Thursday, January 14, 2016

Monte Irvin and the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff

As we remember Monte Irvin, who passed away this week just a month-and-a-half shy of his 97th birthday, it is worth considering the decisive role he played in the New York Giants' epic comeback from 13½ games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11, 1951, to the National League pennant. On account of his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth three-run home run off Ralph Branca to “win the pennant! win the pennant!” Bobby Thomson is of course the ultimate hero of the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff." Monte Irvin, however, was the Giants' best player, their most valuable player, and arguably should have been the National League MVP in 1951.

Monte Irvin and The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff


Monte Irvin is honored in the Hall of Fame as a star player in two separate baseball universes—the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, where he did not get the chance to play until he was 30 years old in 1949 because black players were not allowed. Irvin was among the trailblazers following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, and many Negro League players believed he should have been the one to integrate major league baseball. He and infielder Hank Thompson were called up by the Giants as their first black players on July 8, 1949.

Irvin had an outstanding Negro League resume and was hitting .373 for Triple-A Jersey City when he was called to New York. With Bobby Thomson, Willard Marshall, and Whitey Lockman all hitting over .300 in the Giants’ outfield, however, there was little reason for manager Leo Durocher to make a change; Irvin played in just 36 of the 81 games the Giants had left on their schedule; he started in just 19 and came to the plate only 93 times.

Durocher, however, certainly knew the quality player he had. After starting the 1950 season with Jersey City, where he hit .510 in 18 games (yes, .510 is correct), Irvin was back in New York, in the starting line-up—first in right field, then at first base—and hit .299 in his first substantive year of major league baseball. The next year Monte Irvin began at first base, finished up in left field, and validated that he was not merely a legitimate major league player, but an elite player. 

Bobby Thomson is the hero remembered, but there would have been no Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff without Monte Irvin in the Giants’ line-up. Moreover, the legitimacy of Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” has since been somewhat tarnished, or at least called into question, by the revelation that he may have had help—Bobby Thomson always denied this was so—from spying eyes beyond center field at the Polo Grounds. 

The story well told in his book, The Echoing Green, Joshua Prager relates how Giants batters benefited at home when Durocher sent coach Herman Franks to spy on opposing catchers' signs through a powerful telescope from the Giants' center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, beginning on July 20. It was from that point that Thomson, who had been in a season-long batting funk that forced him into a platoon situation, came alive at the plate. He also resumed playing regularly on that very day as a replacement for Hank Thompson at third base after Thompson suffered a grievous injury that sidelined him for virtually the entire rest of the season.

Monte Irvin's hitting, however, carried the Giants at least as much as Thomson's. And Irvin had been hitting all year. At the time Durocher's spy operation went into effect, Irvin was batting .302, had 12 home runs, and his 61 runs batted in led the team. He finished the year with 24 home runs—second on the Giants to Thomson—121 RBIs to lead the league, and a .312 batting average.

When Durocher was canvassing his clubhouse to get his team's buy-in, quite likely making the point as an offer they could not refuse, Monte Irvin, according to Prager, had the temerity to tell his manager he didn't need extra help to be a dangerous hitter. Irvin proved his point, less by continuing to hit well at home (3 home runs,16 RBIs, and a .300 batting average from July 20 till the end of the season), than by going into other team's ballparks and tearing the place apart. 

In 39 road games after July 20, Irvin hit .340 with 9 home runs and 44 runs batted in. Irvin's productivity in road games was critical because not only did the Giants play more away games after July 20 than at home, all but seven of their scheduled games in the final month were on the road—where they did not have their unique Polo Grounds advantage—and they still had to make up a big deficit to catch the Dodgers.

In the three-game playoff to decide the pennant with the Dodgers, Irvin had one hit in each game, including a home run in the first game when the Giants got the jump on Brooklyn by beating them in Ebbets Field. So dramatic were the Giants' pennant drive and the Thomson home run to win it all that the ensuing World Series against the all-mighty Yankees was almost an afterthought. The Giants lost in 6 games, but Monte Irvin hit .458 (11 hits in 24 at bats) to lead both teams, got on base in exactly half of his plate appearances (also the best on both teams), and stole two bases—including home with guardian Yogi Berra making a desperate lunge to tag him out. Unlike Mr. Berra's insistence till the end of his days that Jackie Robinson, in another World Series steal of home plate against the Yankees, was out—OUT! OUT!—Yogi did not say the same about Monte Irvin's theft.

