The Pittsburgh Pirates surged into the National League’s crowded pennant race in August 1965 but faced stiffer resistance once the calendar flipped to September: twin aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in a doubleheader with the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers at Forbes Field.
In the twin bill’s opener, Koufax broke his own post-1900 NL season strikeout record and pitched into extra innings, but Jim Pagliaroni’s 11th-inning RBI double gave Pittsburgh a 3-2 win. The Pirates continued their charge in the second game, beating Drysdale to complete the sweep.
Ailing star talent sidetracked Pittsburgh early on in 1965. Right fielder Roberto Clemente, the 1964 NL batting champion, developed malaria in February and was hospitalized for over a month, losing 20 pounds.1 Through May 21, he was batting only .235, with just two extra-base hits in 31 games.
Clemente’s fellow stalwart from Pittsburgh’s 1960 World Series winners, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, broke a bone in his right foot during spring training and did not play in the field until May 19.2 “Our two leaders, our steadying forces, weren’t in full form at the beginning of the season, and neither were we,” Willie Stargell, Pirates left fielder and a rising star at age 25, remembered in his autobiography.3
Stargell himself had offseason knee surgery, then re-injured his knee in March and May.4 With diminished contributions from their three future Hall of Famers, the Pirates fell 15 games under .500 and into 10th place in the 10-team NL by May 20.
Clemente, Mazeroski, and Stargell got healthier, and Pittsburgh reached the middle of the NL’s pack by June.5 Still, the Pirates seemed destined to stay there after losing 1-0 in 10 innings in Los Angeles on August 14 when Koufax pitched a complete game and scored the winning run as Clemente lost Jim Gilliam’s fly ball in the lights for an error.6 Pittsburgh was in sixth place, 10 games behind the front-running Dodgers.
But 11 wins in their next 15 games re-ignited the Pirates’ chances.7 By August 31 Pittsburgh was still in sixth but clustered with several other hopefuls, trailing Los Angeles by only 4½ games.8 The schedule offered a challenge, but also an opportunity: a three-game series with the Dodgers at Forbes Field.
Los Angeles had occupied first for all but four days since May 4, but by consistently tenuous margins.9 Koufax’s superlative pitching—and, to a slightly lesser extent, Drysdale’s outstanding work10—was essential to their foothold. At age 29, Koufax was four seasons into what turned out to be an astonishing half-decade run, leading the NL in ERA five times and strikeouts three times and claiming three Cy Young Awards.
Deploying his sharp curve and dynamite fastball, Koufax had a 21-6 record and 2.18 ERA through August, with 303 strikeouts, since 1892 second among all NL pitchers only to his own 306-strikeout campaign in 1963.11 He had won seven straight decisions against the Pirates, including all three so far in 1965.12
But it was all going to end sooner than just about anyone knew. Koufax’s left elbow had been diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in 1964.13 Only a consistent regime of painkillers, ice, and hot balm kept it operational,14 and Koufax had already informed a reporter that he planned to retire after the 1966 season.15
The series opener in Pittsburgh, scheduled for August 31, was rained out.16 A day-night doubleheader on September 1 was the next option, but the rain continued, finally clearing up in time for a twilight-night doubleheader that evening.17
The pitching matchups initially had Pirates left-hander Bob Veale, running third in the NL’s strikeout race behind Koufax and St. Louis’s Bob Gibson, facing Koufax in the opener.18 But Veale was scratched after injuring his foot in an accident at his home.19 Righty swingman Tommie Sisk replaced him.
Los Angeles gave Koufax an early lead off Sisk. Willie Davis hit a solo home run to right in the first. Two innings later, Ron Fairly singled to right with Gilliam at first. When the ball got through Clemente for an error, Gilliam scored for a 2-0 lead.
Koufax retired the first seven Pirates before Gene Alley’s one-out double in the third. In the fourth, Clemente’s bunt single and Donn Clendenon’s infield hit put two on with one out. Mazeroski struck out, bringing up Stargell, who had likened batting against Koufax to “drinking coffee with a fork” after going hitless in the Dodgers’ 4-1 win on June 25.20 Stargell fanned for Koufax’s 307th strikeout of 1965—the most by any NL pitcher in 73 years. It was Koufax’s 22nd consecutive scoreless inning against the Pirates.21
Pagliaroni led off the fifth for Pittsburgh. Years later, he joked about his lack of success against Koufax: “I was 4-for-5 … four hits in five years.”22 This time, Koufax threw a forkball and the 27-year-old catcher hit it off the left-field wall for a double. Two outs later, Bob Bailey singled Pagliaroni home, and the Pirates were on the scoreboard.
