September 28, 1959: Dodgers win first game of 1959 NL playoff behind Larry Sherry's strong relief
The last day of the regular season in the 1959 National League pennant race, September 27, ended without a league champion. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Braves ended the schedule in a tie. Los Angeles had bested the Chicago Cubs 7 -1 on the final day and the Braves, hearing of the Dodgers victory, and with their season on the line, scored three runs in the seventh inning to beat Philadelphia 5-2 and tie Los Angeles with their 86th victory of the year. The race was so close that if the Dodgers and Braves had lost and the San Francisco Giants swept a doubleheader from St. Louis, the race would have ended in an unprecedented three-way tie for first. With the Braves and Dodgers in a dead heat, the league championship was to be decided by a best-of-three series. A flip of the coin, won by Los Angeles that Sunday evening, determined that the first game of the playoffs would take place in Milwaukee, the remaining two in Los Angeles.
End-of-the-season playoffs had not been kind to the Dodgers. While in Brooklyn they lost the 1946 pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals in two games. Five years later in 1951, on the cusp of besting the New York Giants in the decisive third game, they were the victim of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” Precedents were less than auspicious, especially for Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snider, who played on the 1951 squad; Furillo also was with the Dodgers during their 1946 losing effort.
In the first game, Braves manager Fred Haney started Carlton Willey, an unlikely choice for several reasons. After having a solid rookie season when he went 9-7 and led the National League in shutouts, Willey suffered an off-year in 1959. Going into the playoff he was 5-8 with an ERA of 4.14, a far cry from his inaugural 2.70 effort. Adding doubt about Haney’s choice, Willey had pitched but three innings in September, with his last start almost a month earlier, when the Cubs battered him for six runs in 7⅓ innings. Haney’s decision to start Willey astounded everyone — including Willey.1 But the mainstays of the Braves staff — Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl — were unavailable. Each had made three starts apiece over the previous 10 games. Haney had initially considered starting Burdette, who last pitched three days earlier, but he had been ineffective in his last two appearances, the residue of what would be a major-league-leading 39 starts plus two relief appearances.2 Other alternatives were not attractive. Joey Jay in eight appearances against Los Angeles had an ERA over five. Juan Pizzaro, who was probably the best option, had most likely shaken Haney’s confidence in him after he refused to start the last game of the regular season when Milwaukee needed a victory to force Los Angeles into a tie-breaker.3
Dodgers manager Walt Alston decided to open with left-hander Danny McDevitt in Milwaukee so he could use righties Roger Craig and Don Drysdale in Los Angeles’s Coliseum.4 Johnny Podres, who was the dominant southpaw on the staff, might have otherwise started but he had just pitched two days before while Sandy Koufax was, at that point in his career, too inconsistent to be entrusted with a game of this magnitude. McDevitt’s two-hit shutout of the Braves earlier in the season may have been another factor in Alston’s decision to start him against Milwaukee.
Attendance at the game was only 18,297, a disappointingly low number for such a crucial game, perhaps because of the suddenness of the game — due to bad weather, it had only become apparent late Sunday that it would be played, and a pregame shower delayed the start of the contest 47 minutes. The low attendance was an ominous portent of things to come.5 Although these were certainly factors in the low turnout, Arthur Daley, writing about the sparse crowd for the New York Times (his column was reprinted in the Milwaukee Journal) mused that perhaps too much success over the previous two seasons — a World Series championship in 1957 and another National League pennant in 1958 — had spoiled the local fan base.6 Attendance for the year for Milwaukee was 1,749,112 — the lowest it had been since the Braves moved from Boston to start the 1953 season. In 1960 attendance would fall under 1.5 million; by 1962 it was less than 800,000. In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, citing among other factors the disinterested and dwindling fan base.