Based on the wins above replacement metric, Monte Irvin was only the fourth-best position player in the National League in 1951, after Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Ralph Kiner. But especially given his clutch performance in the final two months of the season—Irvin hit .338 with 11 home runs and 49 runs batted in—when his team had to make up a seemingly insurmountable deficit against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a strong argument can be made that Monte Irvin was the Most Valuable Player in the National League. The Giants surely would not have won without his exceptional productivity.

Monte Irvin wound up with only five first-place votes for MVP, second-most in the balloting, and finished third overall in the voting. Brooklyn's Roy Campanella, who had 33 home runs, 108 RBIs, and a .325 average, won the award by a land slide, getting 11 first-place votes. Stan Musial finished second overall.

Through no fault of his own, Monte Irvin did not have the major league career that by rights should have been his. That does not change that he was one of the greatest players of his generation, and one of the best of all time.






Thursday, December 17, 2015

THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN

Commissioner Manfred did not deliver Pete Rose the holiday gift he had hoped for. Rose is still officially banned from having any role in major league baseball, other than appearing at certain events. Although Manfred made clear there was a distinction between Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame, for all intents and purposes Rose's continued banishment from the game means he will continue to be banished from consideration of being honored with a plaque in Cooperstown. Notwithstanding his great career, the sin of having bet on games—including betting on his team when he was manager—is too great to overcome. It is worth being reminded of why.


The Unforgivable Sin

Baseball, then indisputably America's national pastime, was dealt a devastating body blow in the closing days of the 1920 pennant races when the news broke that Chicago White Sox players had conspired with high-stakes professional gamblers to fix games in the 1919 World Series. They included three of Chicago's four starting infielders, two of the three starting outfielders—including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson—two  of the team's top three starting pitchers (and the third, Red Faber, was ailing and so unable to pitch in the Series), and a marginal bench player who, having heard about it, wanted in on the action.

Gambling, including wagering on the outcome of any kind of contest, was also an American pastime—one that was longstanding, although of course no one would say such a thing since gambling was decidedly less wholesome than baseball. Baseball as an institution was not at the time blind to at least the potential of players conspiring with gamblers to fix games, and probably should not be accused of having turned a blind eye to the problem. But baseball as an institution did not effectively grapple with players’ willful association with gamblers and allegations, often by teammates, of players being involved in not always playing “honest ball.”

The most notorious of the "dishonest" players—indeed, the player who defined corruption in the game—was Hal Chase, said to be a superb defensive first baseman and a charmer when it came to dealing with people, although one would have been advised to check one's wallet and count one's fingers after being in his presence. When he starred for the Highlanders (before they adopted "Yankees" as a nickname) from 1905 to 1912, Chase was said to "lay down" on his teammates and tried to entice a few to play along. Nothing could be proven, however, and American League President Ban Johnson took no action against him. 

When he played for the Cincinnati Reds—with whom he won a batting title in 1916—allegations of his playing to lose some games caused his manager, the esteemed paragon of morality Christy Mathewson, to suspend him in 1918 and National League President John Heydler to convene a hearing. With Matty off to serve his country in World War I and so unable to present his case, there was only hearsay testimony about his corruption, a few glowing testimonials on what a great fellow he was, and Chase got off scot free. But not for long. Heydler banned Chase from ever again playing in the National League in 1919 based on evidence he was able to obtain of Prince Hal's perfidy from a Boston gambler.

The Black Sox scandal forced major league baseball to do something about the betrayal of the public's trust in the national pastime. Fans trust that the games are not fixed. Betting on baseball by its participants—whether players or managers—compromises the integrity of the game precisely because they can effect the outcome of games. 

