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Remembering a Dodgers-Giants pennant race, 50 years later

San Francisco Giants vs Los Angeles Dodgers
Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers Tom Haller (14) victorious, hugging Hoyt Wilhem (31) after winning game vs San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. San Francisco, CA 9/14/1971 CREDIT: Herb Scharfman (Photo by Herb Scharfman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Set Number: X16161 TK2 R6 F11

Fifty years ago, the Dodgers were picked to win the National League West, but spent the summer trying to catch the Giants. The two teams met in September, and spent most of the other days of the month sharing the same result.

Sound familiar?

In 1971, both the Dodgers and Giants had connections to their 1960s success as well as young talent waiting to emerge. After falling precipitously once Sandy Koufax retired, the Dodgers steadily improved with 85 wins in 1969 and 87 more in 1970. San Francisco finished in second place in a 10-team National League in the final four years before divisional play, then finished in second in the NL West in 1969 as well. The Giants were competitive in 1970 with 86 wins, but like the Dodgers, finished well behind the pennant-winning Reds.

United Press International polled 25 baseball experts before the 1971 season on each division, and 19 picked the upstart Dodgers to win the NL West. Five picked Cincinnati, and one picked the Giants.

“The Reds won the NL’s Western Division title by 14½ games in 1970 but the writers apparently think they will be hobbled by pitching problems similar to the ones they experienced in losing the World Series in five games with the Orioles,” Fred Down of UPI said (1). “That, and the fact that the Dodgers added slugger Richie Allen to their team in a winter trade with the Cardinals.”

In October 1970, the Dodgers traded infielder Ted Sizemore and catcher Bob Stinson to St. Louis for Dick Allen, who was excellent in Los Angeles in his age-29 season. He hit .295/.395/.468 with 23 home runs and a 151 OPS+. He was the Dodgers’ best hitter in 1971, but they still lacked in star power compared to the Giants.

Willie Mays hit .271/.425/.482 with 18 home runs and 158 OPS+ in his 20th season, leading the league in walks (112) and on-base percentage at age 40. His 6.3 WAR is the best season ever by anyone in their 40s. Willie McCovey had a 149 OPS+ but knee injuries limited him to 105 games. Bobby Bonds was just 25, and hit 33 home runs with a 145 OPS+, making for a formidable San Francisco lineup.

The Giants had emerging young talent as well, with 22-year-olds Dave Kingman and George Foster on the cusp of becoming regulars. Two 22-year-olds started on opening day for the Dodgers as well, with Steve Garvey at third base and Bill Russell at second base, more than two years before they’d comprise half of The Infield, albeit at different positions. Bill Buckner and Bobby Valentine, both 21, also saw significant playing time for Los Angeles in 1971, as did 21-year-old Chris Speier, who became the Giants’ everyday shortstop as a rookie.

San Francisco got off to a blazing start, winning 12 of their first 14 games, finishing April at 18-5. By the time they played the Dodgers, the Giants were already 25-9, eight games up on LA.

That’s how it was for most of the summer, with San Francisco enjoying a comfortable lead in the division, as high as 10½ games. The Giants’ lead was eight games at the start of a series at Dodger Stadium on September 6. The Dodgers used only four pitchers all series — starters Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, and Bill Singer combined for 24⅓ innings, closer Jim Brewer pitched the other 2⅔ — and outscored San Francisco 17-5 in a three-game sweep. That cut the deficit to five games, which was still daunting because only 19 games remained on the schedule.

The Dodgers followed with a three-game sweep of the third-year Padres in San Diego, while the Giants lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta.

That set up the final series of the year between the two rivals, now separated by only three games in the division. The Dodgers and Giants this time met for two games at Candlestick Park.

On September 13, the Dodgers led early thanks to home runs by Allen and Willie Crawford. Juan Marichal in the fifth inning, Juan Marichal twice buzzed Dodgers pitcher Bill Singer, who earlier in the game hit Willie Mays and Chris Speier with pitches.

Two batters after Singer flew out, Marichal hit Buckner with a pitch. Buckner started toward the mound with his bat, which ignited a 20-minute brawl. “I just went out to talk with him,” Buckner said after the game. (2) “I don’t need a bat to handle him.”

Marichal and Buckner were both ejected, and later fined, along with Maury Wills and Giants pitcher Jerry Johnson. (3)

Willie Davis, the next batter after the melee, promptly hit a two-run home run, widening the Dodgers’ advantage to 5-1. Los Angeles held on to win 5-4, cutting the Giants’ divisional lead to two.

The next night, the Dodgers had a lead over Gaylord Perry until the seventh, when Speier homered off starter Al Downing and Bonds homered off Joe Moeller. Down 5-3 in the ninth, Johnson allowed three straight singles to open the inning.

That brought up pinch-hitter Manny Mota, who was a semi-regular in 1971, hitting .312/.361/.398, a 121 OPS+ in 300 plate appearances. He lined a three-run double to give the Dodgers the lead, though it was perilously close to getting caught by third baseman Al Gallagher.

“Six inches lower and we might have had a triple play,” said Giants manager Charlie Fox. (4)

Willie Mays Slinging The Baseball Bat

This was Mota’s 10th major league season, and the double was his 56th career pinch hit. He’d have 93 more.

After Brewer recorded the final seven outs to save the previous game, Dodgers manager Walt Alston turned to 48-year-old knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm in the bottom of the ninth. The future Hall of Famer got the first two outs, then walked McCovey and a passed ball advanced him to second, putting the tying run in scoring position.

Wilhelm struck out Mays to end it, allowing the Dodgers to exhale.

“It was like a World Series game,” Alston said. (4)

But to get to the World Series, the Dodgers first had to win the division, and they trailed the Giants by one, with 14 games left to play. The difference was also just one game 11 days later, after which the Dodgers and Giants had the same result in each of the last four games of the season.

San Francisco won the National League West.

In September 1971, when the Dodgers and Giants didn’t play one another, they had the same result on 14 of 19 days.

Since the last Dodgers-Giants series this year, these two teams have had the same result in 21 of the last 29 days they both played. But this weekend, they play each other. May this series live up to the one 50 years ago.

  1. “Dodgers expected to beat Reds in West,” by Fred Down, United Press International. Terre Haute Tribune, March 28, 1971.
  2. “Dodgers, Giants in battle; SD lead cut to 2 games,” Associated Press. Anderson (Indiana) Daily Bulletin, September 14, 1971.
  3. “Chub fines 2 Dodgers, 2 Giants,” Associated Press. Spokesman Review (Spokane, Washington), September 15, 1971.
  4. “Giants, Dodgers rocket on tward N.L. playoff,” Associated Press. Minneapolis Star, September 15, 1971.