Koufax and the Coliseum: An end and a beginning

On March 28, 2008, the Los Angeles Coliseum made baseball history as it hosted the largest crowd (115,300) ever to watch a professional game, in this case an exhibition contest between the Red Sox and the Dodgers. The Dodgers set up the event as an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their move from the Borough of Churches to the City of Angels. Since the Dodgers had not played in the Coliseum since 1961, the 2008 exhibition was the ultimate turn-back-the-clock game.

Though most of the patrons that night had not been born at the time of the franchise shift, one might conclude that the Coliseum was a much-loved SoCal venue. Well, it was—for football and the 1932 and 1984 Olympics. As for baseball… well, the last Dodgers game played there in September, 1961, tells a different story.

The sports pages from those days barely chronicled the Coliseum’s swan song as a baseball venue. To be sure, there were other events in the baseball world begging for fans’ attention. For one thing, Ted Williams got married again. For another, Harry Craft was named the first manager of the new Houston National League franchise, which would take the field in 1962.

But those were mere footnotes compared to the events in Baltimore, where the Yankees were taking on the Orioles. Though the Yanks had not quite clinched the pennant, it was a foregone conclusion that they were on their way to the World Series once again. But what would have ordinarily been a low-profile, late-season series was enlivened by Roger Maris’ attempt to hit his 60th home run before Ford Frick’s asterisk kicked in.

So it may be understandable that the Dodgers’ farewell to the Coliseum was not national news; it is somewhat surprising that the event barely registered in Southern California. By 1961, the Dodgers’ fourth year in Los Angeles, major league baseball was no longer a novelty. Enormous crowds were on hand from the first game (a 13-1 win over the Giants before 78,652) on April 18, 1958, to the Roy Campanella tribute game (an exhibition game against the Yankees on May 7, 1959 that drew 93,103), to the memorable game when Sandy Koufax struck out 18 Giants on Aug. 29, 1959 before 82,974).

Attendance records toppled every day during 1959 World Series games. The crowd of 92,394 for Game Three—the first World Series game played on the West Coast—was a World Series record that lasted one day till Game Four drew 92,650 (those figures for Games Three and Four also swelled the Dodgers’ shares to a then-robust $12,000 per player). That record in turn lasted but one day, as game five drew 92,706—which remains the record. But the waning days of the 1961 regular season told a different story.

The Dodgers’ last home game of the 1961 season was scheduled for Wednesday night, Sept. 20. Only 12,068 showed up for what everyone knew would be the last regular season baseball game ever played in the Coliseum. The four-year total for the Coliseum was 7,974,728, so the attendance for the finale was well below average (total attendance for the season was a respectable 1,804,250, not that much below the 1,845,556 the Dodgers drew in their initial year in Los Angeles), and it seems modest indeed for a facility that had generated so many memories for so many fans in such a short time.

Perhaps the fans weren’t convinced that it was indeed the last game. The Dodgers had not been officially eliminated from the pennant race, and there was still a slim chance the Coliseum would be called upon to host another World Series. But Dodger Stadium construction was on schedule and the mild winter weather in Southern California virtually assured that the stadium in Chavez Ravine, just north of downtown, would be ready on Opening Day, 1962.

Yet as modest as the Sept. 20 crowd was, it was actually better than the crowds of 10,409 and 10,792 the two previous nights. Granted, the lowly Cubs were in town, and their national fan base was yet to blossom. Though Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams were on the roster, respectability was still in the future.

Large crowds at the Coliseum were not always dependent on an attractive match-up, however. During the four years the Dodgers played there, every team in the National League, save Pittsburgh, had played before at least one 60,000-plus crowd.

And it’s not as though the Dodgers had tanked in 1961, but an 11-15 August, including a 10-game losing streak from Aug. 14 to 24, seriously hampered their pursuit of the pennant. Ironically, the low point of that streak (and perhaps the season) occurred on Aug. 16, when they were shut out twice by the Cincinnati Reds, while drawing 72,140 fans, still a record for a twi-night doubleheader.

