This Week in 1960s Baseball
Glancing Back, and Remembering Gary Gentry
In his first major league season, Gary Gentry pitched for a championship team: the 1969 Miracle Mets. He was an integral part of the New York Mets’ triumph that season. And pitching for a team for which no success was anticipated, Gentry’s success, so early in his career, was miraculously instant. Continue reading
Glancing Back, and Remembering Jim Palmer
Jim Palmer’s Hall of Fame career – 19 seasons, all in a Baltimore Orioles uniform – got its start in the 1960s, and nearly ended there. While showing flashes of brilliance in his early major league career – including being the youngest pitcher to throw a World Series shutout – assorted back and arm problems nearly ended his career before he could establish himself as one of the game’s most durable and consistent starters during the 1970s.
Palmer was signed by the Orioles in 1963 at age 17 and made his debut with the Orioles two years later, going 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA in 27 appearances – all but six in relief. He moved into the Orioles’ starting rotation in 1966, going 15-10 with a 3.46 ERA. He pitched the game that clinched the American League pennant for the Orioles, and pitched the second game of the 1966 World Series, shutting out the Dodgers 6-0 and beating Sandy Koufax (in what would turn out to be his final major league appearance).
Arm miseries plagued Palmer over the next two seasons. He pitched only nine innings in 1967 and spent the entire 1968 season in minor league rehab, during which time Palmer reworked his pitching mechanics. He re-emerged in 1969 showing signs of the pitcher he would become: going 16-4 with a 2.34 ERA and six shutouts. He also pitched a no-hitter against the Oakland A’s.
During the 1970s Palmer hit his stride, a stride that would carry him to Cooperstown. He won 20 or more games in eight of the next nine seasons. He led the American League in ERA in 1973 (2.40) and in 1975 (2.09), when he led the majors in wins (23) and shutouts (10).
Palmer retired after being released by the Orioles in 1984 with a record of 268-152 and a career ERA of 2.86. He was an All-Star six times, and was the first American League pitcher to win three Cy Young Awards. During his entire major league career, he never gave up a grand slam home run, or even back-to-back home runs.
Palmer remains the Orioles’ all-time career leader in games pitched, innings pitched, games started, wins, shutouts and strikeouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990, his first year of eligibility.
Career Year: Wally Bunker – 1964
The Baltimore Orioles of the early 1960s were a fountain of young pitching talent, from the likes of Chuck Estrada, Milt Pappas and Steve Barber at the beginning of the decade to later arrivals such as Jim Palmer, for whom the 1960s were a struggle until he matured into the Hall of Fame bound ace of the O’s staff in the 1970s.
One of the latest of the Baltimore “Kiddie Corps” was also one of the most immediately successful. Wally Bunker was a right-handed power pitcher who was the ace of the Orioles staff at age 19 and then retired from baseball by age 27.
Bunker was signed by the Orioles in 1963 and was a member of the starting rotation a year later. The 1964 season marked his career year, as Bunker was the ace of the Orioles staff, going 19-5 with a 2.69 ERA. He threw 12 complete games, second on the Orioles staff to Pappas. Bunker led the American League with a .792 winning percentage and pitched a pair of one-hitters. He finished second in the balloting for American League Rookie of the Year to the Minnesota Twins outfielder (and league batting champion) Tony Oliva.
In late September of 1964, Bunker felt something give in his right arm and was never the same pitcher, plagued by consistent arm miseries for the rest of his career. He was 10-8 for the Orioles in 1965 and 10-6 for the American League champion O’s in 1966. He was the winning pitcher in the third game of the 1966 World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 1-0 with a six-hitter and outdueling Dodger lefty Claude Osteen.
Bunker struggled with arm problems over the next two seasons, going 3-7 in 1967 and 2-0 in only 18 appearances in 1968. He was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 1968 expansion draft, and was the Opening Day starter, throwing the first pitch in Royals history. At 12-11, he was the team’s winningest pitcher in the Royals’ inaugural season, but was only 2-11 for Kansas City in 1970. He was released by the Royals after seven appearances in 1971, going 2-3 in his final season.
Bunker pitched for nine big league seasons, posting a 60-52 record with a career earned run average of 3.51.
Glancing Back, and Remembering Sandy Koufax
No superlative can do justice to the performance of Sandy Koufax in his prime. In a decade dominated by overpowering pitchers, none was more dominating or overpowering than the Dodgers’ hard-throwing southpaw.
With the 1960s version of Koufax, every start was probably going to be a victory, possibly going to be a shutout, and potentially going to be a no-hitter. (He pitched four.) Most pitchers never experience even a single 20-win season. In his last five years (1962-1966), Koufax won 25 games or more three times; in the other two years, he was on track to win at least 25 games when injuries cut short both seasons – just as they would later abbreviate his career.