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was named Commissioner in the midst of the scandal playing out in a court of law and who demanded absolute authority in overseeing the integrity of the game, made it his mission to restore the public's trust in professional baseball; as a federal judge, he had once called the game a "national institution." He acted quickly and decisively in permanently banning the eight Chicago players for their role in conspiring to throw World Series games on behalf of big-time gambling interests. It did not matter to him that all eight were acquitted at their trial:

  • Even if the trial jury chose to ignore or dismiss the grand jury confessions of Shoeless Joe and pitching aces Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and the evidence against the others—which was particularly weak in the case of third baseman Buck Weaver, who like Jackson played well in the Series—the new Commissioner did not.
  • It mattered little to Landis whether or not they really played to lose, which they all denied doing. In fact, that issue was irrelevant as far as the former federal judge was concerned. 
  • The grand jury confessions and evidence spoke to their agreeing to conspire with high-rolling gamblers to lose World Series games, or knowing about the plot, and that was all that mattered to Landis.
  • Even had they not affected the outcome of any game by their play on the field, their agreement to compromise the integrity of games for a payout, whether or not they received any money, was to defraud major league baseball's interests—and fan expectations—that games are played honestly and championships honestly earned. And that was unacceptable.
"Just keep in mind," concluded the Commissioner in his statement announcing his decision, "regardless of the verdict of juries, baseball is entirely competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game."

Ever since, organized baseball's edict against betting on baseball has been fiercely uncompromising. It has to be, because the integrity of the game depends on it. The sin of betting on baseball is irredeemable for anyone involved in baseball. 

That said, baseball is a game that honors its past. The sinner may be forever banished from further participation in the great game of baseball, but his name is not erased from the record books, nor his achievements airbrushed out of the game's history. 

Pete Rose, with his record ten 200-hit seasons and record 4,256 hits, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, with his .356 lifetime average (third highest in history), are indisputably two of the greatest players to take the field and will always be remembered as such despite their fall from grace. And while neither is likely to ever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, in that great museum in Cooperstown, NY, can nonetheless be learned what they did on the diamond when they were among the best of their time.




Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration

Rowman & Littlefield has just published my book on major league baseball in the 1950s, The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration. Narrative themes include integrationespecially the opportunities for blacks who were not elite players to compete for starting positions against whites of comparable ability; the Yankees and Dodgers many years of triumph; the powerful impetus for expanding the geographic reach of the major leagues, resulting in the first movement of franchises in half-a-century and leading inexorably toward expansion; the growing sophistication in structuring pitching staffs, the use of relief pitchers, platooning, and position-player substitutions; and the 1950s not being as boring in the style of play as has been the accepted wisdom. I also provide an in-depth analysis of the impact of Giants manager Leo Durocher's center field-clubhouse spy operation on the 1951 pennant race and Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen's decisions in the Bobby Thomson-home run playoff game.

The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: 
A Time of Transition and Integration

by Bryan Soderholm-Difatte

I hope you will find this book on the key developments in the era a thoughtful examination from a different perspective.

Chapters are as follows:

  1. The Arc of Integration
  2. Boston's Postwar Dynasty That Wasn't
  3. End of the Player-Manager Era
  4. Enter Stengel the Grandmaster
  5. Last of the Titans and Baseball's Expansion Imperative
  6. Brooklyn's Answer to New York
  7. Durocher the Spymaster
  8. Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office
  9. The Age of Enlightenment About Relief Pitching
  10. Slow-Walking Integration
  11. Exit the Grandmaster
  12. Consolidating Integration and the Importance of Hank Thompson
  13. The Brooks Lawrence Affair
  14. The Braves' New World
  15. "Perfessor" Stengel's Controlled Chaos Theory of Platooning
  16. Diversity and the Los Angeles and Chicago Speedways
  17. Coming to Terms With Integration

Monday, November 2, 2015

Baseball Humbles Superheroes and Sentiment

As the baseball world processes the World Series just ended—including the Kansas City Royals’ persistence, contact-hitting prowess, and relentless pressure on defenses—the New York Mets might consider whether they bought too much into the “Dark Knight” Batman superhero persona that their ace Matt Harvey has embraced and brings to the mound. After all, right or wrong, manager Terry Collins’s decision to yield to Harvey’s “no way!” demand that he not be removed after eight superlative innings in Game 5 of the World Series with the Mets nursing a slender 2-0 lead in an elimination game for them will be debated long into the winter, and then some. Rather than leaving the mound a conquering hero with a complete game victory to send the Mets and the Series back to Kansas City, Harvey failed to get an out in the ninth, the Royals tied the score, went on to win in 12 innings, and are now World Series champions.