One could also make a case that the season’s true low point was on Sept. 12, when the Phillies, who had suffered through a 23-game losing streak (included in a 1-28 stretch) among other indignities on their way to a 47-107 record, scored 19 runs against the Dodgers. This was likely Koufax’s lowest point of the season; he lasted only 1.1 innings (registering all four outs on strikeouts) and gave up six earned runs. The bullpen proved no better at holding off the inexplicable Philadelphia juggernaut. Only 8,629—the smallest crowd to ever see the Dodgers in the Coliseum—were on hand to witness this embarrassment, and they doubtless had reservations about attending any more games that season.

Even with all their late-season woes, as of Sept. 20 the Dodgers had a record of 83-61, but the Reds were in the driver’s seat with a record of 89-57. The Dodgers’ final nine games of the season included a road trip to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago, so it was not likely they would close the gap unless the Reds suffered a total collapse.

The 12,068 fans who did show up for that final game at the Coliseum, however, were treated to a memorable pitching performance from a budding master who in previous seasons had occasionally dropped hints of how much stuff he had. Sandy Koufax, who had languished as a Brooklyn bonus baby and had been erratic during his first three years in Los Angeles, turned the corner in 1961, the year of his first All-Star selection. In fact, in his next-to-last start at the Coliseum on Sept. 15, he had fanned 10 Braves to break Rube Marquard’s 1911 National League record of 237 strikeouts by a left-hander.

Koufax, who had lost 13 games in 1960, would equal that figure in 1961. The big difference was he won eight games in 1960 and 18 games in 1961.

He had been on the brink of packing it in after the 1960 season. According to catcher Norm Sherry, Koufax’s turning point was a 1961 spring training game in Orlando when Koufax was forced to pitch at least seven innings due to a staff shortage and abandoned the mindset that he had to strike out all his opponents. In Koufax’s words, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.”

Ironically, he still harvested strikeouts by the bushel. By the end of the season, he had recorded 269 strikeouts, enough to surpass the National League record of 267, set by Christy Mathewson in 1903. Koufax, however, had the distinction of doing so in 255.2 innings as opposed to 366.1 for Mathewson. For good measure, Koufax surpassed his own strikeout record in 1963 with 306, and in 1965 with 382.

Koufax was also in top form for the final Coliseum contest. For the first eight innings, the game was a pitcher’s duel between Koufax and Dick Ellsworth, who served as a workhorse for the Cubs from 1960 to 1966 (innings pitched ranging from 176.2 in 1960 to 290.2 in 1963) but had the misfortune to be traded away just as the Cubs became competitive.

Norm Sherry started the scoring for the Dodgers in the second inning with an RBI single knocking in Ron Fairly. Ron Santo’s two-run homer in the fourth inning gave the Cubs the lead and, as it turned out, ended their scoring for the day.

After yielding a game-tying solo home run to Sherry in the bottom of the eighth, Ellsworth was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth, Gene Elston came into the game and pitched a scoreless ninth inning. The game remained tied 2-2 after nine innings and Elston remained in the game for two more scoreless innings. Barney Schultz came in and pitched a scoreless 12th. Meanwhile, the Cubs were stymied by Koufax, who held them hitless from the ninth through the 13th innings.

In the bottom of the 13th, Wally Moon singled off Barney Schultz with one out, reached second on Norm Larker’s ground-out, and advanced to third on a passed ball charged to Dick Bertell. Ron Fairly followed with a game-winning single and the marathon—and the Dodgers’ tenure at the Coliseum—was over.

In closing down the Coliseum, Koufax pitched a complete game of 13 innings and struck out 15—a remarkable sum for most pitchers, but business as usual for Koufax. He had thrown 205 pitches—a total guaranteed to dislocate the jaw of any contemporary pitching coach. Another statistic of note is that the game was completed in three hours and 12 minutes, a time span insufficient for many nine-inning games today.

Perhaps the real significance of the game was that it was emblematic of the sort of baseball the Dodgers would play during their glory years immediately after Dodger Stadium opened. Unlike the hard-hitting Boys of Summer in Brooklyn, the Boys of Perpetual Summer in Los Angeles would be a team that relied on pitching, speed, and defense.

Not only did Koufax lead the league in strikeouts in 1961, but the Dodgers were winners across the board. Right behind Koufax in strikeouts were Stan Williams with 205 and Don Drysdale with 182. Yet the Dodgers’ pitcher of the year might have been Brooklyn immortal Johnny Podres, who was 18-5.