After the showers ended, the game got under way and the Dodgers struck immediately. Second baseman Charlie Neal beat out an infield single, a groundball that second baseman Bobby Avila could only knock down. The Milwaukee Journal's Bob Wolf thought that Avila should have made the play.7 Avila, at 35, was in the second-to-last game of his major-league career. The former batting champion — he had won the title while with Cleveland in 1954 — had lost much of his defensive range over the succeeding years and was hampered by knee, back, and leg injuries.8 Neal moved to second on a grounder and scored on Norm Larker’s single to right. Avila’s presence in the lineup symbolized the Braves’ major problem that season — an inability to successfully replace All-Star second baseman Red Schoendienst, after the popular redhead had been felled by tuberculosis. Seven players, including Avila, were brought in to fill Schoendienst’s shoes — to no avail.9
McDevitt successfully negotiated the first inning but was nicked by the Braves offense in the second as two singles and a walk brought in the tying run with just one out and generated the threat of a big inning. With the game at a pivotal point, Alston summoned Larry Sherry to pitch. Sherry, brought up from the minors in July, had initially joined the club to improve the starting rotation. Although he pitched effectively in several starts, he was gradually shifted to the bullpen. When Sherry came into the game he was 6-2 with a 2.39 ERA and three saves. A subsequent error and a groundout by Avila brought in another run, giving the Braves a 2-1 lead. But the door would be shut on the Braves for the rest of afternoon. Sherry pitched the remaining seven innings, scattering four singles and two walks. Here was another difference between the two clubs: Although Milwaukee’s starting staff was peerless, its relief pitching was a collective 11-13; the Dodgers’ relievers compiled a 28-20 record.
The Braves’ lead would not hold for long. In the top of the third, Neal singled with one out. After Wally Moon grounded into a force out, Norm Larker hit a ball that Avila could not handle — it was scored a single. Moon came home on Gil Hodges’ base hit, tying the game, 2-2.
The game remained tied until the top of the sixth inning when catcher John Roseboro came to bat. Roseboro, who had the unenviable task of replacing Roy Campanella in 1958 after a paralyzing car crash ended Campanella’s career, was at the end of a disappointing offensive season. His average had fallen from .271 in 1958 to .233 as the game began. Roseboro was 0- for-2 as he faced Willey to lead off the inning.
Roseboro turned on a 2-and-1 pitch, hitting a line drive over right fielder Hank Aaron’s head into the stands and giving the Dodgers a 3-2 advantage. In the bottom of the seventh Haney lifted Willey for a pinch-hitter. Up to the plate came 43-year-old Enos Slaughter, one of eight players 35 or older on the Braves’ roster that season. Slaughter grounded out. Don McMahon replaced Willey on the mound. He pitched well, holding the Dodgers scoreless over the final three innings. But the Dodgers held the lead and Sherry, in rhythm, set down the side in order in the sixth and seventh, and surrendered just a harmless single in the eighth.
In the top of the ninth, center fielder Bill Bruton led off. He drove a two-strike pitch to the base of the center-field fence, where Don Demeter hauled it in for the first out.10 Frank Torre then pinch-hit for McMahon and flied out to Aaron. Avila, who had proven pivotal in the Braves misfortunes early on, swung at Sherry’s first pitch and popped out to Jim Gilliam at third to give Los Angeles the victory.11
The Braves now faced a daunting challenge — taking two straight in the Coliseum. After showering and dressing, both teams immediately took a 1,700-mile flight to Los Angeles for the second game of the playoffs.
This article appears in "From the Braves to the Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium" (SABR, 2016), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 Bob Wolf, “Braves Fail to Hit: Now Near Oblivion,” Milwaukee Journal, September 29, 1959, Part 2, 12.
2 Brian M. Endsley, Bums No More: The 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers, World Champions of Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2009), 154.
3 Danny Peary, ed., We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era — 1947-1964 (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 425.
4 Wolf, “Braves Fail to Hit.
6 Arthur Daley, “Apathetic Fans See Dull, Dreary Contest, Milwaukee Journal, September 29, 1959, Part 2, 12.
7 Wolf, “Braves Fail to Hit.”
8 Bob Wolf, “Hot Braves Cooled After Sizzling Clip,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1959, 14.
9 The seven: Bobby Avila, Chuck Cottier, Felix Mantilla, Joe Morgan, Johnny O’Brien, Mel Roach, and Casey Wise.
10 Endsley, Bums No More, 155.
11 Play-by-play details from baseball-reference.com/boxes/MLN/MLN195909280.shtml.