By Bill Pruden
1963 is remembered by many as the year that Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Sandy Koufax finally and fully arrived. While he had led the National League with a 2.54 ERA in 1962, circulatory issues in a finger on his pitching hand limited him to only 28 games (26 starts) and 184 1/3 innings pitched. But in 1963 a healthy Koufax not only tied with San Francisco Giants ace Juan Marichal for the Major League lead in wins with 25, but he also led the Majors with a 1.88 ERA while striking out 306.
He followed that with two World Series victories and a record 15 strikeouts in Game 1, leaving New York Yankees star Yogi Berra to exclaim, “I can see how he won 25 games [but] what I don't understand is how he lost five.”
It was a performance that earned him his first Cy Young Award as well as the National League and World Series Most Valuable Player Awards. Koufax’s 1963 ledger was one that overshadowed no small number of other impressive efforts, none more so than the career year orchestrated by the Chicago Cubs’ 23-year-old left hander Dick Ellsworth.
As the 1963 season opened, the San Francisco Giants, who had come within inches of a World Series title the previous year, were poised to repeat in the NL, while the Dodgers hoped that with a healthy Koufax heading a lineup that had come a playoff game short of winning the pennant, they could reverse things.
In contrast, the Cubs looked to rebound from a disastrous 1962 season in which they finished 59-103. It was the first 100-loss season in franchise history, and their record left them an embarrassing 42 games behind the Dodgers and Giants. Meanwhile, Ellsworth, who although only 22, had been one of the Cubs’ frontline starters. He finished with a 9-20 record and a 5.09 ERA and was looking to prove that, his career record of 26-45 notwithstanding, he truly belonged in the big leagues.
From the start of 1963, Ellsworth looked like a different man, even if his teammates were not much better. Shutting out the Dodgers in his first start, through the month of April Ellsworth was 2-2, but his ERA over 31 2/3 innings was a microscopic 1.14. It was an impressive turnaround, and it did not stop there.
Indeed, he was 4-1 in May with a 1.29 ERA, and while his June totals were only 4-3 and 2.98, he was clearly a different pitcher then he had been in 1962. A central factor in his seemingly Jekyll and Hyde transition was a new slider, the refinement of a pitch with which he previously had experimented and then struggled, but which he now had mastered and was effectively using to challenge the NL’s best.
Indeed, armed with the slider and the newfound confidence that his efforts engendered, Ellsworth rolled through the hot summer months of July and August picking up nine wins against a single loss. While he appeared to tire a bit in September, going 3-3 down the stretch, he finished on a high note, tossing a three-hitter against the Milwaukee Braves to finish the season with a record of 22-10 and a 2.11 ERA in 290 2/3 innings. Of his 10 losses, two were by a score of 1-0 while another two were by 2-1 scores. And in three others, Ellsworth surrendered only three runs. His 22 wins were the most by a Cubs southpaw since 1918. At only 23, it was a performance that certainly boded well for the future while also leading a team renaissance, as the Cubs improved to 82-80.
Unfortunately for Ellsworth, his efforts were overshadowed by those of Koufax, “the Left Arm of God,” and yet there was no denying the quality of the performance produced by Ellsworth’s own left arm. He was fifth in wins in the NL, and second in both ERA and WAR for pitchers. He finished third in complete games and hits per nine innings, fourth in innings pitched, and placed in the top 10 in strikeouts and shutouts. To no one’s surprise, Ellsworth was voted the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year, as his 22 wins coming on the heels of his 20-loss season marked the first time since Paul Derringer in 1934 and 1935 that a hurler had rebounded from 20 losses with 20 wins.
As icing on the cake, and in a testament to his baseball roots, Ellsworth and his former high school teammate, Cincinnati Reds righthander Jim Maloney who himself won 23 games in 1963, were inducted into the Fresno County (Calif.) Athletic Hall of Fame in November of that year.
Unhappily, Ellsworth, who was born 83 years ago today, on March 22, 1940, was never able to duplicate his 1963 performance. He won 14 games in both 1964 and 1965, but in each case, he lost more than he won. And then in 1966, he joined a select, if infamous club when he added another 20-loss season to his resume, this time winning only 8 against 22 losses.
Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1966 season, Ellsworth was traded by the Phillies to the Boston Red Sox after the 1967 campaign. He pitched for the Red Sox in 1968 but was part of a six-man trade in April 1969 that sent him to the Cleveland Indians. In August 1970, the Milwaukee Brewers purchased him from the Indians, but less than a year later, on June 30, 1971, Ellsworth was released, his Major League career at an end.
Beginning with his first appearance as an 18-year-old recent high school graduate back in 1958, Ellsworth compiled a career record of 115-137, which included only two winning seasons (1963, 1968) as well as two at 3-3, with a career 3.72 ERA. Overall, journeyman numbers to be sure. And yet in 1963, Ellsworth, who passed away on Oct. 10, 2022 at age 82, caught lightning in a bottle, performing in a way that only the great Koufax was able to exceed. There are certainly worse epitaphs for a pitcher than that.
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball -- primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works -- for about a decade. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments / 0