Drysdale's death brings back memories of F. Robby's Game 4 HR in '66 Series

Phil Jackman

July 06, 1993|By Phil Jackman

Asked to select the ultimate moment in the relatively short but fabled history of the Orioles, fans would probably come up with a couple of dozen worthy submissions.

The first game in Memorial Stadium and the last would certainly be there along with no-hitters, World Series and playoff games and sparkling performances by the many stars who have worn the colors of the home team.

But something happened in Montreal Saturday that caused recall of a scene that will live forever in the annals of Baltimore baseball.

With a picture that went worldwide, the singular event and the participants proved once again that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Heck, a million.

It's as good a nominee as any for being "the moment."

The setting: a bright Sunday afternoon in October of 1966 on 33rd Street. The O's, heavy underdogs in the Fall Classic against the Los Angeles Dodgers, were about to complete a four-game sweep after many had been of firm conviction five days before that they might be swept themselves.

It was the very first inning when Frank Robinson came to bat to face old National League nemesis Don Drysdale. Pow! Frank gives it a ride over the left-field fence and the picture nearly every newspaper ran was of Robinson leaving home plate and, out on the mound, Drysdale is kicking at the dirt in disgust perhaps sensing that all is lost.

That was the vision that showed up over the weekend when word came that "Big D," an announcer for his beloved Dodgers, had died of a heart attack in the Canadian city.

Similar to another famed teammate who passed on recently, Roy Campanella, it was assumed the heart was the last thing that would give out on a man like Drysdale.

If one was left to deal with Don only by what he saw of Dodgers games on the television, chances are his initial emotion would be hatred. Tough? Naw. Nasty.

"On the field," said L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda, who first met Drysdale as a teen-ager in the minor leagues, "Don was as mean as a snake. Off it, he was one of the greatest guys you'd ever want to meet."

Drysdale not only didn't ask for or give any quarter, he'd take it as the supreme insult if either was even considered.

A control pitcher -- 855 walks in 3,432 innings of pitching -- Don holds the all-time record for hit batsmen: 154. Fastball, curve, slider, changeup, he had them all, but the lead one was usually the purpose pitch.

Frank Robinson didn't like the ball being bounced off his arms, back, shoulders and, one time, the head, as happened too frequently when facing the high-rise (6-foot-6) sidewinder.

But deep down and known to compete just as hard, Frank allowed his adversary grudging respect.

That's why that picture, Robinson belting his 51st home run of the season, and the Drysdale reaction -- the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat played out on the most famous stage in American sport -- is nothing shy of a classic.

Years later and in conversation with Drysdale, who by then was announcing, Don showed he was truly a nice guy out of uniform when he said of the crushing moment, "Glad I could be of service."

Don, recall, did games nationally for ABC and he was far from the tough guy he was out on the field. But he accepted the criticism of being soft graciously, explaining that half the audience was made up of kids and he felt it unnecessary to come down too hard on the game or anyone in their presence.

Ask him a question, however, and it was like you were a batter in a big situation in a ballgame and you could count on the pitch not being sugar-coated.

To get a rise out of him one spring and while waiting for an exhibition game to start, I admitted to Don I hadn't voted for him for the Hall of Fame a couple of months before.

He answered, "That's interesting, why not?"

I said I looked at that career record -- 209 wins and 167 losses -- and said he'd have to wait awhile. He shrugged.

He did have to wait before enough of us (sportswriters) came to our senses and realized just how good the guy was. He spent a career facing the other team's best pitcher as teams all but conceded the Dodgers other ace Sandy Koufax would beat anyone they opposed him with.

Injuries, sore muscles, whatever, Big D was there, grinding out the innings, pitching the complete games, taking the wins, and losses. The Dodgers of the mid-1960s, remember, used to score about six runs a week. And half of them came from a Maury Wills walk, two stolen bases and a weak grounder to the second baseman. Drysdale's career earned run average was 2.95.

It's interesting that prior to the 1966 season, during spring training, Drysdale and Koufax, who combined for 49 wins and 20 losses the season before, held out in tandem seeking $1 million for three years.

They never came close to getting it, signing for one year at $130,000 for Sandy and $105,000 for Don. Years later and after a brilliant rookie season, Vida Blue held out for the keys to the bank and Drysdale was asked his assessment of the situation.

He came up with a terrific answer: "I'd advise Vida to get into camp and let someone else flush the toilets," a reference to a story that Blue was going to sit out the season and bide his time with a personal services contract with a plumbing supply firm.

"Worst thing I ever did," said Drysdale of the holdout. "Missed the whole spring and never really got right." He finished 13-16 and not only lost the last game of the Series to the O's, he also lost the opener after both Robinsons hit homers in the first inning for a 3-0 lead.

Not only could Big D pitch, he also could hit and later, announce and analyze a fine game.

About his only drawback was as an actor. He was in a cowboy movie once and proved totally miscast. He was far too handsome.

When you think of great moments in a team's history, it's not often you think of the other guy. But when the Orioles went heroic that memorable fall of '66, things were made even sweeter considering they did it against one of the best, Don Drysdale.

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