After Joe Gibbon relieved Sisk and retired the Dodgers in order in the sixth, Clemente—who had recovered from his slow start to lead the NL with a .340 batting average entering the game23—led off the bottom of the inning against Koufax. The two stars, born 16 months apart, had narrowly missed being teammates, one way or another, as Dodgers,24 as Pirates,25 or even as Milwaukee Braves.26
Here, Koufax fired pitch after pitch, and Clemente kept spoiling them. The Pittsburgh Press reported that Clemente fouled off “at least 15 pitches.”27 Koufax finally won the duel when Clemente swung and missed for strike three.
Clendenon popped up for the second out, but Mazeroski singled to left. Stargell connected on a triple to deep right center, driving in Mazeroski. Pittsburgh had pulled even, 2-2.
From the seventh inning through the ninth, it became a battle of left-handers, Koufax and Gibbon matching each other. Koufax dispatched 11 batters in a row after Stargell’s triple. Gibbon—aided by a caught-stealing in the seventh, a double play in the eighth, and Mazeroski’s stop of Wes Parker’s grounder near second in the ninth—kept the Dodgers out of scoring position.
As action moved to extra innings, Gibbon and Koufax remained on the mound. The Dodgers threatened in the 10th when Jim Lefebvre led off with a single and Gibbon wild-pitched him to second. But Gibbon fanned John Roseboro and Koufax and induced Wills to ground out, stranding Lefebrve.28 Koufax walked Gibbon and Bailey with one out in the 10th but struck out Manny Mota—his 10th strikeout of the game—and got Clemente to ground out. It was the third time Koufax had pitched into extra innings in 1965.29
Gibbon retired the side in the 11th. Koufax seemed on a similar path when Clendenon and Mazeroski started the bottom of the inning with grounders back to the mound. But Stargell walked—Koufax’s third walk of the game, all during extra innings.
Koufax got ahead of Pagliaroni with two strikes. The next pitch was a low fastball. Pagliaroni pulled it deep, off the scoreboard in left. Stargell ran home. The Pirates won, 3-2.
“I was prepared for Koufax’s fastball,” Pagliaroni said.30 “If you don’t, he throws it right past you. I hit the ball good but knew I didn’t hit it far enough. I was hoping it would find the scoreboard, but I had one good thing going for me: a fast man like Stargell running for home.”31
“I’m pitching for the team to win,” Koufax said.32 “When they win, I’m happy. When they don’t, I’m not. I was a little tired and I walked a guy and threw a bad pitch and he [Pagliaroni] hit it good.”33
The Pirates continued their climb with a 2-1 win in the nightcap, as Vern Law outdueled Drysdale with a seven-hit complete game and Bill Virdon homered and scored the go-ahead run on Maury Wills’s eighth-inning error. Pittsburgh ended the night still sixth in the NL, but just 2½ games behind the Dodgers, who now led the second-place Cincinnati Reds by only percentage points.34
The author’s father, also named John Fredland, attended the doubleheader with his parents. A junior in high school and a left-handed pitcher on the baseball team at St. Mary of the Mount High School in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, the author’s father was a big fan of both Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente.
In a 2022 email to the author, his father remembered sitting “back pretty far under the overhang” on the third-base side at Forbes Field. “As I recall, when Pags had the game-winning hit, we could only see it go up and then wait to see where it might come down,” he indicated.
“My main memory was just being amazed that the Pirates had beaten the star tandem of Koufax and Drysdale on the same day,” he remembered. “At that time, beating Koufax, by itself, was such an improbable feat.”
The article was fact-checked by David Krell and copy-edited by Len Levin. SABR member Steve Weiner provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below. Source materials also included game coverage in the Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Press newspapers.
Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax biography, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy; David Maraniss’s Roberto Clemente biography, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero; and Willie Stargell’s autobiography, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography, provided invaluable background information.