Baseball Humbles Superheroes and Sentiment

Fifty years ago, with the 1965 World Series tied at two games apiece, Sandy Koufax pitched a complete game, 4-hits-allowed 7-0 shutout in Game 5 over the Minnesota Twins. No thought was given to him coming out of the game, despite the Dodgers’ big lead. Three days later, Koufax surrendered just 3 hits in another complete-game shutout to win Game 7 and the World Series. This time the lead was just 2-0, and despite pitching in near-exhaustion, again there was not a thought to bring in relief ace Ron Perranoski, whose 8 saves in September alone were critical to the Dodgers’ winning a close pennant race.

But that was a different time, a time when it was a given that self-respecting top-ranked starting pitchers finished what they started. Ask Don Drysdale (20 complete games in 1965), if you don’t believe Sandy Koufax (27 complete games and 336 innings pitched that year). These are different times, one where closers dominate the end-game, especially in must-win games that are close, like 2-0, in the last inning. In addition to their vaunted trio of young guns—Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard—the 2015 Mets have a top-flight closer in the person of Jeurys Familia.

Harvey had not completed a game all year. He has just one complete game in 65 major league starts, a shutout in 2013. In today’s day and age, there is absolutely no disgrace to not finishing the game. Finishing games to protect a 2-run lead is the closer’s job. And moreover, while the presence of deGrom and Syndergaard meant Harvey would not be asked to pitch Game 7 on two days of rest as Koufax did in 1965, he would have been ready to do his best Madison Bumgarner imitation in Game 7—which surely the Royals would not have wanted to see for the second year in a row—if it came down to that.

But the controversy over his innings limits in his first year back from Tommy John surgery put Harvey in the middle of the argument between his agent and his general manager. Harvey’s awkwardness in handling the issue left a perception that he was more concerned about himself than his team, hardly becoming of the Dark Knight who would sweep away the Mets’ enemies. And so there was “no way!” Matt Harvey wanted out of that game, no matter that he had a Tommy John arm, had thrown over 100 pitches in the game, and Familia was warmed up and ready to close out the Royals so the Mets could get on their plane to Kansas City.

Sometimes, however, the interests of the team should take precedence over the macho posturing and desires of its best players, even the Dark Knight. That is the manager’s responsibility, and Collins acknowledged as much in his post-game remarks. With only a two-run lead in a game the Mets could not afford to lose, and with Familia—like most closers—most comfortable coming in to start an inning rather than to put out a fire not of his making, this was one of those times where, after his eight superb innings, it was time for Commissioner Collins to tell his Dark Knight:

We Metropolitans in Gotham are enormously grateful for what you have done to show these KC devils, who have drained our lifeblood with interminable paper cuts, that they cannot prevail. I realize they are not yet dead and buried, but it is time now for us to relieve you of the burden of finishing the job. At least for today. Rest assured, I will use my best man—Mr. Familia—to close this thing out. We will not lose this battle of Metropolitan good versus Royal evil, and we'll see what the next few days will bring. If we need you, O Dark Knight, to save the day on Tuesday or Wednesday—the day of the Final Judgment—to permanently vanquish these guys, I know where to reach you. And if needed, you WILL be called.

Instead, the Dark Knight insisted on finishing the job himself, and the Commissioner bought into it. “I let me heart get in the way of my gut,” said Collins.

This is the kind of thing where you just hope that everybody recovers from the ugly events that transpired. Especially that Matt Harvey, having put his Tommy John arm at risk, hasn't compromised his future and does not allow his stampeding his manager into an ill-advised decision to haunt him in the year ahead when his excellence will be needed for the Mets to return to the World Series.

And that Terry Collins be remembered for the superb job he did in guiding a team that was beset with injuries to key players and with virtually no offense worthy of the name for two-thirds of the season to an upset of the overwhelmingly-favored Washington Nationals in the National League East. Sure, the Nationals had their share of injuries, but the Mets overcame third baseman and team captain David Wright and catcher Travis d’Arnaud both missing more than half the season on the disabled list, a top-of-the-rotation ace, Zack Wheeler, missing the entire year with his own Tommy John surgery, as did lefty reliever Jerry Blevins, and would-be-closer Jenrry Mejia suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. Collins put the Mets in position to win it all—right up until he allowed the aura of the Dark Knight narrative, and sentiment, to get in the way of his better judgment.


