Scott Drysdale also denies that he is "a frustrated father trying to realize myself through my son," and says if he had had his way, Don would have gone to college. Nevertheless, from the day Don could catch and throw (he could at 5), Scott and the boy played backyard ball by the hour. When Scott was at work, Don's mother would catch for her son, a practice she kept up until 1955 when "Don's fast ball became too hot to handle." (Don's mother helped out another way: accused of throwing a spitball last week by Gene Woodling, Drysdale denied it and added, "Anyhow, my mother told me when I was a little boy never to put dirty fingers in my mouth, and I've always lived by that.") For her part, Don's grandmother sometimes spelled him on his paper route so he wouldn't miss a neighborhood game.
Ahead of his time. Scott Drysdale spared his son the misfortunes of Little League Elbow by keeping him on second base until he was a senior in high school. But, once allowed to pitch, Don used his infielder's sidearm motion with such precision that every team in the majors, plus two California universities, bid for him. Don ignored all but the Dodgers, on whose junior team he had been playing, and signed a contract for a $4,000 bonus and a $600 monthly salary in June of 1954. He was 17.
Drysdale spent his first half year at Bakersfield, in the Class C California League, and there won eight games, lost five. The next year Alston elevated him to the Triple A Montreal Royals, and there he lost half of the 22 games he pitched. He had a good reason. In mid-season the falling lid of a soft drink cooler broke two bones in his right hand. Rather than miss any games—he was already 10 and 3—he told no one, managed to endure the pain of pitching by half-freezing his hand between innings with a pressure can of an anesthetic refrigerant. His do-it-yourself stab at bone setting not only deformed his fist but temporarily demolished his record—he lost eight of his next nine games. "I was a young dummy," says Drysdale now. No one called Drysdale a dummy when he was brought up to the Dodgers the following spring. He shut out the Braves in a training exhibition, won his first regular season start 6-1 against the Phillies. In two years in Brooklyn he won 22 games and lost 14, and when the team moved to Los Angeles Drysdale was the best pitcher on it.
But for Drysdale, the move was a mixed blessing. He was home again in California, and he was soon to meet and marry Ginger Dubberly, a pretty model who can be seen nowadays tinting her hair and taking showers on TV commercials. But his back was up against the left-field screen (the PR men said it was a fence) in the remodeled Coliseum. For four years that screen, 251 feet from home plate, hunkered on Drysdale's right shoulder like a personal haunt. "A man could hit a ball with his knuckles," says Drysdale. "and ping! Over the fence she went." Drysdale, who possesses the unusual self-command to "never blame anyone for my mistakes and never get mad at anybody except myself," found plenty to fault in the wire contraption. "When I was growing up, the Coliseum was a football field, and it still is," he said at the time, and his record at the end of his first year there was dismal: 12 wins, 13 losses. Trying to accommodate his delivery to the peculiar problem lurking behind him, he pitched one way on the road, another way at home, sometimes felt the onset of panic when he faced opposing batters while his family looked on. "I would make a little mistake and that would be all I could think about," he said the other day. "I would throw, not pitch, and pretty soon I had done another fool thing." When things really got bad, Drysdale would commence to paw the ground, beat up the resin bag, talk too much and disport himself generally. Naturally, while everybody booed, the boys in the press box gleefully wrote it all down and sometimes, carried away, could sell their stories to the front page—banner headlines, pictures, the works. "With me around," says Don, "Eisenhower had trouble getting in the paper at all." Presently, Drysdale was losing more and enjoying it less—17 wins in 1959, 15 in 1960, the dark 13 of 1961. This year when he first drove down to the new Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine he felt like an Israelite on the Red Sea Freeway.
On the theory that it takes more than modern architecture and an even disposition to beat teams like the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, everybody has his own idea about the new Don Drysdale. Only, with the Dodgers, there seems to be a compulsion to list things. "The single most important change in Don this year," says Lefty Phillips, the scout who signed Drysdale, "is three things." Says Pitching Coach Joe Becker: "I'd say there were four reasons why...." "Basically, Don is different in these three areas..." says Walt Alston. Drysdale himself lists five, "not necessarily in that order." What they're all talking about, in one form or another, are the misty mystiques of pitching techniques and Drysdale's physical condition.
As a full sidearm pitcher, Drysdale's fast ball bears in on right-handers as though there was something personal between them, but left-handers can shoot it like pool. In times past, in fact, Drysdale has been so vulnerable against left-handers that unscrupulous managers have been known to take advantage of him. Solly Hemus, for instance, when managing the Cardinals, once loaded his lineup with old-gaffer left-handers, and even called on himself. Five hits, three runs—and one out—later, Drysdale was all through. To counter this weakness, Drysdale has learned to deliver his pitches from the three-quarter position midway between sidearm and overhand. "We've been working on that for years," says Becker, "and I think he's finally mastered it. And it's helped his fielding, too; he's no longer off balance to the left after he delivers his pitch. But we had to show him movies of himself before he got the hang of it."
"Well, yeah," says Lefty Phillips, "but Don's also snapping his wrist more this year. And he's got rhythm. That's the word. Rhythm." Sums up Manager Alston: " Drysdale has simply got more stuff than ever before."
In another sense, Drysdale's got less stuff this year. They didn't call him Porky Drysdale in high school for nothing, and if he doesn't watch out they can start calling him that again. Determining that his best pitching in past seasons has been in July, Drysdale checked his medical records, found out his weight was always lowest (205) at that time of year. "The extra weight I had before and after July," he says, "bunched up around my shoulders and my chest. It had the same effect as if I were wearing a tight jacket. The fat bound my arms and hampered my delivery."
Fat arms, maybe. But what hurt Don Drysdale most of all was thin skin. Says the convalescent Sandy Koufax, probably touching the nerve of the matter: "Who's gonna get mad when they're 21 and five?"