Don Drysdale: Once a Bum, Almost a Pirate

Imagining Don Drysdale playing for a team other than the Dodgers is like imagining Hershey’s making products without chocolate.  Drysdale, he of the cannon disguised as a right arm firing baseballs through National League lineups in the 1950s and the 1960s, spent his career as a Dodger—first in Brooklyn, later in Los Angeles, where he grew up on the San Fernando Valley.  But the communal aura of Ebbets Field and the sun-soaked environs of Chavez Ravine might never have been blessed with Drysdale had Branch Rickey’s brethren signed him in Pittsburgh; Rickey served as the Pirates GM after notching four World Series titles for the Cardinals and leading baseball’s integration by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization.

Rickey’s 1954 scouting report on Drysdale—nestled in the pitcher’ file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown—indicated prescience bordering on psychic.  The 18-year-old Drysdale impressed Rickey with his fast ball and his curve ball, both of which “needs no coaching.”  Rickey also expressed confidence that Drysdale could take down the speed on his change-up.  In short, Drysdale was “a definite prospect” with “an unusual amount of perfection.”

As a comparison, Rickey mentioned Don Dangleis, a minor league hurler who never made it out of the Pittsburgh farm system; Drysdale had faster pitches but Dangleis was more well-rounded.  The sticking point for Rickey was money, as is often the case with a team’s front office—Rickey wanted to keep Drysdale’s salary at a maximum of $4,000.  Although Rickey acknowledged that Drysdale was worth “whatever it takes,” he wanted to avoid singing Drysdale under a “bonus baby” rule, which mandated an immediate vault to a major league tenure of at least two years for a salary exceeding $4,000.  It was a tempting option establishing a new financial plateau for the player and eliminate a stopover in the minor leagues.  If a “bonus baby” needed seasoning before going to “the show,” however, the then the rule could be a detriment.

In his 1990 autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Drysdale revealed that Rickey actually offered $6,000 while proclaiming an evasion of the rule’s tentacles without disclosing his methods to the pitcher or his dad, Scott, an ex-minor leaguer advising the young pitcher on what came to be a joyous choice for fans of the Dodgers.  There were other options—Drysdale received pitches—no pun intended—from the White Sox, the Yankees, and the Braves.  Drysdale’s father offered a view based in value.  “Look, if you’re going to get a lot of money—like Billy Consolo, a $60,000 bonus baby—then it makes sense to take it and go to the major leagues and take your chances,” recalled Drysdale of his father’s opining.  “But if you’re not going to get a lot of money—and $2,000 isn’t a lot of money—then why not go where you have the best chance to learn?”

And so, the definite prospect from Van Nuys, California joined the Dodgers farm system.  Drysdale remembered that he signed in “the first week of June 1954” but Rickey’s scouting report was dated June 15th.  Either Drysdale’s memory was incorrect or Rickey was unaware of the signing.  The latter is a reach, considering Rickey’s legendary attention to detail.  At the bottom of Rickey’s missive is a handwritten postscript:  “Signed with Brooklyn.  Father is a bird dog for them.”

Drysdale played for the Bakersfield Indians, a Class C team in the California State League for the 1954 season; he went 8-5, then played for Montreal in 1955, where he compiled an 11-11 record.  On April 23, 1956, Drysdale made his first appearance with Brooklyn, unleashing the supremacy with which he taught master classes in intimidation, control, and reliability throughout his major league career, which ended in 1969.  In this game against the Phillies, Drysdale struck out the first three batters, notched nine strikeouts for the day, and showed “big league poise,” according to United Press, when he got out of a bases loaded jam in the second inning by inducing Murry Dickson to fly out.

Drysdale found a home in Brooklyn before voyaging back to the Los Angeles sunshine when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.  “There was an intimacy about Ebbets Field that you don’t forget,” wrote Drysdale.  “If you are a starting pitcher, you warmed up in front of the dugout before the game, not in the bullpen.  You felt as though the fans were right on top of you, because they almost were.  It was a carnival atmosphere, small and always jumping.”

Rickey’s analysis of Drysdale proved correct:

  • 1962 National League Cy Young Award
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts three times
  • 2,486 career strikeouts
  • Led the major leagues in games started for four consecutive years
  • Led the major league in innings pitched twice
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984

 

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2016.

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