Welcome back in 2016, New York Mets. Your opening day opponent? The Kansas City Royals.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Post-Season No At-Bat Commonality: Mr. Rodriguez, Meet the Olympian and Mr. Boyer

In the National League Wild Card Game, Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez suffered the indignity, if you wish to call it that, of being in his team’s starting line-up and then being removed for a pinch-hitter before his first plate appearance. Two players who undoubtedly felt his pain in post-season competition were the great Olympian Jim Thorpe and Clete Boyer.

The Post-Season No-At Bat Commonality: Mr. Rodriguez, Meet the Olympian and Mr. Boyer

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to start Rodriguez at first base in the single-elimination Wild Card Game for the right to advance to the NLDS instead of Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh’s regular first baseman, because Jake Arrieta was on the mound for the Chicago Cubs. Arrieta, as we all know, has had a second-half of the 2015 season that is probably unprecedented in the annals of major league history. He’s been virtually untouchable.

Hurdle’s entirely reasonable calculus was to put in his strongest defensive line-up behind Pirates ace Gerrit Cole since Arrieta’s excellence placed a premium on limiting the Cubs to as few runs as possible—zero, if at all possible. Alvarez hit 27 home runs in 2015, but defensively was enough of a liability—23 errors in 907 innings at first—that he was replaced for defensive purposes in 69 percent of the games he started. His replacement most often was Sean Rodriguez, who made just 1 error in the 327 innings he played at first.

Cole falling behind by 3-0 in the third inning, however, laid waste to his manager’s best laid plans. Facing such a mammoth deficit against Arrieta and with Rodriguez due to lead off the Pittsburgh 3rd, Hurdle decided in favor of offense and sent up Alvarez to bat instead, thereafter to remain in the game at first base. Sean Rodriguez, after three innings in the field, never got an at bat. Alvarez, for his part, was a strikeout victim in all three of his at bats in the game. Arrieta K’d 11, but only Alvarez went down on strikes three times.

To whatever extent Rodriguez was stewing over his manager’s decision, he might perhaps take solace in the fact that the same thing happened to Jim Thorpe, then an outfielder for the New York Giants, in the 1917 World Series, five years after he blew away the track-and-field competition in the 1912 Olympics, winning Gold in both the pentathlon and the decathlon to become the most celebrated athlete in the world. Or if not Thorpe, how about the Yankees’ Clete Boyer in the 1960 World Series? Both of them were pinch hit for in games they started before having a chance to hit for themselves.

The circumstances were different in each case, however.

Jim Thorpe did not get his turn at bat because of his manager’s commitment to platooning in the starting line-up. His manager was, of course, the great John McGraw. Acquired from the Reds in mid-August, Thorpe became the right-handed half of McGraw’s right field platoon with the left-handed Dave Robertson. He sat on the bench the entire first four games of the 1917 World Series because the Giants’ opponents, the same Chicago White Sox team that would disgrace itself two years later, had started all right-handers—Red Faber twice, and Eddie Cicotte twice.

The White Sox started southpaw Reb Russell in Game 5, and so McGraw put Thorpe into his starting line-up, batting sixth. But with the Series tied at two games apiece, White Sox manager Pants Rowland quickly concluded Reb didn’t have it this day after giving up a walk, a single, and a double to the first three batters he faced. So Russell came out, and right-hander Cicotte came in. When it came Thorpe’s turn to bat, with two outs (both thrown out at the plate on ground balls to the infield) and two runners on, McGraw decided to play the percentages and sent up the left-handed Robertson to pinch hit. Robertson came through with a single to drive in a run.

It being that this was the top of the first, Thorpe did not get so much as even one inning in the field. The White Sox went on to win that game, then started Faber in Game 6—so Robertson was back in the starting line-up—which was another Chicago victory to end the World Series. Thorpe did not play in Game 6.

Clete Boyer was in Casey Stengel’s starting line-up at third base, batting seventh, in Game 1 of the 1960 World Series in Pittsburgh. When his turn came to bat in the second inning, he was removed for Dale Long, pinch hitting, because the Yankees were losing 3-1. The Yankees’ first two batters had both singled, putting the tying runs on base, and with nobody out against Pirates’ ace Vern Law, Stengel—whose penchant for platooning and substituting for starting position players at almost any point in the game was a hallmark of his Yankees managerial career—decided this was his best shot not only at overcoming an early deficit but also at taking command of the game and even the World Series with a Game 1 win. Long made out, but out of the game was Boyer. The veteran Gil McDougald went in to play third base for the rest of the game.

