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THE SEASON OF THE ZERO HERO
William Leggett
June 17, 1968
A hitting crisis has set in as big-league pitchers, led by the Dodgers' frugal Don Drysdale, have become veritable Ebenezer Scrooges. Even baseball owners fear that the game is in danger of becoming a bore
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June 17, 1968

The Season Of The Zero Hero

A hitting crisis has set in as big-league pitchers, led by the Dodgers' frugal Don Drysdale, have become veritable Ebenezer Scrooges. Even baseball owners fear that the game is in danger of becoming a bore

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Baseball's vast, confusing and often hilarious new pitching problem—the nonspitball—broke wide open last Saturday night at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as Don Drysdale chased history and caught it—and hell—in one of the zaniest and most controversial games played in the major leagues in many a season. Drysdale, the tall, handsome righthander who has averaged 40 games a season for the past 11 years, walked to the brick-red mound in Chavez Ravine needing only two and a third innings of shutout baseball to surpass the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings set by Walter Johnson back in 1913. Earlier in the week he had already set the record for scoreless games when he pitched his sixth straight shutout (see cover). When Drysdale surpassed Johnson, however, he was tested for nearly everything from Butazolidin to housemaid's knee.

It might have made more sense to test the batters, not because they were hopped up but because they were so depressed. Drysdale's fine performance brought special emphasis to the fact that pitching is dominating baseball as never before. Historians, in fact, will probably refer to 1968 as the season of the zero hero. With two-thirds of the year yet to be played, there already have been 123 shutouts thrown in the majors. Two years ago there were 246 shutouts during the entire season. Of all games played, 55% have resulted in one team or the other scoring a single run or less and at the end of last week only Frank Howard, Carl Yastrzemski and Rick Monday were hitting over .300 in the American League.

It was not the plight of the batters, of course, that concerned Donald Scott Drysdale as he faced Philadelphia in the cool of the evening Saturday. He had spent a good part of the week looking around his ranch in Hidden Hills for his lost, three-month-old boxer, Shutout. The citizens of Los Angeles had spent as much of the week listening to publicity about the goose-egg variety of shutout, and it was this that caused 55,000 of them to show up at Dodger Stadium. Long before the last car got close to the parking lots, word went out for people to stay away, but one of those who did not was a retired, left-handed pitcher named Sandy Koufax. He slid into a Dodger jacket and stationed himself in the runway leading to the team dugout so that he could both watch and cheer for the man he had overshadowed during many of the Dodgers' finer days.

Twelve minutes before game time Drysdale walked out of the dugout to start warming up. The sight of the big number 53 on his back brought the huge crowd to its feet. When he started his slow walk to the mound to begin the game the crowd rose again.

If Drysdale was going to get the record, however, the Philadelphia Phillies were not about to make it easy for him. Larry Jackson, Philadelphia's starting pitcher, had won only 10 fewer games in the National League than Drysdale, and nobody now active had beaten the Dodgers more times (27). Manager Gene Mauch pushed six left-handed hitters into his lineup, and he himself was going to coach third base. Mauch would never be mistaken for a quiet coach.

The thing that had marked Drysdale's previous 54 shutout innings was excellent control. During that period he had walked only nine men. But with the first batter that he faced, his control seemed poor. He threw two balls to Cookie Rojas before getting him out. His next four pitches walked Johnny Briggs, and Drysdale scratched his spikes over the pitching mound in disgust. It looked like he didn't have it. Tony Gonzalez, Philadelphia's third batter, lashed a ground ball that appeared certain to scoot through the hard infield, but suddenly Shortstop Zoilo Versalles made a spectacular pickup and spun in midair to force Briggs at second base. Drysdale got Johnny Callison on a fly to center to end the inning and once again the crowd applauded—only this time there were a lot of sighs mixed with the cheers. In the next inning, his 56th, Drysdale got a tremendous break when a sure double dropped foul by inches in left field, but nothing else happened.

The first man Drysdale faced in the third inning was Roberto Pena, a small shortstop. Pena tried to bunt and fouled the pitch off but eventually Drysdale induced him to hit an easy ground ball to third base. The big crowd exploded and Drysdale turned his back, folded his arms across his chest and looked out toward center field for 20 seconds. The record was now his. He turned to work to Jackson, and Jackson raised his hand in a virtually unseen wave of salute to Drysdale, who acknowledged it by holding his palm open toward Jackson. Two pitches later Jackson singled, but Drysdale struck out the next two hitters and the crowd was wild. Only this time Drysdale's triumphant march was halted by Plate Umpire Augie Donatelli. Off came Drysdale's cap after a brief exchange of words. Donatelli rubbed his hand through Drysdale's hair, then over his forehead, then into the cap. Mauch, an off-season golfing partner of Drysdale's, had insisted that he was putting grease or Vaseline on the ball—a charge that Giant Manager Herman Franks also had made recently.

According to Donatelli, " Mauch started to complain and said, 'He's putting grease on the ball.' I asked him where he was getting it from and Mauch said, 'The back of his head.' I went to Drysdale and said, 'Don, do you have Vaseline on the back of your head?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'You know the rule, and if you touch the back of your head again I'm going to have to fine you.' Don said, 'Augie, I'm sweating like hell out here. That isn't Vaseline; that's sweat. Just tell me what the hell I can't do.' When Drysdale first came up to the majors he was no bargain, but he changed and we umpires appreciate that. He could have punched me in the mouth when I started to inspect him."

When Drysdale went out to pitch the top of the fourth inning Donatelli walked to the mound and tugged at the bill of Drysdale's cap, obviously looking for something besides the first signs of dandruff. Unruffled, Drysdale pitched his best inning in the fourth. It was the fifth that was his undoing and the end of the shutout string at 58? innings. He gave up two singles with nobody out to put runners at first and third. Pinch hitter Howie Bedell, called up only the week before from Reading where he was serving as player-coach, worked the count to 3 and 2 and then fouled a pitch off to the left. Len Gabrielson, the Los Angeles leftfielder, moved over closer to the left-field line, and on the next pitch Bedell hit a fly ball to medium left center. Gabrielson made an excellent catch, but he was running away from the play. He threw home with all the force he could get on the ball and tumbled head over heels on the grass. The throw came in high and not at full strength, and Tony Taylor slid over the plate with the run that finally was marked against Drysdale.

Two innings later Drysdale was knocked out, and he came up the ramp from the dugout an exhausted man. "Everybody has been great to me," he said while standing by his dressing cubicle. "The guys made impossible plays behind me, and the fans were great to me. All good things have to come to an end and I knew it. I guess when I got by the record I looked out toward center field and said to myself, 'Thank God I got it.' If anybody breaks the streak, what the hell—it's mine he will be bucking. No, Mauch didn't bother me. I just ran out. It may take me five years to realize what I've done—when I can sit down alone and think about it somewhere."

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