Los Angeles was head over heels about getting a major league team, so on one level it didn’t really matter much how the Dodgers performed in 1958. But that first season out west was a colossal dud, the Dodgers finishing well under .500 and seventh place in an eight-team National League, just the second time in 20 years they were lower than third.
By 1959 the Boys of Summer were either aging, or gone. Jackie Robinson retired while the team was still in Brooklyn. Roy Campanella was paralyzed in a car crash before the team played a game in Los Angeles. Don Newcombe was traded midway through 1958. Pee Wee Reese played in the first year out west, but then shifted into a coaching role.
Some players, like Carl Erskine, Jim Gilliam, and Duke Snider, saw their salaries cut in 1959, back when the owners held all the cards in baseball’s labor dynamic. “That’s to be expected when a club finishes next to last,” Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi told The Sporting News.
Walt Alston, like the players, was on a one-year deal, and despite his losing record in 1958, his fifth season, the Dodgers kept him on board for 1959. That Alston stayed was news, because the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies fired managers that offseason, following a year that also saw the Indians and Tigers make helm changes midseason. That’s six new managers in a 16-team league. But Alston stayed, buoyed by his World Series trips in 1955 and 1956 and the Dodgers’ first championship. At 47, Alston in 1959 had the second-longest tenure among MLB managers, trailing only Casey Stengel, who won seven World Series and captured nine American League pennants in his 10 seasons with the Yankees.
The competition in the National League was fierce. The Milwaukee Braves won the previous two pennants, and won the World Series in 1957. Milwaukee was stacked, with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in their prime, plus slugging Joe Adcock at first base. The pitching staff was anchored by Warren Spahn, the Cy Young winner in 1957 and runner up in ‘58, and Lew Burdette, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 1958.
Pittsburgh was a hot pick because they finished second in 1958, gaining 22 wins from the year before. Before 1959 they traded slugger Frank Thomas — no, not that one — but got back a starting third baseman (Don Hoak), a starting catcher (Smoky Burgess), and pitcher Harvey Haddix, who would pitch 12 perfect innings in a game for the Pirates.
The Giants had Willie Mays, plus Orlando Cepeda won Rookie of the Year in 1958. Willie McCovey would join them in 1959, and win Rookie of the Year despite playing in only 52 games.
Cincinnati had Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson anchoring their lineup, which added Thomas, and pitching staff now headed by Newcombe after the trade with the Dodgers.
All four of those teams were picked to finish ahead of the Dodgers in 1959 by J.G. Taylor Spink, whose name now adorns the annual writer award of induction to the Hall of Fame. In his season preview, he at least left a sliver of hope for the Dodgers.
“Any one of the four could take it. Los Angeles has an outside chance to make it a fivesome,” he wrote in The Sporting News.
A lot of 1959 was spent by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley trying to finalize his new stadium in Chavez Ravine. Early reports in the year had the Dodgers hoping to open the 1960 season in that new ballpark, but that proved to be two years early. The Dodgers eventually got their new stadium built at tremendous cost, not just financial.
This was the second year for the Dodgers playing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a football stadium whose baseball dimensions were a huge issue in 1958. The most notable feature was the giant screen in left field, a mere 250 feet from home plate. But in that first year, the rest of the outfield was cavernous, 425 feet to center field and 440 feet to the power alley in right.
Of the 193 home runs hit at the Coliseum in 1958, only nine went out to right field.
So they moved the fences in for 1959, down to 420 in center field and 385 in right center. “Except for left field, which we can’t do anything about, the new measurements are an approximate average of the seven other parks in the National League,” Bavasi told The Sporting News.
The effects were noticeable, with 33 home runs hit over the right field fence — eight by Duke Snider — plus three more in the power alleys.
LA Coliseum home runs
The cavernous new stadium also had an absurd seating capacity, up to 94,600 for 1959. In the first season in Los Angeles the Dodgers averaged 23,968 fans per game, better than any season in Brooklyn, and a 79-percent increase over 1957. In 1959, the Dodgers did even better at the gate, averaging 26,552 fans, getting a partial boost by holding a record 63 night games.
A new team in a new city meant a lot of merchandise being sold in Los Angeles, too. As The Sporting News put it, “The club sold more novelties last season than all other major league parks put together.”
Snider, buoyed by the more favorable dimensions to his pull side, had a rebound season with 23 home runs (up from 15 in 1958), hitting .308/.400/.535, a 140 OPS+.