Boyer, however, unlike Thorpe, did get to play an inning in the field—the bottom of the first. Boyer played again in the 1960 World Series. He came into Game 2 as a defensive replacement and started Games 6 and 7. He was in at the end of all three games. In 12 at bats, Boyer had 3 hits—all for extra bases (two doubles and a triple).

Thorpe and Boyer were playing in their very first post-season game when they were ignominiously removed for a pinch-hitter before even one at bat despite being in the starting line-up, and so would have to wait for their first post-season at bat. For Jim Thorpe, that never happened. His entire World Series history turned out to be being written into McGraw’s Game 5 starting line-up, but never actually appearing on the field of play, either at bat or defensively. 

As for Clete Boyer, because he had the privilege of playing for the New York Yankees when they won five straight pennants from 1960 to 1964, he got to play in 27 World Series games, starting the last 25 he appeared in beginning with 1960 Series Game 6.

Perhaps Sean Rodriguez is miffed by his manager's decision, but Tuesday’s Wild Card Game was not his first in the post-season. He appeared in 12 previous post-season games—eight of them starts—during his years with the Tampa Bay Rays.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

On October 4, 1955sixty years agoJohnny Podres retired the Yankees in order in the last of the 9th at Yankee Stadium to complete an eight-hit 2-0 shutout in Game 7 that finally, after seven previous Brooklyn visitations to the Fall Classic, ended the "wait till next year." Podres, who also won Game 3 to prevent the Yankees from taking a three games-to-none lead in the '55 Series, was the World Series MVP. But it was an exquisite defensive play by Sandy Amoros that saved the day for the Flatbush Faithful, which might not have happened if not for the decision to pinch hit for Don Zimmer.

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

When the late, great Yogi Berra, then managing the 1973 New York Mets, said in the midst of a pennant race in which his team was lagging in August, "It's not over 'til it's over," he most assuredly was not thinking about the 6th inning of Game 7 in the 1955 World Series. 

That’s when, with Yankee runners on first and second and nobody out, Sandy Amoros made a great catch at the left field fence after a long run to rob him of an extra-base hit that would have tied the score at 2-2. Savvy veteran Gil McDougald, the runner on first, was so certain Berra's drive would be a hit and so determined to score, that he failed to consider it might actually be caught. But catch it Amoros did. He immediately fired a strike to cut-off man Pee Wee Reese, whose throw to first doubled off McDougald before he could scramble back.

And thus was the game and the World Series over before it was over, regardless of any philosophical musings to the contrary by Mr. Berra.

A key part of the lore and majesty of that moment is that Amoros had just entered the game to play left field. This has usually been described as a prescient move by Dodgers manager Walt Alston. 

But Amoros was put into the game at that precise moment, just in time to make the most important defensive play of the World Series, less because Alston had an inclination to upgrade his defense than because he had just pinch hit for starting second baseman Don Zimmer with the bases loaded, two out, and the Dodgers ahead 2-0, in the top half of the inning in a bid to put the game away. Stengel had relieved left-handed starter Tommy Byrne with right-handed Bob Grim two batters earlier, and Alston judged the left-handed George Shuba as the better bet to break the game open than the weaker-hitting, right-handed Zimmer. 

Shuba, in his last at bat in a major league game, made out, after which Alston moved Jim Gilliam from left to replace Zimmer at second, and put Amoros in to play left. Gilliam was the Dodgers' Mr. Versatility. He had replaced Jackie Robinson at second base in 1953, with Jackie moving to play third and occasionally left field, and had started the '55 season playing second, but Alston used him increasingly in the outfield as the season drew to a close when Amoros, who had started the year in left field, was mostly sidelined because of his struggles at the plate.

These moves were consistent with the 1950s baseball renaissance in platooning and substituting for position players based on the game situation that was brought back into prominence by Alston's rival in the Yankee dugout—one Mr. Casey Stengel. (The heyday of both practices, particularly platooning, had been in the 1920s.) 

Alston, however, then in his second year as Dodgers manager, was not yet anywhere near Stengel’s zip code when it came to substituting for position players in his starting line-up. Stengel made 211 position-player substitutions during the regular season (much fewer than the record-setting 286 he made in 1954), while Alston made only 106, which was also below the National League average of 127. That might be because the Dodgers’ faced only 55 left-handed pitchers all season.

