Don Drysdale is a name you have to be careful with. Casually drop it into a conversation with the right people and you're likely to find yourself inundated with stories for the next several hours. They'll paint a picture of a giant of a man with classic California looks that had a mean streak few could match. They'll tell you his sidearm delivery that was as likely to put a fastball in a batter's ear as it was to spot a strike on the outer half was enough to intimidate the likes of Willy Mays and Frank Robinson. You'll probably hear about his famous "two for one policy" that would leave two batters rubbing bruised ribs for every one of his teammates that was hit. While this reputation of fearlessness and aggression may have been well deserved, it does a disservice to Drysdale in that it fails to reveal how great of a pitcher he actually was.
Don Drysdale started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956 at the tender age of 19. While Sandy Koufax seemed to be more like a fine wine that would need a few years to develop, Drysdale came on like a shot of bourbon: it was ready straight from the bottle and left you feeling its presence in the morning. By the time the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Drysdale was an integral part of the rotation. With the exception of his final injury laden year, Drysdale never started less than 29 games and never pitched fewer than 200 innings.
In 1959 the Dodgers won their first World Series title in Los Angeles and Drysdale made the first of his eight All-Star teams. Despite being the youngest starting pitcher on this championship, Drysdale led the team in innings pitched and starts for the year. He wrapped up the year by getting a win in the World Series by allowing one run over seven innings against the White Sox.
Drysdale continued to put up excellent numbers in 1960 & 1961, but his best year came in 1962. His 1962 campaign is one of the best by any Dodger pitcher not named Koufax. For the year he went 25-9 in 42 starts with 19 complete games. He struck out a league best 232 batters over a league best 314.1 innings. For the year he posted an ERA of 2.84 and a WHIP of 1.11. All of this resulted in Drysdale winning his Cy Young Award. Normally, it would be hard to top a season like this, but somehow Drysdale, along with Sandy Koufax, did.
Between 1963 and 1966, Drysdale would become half of the what is arguably the most dominant pitching duo in baseball history. Where Koufax seemed to be a force of nature during this period, Drysdale seemed to be the steady presence that continued to lead the team in games started and innings pitched (okay, Koufax led in '65 and '66). The Dodgers, despite having a very average offense, managed two World Series titles during this period including the 1963 sweep of the New York Yankees. The most memorable thing of the '63 series is probably Koufax throwing two complete games in four days, but Drysdale's performance was also incredible. He took the ball for game three and threw a three hit complete game shutout against one of the most vaunted lineups in the game.
After the World Series victory over the Twins in 1965, Drysdale and Koufax would forever change the game when they sought a raise. The duo asked for $1 million, split equally, over three years. When the Dodgers failed to negotiate, the pair held out for 35 days. The both eventually settled for over $100,000 per year, but their actions forever changed the way that players were paid and contracts were structured. Some baseball writers have described this action as baseball's version of Nat Turner's rebellion.
Drysdale's last great accomplishment as a player came in 1968. With a struggling team behind him, Drysdale put together what may remain as the greatest string of starts by any pitcher in the history of the game. It started when he beat Fergie Jenkins and the Cubs with a shutout. It peaked when he faced the Cardinals behind Bob Gibson and came away with a 2-0 victory. It ended three starts later when he blanked the Pirates. When all was said and done, Drysdale had thrown six consecutive shutouts. During the streak, he was opposed by three future Hall-of-Famers and got less than three runs per game in support. His consecutive scoreless innings streak of 58.6 would stand for the next twenty years before being broken by fellow Dodger Orel Hershiser. The next year, at only 33, Drysdale would retire from baseball after a shoulder injury.
I first discovered Don Drysdale when he joined the Dodgers broadcast team in 1988. I, still being a kid, at first took offense to hearing a voice other than Vin Scully's calling a Dodger game. I remember looking at my dad and asking the fateful question, "Who's this guy?" Like I said up top, you have to be careful with Drysdale's name. I think I spent more time listening to my dad's memories of the Drysdale/Koufax era than actually watching the game that day. After that, I developed a huge respect for Drysdale. I also found him to be a perfect compliment to Vin Scully. During one game, Vin would explain why a 2-1 count was a managers count. A few days later, Drysdale would be there to explain what that meant to the guys on the field.
I'm too young to have known the Drysdale that my father did. I can read stories and study stats that give me a hint of what he was, but I'll never really know. What I do know is this: When it takes a Koufax to make you a number two pitcher and it takes Vin Scully to make you a number two broadcaster, you belong among the greats.