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Dodgers, White Sox Last Met in '59 Series

June 08, 2003|Lewis Abraham Leader | Special to The Times

Before this weekend's interleague series, nearly 44 years had passed since the Dodgers played the White Sox in a game that meant anything.

The date was Oct. 9, 1959. And that one meant everything. A 9-3 win over Chicago gave the Dodgers the World Series, 4 games to 2. Victory had come in but their second season in Los Angeles after moving from Brooklyn, an improbable conclusion to an unlikely season.

The nucleus that had helped Brooklyn win six pennants from 1947 through 1956 was giving way. Don Newcombe and Pee Wee Reese were gone. Carl Erskine retired early in 1959. Carl Furillo was limited to 50 games. Injuries restricted Duke Snider's playing time. Gil Hodges began to relinquish first base. Clem Labine remained the bullpen workhorse, but would be sent to Detroit in mid-1960.

America and the world were going through major changes in 1959 as well.

Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union, the first new states since 1912. Fidel Castro took power in Havana after Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled. The Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met with President Eisenhower at Camp David and visited Los Angeles. The Beat Generation's William Burroughs wrote "Naked Lunch," but it remained banned in his native United States until 1966. James Michener's "Hawaii" was published.

In Los Angeles, the Memorial Sports Arena opened. Los Angeles International Airport inaugurated jet service. Norris Poulson, a key figure in luring the Dodgers, was mayor. At the Academy Awards, held at the RKO Pantages Theater in Hollywood, "Gigi" was awarded best film honors for 1958.

All of Los Angeles County needed but two telephone area codes, and it would be another 25 years before a third would be required. The population of the City of Los Angeles was fewer than 2 1/2million people.

The Coliseum, home for the Dodgers from 1958 through 1961, was a marvelous venue for football, track and field, rodeo and revival meetings, but it provided bizarre dimensions for baseball, including 425 feet to center and 440 feet to right-center in 1958.

Few Dodger fans expected much after the team's seventh-place finish in 1958. In the off-season, however, General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, in one of his best trades, acquired Wally Moon from the St. Louis Cardinals for Gino Cimoli. Moon became a fixture in left field, and with his unusual inside-out, left-handed swing learned how to hit homers over the 40-foot high left-field screen, put in place to offset the freakishly short foul line of 250 feet. He batted .302 with 19 home runs and 74 runs batted in in 1959.

A Veteran Rookie

In mid-season, the Dodgers brought up Maury Wills, a 26 1/2-year-old rookie, and Los Angeles native Larry Sherry. Wills (.260), though not yet allowed to steal bases at will, soon replaced slump-ridden Don Zimmer (.165) as the starting shortstop. Sherry (7-2, 2.19) both started and relieved. Don Demeter (.256-18 HR-70 RBI), a lanky Oklahoman, assumed center field from Snider (.308-23-88), who moved to right. Brooklyn holdovers Charlie Neal (.287-19-83) and the versatile Jim Gilliam (.282-3-34) were at second base and third base, respectively. Johnny Roseboro (.232-10-38), who had played briefly in Brooklyn, was the main catcher.

Van Nuys native Don Drysdale (17-13, 242 strikeouts) was now staff ace, with strong backing from Johnny Podres (14-9), who had pitched Brooklyn to its only World Series championship four years earlier. Roger Craig (11-5), Stan Williams (5-5) and Danny McDevitt (10-8) helped round out a rotation in flux, as did a sometimes wild lefty by the name of Sandy Koufax, then 23. Koufax (8-6) set a National League record of 18 strikeouts against the Giants in a late-season contest, offering promise of the greatness to come.

The Dodgers shared the pro sports market in Los Angeles with the Rams, who had moved from Cleveland in 1946. The Lakers were still in Minneapolis, and the Angels and the Kings had not yet been created. There were no Clippers, no Sparks, no Galaxy, and no Arena Football. For many Southern Californian sports fans, the biggest annual event was the UCLA-USC football game.

Southern California, where professional baseball had consisted of the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, fell in love with the Dodgers. The club drew 2,071,045 fans at home in 1959, topping two million fans for the first time in its history. It was more than twice the total of its final season in Brooklyn in 1957.

Roy Campanella Night

On May 7, the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game -- 93,103 -- attended a benefit contest at night for Roy Campanella, the Dodger catcher left paralyzed from the shoulders down in a traffic accident shortly before the start of spring training in 1958. Here was the Dodgers' commitment that day: They played a game in Milwaukee the day before, a game in San Francisco that afternoon, flew south for the fund-raiser and returned to San Francisco for a game the next day.

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