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Traumatized in '67
2003-02-14 09:26
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

For me, 1967-73 is the George Lazenby period of the Los Angeles Dodgers. They weren't as bad as they were innocuous.

The Dodgers missed the playoffs for seven consecutive years beginning in '67, their longest such streak in Los Angeles. I've never read much discussing why. The Dodgers are struggling in the current era, and the reasons are well chronicled. It's hard for me to believe that today's Dodgers, despite their lack of success, will ever become as forgotten as those 1967-73 Dodgers.

That team's streak of futility came on the heels of being shut out in the final 33 innings of a 1966 World Series sweep by Baltimore. It began in earnest, of course, with the retirement of Sandy Koufax on November 18, 1966.

The defending National League Champions didn't just miss the World Series in 1967. They fell all the way to eighth place. With Koufax and his 27 wins in 1966 gone, the Dodgers won 22 fewer games.

I came into this discussion knowing less about the 1967-73 period of Los Angeles Dodger history than any other, and wanting to fill that gap. And so I'm going to start in 1967, the year I was born, and the year the Los Angeles Dodgers as people had known them died.

There were other factors, as we'll see, but Koufax's departure really did seem to affect the team like a death in the family, engendering depression, listlessness and rage.

Let's start with the rage.

Sources for this report: True Blue by Steve Delsohn, The Dodgers by Bruce Chadwick and David M. Spindel, BaseballPrimer.com, Baseballreference.com and Retrosheet.org.

Happy Thanksgiving

Less than two weeks after Koufax's announcement, two other popular Dodgers were traded. The first trade was on November 29, when outfielder Tommy Davis and a minor leaguer went to the Mets for Ron Hunt and Jim Hickman.

Meanwhile, a cadre of Dodgers were on a playing tour in Japan. Shortstop Maury Wills, hoping to use the offseason to recover from long-term nagging injuries, reluctantly agreed to go on the trip on the condition that he would only make public appearances, but wouldn't have to play.

However, Wills was put in the lineup right away - and encouraged to steal bases as well. He re-injured himself, decided enough was enough, and notified the Dodgers that he was going home. Owner Walter O'Malley refused to give permission, but Wills refused to let that stop him.

O'Malley contacted General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, who was on a six-week cruise with his family. As Bavasi recalled to Steve Delsohn: "While we're on board, I get a wire from O'Malley: GET RID OF WILLS, AND GET RID OF HIM TODAY." Wills was gone December 1, traded to Pittsburgh for infielders Gene Michael and Bob Bailey.

Wills' trade has been explained as a disciplinary move, setting an example for others (particularly African-Americans, it has also been speculated) that O'Malley would always be obeyed, or else. I haven't tracked down the rationale for the Tommy Davis trade, but the Dodgers do seem to have had a surplus of outfielders that would justify that move on purely on-field reasons.

If only as an aside, I can't help wondering if either of these trades were influenced by Koufax's retirement - especially the Wills trade. Koufax had made his break from the Dodgers on his terms - and perhaps O'Malley wanted to nip, or rather smash, that trend in the bud. Wills would not be allowed to leave the Dodgers - even an exhibition trip - without being punished.

People look at the Mike Piazza trade as a watershed moment of misfortune for the Dodgers. But in those two weeks in November 1966, the Dodgers fell harder, and would not recover for a long time.

In any case, because linking Wills and Davis with Koufax remains speculative, let's treat the events separately. Moving forward into 1967, how much of the Dodgers' demise can be attributed to Koufax, and how much to other factors?

The 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers
95-67, first place by 1 Z games over San Francisco
Went .500 or better each month, including a 20-9 record in September while the Giants went 12-13.
Regular lineup (with OPS for batters):
C Johnny Roseboro (.741)
1B Wes Parker (.736)
2B Jim Lefebvre (.793)
3B John Kennedy (.522)
SS Maury Wills (.622)
OF Willie Davis (.707)
OF Lou Johnson (.730)
OF Ron Fairly (.844)
League OPS: .695

P Sandy Koufax (27-9, 1.73)
P Don Drysdale (13-16, 3.42)
P Claude Osteen (17-14, 2.85)
P Don Sutton (12-12, 2.99)
League ERA: 3.28

The 1967 Los Angeles Dodgers
73-89, eighth place, 28.5 games out
Played below .500 every month (except 1-0 in October)
Regular lineup (with OPS for batters):
C Johnny Roseboro (.722)
1B Wes Parker (.704)
2B Ron Hunt (.689)
3B Jim Lefebvre (.688)
SS Gene Michael (.470)
OF Willie Davis (.662)
OF Al Ferrara (.812)
OF Ron Fairly (.616)
League OPS: .671

P Claude Osteen (17-17, 3.22)
P Don Drysdale (13-16, 2.74)
P Don Sutton (11-15, 3.95)
P Bill Singer (12-8, 2.64)
League ERA: 3.11

KOed in Round 1

There were other departures during the 1966-67 offseason worth mentioning. Jim Gilliam retired (for the second time, but this time it stuck). Third baseman John Kennedy was dumped a week before Opening Day.

