He was one-half of what many consider to be the best pitching duo in big league history. Hurling alongside Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale amassed 209 wins and regularly led the National League in hit batsmen during his 14 big league seasons.
But while intimidation was a key part of his game, the fiery 6-foot-6 right-hander’s deceptive sidearm motion, 95-mile-per-hour fastball and pinpoint control were equally responsible for his success. Between 1956 and 1969, he was named to eight all-star teams and finished in the top 10 in the National League in strikeouts 11 times. He also won the 1962 Cy Young Award, tossed six consecutive shutouts in 1968, and helped the Dodgers capture three World Series titles (1959, 1963, 1965). The workhorse fireballer regularly ranked amongst the top senior circuit hurlers in games started and innings pitched, before a rotator cuff injury ended his career at age 33.
But before Drysdale achieved big league stardom, he toiled for the Dodgers’ International League affiliate in Montreal in 1955. According to William Brown’s book, Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals, Greg Mulleavy, heading into his first year as the Royals manager, convinced Dodgers vice-president Fresco Thompson to assign the 18-year-old Drysdale to his team. The prized prospect was awarded to Montreal on the condition that Drysdale would stay in the rotation for the entire season. Drysdale joined a staff that also included veteran left-hander Tommy Lasorda, who would take the hot-tempered phenom under his wing.
With the Royals, Drysdale would pitch well at the beginning of the season, but his performance tailed off towards the end of the campaign. He finished with an 11-11 record and 3.33 ERA. Part of his second-half slump could be blamed on his fiery temper. According Brown’s book, after one mid-season game against Buffalo, Drysdale punched a Coke machine and fractured a bone in his throwing hand. The injury didn’t stop the young right-hander from performing, but it hindered his effectiveness. In his 1990 autobiography, Drysdale also notes that Royals catcher Johnny Bucha taught him how to throw a spit ball while he was in Montreal.
Drysdale’s 11 victories that season helped the Royals win the pennant and advance to the Governor’s Cup playoffs. Unfortunately by playoff time, Drysdale was sidelined with a sore arm and the Royals were ousted in five games by the Rochester Red Wings.
After his Hall of Fame playing career, Drysdale become a respected broadcaster. His career in the booth started with two seasons with the Montreal Expos in 1970 and 1971, before he moved on to stints with the Texas Rangers, California Angels and Chicago White Sox. He finally landed a broadcasting gig with the Dodgers in 1988.
On July 3, 1993, he had trekked to Montreal as part of the Dodgers’ broadcasting team. When he didn’t report to the ballpark that day, his broadcasting partners Vin Scully and Ross Porter grew concerned. Sadly, that afternoon just prior to game time, Drysdale was discovered in his hotel room. He had died of a heart attack the previous night. After his kin was notified, Vin Scully, with his usual grace, made this unforgettable announcement to Dodgers’ viewers in the top of the eighth inning:
“Friends, we’ve known each other a long time,” Scully said, “and I’ve had to make a lot of announcements, some more painful than others. But never have I ever been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart. Don Drysdale, who had a history of heart trouble – you may remember a couple of years ago he had angioplasty – was found dead in his hotel room, obviously a victim of a heart attack, and had passed away during his sleep.”
Drysdale was just 56 years old.