Gil Hodges had his last good year with the Dodgers in 1959, hitting .276/.367/.513 with 25 home runs, a 125 OPS+ (up from 97), making good on his preseason vow: “I’m going to forget about that screen and hit the ball where it’s pitched,” he told The Sporting News.
The short left field fence had its biggest impact on a newcomer, with outfielder Wally Moon acquired from the Cardinals in December. Moon was a left-hander, but took advantage of the high fence with his patented opposite field “Moon shots,” hitting nine of his 14 home runs to left field, and 10 of his 13 doubles there.
The young talent was on the rise. Don Drysdale was only 22 and was an All-Star for the first time. Sandy Koufax was just 23, and Johnny Podres was 26.
Preseason talk highlighted the shortstop battle between Bob Lillis and Don Zimmer, the latter quite confident in his chances. Zimmer told The Sporting News:
“If they don’t think I can make the infield on a regular on a team which finished seventh last year, I know one team where I could play regularly and it finished in first place. I could be the Braves’ starting second baseman. I’ve heard the Dodgers are planning on Bob Lillis as the regular shortstop. The only thing Lillis can do better than me is run from home to first. After that, I’ve got him shaded.”
Zimmer got the most playing time at shortstop, but posted a 37 OPS+, opening the door for Maury Wills.
In the outfield, the Dodgers were high on 20-year-old Ron Fairly out of USC, who saw action in 118 games. Minor league manager Pete Reiser said outfielder Frank Howard “could do for baseball what Babe Ruth did. That’s how great a prospect he is.” Howard only saw action in nine games, but would win Rookie of the Year in 1960.
A lackluster May had the Dodgers hovering around .500 into mid-June, at 32-31. But the combination of veterans and youth came together, posting winning records in each of the final four months.
That kept them mostly in contention late in the year, never falling too far back. It was a three-team race along with the Giants and Braves, with the Dodgers in third place, trailing San Francisco by three games with three weeks to play.
Los Angeles did not lose a series the rest of the way, winning 13 of their final 18 games. That included a three-game sweep in San Francisco that vaulted the Dodgers into first place. LA and Milwaukee finished tied for first place through 154 games, three games up on the Giants.
That gave us the third National League playoff in history, best-of-three between the Dodgers and Braves. The Dodgers were also involved in the other two playoffs, losing to the Cardinals in 1946 and to the Giants in 1951.
The playoff started in Milwaukee, with catcher John Roseboro homering and Larry Sherry providing 7⅔ innings of scoreless relief to win the opener, 3-2. The Dodgers only needed to win one of two games at home to advance to the World Series.
Down 5-2 in the ninth inning the next day in Los Angeles, the Dodgers rallied against Burdette and the bullpen with four straight singles and a sacrifice fly to tie the game. The Dodgers had two runners on in the 12th when Moon beat out an infield single, and an errant throw by shortstop Felix Mantilla brought home the pennant-winning run:
Vin Scully’s call of the play describes best the underdog nature of the 1959 Dodgers: “The Cinderella team of the National League. For the first time in history, a seventh-place club has come back to win the pennant the following year, and it had to be the Dodgers.”
But they weren’t through. There was still the matter of the World Series, but for a change the Yankees weren’t representing the American League. This time it was the go-go White Sox, who promptly walloped the Dodgers 11-0 in Game 1 in Chicago, tying the most lopsided shutout in the history of the Fall Classic.
Larry Sherry, who provided shutout relief against the Braves in the NL playoff, was the Dodgers’ jack of all trades in 1959. In his rookie season, the 23-year-old posted a 2.19 ERA in 94⅓ innings, a 193 ERA+. He pitched in relief 14 times and started nine times, including a shutout in September.
In the World Series he was even better, closing out all four Dodgers wins in relief, allowing one total run in 12⅔ innings. Saves wouldn’t exist for 10 more years, but by those rules Sherry would have saved Games 2 and 3, in addition to winning Games 4 and 6. He was named series MVP.
Those honors could very well have gone to second baseman Charlie Neal, who provided uncommon middle infield power for three years for the Dodgers as they transitioned from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Neal, who held the Dodgers record for home runs by a second baseman until 1979, is this week’s Dodgers rewind on the True Blue LA podcast. He was 10-for-27 (.370) with two home runs, two doubles, and six RBI in the World Series, a key factor in three of the Dodgers’ wins.
In a season they were picked to finish fifth, one year after finishing next to last, in just their second season in Los Angeles, the 1959 Dodgers were true underdogs who helped the franchise win the hearts of its new home.