After both teams finished well out of contention the previous season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants found themselves engaged in an extremely close three-team National League pennant race in 1959. Joining the two transplanted New York clubs at the top of the N.L. standings were the Milwaukee Braves, who sought to capture their third consecutive league championship.
The Giants held a two-game lead over both the Dodgers and Braves heading into the final week of play. But Los Angeles took over first place by sweeping San Francisco in three straight games. The Giants never recovered, losing four of their final five contests to finish the year in third place, four games behind the eventual pennant-winners. By falling out of contention in the season’s final days, the Giants wasted outstanding performances by two of the senior circuit’s top players. Orlando Cepeda hit 27 home runs, knocked in 105 runs, scored 92 others, and batted .317. Willie Mays was even better, hitting 34 homers, driving in 104 runs, batting .313, finishing second in the league with 125 runs scored, and topping the circuit with 27 stolen bases. N.L. Rookie of the Year Willie McCovey also made significant contributions to the Giants on offense, batting .354, hitting 13 homers, and driving in 38 runs, in only 192 official at-bats.
With the Giants out of the picture, the race boiled down to a two-team affair between the Dodgers and Braves. The clubs finished the regular season with identical records, forcing them to face one another in a best-of-three playoff series. The Dodgers took the first two contests, claiming in the process their first championship since moving to Los Angeles. They finished the season with a record of 88-68, two games ahead of the runner-up Braves.
Although the Dodgers were a well-balanced ball club whose roster included a significant number of wily veterans, they hardly resembled the team that dominated the National League for much of the 1950s. Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Ralph Branca had all retired, Don Newcombe had been traded away, and Roy Campanella had been tragically paralyzed in an automobile accident. Duke Snider and Gil Hodges were just about the only remaining members from Brooklyn’s championship teams. Yet, even though they were in the twilight of their respective careers, Snider and Hodges combined to hit 48 home runs and drive in 168 runs. Wally Moon, Charlie Neal, and Jim Gilliam established themselves as the Dodgers’ other primary offensive threats. Moon hit 19 home runs, drove in 74 runs, scored 93 others, and batted .302. Neal batted .287 and led the team with 103 runs scored. Gilliam batted .282, compiled a .387 on-base percentage, scored 91 runs, and led the club with 23 steals. Meanwhile, Don Drysdale anchored a pitching staff that finished third in the league with a team ERA of 3.79. The 22-year-old right-hander won 17 games, threw 271 innings, and led the league with 242 strikeouts and four shutouts.
The Dodgers started off the World Series slowly, losing Game One to the Chicago White Sox by a score of 11-0. However, they rebounded to win four of the next five contests, to claim just the second world championship in franchise history. Johnny Podres pitched Los Angeles to a 4-3 victory in Game Two. The Dodgers then won the third contest by a score of 3-1, before coming out on top in Game Four by a score of 5-4 on a Gil Hodges homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.
A record crowd of 92,706 fans showed up in the Coliseum the next day hoping to witness California's first World Series winner, but Chicago spoiled the party with a 1-0 win. The Dodgers then took Game Six 9-3 in Chicago for their first of many World Series crowns in Los Angeles. Dodger reliever Larry Sherry earned Series MVP honors for posting two of his team’s victories, and saving the other two. Sherry allowed just one earned run in 12 2/3 innings.
Although the Dodgers edged out the Braves for the N.L. pennant, Milwaukee arguably had more talent. The Braves finished second in the senior circuit in both runs scored (724) and team ERA (3.51). Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette tied for the league lead with 21 victories apiece, and Spahn also topped the circuit with 21 complete games and 292 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron both had fabulous years on offense. Mathews earned a second-place finish in the N.L. MVP voting by leading the league with 46 home runs, driving in 114 runs, scoring 118 others, batting .306, placing second in the league with 352 total bases, and finishing third in the circuit with a .593 slugging percentage. Aaron was equally productive, placing among the league leaders with 39 home runs, 123 runs batted in, 116 runs scored, 46 doubles, and a .401 on-base percentage, and topping the circuit with a .355 batting average, 223 hits, 400 total bases, and a .636 slugging percentage. Aaron finished third in the MVP balloting.
Winning the award for the second straight year was Ernie Banks, who hit 45 home runs, drove in a league-leading 143 runs, scored 97 others, and batted .304 for the fifth-place Chicago Cubs, who finished 13 games off the pace.
Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson also had huge years for the Cincinnati Reds, who tied Chicago for fifth-place in the final standings. In just his first full major league season, Pinson hit 20 home runs, drove in 84 runs, batted .316, led the league with 131 runs scored, and finished second with 205 hits. Robinson posted even better numbers, placing among the league leaders with 36 homers, 125 runs batted in, a .311 batting average, 106 runs scored, 18 stolen bases, a .391 on-base percentage, and a .583 slugging percentage.
Other outstanding performers, notable events, and points of interest from around the league follow:
• Charlie Neal led the Dodgers in the 1959 World Series with a .370 batting average and six runs batted in.
• Chuck Essegian of the Dodgers hit two pinch-hit home runs in the World Series.
• Ernie Banks’ 143 runs batted in and .985 fielding average established new records for National League shortstops.
• On August 31, Dodger Sandy Koufax became the first National League pitcher to strike out 18 batters in a game.
• Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix pitched a record 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee on May 26, before losing the game 1-0 in the 13th inning on a home run by Joe Adcock.
• Pittsburgh’s Elroy Face won a season-record 17 straight games in relief (22 games over a two-year period). He finished the year with a record of 18-1 and a winning percentage of .947.
• A record crowd of 93,103 attended an exhibition game held at the Los Angeles Coliseum between the Yankees and Dodgers to honor Roy Campanella.
• Sam Jones of the Giants led the National League with a 2.82 ERA and tied for the league lead with 21 wins.
• Stan Musial batted just .255 for the Cardinals, failing to reach the .300-mark for the first time in his career.
- 1959 World Series, Charlie Neal, Chuck Essegian, Don Drysdale, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Elroy Face, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Gil Hodges, Hank Aaron, Harvey Haddix, Jim Gilliam, Joe Adcock, Johnny Podres, Larry Sherry, Lew Burdette, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, Orlando Cepeda, Richie Ashburn, Roy Campanella, Sam Jones, San Francisco Giants, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Vada Pinson, Wally Moon, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey