Monday, August 3, 2015

Billy Pierce

Billy Pierce passed away on Friday. One of baseball's premier pitchers in the 1950s, the southpaw Pierce, along with his teammate Minnie Minoso, was among those players from major league baseball's "golden era" being considered for Cooperstown immortality last year by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee. Neither player, nor anyone else on the list for that matter, was voted in. But Billy Pierce surely had much to commend him, even if his lifetime 211-169 (.555) record and 3.27 ERA are not on-the-surface Hall of Fame-impressive.

Billy Pierce

Acquired from Detroit in 1949 in what turned out to be a steal of a trade, Billy Pierce was the first piece in the Chicago White Sox building momentum towards ending their decades of baseball purgatory occasioned by the ignominy of the eight Black Sox who conspired with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. Just as Minnie Minoso's arrival in 1951 became the foundation of the "Go-Go" Sox, Pierce was the cornerstone of a first-rate pitching staff that was essential for the White Sox to compete with the Yankees and Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant.

By 1955, the White Sox were ready to enter the fray in the pennant race. As readers of Baseball Historical Insight know, this year we are focused on that season—sixty years ago—but this article is not part of that series. It's a reminder of how good Billy Pierce really was. Suffice it to say, Pierce had one of the best years of his big-league career that year. He ended up the season with a record only 15-10, but he led the league with a 1.97 earned run average—far better than anyone else in the bigs—and was the best pitcher in the major leagues in 1955, at least according to the wins above replacement metric for pitchers. Pierce had back-to-back 20-win seasons each of the next two years. When the White Sox finally beat out the Yankees for the AL pennant in 1959, Pierce was only 14-15 with a 3.62 ERA, and did not get a start in the World Series, although he pitched in three of the six games in relief.

With all due respect to Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce was probably the best southpaw in the American League in the 1950s, if not the league's best pitcher, period. He stood only 5-10 and was slight of build, but Pierce was an agile and highly coordinated athlete whose compact motion enabled him to sizzle fastballs past batters. He led the league in strikeouts in 1953 and in strikeouts-per-nine-innings in both 1953 and 1954. The only two pitchers in major league baseball with more accumulated pitchers' wins above replacement in the 1950s were Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts, both in the other league.

If he had pitched for the Yankees, who dominated the American League in his years with the White Sox by winning pennants in all but two of them, Billy Pierce almost certainly would be in the Hall of Fame—joining his fellow small-stature lefty who did pitch for the Yankees, the aforementioned Mr. Ford. Let's pick up from 1953 and not include 1949, the year before Ford first wore pinstripes; 1950 when Ford did not arrive on the scene until July and pitched only 112 innings; and the two following years that Ford spent in the military as a draftee during the Korean War:

  • From 1953 to 1961, with Pierce pitching for Chicago and Ford in New York, Whitey Ford's record was 149-62 and Billy Pierce was 137-95. That's a very big advantage for Ford.
  • And Ford's .706 winning percentage relative to the Yankees' .625 for those nine years was appreciably better than Pierce's .591 winning percentage relative to the White Sox' .572. Notwithstanding that the Yankees were a much better team than the White Sox, that's another very big advantage for Whitey Ford.
  • But with 33.4 pitcher's wins above replacement, Billy Pierce was by that advanced metric a more effective pitcher than Ford, whose pitcher's WAR was 29.8.
  • And Pierce accumulated 2,044 innings pitched those nine years; Ford's total was slightly less at 1,925.
None of this is to say that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s, let alone more deserving. And the performance distance between the two widens when one considers Ford's excellence from 1962 to 1965, during which time Billy Pierce's career had come to an end after three years in San Francisco.