The Dodgers also faced only 11 southpaw starting pitchers in 154 National League games, so Alston had little opportunity to platoon even if that was something he was inclined to do. But two of the Yankees’ top starting pitchers, Whitey Ford and Byrne, were left-handed, causing Alston to bench the left-handed-batting Amoros, who was now being platooned, in favor of right-handed infielder Zimmer in the eighth spot of his batting order in three of the four games Stengel started his southpaws. Gilliam, the Dodgers' lead-off batter, was in the starting line-up for every game of the Fall Classic, in left field when Zimmer played and second base when Amoros played. 

Until Game 7, Alston had substituted for a position player just once in the Series, in the sixth game. But that was a move made necessary when Duke Snider twisted his ankle on a sprinkler head making a catch in center field in the third inning. Those darned Yankee Stadium outfield sprinklers . . . let us not forget Mickey Mantle was maimed by one during the 1951 World Series. Snider was back in the line-up for the Series finale, although the sprained ankle may have contributed to his 0-for-3 day.

Anyway, with Stengel starting Byrne in the finale, the right-handed-batting Zimmer was in Alston's Game 7 starting line-up, and the left-handed-batting Amoros not. And after Stengel changed pitchers, Alston pinch hit for Zimmer the first chance he had, necessitating a defensive replacement, which meant Gilliam moving to second and Amoros replacing Gilliam in left field.

That series of moves came just in time to save the game for the Dodgers, helping them to secure their first World Series triumph, which turned out to be their only World Series championship in Brooklyn.

Postscript: Neither Zimmer nor Amoros had the career they or the Dodgers envisioned. 

Sandy Amoros was a brilliant prospect who led the International League in batting with a .353 average in 1953, when he played for Brooklyn's top Triple-A team in Montreal. In the majors, however, Amoros had difficulty hitting lefties. Playing in only 517 major league games, mostly between 1954 and 1957, Amoros was almost exclusively a platoon-player against right-handed pitching, starting just six games against southpaws in his career—three of them, plus Game 6, in 1955—and had only 92 plate appearances against lefties. 

Zimmer had difficulty hitting anybody, perhaps because of a horrific beaning in 1953, when he was a hot prospect with the Dodgers' Triple-A team in St. Paul, that left him unconscious for 10 days with a fractured skull. Don Zimmer was never a star player, but went on to become a cherished baseball figure as a manager and, ultimately, as the wise confidant to Joe Torre when Torre was building his Hall of Fame managerial credentials in the Yankee dugout.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): Before "Next Year"--the Dodgers Vexed World Series History

The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees had vastly different post-season histories as they squared off in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series at Yankee Stadium on September 28. The Yankees had been to 20 World Series and won 16 of them. The Dodgers did not win any of the seven World Series they had played, the last five of which were all against the Yankees. And their Fall Classics history seemed particularly vexed, because it always seemed that some odd eventor Billy Martindid them in.

Before "Next Year: Brooklyn's Vexed World Series History

1916: After the Dodgers—then known as the "Robins" after their manager, Wilbert Robinson—lost the opening game of their first World Series to the Boston Red Sox, the two teams battled into the 14th inning of Game 2 in Boston. Both starting pitchers, Sherry Smith for Brooklyn and some guy named Babe Ruth for the Red Sox, were still in the game. After Ruth retired the Robins in order in the top of the inning, Smith walked the lead-off batter, who went to second on a sacrifice bunt, from where he scored on a walk-off single by Del Gainer, pinch-hitting for veteran third baseman Larry Gardner. Gainer was strictly a bench player, but was sent up to hit for the left-handed-batting Gardner, whose .308 batting average was fifth in the league, as a percentage move against the southpaw Smith. Gainer's game-winning hit was his only plate appearance in the 1916 World Series.

Down two games-to-none, Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets caused some controversy by banishing the Red Sox' band of Royal Rooters (a real band) to the far reaches of his ballpark when the Series moved to Ebbets Field, which may or may not have helped his team win Game 3. The Robins took a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 4, only to watch the aforementioned Mr. Gardner slide under the catcher's tag with a three-run inside-the-park home run. (There was no New York review.) The Red Sox won the game, and the next day the Series as well when the teams returned to Boston, where the Royal Rooters put up a celebratory hoot.

