The Forgotten Playoff

added 02/16/2019 by Bob Hulsey

For folks who remembered the old days where you listened to a baseball game on the radio while you did other activities from household chores to reading the newspaper to staying cool without air conditioning, surely you recall some of the storied pennant races of the time. Back then, in leagues of eight or ten teams, there was no second chance for clubs who didn't have the best winning percentage in their league.

However, some years saw two teams tie at the end of 154 games and enter into a three-game playoff to reach the World Series. The first post-WWII conflict in the National League was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946. The Dodgers lost. Next was the legendary 1951 series between the Dodgers and the New York Giants (aka "The Shot Heard Round The World"). The Dodgers lost.

The Dodgers and Giants, now moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively, had another classic playoff series in 1962. The Houston Colt .45s had an indirect role in this one as their club played the Giants in six games over the final weeks of the season, beating them twice.

On Saturday night, September 22nd, Roman Mejias broke a 5-5 tie with a bases-loaded single to topple the Giants. The following Saturday on the final weekend of the regular season, Bob Bruce bested Juan Marichal in a 4-2 victory at Candlestick Park. This allowed the Dodgers to end the year in a tie for the pennant, 101-61, with San Francisco. In the subsequent memorable West Coast playoff, the Dodgers lost.

It should be noted that all these playoff series then were considered an extension of the regular season and all stats counted toward regular season stats.

While combing through the "Classic Baseball On The Radio" page on YouTube, I found another NL playoff series I either was not aware of or it had fallen through the crevices of my memory. There was a playoff series in 1959 and, yet again, it involved the Dodgers. So I sat through the scratchy radio broadcasts to find out what happened.

The Milwaukee Braves were the defending league champs, having lost in the World Series the year before to the venerable Yankees. The Dodgers had sunk to seventh in the eight-team National League that year, their first one in California. In 1959, the Braves and Dodgers tied with 86-68 records. The resulting best-of-three playoff will have its 60th anniversary this fall.

Both clubs were exhausted from trying to outlast the other for the pennant and there was no travel day before the series began. The Braves had ended their season in Milwaukee while the Dodgers had closed their regular season in Chicago against the Cubs. Los Angeles owned a 12-10 record in head-to-head battles with the Braves that year.

Therefore, Milwaukee hosted the first game while the final two, if needed, would take place in Los Angeles. That Monday in Wisconsin was cold and dreary with intermittent rain. The key blow was a solo homer by Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro in the sixth which decided the 3-2 Los Angeles victory.

The pitching hero was future Astro Larry Sherry who took over for a struggling Denny McDevitt in the second and spun 7-2/3rd innings of four-hit shutout ball. It was a tight ballgame but Sherry made sure there wasn't a great deal of drama.

After the contest, both teams flew to sunny Los Angeles for Game Two. Again, there was no travel day but the rotations had flipped so that aces Lew Burdette (21-15) and Don Drysdale (17-13) faced each other.

Dodger Stadium had not been built yet so the Dodgers played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, home of the 1932 Olympic Games as well as the venue for the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL. The dimensions were not ideal for baseball so the converted track and football venue had a chain-link fence representing the right and right-center boundaries while the short left field dimensions (251 feet down the line) required a 42-foot mesh screen to be draped behind the fence which was in play. Pop flies could be home runs if they cleared the screen while screaming liners became singles if the left fielder played them off the screen properly.

Milwaukee got to Drysdale early and built a 4-2 lead as Burdette toughed it out until the ninth inning. It was 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth when Wally Moon, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges all reached on singles. While future Astro Bob Lillis pinch-ran for Snider, future Colt .45 Don McMahon relieved Burdette with the bases full as future Colt .45 Norm Larker stepped in.

Larker smashed a drive off the screen that would have won the game in a dramatic walk-off grand slam homer had the mesh not been there. Instead, two runs came home while Larker stopped at first.

The Braves could not hold anything back now or their season was over. McMahon was pulled for the legendary lefthander Warren Spahn. Roseboro was then lifted for Carl Furillo. The Dodger outfielder lofted a sacrifice fly to chase home Hodges and tie the game. After Maury Wills singled, Joey Jay replaced Spahn and managed to get out of the inning.

Both sides filled the bases in the 11th but couldn't get a run across. In the 12th, after Bob Rush retired the first two Dodgers, a walk and a single put two runners aboard when Furillo hit a bouncer to the hole at short. Future Astro Felix Mantilla flagged it down but his desperation throw sailed wide and Hodges came home with the winning run.

At last the Dodgers had won a playoff series. They went on to defeat Nellie Fox and the "Go Go" Chicago White Sox, 4-3, in the World Series. It was the first time a team had won it all after finishing seventh the year before.

Among the players on hand in the National League playoff series that would someday wear a Houston uniform, besides those already noted, were Milwaukee hitters Eddie Mathews, Lee Maye and Al Spangler. Milwaukee hurler Juan Pizarro warmed up but did not enter the game.

The YouTube site features many great ballgames from the 30s through the 70s with the 50s and 60s clearly the heyday. A handful feature the Colt .45s or the Astros. While you wait for the 2019 season to begin, you might give these a listen. You could discover something you didn't realize existed.

YouTube: Classic Baseball On The Radio