Pierce was 16-6 for the Giants in 1962, however, without which his new team would not have won their first pennant in San Francisco, which required winning a three-game playoff against the Dodgers. Surrendering only three hits, Pierce shut out the Dodgers in the opening game of the playoff showdown, beating Sandy Koufax. Two days later, he pitched a shutdown ninth inning after the Giants scored 4 runs in the top half of the inning at Dodger Stadium to take a 6-4 lead, sending San Francisco to the World Series. After losing Game 3 of the Series, giving up 2 runs in the seventh of what had been a scoreless game before being relieved, Pierce beat Whitey Ford in Game 6, surrendering just 3 hits, to force a decisive Game 7—the one that ended with Willie McCovey hitting that vicious line drive right at Bobby Richardson.

Again, none of this is to make an argument that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s . . . but had the White Sox been able to beat out the Yankees a time or two more for the pennant during those years, well       . . . Billy Pierce might well have been honored in Cooperstown last weekif he hadn't already been before.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Newcombe Again

On the last day of July in the 1955 season, the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers gave the St. Louis Cardinals an 11-2 beat down at Busch Stadium (the new name for Sportsman's Park since beer magnate August A. Busch had bought the Cardinals). The Dodgers not only ran their record to 73-32 and their NL lead to 13½ games, but made a winner of Don Newcombe for the 18th time. Newcombe had lost only once all season, and his earned run average was 2.95.

Newcombe Again

This is the 15th article in a continuing series on the 1955 season, and the third with a focus on Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe. This might seem a bit excessive, but Newcombe's was a compelling story that year, especially because he had struggled mightily in his first year back from two years in the service of his country during the Korean War. In his first three major league seasons before being drafted, Newcombe had won two-thirds of his decisions in quickly becoming the ace of the Brooklyn staff. His record going into the Army was 56-28 with a 3.39 earned run average. He was in his prime.

But his return in 1954 was less-than-stellar. Newcombe was not the imposing, intimidating, go-the-distance pitcher he was before he changed uniforms to that of the USA. After averaging 261 innings and completing 56 percent of his 102 starts from 1949 to 1951, Newcombe in 1954 made just 25 starts, was in at the end of only six of them, and threw only 144 innings—not enough to even qualify for the ERA title, as if his 4.55 earned run average was anything but extraordinarily disappointing for a pitcher of whom so much was expected. His record was 8-9. And the Dodgers, who won back-to-back pennants the two years he was serving his country, did not win in 1954. If anything, Carl Erskine, whose 14-6, 20-6, and 18-15 records led the Dodgers in wins each of the three previous years, had perhaps the best claim to being Brooklyn's top pitcher as the 1955 campaign started up.

At first it looked like 1955 might be a repeat of '54, even though he won his first two starts of the season. Newcombe's ERA in the opening month of April was 5.50; he benefited from terrific support from his Boys of Summer teammates, who tallied 27 runs in the first three games he pitched, while Newk himself gave up 14.

Then he got his swagger on. Newcombe won all five of his starts in May, four of which were complete games, and added a sixth victory pitching two shutout innings of relief at the beginning of the month. His ERA for May was 1.80. Including that win in relief, Newcombe started the season 10-0 before losing to the Cubs at home on June 12th. He was done in by a 6-run 4th inning, with a two-out three-run home run by Harry Chiti the big blow. Although five of those runs were unearned, Newcombe really didn't have it this day.

Since then, Newcombe had made 11 starts and won 8 without a loss. His record in June was 5-1 with a 2.14 ERA. Including his victory against St. Louis on the last day of the month, Newcombe was a perfect 5-0 in July with 5 complete games. Unfortunately for his ERA that month, he was roughed up for 11 earned runs in five innings in the two games he did not complete, both games that the Dodgers won anyway. And he also had a poor outing in relief at the beginning of the month in which he gave up three runs in 1.2 innings wrapping up a Dodgers loss. His earned run average for the month was officially 4.01, but take away those three bad outings and Newcombe pitched to an exceptional 1.80 ERA in his 5 complete-game victories.

