Some bad teams have won the World Series
, and the Dodgers have had two of the worst: the 1988 club
that batted only .248, and the 1959
team that won only 86 out of 154 games.
In 1959 the Dodgers were in transition. The biggest transition was of course the fact that the team had just moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn the season before, but the team was also transitioning from one generation of stars to another. The great "Boys of Summer" team that had dominated the National League in the 1950s was on its way out. Don Newcombe and Pee Wee Reese were already gone, and Roy Campanella had been paralyzed in a car accident the year before. Carl Erskine retired early in the 1959 season. Injuries cut into Duke Snider's playing time, and limited Carl Furillo to only 50 games. Even Gil Hodges only played 113 games at first base, where he was often spelled by young prospect Norm Larker, who had lighter legs and a quicker bat. Of the old Brooklyn gang that had perennially challenged the Yankees for the World Series since the late 1940s only the youngest, third baseman Jim Gilliam, played the whole season. It was an aging team that had finished a lowly seventh place in the league in 1958, and had given its new LA fans little reason to hope for a turnaround in 1959.
But a new generation of stars was on the way. A 22-year old pitcher named Don Drysdale emerged as the staff ace, hurling 271 innings and compiling a record of 17-13. Lanky 24-year-old Oklahoman rookie Don Demeter took over center field for Snider (who shifted to right), and socked 18 home runs. An off-season trade with the Cardinals brought over colorful left fielder Wally Moon. Moon, a left-handed batter, developed an unusual inside-out swing to take advantage of the ridiculously short left-field porch in the Coliseum, which had a 40 foot screen but was only 250 feet down the left field line. Moon batted .303 in 1959 and hit 19 home runs, which were affectionately called "Moon Shots." Midway through the season, a speedy young rookie named Maury Wills was called up from the minors and quickly replaced Don Zimmer as the starting shortstop. Another midseason callup was a young pitcher and LA native, Larry Sherry, who dominated out of the bullpen and as a spot starter, compiling a miniscule 2.19 ERA. Meanwhile, in the back of the rotation, some guy named Sandy Koufax went a mediocre 8-6 with a 4.05 ERA, but did strike out 173 batters in only 153 innings.
Few expected a rebuilding team like the Dodgers to go anywhere in 1959, but by successfully blending the old and the new, veteran experience with youthful energy, the Dodgers were able to stay in a tight three-way pennant race with the Giants and Milwaukee Braves all season long. At the end of the season, the Dodgers were tied with the Braves for first place, with the Giants three games out. The Braves and Dodgers played a best-of-three playoff, and Dodgers won the first two games to barely squeak through to the World Series.
Perhaps what was most unusual about the 1959 World Series was the absence of the Dodgers old nemesis, the New York Yankees, who did not participate for the first time since 1954. In their place was the "Go-Go" Chicago White Sox, who led the American League 113 stolen bases, but hit a league-low 97 homers. Catcher Sherm Lollar was able to led team easily with a paltry 22 long balls.
Despite their lack of power at the plate, the White Sox were heavily favored over the Dodgers. Winners of 94 games, the Sox featured the marvelous middle-infield defense of slick-fielding shortstop Luis Aparicio and second baseman Nellie Fox and the power pitching trio of Bob Shaw, Billy Pierce, and Early Wynn, who was the Major League Cy Young Award winner.
The Series opened in Chicago and immediately started out poorly for the Dodgers when the Sox scored twice in the first inning and seven times in the third en route to an easy 11-0 victory. 22-game winner Wynn shut down the Dodgers bats and late-season addition Ted Kluszewski smashed two home runs and drove in five for the Sox.
Things looked bad again for the Dodgers in game two when the Sox scored two runs in the first inning off aging Dodgers hurler Johnny Podres, and Shaw held the Dodgers to only one run over six innings. The Dodgers mounted a comeback in the seventh however, scoring three runs on homers by second baseman Charlie Neal and pinch hitter Chuck Essegian. Rookie Sherry pitched the last three innings to close out the 4-3 victory.
The series moved to Los Angeles for the middle three games, where the cavernous Coliseum hosted capacity crowds of 92,000 for all three games. The White Sox rapped out 12 hits in game three, but could not string them together against Drysdale who, with relief help from Sherry, earned a 3-1 victory.
In game four, Dodgers starter Roger Craig carried a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning, but Lollar's three-run homer helped the White Sox tie it. An aging Gil Hodges then provided one of the last of his many World Series highlights by hitting a game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth to make a winner of Sherry, who relieved once again.
The Dodgers now held a commanding three games to one lead, but the mighty Sox pitching staff gave one last sign of resistance as Shaw bested Koufax in a game five pitching duel, 1-0. The crowd of 92,760 remains the largest ever to attend a World Series game.
The deciding game six proved to be a laugher. The Dodgers went up 8-0 after three plus innings on home runs by Essegian, Moon, and Snider, who hit his 11th and final World Series home run. Sherry relieved once again, coming on in the fourth inning after a three-run homer by Kluszewski, and received credit for another win. With two wins and two saves, all in relief (although the save stat had not been invented yet), hometown hero Sherry was named the Series' MVP. The Dodgers were champions of the world.
The 1959 Dodgers were not a great team. They were perhaps not even a good team. Their .259 team batting average was unimpressive and their 3.79 team ERA was mediocre at best for the time. But the team's improbable run to the championship in 1959 foreshadowed the dominance the Dodgers would hold over the National league throughout the 1960s. Moon, Sherry, Wills, catcher Johnny Roseboro, and especially pitchers Koufax and Drysdale formed the nucleus of the powerful squad that would return to the World Series in 1963, 1965, and 1966.
Moreover, the 1959 team left an indelible mark on the hearts of LA fans. Los Angeles in 1959 was not yet a big sports town. The only other major pro sports team in town was football's Rams, at a time when pro football had yet to become a major sport and was still overshadowed by the college game. The Lakers were still in Minneapolis, and the Angels, Kings, and Clippers had not even been created. For most Southern Californian sports fans, the biggest sports event of the year was the UCLA-USC football game.
Los Angeles was by no means a small town, however. A city of more than 2.5 million people, LA was a vast untapped source of sports fandom when the Dodgers moved there in 1958. Coming into such a sports-starved landscape, the Dodgers were enthusiastically embraced by a city willing to bend over backwards to show its love for its new team, and the Dodgers drew quite well in 1958 despite fielding an awful squad. The city was already willing to accept the Dodgers, win or lose, but for the team to effect such a dramatic reversal and win the World Series in only its second year in its new home captured the city's heart forever, turning casual enthusiasts into lifelong fans and ensuring that even to the present day, the Dodgers would remain the crown jewel of Los Angeles sports franchises.