The Dodgers started 0-4, got back to 6-7 - but were already 4.5 games behind the Reds. They then lost six out of seven to fall into ninth place, 7.5 games back. They didn't have their first three-game winning streak until mid-May.

An eight-game losing streak in June dropped them to 21-35, 15.5 games back. Their last gasp of hope was a stretch later that month in which they won 11 out of 15. But they lost 8 out of 9 to start July, falling again to 15.5 out.

Where did things go wrong?

Well, the absence of Koufax was noticeable immediately. The Dodgers pitching staff allowed 27 runs in its first three games.

Quickly, it was clear there would be no replacing #32. The man who ostensibly did, Bill Singer, was above-average, and came within a run of Koufax's 1.73 ERA. But Singer pitched more than 100 fewer innings. That put more responsibility on the rest of the staff - starters and bullpen.

If a single pitcher is to blame for the Dodgers' decline, it's future Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton. Shouldering more innings than the previous year, Claude Osteen tailed off slightly. But Sutton, pitching virtually the same amount as his rookie year, lost a 13-4 decision in the first start of his sophomore season and never really got it together. In fact, if you look at the ratio of his ERA to the league's, this was the worst season of his 23-year career - even as he was winding it down in 1988. Perhaps he, rather than Singer, acutely felt the pressure of replacing Koufax. Sutton is quoted as saying tears were in his eyes when he attended his mentor's retirement.

In addition to Sutton's and Osteen's innings, another 134 pitched by the Dodgers swingmen and relievers came in above the league average ERA in 1967. By comparison, in 1966, only one pitcher for the Dodgers, Jim Brewer, had an ERA above the league average, and he only pitched 22 innings. His 3.68 ERA made him the worst pitcher on the team.

Don Drysdale, oddly, showed how different consecutive 13-16 seasons can be. His ERA improved as the team got worse - even considering how offense declined in the '67 season. However, although Drysdale stepped up, and although some people have thought of Drysdale and Koufax as this great duo, this was not the case by 1966, let alone 1967. The Dodgers certainly would have withstood Drysdale's departure better than Koufax's. If they were going to overcome Koufax's retirement, they needed a huge infusion of offense.

It didn't happen.

Bring on the Collective Funk

The good news was, the Dodgers' shutout streak from the 1966 World Series ended on Opening Day, 1967. They scored one run.

Five 1966 lineup regulars returned in 1967 - and every single one of them saw a drop in OPS, including a 105-point decline by Jim Lefebvre and a 228-point collapse by Ron Fairly. Manager Walter Alston struggled against injuries and ineffectiveness as he assembled his daily lineup. In 1966, six of his starters played more than 140 games. The following year, only two did.

And then there were the new guys.

Wills was not that great in 1966. He hit .273, which I'm sure was considered admirable at the time, and stole 38 bases. But his OPS was a pedestrian .612, and he was caught stealing 24 times, rendering him a detriment on the basepaths, not an asset.

Oh, but his replacements. Gene Michael got the most action, and this is what he produced: a .202 average with 11 walks, one stolen base and four! extra-base hits in 98 games. The other shortstops that year, Dick Schofield and Nate Oliver, boasted OPS marks of .600 and .563.

There were two relatively bright spots. One was Al Ferrara in the outfield he helped cover for Lou Johnson, who broke an ankle.

The other, to a lesser extent, was Ron Hunt. At third base in 1966, Gilliam split time with Kennedy. Neither of them cracked the .600 barrier in OPS. The following year, Lefebvre moved over to third base, and Hunt, acquired in the Tommy Davis trade, served as the replacement for Kennedy/Gilliam, at second base. Hunt, who later would set single-season and career hit-by-pitch records, used 10 plunks in 110 games to catapault him into an OPS of .689.

So in terms of new blood, the Dodgers were weaker in one infield slot but stronger another - it almost cancels out. In the outfield, the additional play of Ferrara (who was a reserve in 1966) only helped. And yet, overall, the offense that averaged 3.74 runs per game in 1966 sunk to producing 3.20 runs in 1967.

The group slump of players who had been there both years, who had been there with Koufax (and Wills and Tommy Davis) and now were left behind, caused the bulk of that overall decline.

So it wasn't all Koufax's fault, right?

I would love to hear other explanations, from those who lived through that era and/or have additional research at hand. But - and here, abruptly and with my apologies, ends the empirical portion of this report - I really have come to believe that the retirement of Koufax sapped the Dodgers' will to win.

Perhaps the first sign of that was O'Malley's trade of Wills, one that might have indicated that obedience was more important than performance. In any case, of the five returning regulars, all but Roseboro were 27 years old or younger. Offense was slightly down in 1967, but not enough, as far as I can tell, to explain the individual decline of all these players. Something else was going on, I think. Like I said, I'm open to other explanations, but until I hear them, I have to think that Koufax had an even bigger impact than I realized.

Dodger fans went into their own mourning. Attendance dropped from 2.6 million in 1966 to 1.7 million in 1967.

The personnel was there in Los Angeles, if not to win the pennant, at least to compete for it. But the Dodgers never competed. NL champs the year before, they were blown out the opening week. And it would be seven years before they would see another postseason game, a streak that will remain unmatched unless (until) the 2003 Dodgers miss the playoffs.

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