.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information (baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI195604230.shtml) and other data, as well as Retrosheet.org (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1956/B04230PHI1956.htm). The Don Drysdale baseball card is from the 1957 Topps series (#18) obtained from the Trading Card Database.
1 Roscoe McGowen, “Cold Weather Report Gets Frozen Smiles from Philly,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1956: 5.
2 “Infielders Lead as Hot Prospects,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 21. The following Dodgers rookies were noted on the front page of The Sporting News as meriting favorable attention as the 1956 season got underway: outfielder Gino Cimoli, infielder Charlie Neal, and pitchers Ken Lehman and Don Drysdale. (Ed McAuley, “Siebern, Neal Hailed as Rookies of ’56,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 1.)
3 Don Drysdale with Bob Verdi, Once a Bum, Always a Dodger (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 45.
4 Roscoe McGowen, “Alston Eyes Drysdale, 19, in Dodgers’ Mound Drouth,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 11. Karl Spooner lost Game Six of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees and never pitched again in the major leagues. Billy Loes made one appearance for the 1956 Dodgers and was sold to the Baltimore Orioles on May 14, 1956 for $20,000. Although his best years were behind him, Carl Erskine recovered and pitched in 31 games for the Dodgers (13-11, 4.25 ERA), but lost Game Four of the 1956 World Series to the Yankees, 6-2.
5 Drysdale with Verdi. The quote is the title of Chapter 4 of the book. “Bums is an endearing nickname for the Brooklyn Dodgers more commonly Dem Bums.” Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 147.
6 Roscoe McGowen, “Roberts Defeats Champions, 8-6,” New York Times, April 18, 1956: 35.
7 John Burbridge, “April 19, 1956: Dodgers defeat Phillies in Jersey City opener,” SABR Baseball Games Project.
8 Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 465. “jam 1. n. A difficult situation during a game. Usually it is said that a pitcher is in a “jam” when the opposing team is in a position to score, such as when the bases are loaded with no outs.”
9 Roscoe McGowen, “Brooklyn Rookie Hurls 6-1 Victory,” New York Times, April 24, 1956: 35.
10 Roscoe McGowen.
11 Roscoe McGowen, “Kid Dodger Drysdale Dazzles in Starting Bow,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1956: 5.
12 “Spectacular Mound Debuts Just Old Flatbush Custom,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1956: 5 (Steven C. Weiner, “September 22, 1954: Karl Spooner Strikes Out 15 in Debut,” to be published by SABR in a book about Ebbets Field).
13 Don Drysdale with Bob Verdi, 52.
14 John Drebinger, “Dodgers Sweep Double-Header With Giants Before 44,859 at Polo Grounds,” New York Times, July 5, 1956: 29.
15 “Down on the Dodger Farms,” 1956 Dodger Yearbook, 45.
16 The Sporting News, May 2, 1956: 5.
Brooklyn Dodgers 6
Philadelphia Phillies 1
Connie Mack Stadium
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