1962 San Francisco Giants…great year, great team

As the 2012 Major League Baseball season heads into its final two months, there is every indication that the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers may be heading towards another classic battle for the National League West title. This provides a perfect segue for the Daley Planet to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the 1962 MLB season, which featured one of the most exciting pennant chases in National League history, and truly one of the high points in the 120 plus years of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. It’s always been my contention that the thrilling finish to the 1962 regular season, and its subsequent heart-stopping three game Giants-Dodger playoff, has always overshadowed the entirety of the ’62 campaign. A Major League Baseball season is a six month, 162 game journey, whose destination is often not determined until the completion. Simply put, the 1962 San Francisco Giants were one of the best teams in franchise history. This edition of the Daley Planet will center on the Giants’ 1962 ballclub as a whole, focusing on the season’s closing days in a late September issue.

Allow me to add a personal note. It was in 1962 that I first started following baseball on a day by day basis, and my affection for that year’s Giants remains as strong today as it was 50 years ago. Like everyone else, I experienced the ’62 season by way of the technology of the era…mostly through newspapers, radio and a limited amount of television. Only nine regular season Giants games were televised in 1962 (the road games against L.A.) and very little game footage was featured on any of the 15 minute local TV news broadcasts of the day. Most of my visual memories of 1962 MLB are those that I created in my mind as I listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons describe the action from all of those legendary locales, including Forbes Field, Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field and Connie Mack Stadium on radio station KSFO.

At first glance, one might assume that it was the presence of five future Hall of Fame players that made the 1962 San Francisco Giants a great team, but a closer look reveals a solid ballclub, top to bottom. Willie Mays, as one would suspect, was the biggest factor, as the “Say Hey Kid” hit 49 home runs, while driving in 141 runs and posting a .304 batting average. Mays was joined in the outfield by Harvey Kuenn and Felipe Alou, who batted .304 and .316 respectively. Orlando Cepeda belted 35 home runs and knocked in 114 runs, while shortstop Jose Pagan (.259) and second baseman Chuck Hiller (.276) were a productive double-play combination. Third baseman Jim Davenport won the National League Gold Glove award, and put up career highs in home runs (14) and batting average (.297). Catchers Tom Haller and Ed Bailey combined for 35 homers and 100 RBI’s. Still a year away from his breakout season, Willie McCovey smacked 20 home runs in just 229 at bats.

The Giants 1962 pitching staff might not have been the all-time San Francisco best, but it certainly was the most successful. The four man rotation of Jack Sanford, Billy O’Dell, Juan Marichal and Billy Pierce combined for 77 wins with 62 complete games. Jack Sanford had a career year, posting a 24-7 record, while O’Dell went 19-14, his personal high for wins. Juan Marichal was solid at 18-11, but the most pleasant surprise was Billy Pierce, the 35 year old left-hander who came to the Giants as part of a six player trade with the Chicago White Sox. Playing in his 17th big-league season, Pierce finished 1962 with a 16-6 mark, including a 12-0 record at Candlestick Park. The Giants bullpen was anchored by Stu Miller, who led the team in appearances (59) and saves (19). Pitching in the National League was no picnic in 1962, as Frank Robinson (Reds), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Hank Aaron (Braves), and Roberto Clemente (Pirates) were all at or near their prime…even 41 year old Stan Musial was still dangerous, hitting .330.

Despite a powerhouse lineup, skipper Alvin Dark was not a push button manager, as the one time major league shortstop was a strategic innovator, utilizing the suicide-squeeze, the double-switch, and always having the Candlestick infield watered down wherever the speedy Dodgers were in town. In 1962, the National League was comprised of 10 teams, with no sub-divisions, playoff system or wildcard berths. Winning the pennant meant finishing ahead of nine other teams. The 1962 Giants ended up with 103 wins, and they would need every one of them, thanks to an unbelievably great performance by that team from L.A.

The Giants started fast in 1962, opening the season with a 6-0 win over the Milwaukee Braves, with Willie Mays blasting a home run of off Warren Spahn in his first at bat, while Juan Marichal threw a 3 hitter. Thanks in part to a 10 game winning streak that started in late- April, San Francisco took sole possession of first-place on April 30, and were 4 ½ games ahead of Los Angeles when two teams met on May 21 at brand new Dodger Stadium, for the first contest of a two game series. Broadcast on KTVU Channel 2, these were the first two Giant-Dodger telecasts I ever watched, and unfortunately, I didn’t like what I saw. Behind the hitting of Tommy Davis (who homered in both games) and some strong pitching from Sandy Koufax and Stan Williams, the Giants were swept, 8-1 and 5-1. This began an 11 game winning streak for Los Angeles, and by June 1, the Giants and Dodgers were tied at the top of the National League at 36-15.

The Dodgers edged ahead of the Giants on June 8, but first place would change hands six more times over the next month before the Dodgers would take firm control of the race in mid-July. For the Giants, the low point of the summer happened on July 29 when the Dodgers beat the Giants in L.A. 11-1, completing a three game sweep, extending their first place lead to 4 games. Trailing by 5 ½ games on August 10, the Giants fought their way back into the race by beating the Dodgers three straight at Candlestick, a series highlighted by a 3 run homer hit by Willie McCovey off of Don Drysdale to win the second game. The Dodgers’ margin stood at 3 ½ games on September 3 when the Giants made their final 1962 scheduled visit to Dodger Stadium to begin a four game series. With Willie Mays leading the way with a home run in the first game, and two runs knocked in during the third game, the Giants made it 3 out of 4 when Harvey Kuenn unloaded the bases with double in the 9th inning of fourth game, moving San Francisco just 1 ½ games behind L.A. The next day, Jack Sanford won his 15th straight decision, as the Giants beat the Cubs 6-5 at Candlestick, pulling within a game of L.A., as the Dodgers were clobbered 10-1 by the Pirates. The Dodgers hovered one-half game in front of the Giants for five days, until the Giants finally blinked, losing six straight games in mid-September, including a horrendous four game lacing at Forbes Field at the hands of the Pirates. By September 22, the Dodgers were 4 games in front of the Giants with only seven games left in the regular season. Truly, the Giants would need to win most of their remaining games, while relying on some help from the Dodgers final two opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Colt .45’s…Stay Tuned.

Note: In 1962, the National League added the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45’s to the league, expanding the schedule to 162 games. The Giants were 14-4 against the Mets and 11-7 versus the Colt .45’s. The Dodgers were 12-6 against Houston and 16-2 versus the Mets.

Trivia: 1962 was the final year of Major League Baseball’s four year experiment of holding two All-Star games (the second game was used to raise funds for the player’s pension plan). The concept was abandoned after 1962, as it was determined that two games watered down the impact of the event. Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Jim Davenport all saw action in the first All-Star Game, while the same group, sans Alou, made the squad for the second summer classic. It’s amazing that Jack Sanford, who was 13-6 by the time of the second game, was not selected.