1920: Now oh-for-one in World Series competition, Brooklyn was back in the Classic in 1920, against the Cleveland Indians. With the Series tied two games apiece in Game 5 in Cleveland, the Indians jumped off to a 4-0 lead in the first inning when their first three batters touched future Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes for singles to load the bases and clean-up hitter Elmer Smith hit the first grand slam in World Series history. And the Indians still had all 27 outs to play with. 

Later in the 5th inning, as if that World Series first was not enough to victimize the Dodgers—still called the Robins—they hit into the first and only unassisted triple play in World Series history. With runners at first and second, and behind 7-0 in the score, Clarence Mitchell, a very good-hitting pitcher who had relieved the ineffective Grimes, hit a line-drive that seemed destined to land safely in center field—except that second baseman Bill Wambsganss leaped to his right and snared the drive for the out. Both Robins took flight for the next base when the ball was hit—it sure looked like a hit—allowing Wambsganss to touch second to double-up the lead runner and tag out the runner from first, standing just off the keystone sack, for unassisted out number three.

The Robins were shut out the next two games and were now oh-and-two in World Series play. Brooklyn did not return to the Fall Classic for 21 years, during which time the Robins went back to being called the Dodgers once Wilbert Robinson retired.

1941With the Yankees and Dodgers tied at a game apiece, Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher called upon his ace reliever, Hugh Casey, to hold the Yankees at bay in a scoreless tie in Game 3 at Ebbets Field. Casey gave up four consecutive singles and wound up the losing pitcher.

The next day, having entered the game in the sixth inning, Casey was protecting a 4-3 lead that would have tied the Series and had the Yankees down to their last strike—which he got, except that strike three got passed catcher Mickey Owen and Tommy Henrich reached first base, whereupon Casey proceeded to unravel, surrendering a single, a walk, and a pair of doubles that resulted in the Yankees winning the game. The Series mercifully ended the next day, the Dodgers never again with a lead.

1947: Jackie Robinson tormenting the Yankees with his base-running, Al Gionfriddo’s robbery of Joe DiMaggio causing the normally unflustered Yankee Clipper to kick the dirt, and Cookie Lavagetto’s two-out last-of-the-ninth double not only breaking up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter but turning him into the losing pitcher were Brooklyn highlights in the 1947 World Series. But Yogi Berra had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, Bobby Brown went three-for-three as a pinch hitter, and Joe Page pitched five scoreless innings allowing only one runner to reach base to win Game 7 and send the Dodgers to their fourth straight World Series defeat.

1949Don Newcombe, 17-8 in his rookie year with Brooklyn, was dominant for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, making history as the first black pitcher to start in the Fall Classic. He shut out the Yankees through eight innings, giving up just four hits and striking out 11. Unfortunately, Allie Reynolds was just as good for the Yankees. Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth for the Yankees and hit a home run to defeat Newcombe, 1-0. The Dodgers won the next day by the same score, but Brooklyn lost the Series in five games. This game was the undeserved beginning of criticism that Newcombe had a tendency to choke in big games.

1952The Yankees and Dodgers met again in the 1952 World Series. The Dodgers had a 3-games-to-2 advantage, lost Game 6, and in the bottom of the 7th of Game 7, trailing by 4-2, loaded the bases with just one out . . . and did not score a single run. Their last hope died on a popup around the pitcher’s mound that looked for sure like it would drop for a cheap game-tying hit when the Yankee first baseman lost the ball in the sun and the pitcher just stood there. But to the rescue came Billy Martin, charging in from his position at second base, losing his hat racing to the interior of the infield, and making a knee-high catch to end the threat. The Dodgers did not threaten again, and were now oh-for-six in World Series play.

1953It was Billy Martin to the Yankees’ rescue again the next year. This time it was the Yankees batting in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 with a 3-games-to-2 advantage, the score tied 3-3, runners at first and second, one out, Dodgers ace reliever Clem Labine on the mound, and darned if Billy the Kid doesn’t slap a game-winning, World Series-winning, single up the middle. It was his 12th hit of the Series, tying a record, and his 8th run batted in.

The Ebbets Faithful always consoled themselves with, "Wait till next year."

But the Dodgers were up against the Yankees once again in 1955. And wasn’t it just their luck that Billy Martin had returned from his service commitment in September, just in time to help the Yankees win the ’55 pennant and play in the World Series.