1 Jack Hernon, “Buc News Bad: Clemente Has Malaria,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 3, 1965: 17; Lester J. Biederman, “Maz Hurt; Pirate Worries Mount: Bill Fractures Foot; Clemente Also Looks Doubtful for Opener,” Pittsburgh Press, March 26, 1965: 31.
2 Biederman, “Maz Hurt; Pirate Worries Mount”; Roy McHugh, “Bill Mazeroski Puts His Best Foot Forward,” Pittsburgh Press, May 6, 1965: 50.
3 Willie Stargell and Tom Bird, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 108.
4 Lester J. Biederman, “Stargell Out, Knee Twisted: Pirate Due Back in Just Few Days,” Pittsburgh Press, March 18, 1965: 50; Lester J. Biederman, “Stargell Hurt in Buc Loss: Knee Sprained; Braves Win, 5-4,” Pittsburgh Press, May 14, 1965: 40.
5 A 12-game winning streak from May 21 to June 1 began Pittsburgh’s turnaround. Jack Hernon, “Veale Fans 16 As Bucs Make It 12 in a Row: Pirates Clip Phils, 4-0, in Wet Tilt,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2, 1965: 22. “Maz’s return, combined with Roberto’s resurgence, ignited the Pirates on a twelve-game winning streak,” Stargell noted in his autobiography. “The duo’s value as leaders was obvious to everyone associated with the team. Without their steadying influence, we would have been battling to climb out of the cellar all season long. But instead, the team caught fire and we won 81 of our next 130 games, a sparkling 81-49 record.” Stargell and Bird, Willie Stargell, 109.
6 Frank Finch, “Dodgers Win Hard Way—Error in 10th: Bucs Hand Koufax His 21st,” Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1965: D1; Lester J. Biederman, “‘Bad Lights’ Clemente’s Alibi for Muff,” Pittsburgh Press, August 16, 1965: 28.
7 The Pirates were 11-3-1 in this stretch, including a tie with the San Francisco Giants on August 25.
8 Roy McHugh, “Pirates Are Going Like ’60,” Pittsburgh Press, August 31, 1965: 33.
9 Since June 24, the Dodgers had led their closest pursuer by as many as three games on only two days.
10 Drysdale entered September 1965 with an 18-11 record, 2.98 ERA, and 172 strikeouts in 253⅓ innings pitched.
11 Koufax’s strikeout total was the most for any NL pitcher since Bill Hutchison of the Chicago Colts struck out 314 batters in 622 innings in 1892. Rube Waddell had the post-1900 major-league record at that time with 349 strikeouts in 383 innings for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1904. (Koufax had struck out 306 batters in 311 innings in 1963; he finished 1965 with 382 strikeouts in 335⅔ innings.)
12 “[T]he inevitable erosion of time, bone, and cartilage had not yet compromised his ability,” Koufax biographer Jane Leavy wrote. “He could still throw the tantalizing curve that broke like a waterfall. And he could still blow.” Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 17.
13 Leavy, 155.
14 Leavy, 158-160.
15 In August 1965, Koufax had told San Diego sportswriter Phil Collier that 1966 would be his last season but requested that Collier keep the news confidential. Collier, per Koufax’s wishes, ultimately reported Koufax’s decision on the eve of the official retirement announcement in October 1966. Leavy, 163, 238-239.
16 Jack Hernon, “Bucs Battle L.A. in Day, Night Games: NL Prexy Orders Card Today After Tuesday’s Washout,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 1, 1965: 22.
17 Lester J. Biederman, “Pirates, Dodgers Try Twi-Nighter: Koufax, Drysdale Face Bucs,” Pittsburgh Press, September 1, 1965: 57.
18 “Averages in Majors,” Pittsburgh Press, August 29, 1965: 4, 3; Lester J. Biederman, “Koufax Aims to Cool Off Bucs: LA Brings Its Magic Tonight,” Pittsburgh Press, August 31, 1965: 33. Veale finished 1965 with 276 strikeouts, good for second in the league behind Koufax. (Gibson was third with 270.) As of 2021, no Pirates pitcher has struck out more during the team’s NL tenure. Ed “Cannonball” Morris fanned 326 batters in 555⅓ innings for the American Association’s Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1886 and 298 batters in 581 innings for the Alleghenys in 1885.
