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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Appreciating Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra has passed away, beloved by multiple generations of baseball fans. As much as his assorted "Yogi-isms" were such a delight and made him an American cultural icon beyond baseball, and though the culture often had fun with his seemingly unathletic physique, Berra was very much an athlete—strong, faster than he looked, especially in his youth, and quickand one of the great players of his generation. He played in 14 World Series and managed in two, one with the Yankees and one with the Mets. And he was a man of great dignity and personal integrity, best revealed the two occasions he was fired as Yankee manager. His death comes almost exactly forty years to the day after that of his managerial mentor, Casey Stengel.

Appreciating Yogi Berra

There were four catchers in the debate about the best in history at the time Berra made the Yankees for good in 1947, alternating his rookie season between catcher and the outfield. Three were contemporaries in the late-1920s through the 1930s—Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs, Mickey Cochrane of the Athletics and then the Tigers, and the Yankees' Bill Dickey—and the fourth was 19th century catcher Buck Ewing, one of the earliest entrants into the Hall of Fame

There was no question the Berra kid could hit. The Yankees were still debating what position he should play, however, when Dickey took charge of "learning me his experience," as Yogi put it in one of his earliest Yogi-isms. The two made for an odd couple, at least by appearance—the tall, lanky, statesman-like Bill Dickey at 6-1 and 185, and the short, stout, arguably-neanderthalish Berra at 5-7 and also 185. Anyway, Berra proved a superb pupil and, appearances notwithstanding, had the athletic attributes Dickey could leverage in learning the seemingly awkward kid his experience.

While Mickey Mantle was the superstar when the Yankees dominated the American League in the 1950s, Yogi provided critical ballast. He was a dangerous hitter to complement the Mick, made more so by his uncanny ability to hit pitches out of the strike zone that might have been meant to set him up or throw him off-stride. Perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of championship baseball, Berra was a fine defensive catcher and savvy handler of the Yankee pitching staff, and his leadership and knowledge of the game caused Mr. Stengel to call Yogi his "assistant manager." 

In the 10 years from 1949 to 1958, while the Yankees were winning 9 pennants, Berra hit at least 20 home runs every year, with a career-high 30 in both 1952 and 1956. He drove in over 100 runs five times, including four seasons in a row from 1953 to 1956. All this while playing baseball's most demanding position, long before the armor and accoutrements of the modern catcher. And he was durable. In the seven years from 1950 to 1956, Berra caught at least 137 games every year. He was in at the finish of 93 percent of the games he started.

Indicative of his value to the Yankees, Yogi Berra won three MVP Awards, in 1951, 1954 (when, ironically, the Yankees did not win the pennant), and 1955—sixty years ago—which is the focus of most posts on Baseball Historical Insight this season. Beginning in 1958, when he turned 33 but already had nearly 1,500 major league games under his belt, Berra was typically platooned behind the plate with Elston Howard, which nonetheless meant he had by far the most catching responsibility because he was the left-handed-batting half of the platoon. His playing career began winding down in 1960, when he began alternating between catching and playing left field. Howard became the Yankees' regular catcher in 1961, and Berra a valuable part-time catcher-outfielder.

Berra took over as the Yankees' manager in 1964 and retired as a player. In a very eventful season that included the Phil Linz harmonica incident, the most important thing is that he led the Yankees to a pennant they won by a single game after the team looked lost for much of the summer. After falling in seven games to the Cardinals in the World Series, Yogi was gracelessly fired, in a decision that had apparently been made when the Yankee struggles earlier in the summer raised questions about his leadership abilities.

As manager of the Mets, Berra is most remembered for saying “it ain’t over till it’s over” when the 1973 Mets were in last place in mid-August, and then managing his team to the division title and into the World Series by beating an early iteration of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine (winners of 99 games to the Mets’ 82) in the NLCS. Alas, his team was once again on the losing side of a 7-game World Series. But perhaps Berra's best Mets legacy was holding the team together in trying circumstances in 1972 when he took charge following the death of their beloved manager Gil Hodges, who suffered a massive heart attack in spring training. 

