Three More Now No More

Giants and Dodgers played baseball’s last three-game playoff series 50 years ago

October 02, 2012
NL President and future Hall of Famer Ford C. Frick amended the NL constitution to include a best-of-3 series to serve as a tie-breaker. (NBHOF Library)

Before division champions and division series, before wild cards and the LCS, there were three-game playoffs.

Fifty years ago this week, the San Francisco Giants defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 2-games-to-1 in what was the National League’s fourth best-of-3 playoff series in 17 years. Its like has not been seen since, and it may never be seen again.

For its first six decades, the NL decided its champion on the basis of regular-season record. Not once in that time had extra games been needed to decide the title.

But the league’s brain trust recognized that a flat-footed tie was theoretically possible, and thus amended the NL constitution to provide for a “series of games” to be played in the event of a tie. In 1946, that tie finally happened when the Cardinals and Dodgers finished the season deadlocked.

A best-of-3 series was called for by National League President and future Hall of Famer Ford Frick, and St. Louis defeated Brooklyn in two games to advance to the World Series.

Just two years later, the American League faced a similar quandary when Boston and Cleveland finished the 154-game season in a tie. But the AL bylaws called for only a one-game playoff, which was won by the Indians.

The NL, however, continued under the three-game playoff rules. The Giants defeated the Dodgers 2-games-to-1 in the unforgettable 1951 playoff, then the Dodgers defeated the Braves 2-0 in the league’s third playoff series in 1959.

By 1962, the NL had expanded to 10 teams and played a 162-game schedule. But the three-game playoff rule was still in force, and the Giants and Dodgers fought to a 101-61 tie through six months of brilliant baseball.

“Both clubs are tired,” said future Hall of Famer Willie Mays. “It’s been a long, hard season.”

It was about to get longer.

The Dodgers won a coin flip and with it the right to choose to host Games 2 and 3 if necessary, so Game 1 would be played at Candlestick Park on Monday, Oct. 1. Sandy Koufax took the mound for Los Angeles against the Giants’ Billy Pierce, but Koufax – who battled circulatory ailments in his pitching fingers all season – allowed three runs on home runs by Mays and Jim Davenport before being lifted from the game in the second inning.

It was all the runs Pierce would need en route to a three-hit shutout and an 8-0 win.

“This club is due to go on a two-game winning streak,” said Dodgers manager Walter Alston, another future Hall of Famer. “If we don’t get any runs, we can’t win. And if we don’t get any, we’re beat.”

Game 2 was played the very next day in Los Angeles, but a heavy layer of smog limited the crowd at brand-new Dodger Stadium to 25,321. Amidst the watery eyes and blurred vision, the Dodgers – who had been shut out the three previous games – erupted for seven runs in the sixth inning to erase a 5-0 Giants lead. The Giants tied the game in the eighth, but Ron Fairly’s sacrifice fly in the ninth inning scored Maury Wills to give Los Angeles an 8-7 win. At the time, the four-hour, 38-minute contest was the longest nine-inning game in big league history.

For Wills, it was another electric moment during a season in which he stole a record 104 bases and won the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Wills appeared in 165 games that season (all 162 in the regular season and three in the playoff), setting a record that still stands and might never be broken.

Game 3 featured sloppy play but high drama. The Giants trailed 4-2 entering the top of the ninth (future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal had allowed three runs in seven innings) with Ed Roebuck on the mound for L.A. Matty Alou singled to start the inning, then was forced out at second on a grounder by Harvey Kuenn. Willie McCovey and Felipe Alou walked, bringing up Mays – who lined a single off Roebuck’s glove to plate Kuenn.

Alston called on hard-throwing Stan Williams for relief, but Orlando Cepeda hit a sacrifice fly to score pinch runner Ernie Bowman to tie the game at 4, with Alou taking third on the play. Mays then advanced to second on a wild pitch and Ed Bailey was intentionally walked to re-load the bases. But Davenport followed with another walk to make the score 5-4, and – after Ron Perranoski relieved Williams – an error brought in Mays to give the Giants a two-run cushion.

Pierce set the Dodgers down in order in the ninth to record the save, and the Giants had won the pennant.

Afterward, the Dodgers – who had dominated the National League for most of the summer – were nearly disconsolate, remaining in the clubhouse by themselves for almost an hour.

“You can’t lose like this without feeling bad,” said the Dodgers’ Wally Moon.

The Giants, however, were headed for the World Series – a classic seven-game affair that saw New York prevail 4-games-to-3.

The National League eventually adopted the rules of the AL, instituting one-game playoffs in case of ties. The first one came in 1980 when the Dodgers met the Astros to decide the NL West title. Since then, one-game NL playoffs have been played in 1998 (Giants vs. Cubs for the Wild Card), 1999 (Mets vs. Reds for Wild Card) and 2007 (Padres vs. Rockies for NL West title).

With the advent of three rounds of playoffs before the World Series – including the new Wild Card one-game playoff – a three-game playoff to decide which team advances to the postseason seems beyond the realm of probability.

If so, the Giants/Dodgers series 50 years ago will be the last of its kind.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.