History of Dodger Stadium: 1968
LOS ANGELES — June 8, 1968.
I was 11 years old and as excited as a kid could be: I was going to my first-ever Dodgers' game at Dodger Stadium. My older cousin Freddy and two of our uncles were meeting at the family bakery to pick up snacks for the game; then we hit the road for my first of thousands of treks to Chavez Ravine. Yet, while I was jumping out of my skin in anticipation of seeing history being made that night—at my first game!--it was tinged with sadness.
Dodger righthander Don Drysdale would be trying to break Walter Johnson's 55-year old record of 56 consecutive scoreless innings, but the country was mourning the assassination of Senator and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, cut down by an assassin's bullet three nights prior at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown L.A.. I took his death especially hard, because even though I was a couple months from my 12th birthday, I had spent a good part of the past few months working on Kennedy's campaign in the San Fernando Valley.
I would ride my bike to different areas after school each day, dropping off literature in hopes of helping RFK win the California Primary and basically wrap up the Democratic Presidential nomination, which could be made official in Chicago later in the summer. Kennedy's last public words at the podium in the Ambassador—just after midnight on June 5, were "It's on to Chicago and let's win there." Moments later he was lying in a pool of his own blood, shot as he was making his way through the kitchen.
On this Saturday, Kennedy's body was being transported by train to Arlington National Cemetery. He would be laid to rest on the same grounds as his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in the streets of Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The nation's hearts and minds were focused on the sentimental sendoff being given to the third Kennedy brother to have died tragically while in service of the country—Joseph was killed when his military airplane exploded during a top secret mission in World War II. And Drysdale—a friend of Robert Kennedy's—was particularly distraught.
Four nights after Kennedy had mentioned Drysdale's ongoing shutout streak during his victory speech following the results of the California Primary, Drysdale was scheduled to pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium. Had it been any other game on any other night, Big D might have sat it out as he was he was trying to deal with the senseless murder of a friend. Then again, maybe not.
"Sure, I thought about (not pitching)" Drysdale told me years later, "but I really don't think that's what Bobby would have wanted. He was a huge fan, and even if I didn't have a chance to set the record, he would have been following the game if he could. So, with that and the chance to make history, I was going out (to the mound) that night." And when I told him that was the first Dodger game I ever went to, he laughed that giant laugh of his and said "Jo-Jo, you picked a pretty good one."
That I did.
Drysdale had thrown shutouts in his six previous starts—still the major league record--and if he could pitch two-and-a-third scoreless innings against the Phils, he would break one of baseball's hallowed records—Hall of Famer Walter Johnson's 56 consecutive scoreless innings pitched, set during the 1913 season.
The big righthander did that—and more—setting a new mark of 58 2/3 innings without being scored upon. He set the new milestone in the top of the third inning when Phils' shortstop Roberto Pena grounded a ball to Dodger third baseman Ken Boyer, who threw to Wes Parker at first and Big D was the new record-holder. He finally gave up a run in the fifth inning, as the Phillies' Howie Bedell—who had been in the minors for the last six seasons—got to Drysdale.
Tony Taylor led off the fifth with a single, followed by a Clay Dalrymple single which moved Taylor around to third. Bedell—pinch hitting for pitcher Larry Jackson and batting in the big leagues for only the second time that season—lifted a sacrifice to left fielder Len Gabrielson. Taylor scored and the history-making accomplishment was in the books.
"This gives somebody a target to shoot at," Drysdale said after the game. "There is always someone around who can break a record. I think all good things have to come to an end, and I'm just happy I could break a record. My biggest hope was that we could win the game. (The Dodgers beat the Phillies 5-3 to remain two games behind St. Louis in the National League race).
"I wish all the luck to anybody who does (break the record), and I'll be the first to congratulate him if I'm still around to do it."
Little did Drysdale know how prescient he was.
Fast-forward twenty years; Drysdale was now a Dodger broadcaster and Orel Hershiser was in a hot streak similar to that of Big D in '68. The team was on it's way to a World Championship, but on the night of September 28 they were winding up the regular season, taking on the Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. In the tenth inning, Hershiser got pinch hitter Keith Moreland to fly to right field. Jose Gonzalez squeezed it and Hershiser set a new mark of 59 consecutive scoreless innings.
Waiting for Orel, as he said he would do twenty years earlier, was Drysdale, who hugged the man that just nudged him out of the record books. "At least we kept it in the Dodger family," he told Hershiser, and it's a record that still stands and still remains in the Dodger family.
Drysdale passed away in 1993 and Hershiser has moved on to the broadcast booth. And Dodger Stadium is still Dodger Stadium—the site of so many memories for many, including me.
I've attended thousands of games there as a fan and a reporter, more than most alive today. And my first game is the most memorable of all.
Three thousand miles away, one of my heroes was being buried. And right before my eyes, one was reaching an individual pinnacle of his profession.