Returning to the Yankees as a coach after being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra got to manage the entire 1984 season for George Steinbrenner, not without having to endure considerable Boss interference. He was summarily dismissed just 16 games into the 1985 season, with Steinbrenner sending his GM to do the dirty workan event that said much about the relative integrity of both men and ruptured his relationship with the Yankees for nearly the entire rest of the 20th century.

Bill James in 2001 concluded that Yogi Berra was the best catcher in baseball history. Ahead of Hartnett, Cochrane, and Dickey who came before. Ahead of Campanella who was a contemporary. Ahead of even Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ivan Rodriguez who came later. Given that Joe Mauer, despite having won three batting championships as a catcher, caught 100 games in only five of his 10 big-league seasons before moving over to first base, and that this year will mark only the fourth time Buster Posey has caught 100 or more games, it seems safe to conclude that James's judgment still holds: Yogi Berra, baseball's best catcher ever. 

A final thought: Casey Stengel exited this world on September 29, 1975, almost exactly 40 years ago. Not only was Stengel a mentor to Berra as a leader and game-manager, just as Dickey was to Berra's catcher's skill set, but they were two of the game's most colorful personalities in the use of language—both of whose clever, confusing, confounding words contained (when pondered) some profound meaning, observation, or immutable truth. 

Yogi, of course, was the master of the one-line quip; Casey of the telling anecdote, although each could do the other. They would have made for a great vaudeville act, which was not an uncommon off-season gig for some of the higher-profile names in baseball in the early days of the 20th century. They could have had a dueling banjos kind of act between Stengel-speak and Yogi-speak.

Of course, we were now in the middle of the 20th century. Still, it would have been fun.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): The Yankees Win . . . With 2 Games to Spare

For the 1955 Yankees, it came down to game 152, on September 23, with just two left on the schedule. Taking on the Red Sox in the second game of a doubleheader, they claimed a 3-2 victory after losing the opener to officially win the American League pennant for the sixth time in Casey Stengel's now seven years as their manager. Except for their 1953 pennant, which they won by 8 games, all of their pennants so far in the Stengel era had come down to the final few games.

(1955): The Yankees Win . . . With 2 Games to Spare

When last we left the American League pennant race, on September 13, the Yankees despite Bob Turley's 5-hit shutout of the Detroit Tigers trailed the Cleveland Indians by two games. They had 11 games remaining, and the Indians were left with nine. Cleveland was on a mission to become the first team not named the New York Yankees to win back-to-back AL pennants since the 1934-35 Tigers of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Tommy Bridges, and Schoolboy Rowe. 

The Yankees had won 103 games in 1954, more than in any of their five straight pennants under Stengel from 1949 to 1953, but that was eight fewer than the Indians, and so, no six in a row. They were determined to get back to their expected, assumed, even presumed rightful place in the baseball universe—the best team, period.

But there were no more head-to-head match-ups between the two contenders, so the Yankees were going to have to focus on winning their own games and hope that the Indians would stumble in their few remaining games. They might have considered whether their fate would be the same as Cleveland's back in 1952. In that year, the Indians entered the final month of September trailing the Yankees by just two games, but with only one chance to take on the Yankees face-to-face—in the middle of the month. That Indians team preceded to have their best month of season, with a 19-5 record. Despite that, however, they ended the final month of the 1952 season exactly where they were at the beginning of September, two games behind the Yankees, because the New Yorkers matched the Clevelanders win-for-win and had the same 19-5 September record. (FYI: The Yankees won their lone match-up in September.)

The Yankees' two-game deficit at the end of the day on the 13th was their largest in four months, since they were 2½ down back on May 15. They so far had spent the entire month of September in second place, keeping pace with the Indians They began each of the first nine days of the month just half-a-game behind. But Turley's 6-0 shutout of the Tigers was the first of eight straight winstheir longest winning streak of the yearthat put them in a position to take the pennant with just one victory in their final season series, four games in Boston.

