Fifty years ago, Orioles gave Dodgers afternoon blues

willie_davisBy Mark Langill

Today marks the first Dodgers-Orioles day game at Dodger Stadium since the original Los Angeles dynasty came crumbling down nearly 50 years ago in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series.

An error-filled 6-0 defeat marked the final game of Sandy Koufax’s career, and the bright skies also broke the heart of longtime center fielder Willie Davis, whose all-time marks in the Dodger record book are overshadowed by two seemingly routine fly balls lost in the sun.

With six National League pennants in 13 seasons, manager Walter Alston’s Dodgers were overwhelming 8-5 favorites by Las Vegas oddsmakers to beat the Orioles, making their first World Series appearance since moving to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954.

Baltimore defeated Don Drysdale, 5-2, in the first game of the Fall Classic, but why should L.A. worry with Koufax in the wings? Koufax led the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, masking an average but efficient offense fueled by the stolen-base threat of shortstop and team captain Maury Wills.

PitchingKoufax, who at age 30 had already decided to retire after the 1966 season, was close to physically breaking down at the finish line. Koufax in 1966 became the first pitcher in MLB history with three seasons of 300 or more strikeouts. But starting 41 games in both 1965 and 1966 required a combined 658 regular-season innings en route to 54 complete games and 13 shutouts.

The World Series appearance against Baltimore was Koufax’s third start in an eight-day span, because he was needed to clinch the pennant on the final day of the season. Locked in a three-team pennant race with the Giants and Pirates, the Dodgers lost the series opener at Philadelphia, and a Saturday rainout forced L.A. to play a Sunday doubleheader. L.A. held a 3-2 lead after seven innings and Koufax warmed up in the bullpen in case he was needed for a save. Those plans blew up in the eighth when a throwing error by reliever Bob Miller led to a two-run Phillies rally and 4-3 victory.

Koufax started the nightcap and held on for a 6-3 victory. Even with a six-run lead, Alston didn’t take Koufax out of the game in the ninth when Philadelphia opened the inning by scoring three runs on two singles, a double and an error. Earlier in the game, Koufax felt a “pop” high in his back at the base of his neck while pitching to Gary Sutherland. Trainers Bill Buhler and Wayne Anderson rushed Koufax to the clubhouse after the inning and had the slipped vertebra popped back into place. The two trainers pulled on the top side of Koufax, and former Dodger teammate Don Newcombe, who happened to be visiting, held Koufax’s feet. Buhler later explained Koufax could sometimes pitch with the injury, but couldn’t move his head to check a runner at first base. Koufax joked that such a condition “makes for great control.”

Pitching in the World Series on three days’ rest, Koufax enjoyed early success against Baltimore as 25 of his first 28 pitches were strikes. He allowed only one hit in the first four innings — Luis Aparicio’s infield single leading off the game.

The cracks in the ice started to appear in the fifth inning with one out and Boog Powell on first base. Paul Blair lofted a fly to Davis, who waved his arms in desperation as the ball dropped at his feet for an error, giving Baltimore runners on second and third. Andy Etchebarren hit another fly to Davis with similar results. After the ball hit the heel of his glove and fell to the ground, Davis hurried a wild throw past third base. Two errors on one play gave Baltimore a 2-0 lead with Etchebarren standing on third base. After pitcher Jim Palmer struck out, Aparicio’s RBI double down the left-field line made it 3-0. Davis later said he never saw Blair’s ball and got a late look at Etchebarren’s fly.

The Dodgers made six errors that afternoon. A long fly ball by Frank Robinson in the sixth inning also bounced between Davis and right fielder Ron Fairly for a gift triple. In six innings, Koufax allowed six hits, one earned run and had two strikeouts.

Nine days shy of his 21st birthday, Palmer became the youngest player to pitch a World Series shutout, scattering four hits and needing to escape only one jam in the second inning by striking out Koufax with the bases loaded.

Willie WS

The Series moved to Baltimore, and the Orioles completed the sweep by winning the next two games by scores of 1-0, as L.A. was blanked over the final 33 innings. After the 1966 Series, Koufax announced his retirement while the team was playing an exhibition tour in Japan. The Dodgers broke up the roster by trading Wills and two-time NL batting champ Tommy Davis. The Dodgers didn’t even manufacture World Series rings for the players, opting instead for a Rolex watch.

The teams went in opposite directions over the next decade. The Dodgers suffered consecutive losing seasons in 1967 and 1968 for the first time since 1937-38 in Brooklyn. Baltimore made three consecutive World Series appearances from 1969-71 while the Dodgers underwent a rebuilding phase and didn’t play in a World Series again until 1974.

Davis slides into 3rdFor Willie Davis, who passed away at age 69 in 2010, his only career three-error game occurred at the worst possible time. Even today, some fans assume his “Three Dog” nickname comes from the Baltimore nightmare, rather than a combination of his uniform number and yearly high number of triples.

During a 2005 visit to Dodger Stadium, Davis watched an afternoon game on the Club Level with former teammates Roy Gleason and Al “The Bull” Ferrara. A fan approached the trio for autographs and excitedly said, “Hey, Willie. I was here that day you lost those fly balls in the outfield.” The normally easygoing Davis shrugged his shoulders and quietly offered, “I had some good games, too.”

Davis remains the L.A. Dodger all-time leader in total bases (3,094), at-bats (7,495), triples (110), extra-base hits (585), plate appearances (8,035), runs (1,004) and hits (2,091). In 1,952 regular-season games with Los Angeles, Davis committed two errors in a game only once. He won Gold Glove Awards in his final three seasons with the Dodgers from 1971-73.

3 Comments

Palmer is in town announcing the game for the O’s. Wally Bunker, all of age 21, also had a shutout victory in the series.

The Dodgers entered that series in ’66 as the 2nd WORST hitting team in the National league…. That series was a nightmare, will never forget the feeling I had watching them lose that 4th game in Baltimore…

Sometimes I wonder why I’ve forgotten many of these games that Mark Langill writes about. I have to say that I’m happy that I did forget the 1966 World Series. A very forgetful one.

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