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THE FINAL STRENGTH WAS SANDY
William Leggett
October 25, 1965
The best pitcher in baseball proved to be the difference between two very different ball clubs. And an odd World Series should give the downtrodden American League real hope for the future
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October 25, 1965

The Final Strength Was Sandy

The best pitcher in baseball proved to be the difference between two very different ball clubs. And an odd World Series should give the downtrodden American League real hope for the future

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Ten years ago, at the age of 33 and in his next-to-last season as an active player, Sam Mele had sat in the dugout of the Cincinnati Reds before a game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. He watched as a thin young man of 19 named Sandy Koufax warmed up for his first start in the major leagues. "He's fast," Mele thought. Koufax was fast. He pitched a shutout, allowed only two hits and struck out 14 Reds. The only ball hit hard off him came with two outs in the ninth inning when Mele lined a double deep into the left-field corner. Ten years later, the seventh game of the World Series was over, and Sam Mele, manager of the losing Minnesota Twins, sat behind his orderly desk at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. His blue cap rested on his lap, and a cigarette burned in the black plastic ashtray in front of him. Again and again he pushed his fingers through his graying hair. After having seen his team shut out only three times in 162 regular-season games Mele had watched in frustration—and appreciation—as Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers did it twice in three games. Finally Mele smiled and said, "If anyone would like to make the World Series the best five out of nine games I would be willing to go on with it right now. But Koufax is murder. Great! The best I believe I have ever seen.

"You hate to lose, but we didn't disgrace ourselves. We were beaten by the best pitcher that there is anywhere." But baseball is fun when the best meets the best, when strength faces strength and the best strength wins. In the 1965 Series, the best strength came out on top in seven consecutive games. Granted, the strength came out early and gave a lopsided look to each of those first six games, but that was the pattern that both the Twins and Dodgers had followed all year long. For sustained excitement this Series did not match some of the great ones of the past, but it had many unforgettable moments as the strengths of both teams went to work to drive the opening wedge. The emotions of the players and their fans seemed to go from attic to basement quicker than in any Series since the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the New York Yankees in 1960.

The differences between Metropolitan Stadium and Dodger Stadium played a large part in this 62nd World Series. Each park is built in a manner that causes consternation to a team not used to its eccentricities. Dodger Stadium has an infield of crushed brick which causes balls hit directly downward to bounce high in the air. A fast man can get to first base before a fielder gets his hands on the ball. The baselines are slanted so that bunts will stay fair. The distant power alleys in left and right fields make homers difficult, and the pale-green fences make the hitters feel that those distances are even greater than they actually are. On the other hand, Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, with its shallow power alleys, begs for a hitter to try for a homer. When a player sees "the Met" for the first time he knows he can hit homers there.

In three of the games played at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, the Twins used their combination of finesse and karate—speed and power—to make the Dodgers look futile. The Dodgers are a team built on pitching and speed but not power, and when their pitchers do not hold the enemy the value of their one-run, two-run offense is not only greatly reduced, it is almost totally obliterated. When Los Angeles falls behind, it no longer can gamble on the bases, and that is what happened to Los Angeles in Games 1, 2 and 6. But, in turn, Minnesota was forced off its game when it played in big Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Dodgers used their speed to get a lead and used more speed to humiliate Minnesota while the Dodger pitchers stymied the Twins' power attack. The Twin tried to hit home runs in Dodger Stadium, and they managed a couple, but generally the home run balls were hit where the Dodger outfielders could catch them. And solid Dodger pitching by Claude Osteen, Don Drysdale and Koufax made it impossible for the Twins to use their hit-and-run. After Los Angeles took three straight games by a combined score of 18-2, just about everyone thought that the Dodgers would continue their running game when the Series moved back to Minnesota. But, like so many American League teams all year, the Dodgers forgot their good intentions and swung for home runs again. They tried to steal only once in Game 6, and it did not work. Moreover, the Twins' Jim Grant kept Los Angeles off the bases most of the day by simply throwing strikes. Of the 33 batters he faced, he got the first strike on 28.

Thus the baseball championship of the world had to be settled in one final game, and it was a magnificent one. Koufax seemed unsure of himself and struggled and fidgeted through the early innings. In the third he got a break when Umpire Ed Hurley called batter's interference against Joe Nossek after Zoilo Versalles had second base stolen. Then, ironically, the Dodgers—who had gone back to bunting in an effort to work a run home—got the first score by means of a homer. Lou Johnson hit it. Los Angeles picked up a second run when Ron Fairly doubled and Wes Parker, who hit .615 with men on bases in the Series, singled him home. Koufax got another break and was saved from serious trouble in the fifth. Jim Gilliam made an outstanding stop of Versalles' drive down the foul line with two men on and one out. That was it for the Twins, as Koufax grew stronger and stronger. When, in the bottom of the ninth, Minnesota got a runner on base with one out, it became a simple matter of the strength of Koufax against the strength of Earl Battey and Bob Allison. Koufax struck them both out. The Dodgers were the world champions.

By the time a World Series comes down to the seventh game it often proves little—though this Series proved again, in case there were any lingering doubts, that Koufax, as Roger Craig once said of him, "belongs in a higher league." The American League should realize that the Twins did not in any way disgrace their federation. By becoming the first non-Yankee American League team in 19 years to carry a Series to seven games, Minnesota established itself as a foundation stone of a new and stronger league. It would seem obvious that the Twins, who won their pennant by playing a fast-moving, National League style of baseball, are a team that has still not reached its peak.

For example, Shortstop Zoilo Versalles—though not yet a drawing card like Maury Wills—was the most impressive player all round in the Series. He is only 24. His fellow Cuban, Tony Oliva, the Twins' biggest failure in the Series (he hit only .100 with runners on base), is 24, has won the American League batting championship in each of his two seasons in the majors and is something very special to watch. During the Series many people said, "He plays the outfield like DiMaggio." Well, perhaps not quite, but Oliva does have grace and power and courage, too—he played in the Series with a damaged hand and with his injured left leg heavily taped with bandages and never said a word about it. Watch out, Henry Aaron. Take care, Roberto Clemente. Tony Oliva of the American League is coming down the road after you.

The entire National League, which prides itself—and rightly—on being much the better of the major leagues, had better watch out, too. The American League had many more young players of great potential this season than did the National. Consider Versalles and Oliva; Marcelino Lopez of the California Angels; Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox; Sam McDowell of the Cleveland Indians, who at 23 struck out 325 in 274 innings (compared to 382 in 336 innings for Koufax); Bert Campaneris of the Kansas City Athletics; Curt Blefary of the Baltimore Orioles; Willie Horton of the Detroit Tigers; Vic Davalillo of Cleveland; and Mel Stottlemyre, who won 20 games for the sixth-place Yankees.

There was some criticism of Versalles after the Series because, chagrined by defeat, he said in his accented English, "The Doyers were lucky." This was considered ungracious or inaccurate or something else, but all year long people in the National League had been saying the same thing about the Dodgers. Versalles also said defiantly, "The Doyers no win pennant in the American League." Way to go, Zoilo. You are probably wrong, but it's been a long, long time since anyone in the American League—other than the Yankees—has mustered enough pride to say anything like that. And maybe the rest of the league was listening.

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