They tried and tried again. No matter what National League clubs did, they just couldn’t slow down Maury Wills in 1962.
Wills’ Dodgers were in their fifth year in Los Angeles and thirsty for another World Series appearance. Winners of the 1959 Fall Classic, the team finished a disappointing fourth in 1960. They climbed to second place in ’61 and seemed poised for a post-season return in ’62.
Wills did his part.
The Dodger shortstop was historically great on the bases, swiping 104 bags. To put that into perspective, the last time a National Leaguer stole even half that many was in 1920. No big league team matched Wills’ total in ’62.
The Dodger squad had one .300 hitter in batting champ Tommy Davis whose 153 runs batted in led the league. Davis got help from Frank Howard, the only other Dodger to tally 100 RBI. Together they counted on Wills to get aboard and make his way into scoring position.
Dodgers and Giants vie for NL supremacy
While Wills was on his way to the stolen base record, the Dodgers fought the Giants for the top spot in the NL.
Behind Wills, Davis, and the pitching of Cy Young Award winner Don Drysdale, Los Angeles won 15 of its first 25 games. On May 10th Drysdale threw a three-hitter to move the Dodgers within four games of red-hot San Francisco.
The two teams swapped first and second place from then until the end of the season. It was a dogfight the whole way. From May 22nd through July 25th, no more than 2 1/2 games separated the teams.
A showdown was set in LA at the end July. The Dodgers led the Giants by just a game in the standings. Los Angeles dominated the series, stealing six bases in the three-game sweep. Their lead stood at four games.
In August the Giants won six of their first nine games. The boys in blue were even better, winning eight of ten. The two teams met for a pivotal three-game tilt at Candlestick Park beginning on August 10.
Their lead now at 5 1/2 games, the Dodgers threatened to pull away. The Giants and their manager Al Dark were desperate. Another sweep by LA would push San Francisco 8 1/2 games back with just over six weeks to play.
The Swamp Fox: SF manager Al Dark enlists the groundskeepers to slow Wills
When the two teams met at Candlestick, Wills had 60 stolen bases to his credit, a number not equaled in an NL season since Max Carey swiped 63 in 1916. Stop Wills and you stop the Dodgers, Dark thought.
Then the Giants skipper got creative.
At the direction of Dark, the team’s groundskeepers went to work in the early morning before Friday night’s game. They dug up the topsoil in fair territory near first base and replaced it with a marshy mixture of sand, peat moss, and water. On top of the quagmire they spread out normal infield clay to mask their dirty work. Any runner leading off first base would find it difficult to get a firm footing.
Giants frustrate Dodgers in sweep
As the start of the game neared, the Dodgers complained to the umpires about the real estate near first base. The umps inspected it and ordered the soil replaced.
The grounds crew complied but wheelbarrowed out an even soggier mixture. Everything went according to Dark’s plan. San Francisco frustrated the Dodger offense and jumped on LA starter Johnny Podres for seven runs in an 11-2 win.
On Saturday Los Angeles skipper Walter Alston gave the ball to Drysdale who was undefeated in his last 13 starts. Dodger players inspected the area next to first base. Though the composition of the the soil was fine, it was so wet that the umpires called on the groundskeepers during the game to add sand.
This played right into the Dark’s hands. All series long, Los Angeles baserunners took their leads from first base in either a swamp or a beach.
Dark’s gamesmanship worked to distract and frustrate the Dodgers and Wills. The Dodgers jumped out to the lead in their first at bat on a three-run homer by Davis. In the top of the third, the usually level-headed Wills engaged in an argument with home plate umpire Al Forman. Refusing to obey Forman’s order to step back into the batter’s box, Wills got belligerent and was ejected.
The Giants rallied with two runs in the fourth and three in the fifth to hand Drysdale his first loss in nearly two months.
In the Sunday finale, the Giants completed the sweep with a 5-1 win. San Francisco trimmed three games off of the Dodger lead. Dark’s antics pushed his team back into the hunt and earned him the nickname “the Swamp Fox”.
Did the tampering of the base path make a difference?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the impact the Giants ground crew had on the pennant race in 1962. Here’s what is known: Los Angeles was up 5 1/2 games before the Swamp Fox had the groundskeepers illegally tamper with the infield clay. With the field conditions favoring the home team, San Francisco swept LA.
At the end of the end of the regular season the two teams had identical 101-61 records. They played a three-game series to decide the pennant. The Giants won two of three to capture the flag.
Had the Dodgers managed to win just one of the three games in that swampy San Francisco August series, the pennant would’ve been theirs.
Did the manicuring near first base win the pennant for the Giants? While we’ll never know for sure, we do know the results of the groundskeepers handiwork gave Al Dark exactly what he wanted.
Reach Jim Smiley, the author of this story, CooperstownExpert@yahoo.com