For Claude Osteen, 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers was Quite the Ride

When someone is on the same pitching staff as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two Hall of Famers and one of the greatest dynamic duos in the history of the game, it can be very easy to be overshadowed. However, in the case of Claude Osteen, he fit right in with that formidable rotation which delivered the Los Angeles Dodgers a World Series Championship in 1965. Osteen would be shipped from the Washington Senators to the Dodgers in December 1964 in a blockbuster deal which sent All-Star slugger Frank Howard to Washington. L.A. got immediate results from their new lefty, who fit in well with them.

“They [Koufax and Drysdale] treated me fantastically,” Osteen said. “They were two great people and…they pitched with pride. It really meant a lot to them to be wearing the Dodger uniform and I soon found that out real quickly.”

For Claude Osteen, 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers was Quite the Ride

With those two Hall of Famers ahead of him, Osteen, a future pitching coach, would later see how important being in that situation was. He was the team’s number three starter that year, and said how important it was for Koufax to set the bar. Being the club’s third starter, he took with it and ran with it. Osteen said not to get too excited trying to pitch like both of them because he had to learn how to do it his way and to pitch how he could and go for the strikeout when he needed it. While Koufax had 382 strikeouts, a then-MLB and still National League single season record, Osteen punched out 162 batters.

Pitching was the modus operandi of that Dodger squad. It was the arms which had to carry them. While Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen had ERAs of 2.04, 2.77 and 2.79, respectively, they hardly had an explosive lineup. L.A. batted .245 as a lineup. The most home runs anybody hit were 12, by that year’s N.L. Rookie of the Year in Jim Lefebvre and also Lou Johnson. The Dodgers would hit 78 all year.

Despite this, they led in the N.L. pennant race for much of the season, but when they were 4.5 games out of first place in the middle of September, they still rallied to win 13 in a row and 15 of their final 16, which was needed since the offensive-minded Giants at one point won 14 straight themselves that year.

 “The pitching staff was aware of what we were trying to do,” he said. “It’s not that we changed our pitching that much, but I think we became a little more stingier in giving up runs.”

As a matter of fact, Osteen was the winning pitcher when the streak began Sept. 16 at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. It was a gray, gloomy day. L.A. went into the game at 82-64. The Dodgers would win 2-0. Center-fielder Willie Davis got both RBIs that day when he knocked in Maury Wills on a single, and Osteen, who singled earlier in that inning, was forced in on a bases loaded walk to Davis. The southpaw took care of the rest, pitching eight innings of scoreless ball on just five hits and four strikeouts.

 “The first I would check [in Chicago] was the wind, which way it was blowing and that would tell me how I have to pitch,” Osteen said. “At that time, my game was complete preparation and that really helped me a lot. I enjoyed pitching in Wrigley. You could not make mistakes there because it was a small ballpark, and yet you could take advantage of the wind if it’s blowing in to right, you didn’t worry about left handed hitters hitting the ball out of right field…and vice-versa with the right handers if it’s blowing in from left. The infield was always a good infield for ground balls. The grass was thick and it would slow the hard hit ball down where the infielders could make plays on it. It was a real challenge there because they had good hitters: Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Jim Hickman. All those guys could hit the long ball, and of course, the Cubs were notorious for coming back in the late innings at that time.”

It wouldn’t be long, however, before Osteen was back out on the mound. Just three days later, on two days rest against the St Louis Cardinals, he again would go eight innings without allowing a run. He walked only one batter and only had one strikeout, but the Dodgers stifled the Cardinals in a 5-0 win. While this rarely, if ever, occurs today, going so soon was something Osteen embraced.

“We relished that regularity,” he said. “The quicker you can get out there, we liked it much better. In fact, I think for 10 years or approximately that, I pitched on a four-man rotation, and of course, I was probably the one who could probably do that easier than the other two, I’m speaking of Drysdale and Koufax, because they were more power pitchers and they needed that extra rest. Of course, my velocity with another day’s rest is probably not going to help me any because I’ve got what I’ve got and it’s got to be put in the right place and it’s got to have the right movement.”

The pennant clincher came Oct. 2 that season when the Dodgers hosted the Milwaukee Braves. Koufax took the mound, and pitched a complete game performance to shut Milwaukee down. His lone blemish came in the top of the 4th inning when Gene Oliver led off with a solo blast to tie it 1-1. Back-to-back bases loaded walks in the bottom of the 5th inning gave the Dodgers a 3-1 lead and the rest would be history. Even though Koufax had four walks, he 13 strikeouts and also gave up only four hits. The Dodgers would win the pennant for the second time in the last three seasons. They ended their regular season at 96-65. The Giants, who finished in second place, ended up 94-67 and two games back.