While the Yankees were winning eight in a row—two against Detroit, a three-game sweep of Boston in New York, and a three-game sweep of the Senators in Washington—the Indians had lost five of six to be suddenly on the brink of elimination at the start of play on the 23rd. Now trailing by 3½, with only three games left against the Tigers in Detroit and the Yankees with four in Fenway Park, Cleveland needed to win out and hope the New Yorkers lost all four of theirs just to end the 154-game schedule with identical 94-60 records and force a playoff for the pennant.

The Red Sox were not a team from which much was expected in 1955. After their disastrous end to the 1949 seasonwhen they went into Yankee Stadium for two games on the last weekend of the schedule with a one-game lead, needing to win just win to go to the World Series, and lost both games (and the pennant)and inability to make up for a poor start to the 1950 season, ending up just four games behind the Yankees, Boston had become mostly irrelevant in the American League. It surely didn't help that their star shortstop Vern Stephens hurt his knee in 1951 and was never the same again; that their star second baseman Bobby Doerr retired after the 1951 season; that their star third baseman Johnny Pesky was traded away in 1952; that their star center fielder Dom DiMaggio retired in 1953; and that their star of stars, Ted Williams, was flying combat missions in Korea in 1952 and 1953.

Although the Red Sox were technically a first-division ball club in 1954 by virtue of their fourth-place ending, they finished a whopping 42 games out of first place with a losing 69-85 record. Williams, who had threatened to retire after the 1954 season, was a no-show for spring training in '55 and did not join the club until late May, after his very contentious divorce was settled. Without their Splendid Splinter in the line-up, the Red Sox started poorly, but soon after his return, they began winning at a league-best torrid pace. A 41-17 record in June and July brought the Red Sox into contention, and on August 7 they were within a game-and-a-half of first, although still in fourth place. 

As late as September 7, the Red Sox were still ostensibly in the pennant chase, in fourth place but only three out. Then reality caught up with Boston. Twelve losses in the next 14 games, including three in a row at Yankee Stadium, revealed the true Red Sox of 1955, and when the Yankees came into Boston for the final four games, the Bosox were a distant 12 games out. They were, however, a team with a winning record . . . and a chance to play the role of spoilerif they could beat the Yankees in all four games, set up as a Friday doubleheader, an off-day Saturday, and a Sunday doubleheader.

The Indians were off on Friday and could only hope that when they took the field again on Saturday for the first of their final three games, that the Yankees had lost their Friday doubleheader. After Boston won the opening game, 8-4, the Yankees scored twice in the first inning of the second game to take a lead they would not relinquish on their way to a 3-2 win. Stengel called on Whitey Ford in relief when starter Don Larsen gave up a run in the seventh, and Jackie Jensen took Ford deep in the eighth, but the Yankee southpaw retired the Red Sox in order in the ninth to put an end to the 1955 American League pennant race.

The Yankees proved once again in the Stengel era that they were at their best in games they had to win. Until they completed their three-game sweep of Boston at Yankee Stadium on September 18, the Yankees had played 12 games since the beginning of the month with first place directly at stakemeaning they began the day's game either tied for first (once, on September 16), no more than a game ahead (they had last been in first place on August 28), or no more than a game behind (nine times they started half-a-game out of first, and twice they were one game out). They were 9-3 in those games to keep the heat on Cleveland. In their first four pennant races under Stengel, all of which went down to the wire, the Yankees were 30-15 in September games with first place up for grabs.

The World Series was now set. The New York Yankees would take on the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been waiting patiently to see who would win out in the American League since clinching the National League way back on September 8. 

The two teams had a history. Not one that the Dodgers wanted to be reminded of. 

But. . . 

Maybe this would be . . .

. . . Next Year.