19 Veale required 15 stitches for a cut on his foot. Biederman, “Pirates, Dodgers Try Twi-Nighter.”
20 Lester J. Biederman, “Hit Koufax? Try Hitting Soup With Fork: Stargell Sums Up Defeat,” Pittsburgh Press, June 26, 1965: 6.
21 Koufax entered this start with 18 consecutive scoreless innings against Pittsburgh. He had allowed two first-inning runs on July 11 at Forbes Field, then held the Pirates scoreless over the next eight innings in a 4-2 Dodgers win. His next start against Pittsburgh was the 10-inning shutout on August 14.
22 Gene Collier, “On This Day in ’65, Pirates Did What?,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 1, 2005: C-5. Pagliaroni had five hits in 36 career at-bats against Koufax, a .139 batting average.
23 “League Leaders,” Pittsburgh Press, September 1, 1965: 58. From May 22 through August 29, Clemente had batted .372/.419/.542 in 404 plate appearances. He finished 1965 with a .329 batting average, good for the third of his four career NL batting titles.
24 The Pirates had selected Clemente from the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in the November 1954 major-league draft, less than a month before the Dodgers signed Koufax from the University of Cincinnati. David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: 2006), 36-37, 56-57; Leavy, 52-58.
25 Koufax worked out for the Pirates at Forbes Field in 1954 but did not sign with them. Leavy, 53-54.
26 The Braves reportedly offered Clemente a bonus of $25,000 to $35,000, while the Dodgers signed him for a $10,000 bonus and $5,000 first-year salary. Milwaukee offered Koufax $30,000 shortly after he had agreed to a $20,000 deal with Brooklyn. Maraniss, 36-37; Leavy, 57.
27 The Los Angeles Times reported that the entire at-bat was at least 17 pitches. Lester J. Biederman, “Stargell Fans as Koufax Sets Record,” Pittsburgh Press, September 2, 1965: 45; Frank Finch, “Dodgers Fall out of Lead, Drop Two: Koufax, Drysdale Blow Tough One-Run Games to Surging Bucs,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1965: III, 1.
28 Ten days earlier, on August 22, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal had hit Roseboro on the head with his bat after a brushback incident. Roseboro missed two games and returned to the lineup on August 25. Frank Finch, “Mays Breaks Up the Fight—and the Ball Game, 4-3,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1965: III, 1; Frank Finch, “Dodgers Cause Hurt by Mets: Roseboro Injured as Spoiler New Yorkers Bomb Osteen, 7-5,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1965: III, 1.
29 In addition to this game and his 10-inning complete-game win over the Pirates on August 14, Koufax pitched 10⅓ innings in the Dodgers’ 5-3 win over the Astros in 11 innings on May 17.
30 Lester J. Biederman, “Pirates Sweep Dodgers from Lead: Pirates Trail Pace-Setting Reds by 2½,” Pittsburgh Press, September 2, 1965: 44.
31 Biederman, “Pirates Sweep Dodgers From Lead.” “I was a dead low fastball hitter,” Pagliaroni remembered in a 2005 interview. “I could time [Koufax’s] fastball, but it appeared to rise at the last instant, and I’d just foul that back all the time. I guess he was getting tired, because one of them stayed down and I hit it off the scoreboard.” Collier, “On This Day in ’65, Pirates Did What?”
32 United Press International, “Koufax Breaks Own ‘K’ Record,” Connellsville (Pennsylvania) Daily Courier, September 2, 1965: 6.
33 United Press International, “Koufax Breaks Own ‘K’ Record.” Koufax had another no-decision in his next start, Los Angeles’ 4-2 win over the Astros on September 5. Four days after that start, on September 9, he pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. Koufax finished 1965 with a 26-8 record, 2.04 ERA, and 382 strikeouts. No NL pitcher since Old Hoss Radbourn (441) and Charlie Buffinton (417) in 1884 had struck out more.
34 On September 2, the day after the doubleheader, Claude Osteen and the Dodgers beat Veale and the Pirates, 7-1; Pittsburgh never got within four games of first place after that loss. The Giants appeared to break from the pack with 14 wins in a row from September 4 through 16 to open a 4½-game lead over the division. But the Dodgers responded with 12 wins in a row and 16 victories in their final 16 games—with both Koufax and Drysdale going undefeated in four decisions during the streak—to win the pennant by two games over San Francisco. They beat the Minnesota Twins, four games to three, in the World Series.