The bottom-line, however, was not only that Don Newcombe was back to being an elite starting pitcher, but that he was every bit the Brooklyn Dodgers' stopper. His team had lost only 2 of the 22 games he started, and he personally was the losing pitcher just once. Seven of his 18 victories came after Dodger losses. One stopped a four-game losing streak in May—their longest of the season until September—and another stopped a three-game skid around the All-Star break. Newcombe had completed 13 of his 22 starts, and 15 of his starts were so-called "quality starts."

If there was a criticism to make, it was that Newcombe had a propensity for giving up the long ball. Through the end of July, Newcombe had surrendered a total of 69 runs, both earned and unearned—39 of which trotted home on 23 home runs. That was more home runs than he had given up in any of his first three big-league seasons before he was drafted, and one shy of the 24 he gave up in all of 1954. In his victory against the Cardinals to close out July, home runs by Red Schoendienst and Stan Musual accounted for both runs St. Louis scored that day. In six of the games he pitched, home runs accounted for all the runs scored against him.

After Newcombe's victory against St.Louis to run his record to 18-1, it was 103 games down for the Dodgers and 51 left to go. Even if the second-place Braves were to win two-thirds of their remaining games, the Dodgers could have a losing 22-29 record the rest of the way and still prevail. It may not have been August 11th yet—the anniversary of when the Brooklyn Boys also led by 13½ (up on the Giants) in 1951—but the Dodgers had only two games more on their schedule than the 49 remaining four years before. This time, the Dodgers would take nothing for granted.

Don Newcombe started only 9 more of the Dodgers' 51 games, with a 1-3 record and 3.20 ERA in August and a 1-1 record and 5.23 ERA in September. Having thrown 213 innings going into the final month after just 144 innings in 1954, and zero innings the two years prior to that because he was in the Army, Newcombe appears to have run out of gas. 

Even so, Newcombe finished 1955 with a 20-5 record to lead the league in winning percentage; his 20 wins were second to Robin Roberts' 23; his 3.20 earned run average was second in the league to Pittsburgh's Bob Friend (2.82); he led the league by allowing only 1.1 runners on base by hit or walk per inning; and he finished seventh in the National League MVP voting.

The following year, 1956, it would all come together for Don Newcombe, when his 27-7 record and 3.06 earned run average merited him not only the NL Most Valuable Player Award, but the first-ever major league Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in the game.

Monday, July 27, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--White Sox Catch Up to the Yankees

After reliever Billy Pierce struck out Jerry Coleman in the bottom of the 9th at Yankee Stadium on July 28 with the bases loaded, the tying run at third, the winning run at second, and his team up by 3-2, the Yankees' lead that had been five games at the All-Star break, and as many as 6½ games going into July Fourth, was gone. The White Sox had pulled into a first-place tie with the Yankees. If the Dodgers were in no danger in the National League, there was now a full-fledged pennant race in the American League. This is the 14th article in a series on the 1955 season.

White Sox Catch Up to theYankees in 1955 Pennant Race

The Yankees went back to the baseball wars sluggish following the three-day All-Star break. On a western swing that took them to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Kansas City they had lost 8 of 12 games. The Indians, playing at home, had won 8 of 12 to close to within a game of the Yankees on July 24.

The White Sox, starting the second half of the season in third place, 6 games behind, but playing at home, cut that down to a game-and-half with six straight wins (including two doubleheader sweeps) against the Orioles and Senators—both bad teams—in their first four days back in action. Temporarily knocked back by consecutive losses, they beat the Yankees twice at home and then the Red Sox to reach the top of the AL standings, along with New York, on July 22nd. Boston, however, won two of the next three games in their series.

So now the White Sox were off to take on the Yankees again . . . in New York . . . having won 10 of 14 since the break . . . down one game in the standings . . . tied with the Indians.