Of his four no-hitters, the last one – on September 9, 1965 – was a perfect game. Koufax beat the Chicago Cubs 1-0 that night, striking out 14. He needed only 1:43 to complete his pitching gem.
A career-long Dodger (who never played in the minors), Koufax was mediocre at best in his first six seasons. A great arm and inconsistent control led to a 36-40 record, with season ERAs consistently above 3.00 and often higher than 4.00.
The change over the last six years of his career couldn’t have been more dramatic. On the verge of retiring out of frustration, Koufax worked in the 1960 off-season to re-engineer his pitching mechanics. Something clicked, and his walks per nine innings declined steadily from near 6.0 to as low as 1.7 in 1965. His numbers for hits and strikeouts per nine innings remained pretty much the same. The key for Koufax was control. Once he mastered it, there was no stopping him.
His break-out year was 1961, when he won 18 games with his best ERA up to that point, a respectable 3.52. Koufax led the majors in strikeouts for the first time (269) and pitched 15 complete games. The 1962 season turned out to be a prophetic one for the remainder of Koufax’s career. He started fast, winning 14 games by the All-Star break. Yet injuries brought his season (and for all intents and purposes, the Dodgers’ pennant hopes) to a halt as Koufax didn’t win another game the rest of the year. Even with his shortened season, Koufax led the league with a 2.54 ERA. From this point until the season following his retirement, no one else would lead the National League in earned run average.
The Koufax era of dominance began in earnest in 1963. With the benefit of a complete and healthy season, Koufax racked up a 25-5 record with 306 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA. He led the majors in all three of those pitching categories, as well as topping all major league pitchers with 11 shutouts. He won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for 1963. And in the 1963 World Series against the Yankees, Koufax spearheaded the Dodgers’ four-game sweep with two victories, with a 1.88 ERA and striking out 23 batters in 18 innings.
In 1964, Koufax was leading the league in nearly every pitching category when he injured his pitching elbow while sliding into base. The injury ended his season with six weeks still remaining. He finished 19-5 (good for fourth in victories). Despite missing a month and a half, Koufax ended up fourth in strikeouts with 223, only 27 behind league-leader Bob Veale. Koufax led the majors in ERA (1.74) and shutouts (seven).
The elbow Koufax damaged in 1964 continued to bother him for the next two years, but you wouldn’t know that from his statistics. In 1965, he went 26-8, with a 2.04 ERA, a major league record 382 strikeouts in 335 innings, and 27 complete games – leading the majors in all of those categories. He was even better in 1966, going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts in 323 innings, with 27 complete games and five shutouts – again leading the major leagues in all of those categories. He was the unanimous Cy Young award winner both seasons.
Having Koufax available to pitch full seasons meant a National League pennant for the Dodgers in both 1965 and 1966. Koufax won two games as the Dodgers defeated the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. He lost in his only appearance in the 1966 World Series as the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers.
That 6-0 loss to the Orioles (and to a 20-year-old future Hall of Famer named Jim Palmer) marked Koufax’s last major league appearance. He retired in November of 1966 as a consequence of continued arthritic deterioration of his left elbow. He was only 30. In 1972, Koufax at age 36 became the youngest man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This Week in 1960s Baseball …
(October 6, 1966) – Pitching a four-hit masterpiece, Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jim Palmer today won the second game of the 1966 World Series 6-0. It was the Orioles’ second victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, and put the O’s ahead two games to none as the teams headed east to Baltimore.
Nine days shy of his twenty-first birthday, Palmer became the youngest player ever to pitch a shutout in the World Series.
Palmer allowed three singles and a second-inning double by Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson. Palmer struck out six Dodgers batters and walked three.
The losing pitcher was Sandy Koufax, a 27-game winner during the regular season.
It was a scoreless pitching duel through the fourth inning. In the top of the fifth inning, the Orioles scored when Boog Powell led off with a single. Three errors in the inning by center fielder Willie Davis allowed the Orioles to score three unearned runs. Powell singled in the sixth inning to bring home Frank Robinson with the only earned run off Koufax. In six innings of work, Koufax allowed four runs, three unearned, on six hits. He struck out two and walked two before being relieved by Ron Perranoski, who allowed the Orioles’ other two runs.
Palmer, who was 15-10 during the regular season, would win four World Series games during his 19-year major league career. His first World Series start would be his only World Series complete game.
And it would be the last game for Sandy Koufax, who retired after winning his third Cy Young award. In the World Series, Koufax finished with a career record of 4-3 with a 0.95 ERA.