Rabbit Hole: The Drysdale Story
OK, so a few days ago I shared a story about Don Drysdale. I read the story in Mike Shannon’s Tales from the Dugout — this is the author Mike Shannon not the ballplayer and announcer — and he saw the story in a Lou Brock interview.
The story goes that Drysdale was facing St. Louis catcher Gene Oliver at Dodger Stadium. Oliver is probably best known for the way he dominated Sandy Koufax. Oliver was a lifetime .246 hitter with a bit of power, but against Koufax he was Babe Ruth and Ted Williams rolled into one. He hit .392 and slugged .647 in 54 plate appearances against Koufax.
But the story is about Drysdale, and it goes that Oliver homered off Drysdale and then stood at home plate and watched the ball go out. “Batboy,” he supposedly yelled out with the ball still in the air, “come get the bat!”
Next time up, Drysdale hit him in the ribs with a fastball. As Oliver writhed around while surrounded by teammates and trainers, Drysdale shouted: “Batboy, come get Oliver!”
It’s a funny story and a legend — and you know what they say about legends in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. This is a fun story that shows the competitive spirit (and meanness) that made Don Drysdale a Hall of Famer.
It might not do much good to say that it never happened.
But… it never happened. Our pal Bill James read the story and did some quick research on it — Oliver did hit two home runs off Drysdale, but he was not hit by a pitch in either of those games. In fact, Drysdale only hit Oliver on the arm with a pitch once, but that happened when Oliver was playing with Milwaukee, not St. Louis. Hank Fischer was pitching for the Braves in that game, and the next time Drysdale came to the plate, Fischer threw a pitch over his head.
In any case, it never happened.
… it did happen, but it didn’t happen to Gene Oliver.
Open up the rabbit hole!
Bill James did not just come armed with disappointing news, he also offered a theory. He suggests that this Drysdale story did happen, but the culprit was Dick Stuart. It’s a promising theory. In 1958, Dick Stuart was a big-swinging, big-talking rookie from Redwood City, Calif. Stuart had at least five nicknames in his colorful career, most of them relating to his spellbinding inability to play defense. Probably the best of these was Dr. Strangeglove, but Stonefingers (coined by Henry Aaron) and the Man With the Iron Glove were also in play.
Stuart was a character. He ran with his head down, never looking at the third base coach, and he had more than his share of late nights. When a manager screamed at him once that he was nothing, Stuart said: “Well, I guess you’re the manager of nothing.”
But Dick Stuart could swat. He hit 228 homers in his relatively short career — that’s the most for any (non-active) player with a career of less than 4,500 plate appearances. He hit 75 home runs for the Red Sox in 1963 and ’64, earning him yet another nickname: “the Boston Strangler.”
When he was called up to the Pirates in 1958, there was a lot of hype about him because of his great power. And, sure enough, he homered in his first game. Then he homered in his second game. Four days later, he faced the Dodgers and Don Drysdale. It was kind of a big deal in Los Angeles; Stuart had become something of a folk hero in Hollywood when he hit a few home runs and made a few errors for the Hollywood Stars a year earlier. They called him “Dandy Dick Stuart.”
Nicknames just stuck to this guy like Velcro.
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Anyway, in the sixth inning, Stuart crunched a long home run off Drysdale. And Stuart was just a rookie and he was the sort of guy who might have gloated a bit more than Drysdale might have liked.
And, next time up Drysdale plunked him with a pitch.
So maybe this is our story!
Only, a review of the newspaper accounts suggests — this is probably not our story. Sigh. According to the Los Angeles Mirror story, Drysdale’s pitch just nicked Stuart on the arm. A photo shows Stuart grimacing a bit after getting hit by the pitch, but he is very clearly still on his feet. There is no writhing around on the ground. There is no calling out to the bat boy.
Plus, this happened in a game between Pittsburgh and the Dodgers. How would Lou Brock, who was playing for Southern University at the time, have even heard about it?
So our search goes on.
Let’s do this strategically. How many times did Drysdale give up a home run and hit a batter in the same game?
Let’s pause for a minute to say how thankful, again, we are for Baseball Reference, so that we can do these searches in, like, 10 seconds.
Now, we have to do just a little digging — how many times did Drysdale allow a home run to the same player he hit with a pitch? The only way I know how to do that is to go through them game by game, and it appears he did it six times.
We’re getting somewhere. You can eliminate two of them right away because in two of the games the batters (Ernie Banks and Vada Pinson) were hit by a pitch first and THEN homered. That’s interesting in a whole other way but that’s not going to get use closer to our story.
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So we’re down to four games. One we already looked at — the game in 1958 in which Drysdale gave up a home run to Dick Stuart and then plunked him on the arm.
In June of 1967, Atlanta’s Mack Jones homered off Drysdale and was hit by a pitch his next time up. But nobody made any sort of big deal about it. Atlanta trailed that game 4-1 but came back to win it on a Felipe Alou walk-off single. This wasn’t the game.
In August of 1960, Pittsburgh’s Rocky Nelson homered off Drysdale in the first inning and was hit by a pitch in the third inning, but again it was not even mentioned in the newspapers, which suggests nobody thought it was a big deal.
And that leaves us just one game — fingers crossed.
In 1959, the Cardinals were playing in Los Angeles. So that’s promising — even though Lou Brock wasn’t on the 1959 Cardinals, he certainly could have heard the story from any number of Cardinals on that team, such as Ken Boyer, Bill White or Stan Musial.
Joe Cunningham was the second batter for the Cardinals that day. Cunningham was a star that year — he hit .345 and led the league in on-base percentage. He was a beloved guy as a player and perhaps even more so as a front office guy for the Cardinals; Cunningham is credited for introducing the Cardinals’ mascot, Fredbird.
Anyway, Cunningham homered off Drysdale.
The next time up, Drysdale plunked Cunningham.
And this time it definitely WAS a big deal. The benches cleared. Cardinals manager Solly Hemus rushed out, and it looked like he and Drysdale might actually get into a fight even though Drysdale was eight or nine inches taller and 13 years younger.
“I thought he threw at Cunningham deliberately,” Hemus griped.
He wasn’t the only one. As the benches cleared and the Cardinals surrounded their wounded hitter and growled at Drysdale, home plate umpire Stan Landes came out to the mound to warn Drysdale: “You better watch where you’re throwing the ball.”
“If you’re accusing me of throwing at him,” Drysdale yelled back, “I’ll get a lawyer and sue you and the National League!”
Cunningham had to come out of the game with a badly bruised forearm. (“He could have broken Cunningham’s arm,” Hemus complained.) Drysdale continue to threaten a lawsuit against anybody who said he threw at Cunningham on purpose (even though he obviously threw at Cunningham on purpose).
“Where do you want me to throw the ball, down the middle so they can all hit it?” he asked.
Later in the game, Cardinals starter Bob Miller threw at the Dodgers’ Wally Moon and there was some more tension, but it died out quickly.
I think this is the story Lou Brock and Mike Shannon (the author) were referring to. I don’t know if the bat boy line was spoken; maybe it was. But this sounds like our best bet.