He Never Left Van Nuys High : Baseball: The life of Don Drysdale, whose funeral is today, was shaped in part by childhood teammates.
Accompanying Robert Redford’s lead role in the 1984 movie “The Natural” were assertions that the actor had been a star baseball player at Van Nuys High. Don Drysdale, who attended Van Nuys the same years as Redford, often supported those claims, telling reporters, “Oh, you mean Bobby. He was a pretty good first baseman.”
Redford, as Drysdale was fully aware, never played for the Van Nuys varsity. But rather than embarrass the actor by setting the record straight, Drysdale went along.
“As far as I know, Redford never picked up a glove,” said Jim Heffer, a classmate of Drysdale and Redford. “I think Don covered for him, which showed the kind of gentleman he was.”
Drysdale, the Hall of Fame pitcher and a broadcaster for the Dodgers, died at age 56, July 2 in his hotel room in Montreal, apparently of a heart attack. His funeral service will be held today at 11 a.m. at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
Drysdale was born and raised in the then semi-rural suburb of Van Nuys, living with his parents and younger sister on a cul de sac two blocks from the high school. He grew up palling around with Heffer, shortstop Ron Lachman and Van Nuys’ actual first basemen, Russ Bergman and Ron Schulof.
Baseball was the group’s primary pastime, although they brawled, wrecked at least one of their fathers’ cars and generally behaved like typical teen-agers.
“If you climbed the telephone pole in front of Don’s house and had a strong arm, you could hit the baseball field at Van Nuys High,” said Heffer, the only kid in town whose arm rivaled that of Drysdale.
Heffer was the Van Nuys equivalent of the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, the No. 1 pitcher on a staff that included Drysdale. A huge boy with a man’s beard, Heffer, who later turned down a minor league contract from the Milwaukee Braves, dominated San Fernando Valley baseball until Drysdale physically matured between his junior and senior years in high school.
By their senior year in 1954, the two were equals on the mound, and their friendship took on a competitive undercurrent.
“Against North Hollywood I had to bail him out in relief,” Heffer said. “I gave him a smirk when I passed him on the mound and said, ‘I’ll save your butt.’ We went on to win. The following game, against San Fernando, I got in trouble and when he replaced me he said, ‘Now it’s my turn, smart ass.’ He retired the side.
“We were both typical big-headed jocks, and while I always stayed that way, Don grew into a real gentleman. He became quite a man.”
Before he grew from 5 feet 7 to well over 6 feet during the summer of 1953, Drysdale was a gangly, lead-footed second baseman, surviving on guile and the knowledge he had gained from his father, Scotty Drysdale.
“Don was a leader type of kid, especially when it came to baseball,” said Lachman, an optometrist living in Northridge who played on teams with Drysdale from youth league through high school. “He had a lot of baseball knowledge, even as a 12-year-old.”
Don’s father had played in the minor leagues, and he called upon his professional baseball contacts to benefit his son, getting him off-season instruction from minor league coaches.
The elder Drysdale also helped organize the area’s first youth league, the Valley Junior Baseball League, and he later coached Don’s American Legion team.
“Scotty was a big guy, not as big as Don got, but he had the same kind of smile,” Lachman said. “He was an easygoing fellow. Nothing seemed to rile him.”
Don was equally difficult to anger, although Heffer managed to do so one afternoon. Drysdale was working as a teacher’s aide, and Heffer purposely spilled ink on the class roster. The disagreement escalated into a fight.
“I cut his face, and he left me with a scar over my left eye,” Heffer said. “He swung that vicious right of his. I’m reminded every time I comb my hair.
“We were a couple dumb kids who had put on the physical stature of adults, and we hurt each other.”
Fighting was not exactly frowned upon by Bill Ford, the Van Nuys baseball coach whose style was described as old-school by Drysdale during a 1990 interview.
“Bill Ford was one of the big influences in a lot of our lives,” Drysdale said. “He was a bulldog-type coach, and he made sure we were teammates first. He was probably laughing like hell during the fight (between Drysdale and Heffer).”
During a postseason team barbecue, Ford enlivened the festivities by bringing out two sets of boxing gloves and telling the players to pair off. Drysdale’s penchant for knocking down major league hitters with brushback pitches might have been encouraged by Ford.
“Don had that attitude in high school,” Lachman said. “He was a good guy, but on the field a tough kid. He would do anything to win.”
And win Van Nuys did, taking San Fernando Valley League championships in each of Drysdale’s three years.
Among his contributions was a three-hit shutout over Canoga Park in 1953. Doug MacKenzie, the Canoga Park coach from 1951-87, has kept every scorebook from his tenure. Although the record shows that Drysdale was dominant on the mound, MacKenzie recalls a different part of his game more vividly.
“I told scouts he was a better hitter than a pitcher,” he said. “I thought Heffer was a much better pitcher.”
MacKenzie might have underestimated Drysdale’s pitching prowess, but his evaluation wasn’t totally off base. Drysdale hit 29 home runs for the Dodgers and is considered one of the best hitting pitchers to have played the game.
In 1954, Van Nuys advanced to the final of the Dorsey invitational tournament, which served as the City playoffs, behind Drysdale’s 3-1 victory over Fairfax in the semifinals. However, Dorsey defeated Van Nuys, 8-1, in the final.
Drysdale signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a $2,200 bonus soon after the season and was pitching in the major leagues two years later. He lasted 14 seasons with the Dodgers, winning 209 games. He won the Cy Young Award in 1962 and established a major league record in 1968 with 58 consecutive shutout innings.
He lived in Van Nuys and Hidden Hills during his career and was a partner in a Van Nuys restaurant, Don Drysdale’s Dugout, from 1962 to 1982. He also owned a restaurant in Kona, Hawaii.
“He was always keeping contact with his schoolmates and sports buddies,” Lachman said.
About 20 years ago, Drysdale helped establish the Van Nuys Athletic Club, which consisted of about 40 members--everyone he could think of connected with Van Nuys High athletics.
“We met at Ron Perranoski’s Stadium Club on Sepulveda and Roscoe,” Lachman said. “The group disbanded after a while, but Don really enjoyed those associations.”
Clearly, Drysdale cherished his roots and the friendships that helped shape him. The club met only a few blocks north from where, as teen-agers, Heffer, Bergman and Drysdale totaled a Lincoln Continental belonging to Heffer’s father, and only a few blocks east from where the Van Nuys team bus got stuck in the mud en route to a game.
Now his friends of decades ago cherish the memories.
“Even though I hadn’t talked to him in many years, I just want to say that I’m going to miss the guy,” Heffer said.