Their opponents in the World Series were the Minnesota Twins, who went an MLB best 102-60. As improbable as it seemed to beat Drysdale and Koufax in back-to-back games in the first two matches of the World Series, the Twins did exactly that. They handed Drysdale the Game 1 loss 8-2 and L.A. committed three errors in the second game, which ended in a 5-1 defeat. Minnesota would then go to Dodger Stadium, with Osteen pitching in Game 3. It would be up to their number three, in Game 3, to prevent a stranglehold from transpiring.

“I had a lot of confidence coming into that game because I was undefeated against Minnesota lifetime in the other league, in the American League, when I pitched for Washington,” he said. “Just the confidence factor for me, and of course, I knew every one of those hitters. I think that’s even more important because I had faced them many, many times in the American League.”

Osteen said there was tremendous pressure on him and he had Game 3 on his mind the entire time going back to Los Angeles. Still, he said his teammates kept assuring him on the flight back home that he would do well and he had tons of adrenaline getting off that plane and the next day. He said all he needed to do was to throw one pitch and he felt one pitch. Even though that year’s A.L. MVP in Zoilo Versalles led off the game against him with a double, Osteen worked around it and Versailles was caught trying to steal home. The lefty was a groundball pitcher and only induced two strikeouts, but more importantly, he hurled a complete game shutout with the Dodgers winning 4-0. Suddenly, they were back in the series.

“If I leave that inning down 1-0, it’s a totally different ballgame,” Osteen said. “The offense that we had, we weren’t going to score many. So, that gave me the confidence to really be aggressive and everything else…Your approach to the hitters is totally different when you’re behind. You feel like you have to make better pitches.”

Not only would the Dodgers get back in the series, they would take the lead, too. They won all three home games. They won Game 4 by a 7-2 margin, and blanked the Twins 7-0 in Game 5. The team which once could have been down 3-0 would get on a plane back to Minnesota to in an effort two clinch its second World Series crown in a three-year span. The starter for the potentially clinching game six was none other than Osteen. He kept his team in it, but eventually he, and the Dodgers, would lose Game 6 while James “Mudcat” Grant hurled a complete game 5-1 win, thus forcing a decisive Game 7.

“He [Grant] had a great year that year,” Osteen said.

Osteen got the loss, even though he only allowed one earned run and two total, as Earl Battey scored unearned on a Bob Allison shot. It was reliever Howie Reed, who, in the bottom of the 6th inning surrendered a three-run shot to Grant, scoring Allison and also Frank Quilici. Osteen pitched well and also did so in the 1966 World Series despite a tough luck loss in Game 3 to the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles. His lifetime ERA in three World Series starts was 0.86, which is still the fifth lowest all-time. Still, the 1965 Fall Classic was now out of his hands. He would now have to see if Koufax could pitch the Dodgers to a World Championship, or if the Twins would celebrate their first World Series title since 1924 when they were the original Washington Senators.

“We all knew what Koufax could do,” he said. “Everything that he did all year was positive, but in a final game with so few runs deciding the game and everything, you expect it to be a close game. It can go either way. It only takes one pitch but we had the confidence that Sandy, all year long he had done whatever was required to win the game. If it meant 10 innings, 11 innings, whatever. He was determined to pitch that way…There was no doubt as to the decision of who was going to pitch that game and I remember the entire pitching staff was in the bullpen because it’s the last day of the year. It’s the final game of the World Series and the season’s over afterward. So, I remember Sandy warming up down in the bullpen and I he asked me to stand up there as a left handed hitter because he wanted to work on his curveball a little bit and that alone was an experience for me because I had never seen it except from the bench and when I saw what he could with the curveball first hand where I’m the hitter, there was no doubt in my mind as far as the confidence factor, I knew he would give them trouble and he did.”

Indeed, Osteen had every reason to be confident. The Dodgers faced Jim Kaat and Johnson led off the top of the 4th inning with a leadoff blast. Ron Fairly doubled in the next at-bat and a Wes Parker groundball single to right field immediately after that scored Fairly. That was all the Dodgers would get. That was all they would need. Koufax pitched a complete game shutout. He limited Minnesota to three hits and walked three. The southpaw struck out 10, including Allison in the bottom of the 9th inning to win it. For his efforts, Koufax became the first player to ever win the World Series MVP Award twice, which has since only been equaled by fellow Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson.

Osteen described winning as fantastic bedlam. If he were to sum up the 1965 Dodgers as a team in one word, it would go back to an old one which he was very familiar with.

“I think it was pride,” he said. “Pride. Pride in wearing the Dodger uniform and representing the Dodgers.”

To hear the interview with Claude Osteen in its entirety, click here: playlist?list= PLd5dPgkKytuH0q1KdXE63elE3AjGt zf6p

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