Maury Wills, who played in that last Coliseum game and would be a key member of the Dodgers in the years to come, led the league in 1961 with 13 sacrifice hits, 105 runs, and 10 triples. He also led the league in steals with 35—a mere fraction of what he would achieve the next season. Wally Moon, best remembered for his “moon shot” home runs over the left field screen, led the league in on-base percentage with .438 and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player.

After four years in the Coliseum, the Dodgers had completely transformed their team personality, yet they were still perennial contenders. Their 89-65 record for 1961 was good but not good enough. From 1962-1966, they were indeed good enough, with pennants in 1963, 1965 and 1966, and a near miss in 1962 when they were tied with the Giants after 162 games and lost the pennant in a postseason playoff series. Only in 1964, when they finished 80-82, did the Dodgers underachieve— and even then Koufax led the league in ERA (1.74), shutouts (7) and winning percentage (.792), while the staff led the league in ERA (2.96), fewest hits allowed (1,289), fewest home runs (88) and shutouts (19).

Perhaps the turnout on Sept. 20 was small because the locals knew the Coliseum wasn’t going anywhere, even if the Dodgers were. Indeed, as soon as the Dodgers vacated the premises, the stadium was readied for the following weekend’s football games (Southern Cal vs. Georgia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 23; L.A. Rams vs. Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24). The bases and pitching mound were removed but the infield was left unsodded and the infamous left field screen remained in place, since there was still that razor-thin chance that the Dodgers would return to the Coliseum for two or three World Series games in a couple of weeks.
After the Dodgers were eliminated, the screen was dismantled and transported to Dodger Stadium, where it was used to construct a temporary batter’s eye.

Interestingly, the controversial short porch/screen in left field was anything but a hometown advantage. Despite Wally Moon’s renowned opposite field home runs, the Dodgers were out-homered every year they played in the Coliseum (101-92 in 1958, 90-82 in 1959, 97-89 in 1960, and 109-83 in 1961). Walter Alston, who managed the Dodgers during their entire tenure at the Coliseum, felt that the Dodgers had succeeded despite the stadium, not because of it.

50 years after the curtain rang down on Dodgers baseball in the Coliseum, old-time Angelenos were doubtless overjoyed to have one more chance to see baseball played in the venerable venue. One can only wonder if that was really the end of the line. Perhaps in 2033 the Dodgers will choose to play a game there in honor of their 75th anniversary.

Meanwhile, the Coliseum is still accessible via USC football games; indeed it’s been the Trojans’ home since it was constructed in 1923. When the Dodgers opened the season there in 1958, it was the largest stadium ever used for major league baseball. Many a stadium has come and gone since then, yet it still retains that distinction.

A modest crowd for a major league game (indeed a very small crowd for a Coliseum event) got to witness Koufax’s last win of the season and catch a glimpse of what he was to achieve in the next few five years… the no-hitters, the 20-game wins, the strikeout titles, the ERA titles, the Cy Young Awards. On that night, approximately seven-eighths of the seats in the Coliseum were vacant. In the years to come, there would be few empty seats—home or away—when Sanford Braun Koufax took the mound.

References & Resources
Delsohn, Steve, True Blue: The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It. New York, William Morrow, 2001.

“Dodgers Say ‘So Long’ to Colossal Coliseum,” by Bob Hunter, The Sporting News, Sept. 27, 1961.

Garvey, Steve, with Ken Gurnick and Candace Garvey, My Bat Boy Days: Lessons I Learned From the Boys of Summer. New York, Scribner, 2008.

http://americanhistory.si.edu/sports/exhibit/gamemakers/koufax.index.cfm

Edward Gruver, Koufax. Dallas, Taylor Publishing 2000.

“No Tears Shed by Bums Upon Departing Coliseum,” Associated Press story from The Dallas Morning News and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, among other periodicals, Sept. 22, 2009.

http://www.baseball-almanac.com

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Nice piece. I have only this to add:

    “the Boys of Perpetual Summer in Los Angeles would be a team that relied on pitching, speed, and defense.”

    They would have little choice, playing in a) Dodger Stadium and b) soon to move into the second deadball era until 1969.

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