The Dodger franchise, long the most consistent in the National League, had experienced boom times after moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. Previously known for winning pennants, but experiencing World Series frustration (save one glorious moment in 1955), the Dodgers rattled off World Series championships in 1959, 1963 and 1965. They won another pennant in 1966. But in the late 1960s, the team slowed down. There were a couple losing years. Winning baseball returned in 1969 and 1970. The 1971 Los Angeles Dodgers built off that and contended to the very last day of the regular season.
Los Angeles had four horses in their starting rotation, who combined to make 142 starts. Al Downing delivered a 20-win season and a 2.68 ERA. Don Sutton was 26-years-old and eventually bound for the Hall of Fame. Sutton won 17 and his ERA was 2.54. Claude Osteen’s 14 wins came with a 3.51 ERA. Bill Singer’s numbers were pedestrian—10-7 with a 4.16 ERA, but functionable for a #4 starter.
Manager Walter Alston got excellent work from Jim Brewer out of the bullpen, with 22 saves and a buck-88 ERA. Depth was a little lacking, but the rotation and Brewer were enough to give Los Angeles the fourth-best ERA in the National League.
Dick Allen was the key to an offense that had pretty good balance overall. Allen finished with a stat line of a .395 on-base percentage/.468 slugging percentage. He hit 23 homers and drove in 90 runs.
No one else stood out in the everyday lineup, but many made steady contributions. Wes Parker played first base and finished with a .347 OBP. Maury Wills, the great 38-year-old base stealer, could still run and he swiped 44 bags. Willie Davis had a respectable stat line in center of .330/.438. The same went for Willie Crawford in left field, at .334/.442.
The Dodgers got further production from a combo of Duke Sims and Tom Haller at the catcher’s spot, with OBPs of .357 and .346. The steady, across-the-board contributions, anchored by Allen, was enough for the L.A. lineup to also rank fourth, in what was then a 12-team National League, in runs scored.
Los Angeles got off to a slow start at 5-8, but bounced back by winning eight of ten in a stretch that included the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, the reigning division champs in the National League.
Here might be a good place to step back and remind younger readers that each league had just two divisions, an East and a West in 1971. Only the first-place finisher went to the playoffs. In fact, the very existence of divisional play had just begun in 1969. So, the proud Dodger franchise was still seeking its first NL West title.
Cincinnati and Atlanta, in a tortured display of geography had been situated in the NL West (while the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs were in the East). The Reds had won both this division and the National League pennant in 1970. The NL West also included the Houston Astros, who did not move to the American League until 2013. The rest of the division was rounded out by the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres.
It was the Giants who were off to the hot start and Los Angeles went to northern California and lost a series in May. The Dodgers were also swept three straight by the Pirates, a team destined to win the World Series in 1971. They lost two of three to a good St. Louis team. And when the Giants came south, the Dodgers again lost two of three.
So, when the season reached the Memorial Day turn, Los Angeles was a pedestrian 25-24. The good news is that Cincinnati was playing terribly. The bad news was that San Francisco was scorching, off to a 36-14 start. The Dodgers were staring at an early 10 ½ game deficit and no wild-card cushion to fall back on.
The early part of summer brought better baseball. A three-game sweep of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) keyed a 7-2 stretch. Los Angeles won five in a row, including a two-game sweep of San Francisco. The Giants slumped and the Dodgers quickly slashed the deficit to 3 ½ games.
A slump before the All-Star break—four straight losses to the Cubs and a series loss to the Giants, left Los Angeles six games out of first. But they were back in business, and with Cincinnati still fallen and unable to get up, the Dodgers were the only team in position to make a second-half run at San Francisco.
But the latter part of summer would be a missed opportunity. The Dodgers lost 10 of 18 in a sequence that included the Pirates and the Reds. Los Angeles did pick up two more wins over San Francisco and again nudged to within 4 ½ games. But in late August and early September, the Dodgers lost 11 of 18 against beatable teams in the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Montreal.
When Labor Day arrived, Los Angeles was eight games behind San Francisco. The only saving grace was that there were still five head-to-head games. But the Dodgers had no margin for error and those big battles would begin on Labor Day afternoon in Chavez Ravine.
A young first baseman named Steve Garvey was 21-years-old and just starting to get some playing time. Garvey homered and drove in two runs in this Monday opener. So did the veteran Wills. The Dodgers won 5-2. On Tuesday night, they erupted for four runs in the first inning. Willie Davis and Allen had two hits and two RBIs apiece. This time the result was a 9-3 rout. And in the Wednesday finale, Singer outdueled San Francisco’s great Juan Marichal, winning 3-0.
The Dodgers barreled out of that series and swept the Padres on the weekend. When Los Angeles went north for the return series in San Francisco, the lead was suddenly down to three games.
And L.A. picked up where they left off on Monday night. Allen, Crawford and Davis all homered. Holding a 5-4 lead, Brewer retired the last seven Giant batters to seal the win. On Tuesday, Los Angeles trailed 5-3 in the ninth. As good as this stretch had been, even a single head-to-head loss would be devastating to the pennant drive. Pinch-hitter Manny Mota came off the bench and hit a bases-loaded double that scored all three runs. The Dodgers won 6-5.
Now, the race was on. L.A. briefly slipped and fell back to 2 ½ games off the pace, but on the final weekend of the season were able to sweep Atlanta. The final three games would be on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And the deficit was just a single game.
Both contenders were playing beatable teams. The Dodgers were hosting the Astros, while the Giants were in SoCal to play the Padres. Singer was clutch in the Tuesday night opener, tossing a three-hitter. Wills’ two-out RBI base hit in the eighth inning gave L.A. a 2 -1 win. San Francisco held serve.
Disaster came on Wednesday night. Downing was rocked the first inning, the game got out of hand and Los Angeles suffered an 11-0 loss. They had to wait as the Giants and Padres went extra innings. San Diego pulled it out. The Dodgers had a stay of execution.
Sutton stepped up in Thursday’s finale, pitching a six-hitter. His single in the seventh inning also started the key rally that got Los Angeles a 2-1 win. But the out-of-town scoreboard was not providing good news. San Francisco had given Marichal an early lead, one he would not relinquish. The Dodgers’ noble September drive had come up a game short.
The 1971 season still saw the return of real pennant race baseball to Los Angeles. But it would take until 1974 to finally get that first NL West flag.