Starting pitching was one of the Chisox' strengths singled out in SI's 1955 pre-season preview, although Robert Creamer identified the staff's depth—"once you get past the big men"—as "thin." The key "rookie hope," wrote Creamer, was Dick Donovan, "a veteran minor leaguer," who in fact was having quite the rookie season. Well, technically he wasn't a rookie, having pitched 62 innings in the big leagues for the Braves and the Tigers over parts of four seasons prior to this one. Anyway, Donovan's 10-2 record and 2.38 ERA at the break was good enough to get him named to the AL All-Star team. 

Donovan was the first Chicago pitcher to take the mound when the White Sox showed up at Yankee Stadium on July 26 for a three-game series. He was now 13-3 on the year, but had won his last seven starts, including winning all three of his starts against the Yankees since June. After limiting the Yankees to 9 hits and 4 runs in 17 innings in his first two victories, the Yankees roughed him up a tad in their last meeting, scoring 5 runs on 9 hits off him in 6.1 innings just six days before at Comiskey Park—a game the White Sox won anyway, 8-6. It was Donovan's 13th win, and this was his first start since that game.

This time, Donovan was superb. He pitched a complete game, giving up only one run, but Yankee starter Tommy Byrne (8-2 coming into the start) was nearly unhittable, although he did have his usual control issues, walking five while striking out three. Yogi Berra smacked Donovan for his 17th home run of the year in the sixth inning . . . and that was all the scoring to be had that day.

The White Sox were now two games back, though still in second place, but might have been forgiven after such a tough loss for thinking that maybe the Yankees were about to take off again, especially since they would be facing Eddie Lopat (who may have been 4-7 and was in his last year but had quite the reputation of big-game pitcher in recent years to fall back on) and Bob Turley.

Pitching for Chicago against Lopat was Harry Byrd, whose most notable black ink in baseball record books was leading the AL in losses when he went down in defeat 20 times for the 1953 Athletics. Notwithstanding his winning 5-4 record coming into the game, Byrd had neither Lopat's credentials and his  4.47 ERA at the time was almost exactly a full run higher than Eddie's 3.49 earned runs per nine innings. It was Lopat, however, who failed to survive the third inning, henpecked by five singles—including four in a row to knock him out of the game—that gave Chicago a lead they would not surrender, and Byrd who pitched into the eighth inning for the win. They now trailed by one.

Even so, Connie Johnson, who started the season in the minor leagues but who had pitched well in five starts (2-1) since being called to Chicago at the beginning of July, against Turley (one of the Yankees' aces with an 11-8 record at the time) for the final game of the series seemed a mismatch to New York's advantage. This time an unearned run in the first and a two-run home run by Walt Dropo in the third gave the White Sox a 3-0 lead that Johnson held until the ninth. 

Dropo, whose 33 home runs, league-leading 144 RBIs, and .322 batting average with Boston in 1950 not only made him AL Rookie of the Year but seemed to presage a great career, never lived up to expectations and had become a journeyman player, being traded by the Red Sox to the Tigers and now to the White Sox. SI's pre-season analysis considered his acquisition an important one for the Chisox chances since he had a power bat that the speed-based White Sox desperately needed. This was his 14th home run of the season, and Dropo wound up leading the team with 19.

Anyway, back to the game, the White Sox leading 3-0 on the back of Dropo's blast. A single by Berra and Mantle's 22nd home run to start the last of the ninth was a reminder of just how dangerous the Yankees could be. After the next batter reached on an error, manager Marty Marion brought in his best pitcher—Billy Pierce—to get the final two outs. It took some work, but after two walks (one intentional after a sac bunt) that loaded the bases, Pierce finally did. And the White Sox were back in a practical tie for first place, although statistically they were .002 percentage points in front.

With a 59-38 record, it was 97 games down for Chicago with 57 to go; for the Yankees at 60-39, 'twas 99 down and 55 to go; and the 59-40 Indians were only one game behind, also with 55 to go.

As for Dick Donovan, two days later he wound up hospitalized when his appendix flared. He did not make another start until August 21, but picked up where he left off, with a complete-game victory against the Tigers giving up just two runs, only one earned, to run his record to 14-4. Whether the appendicitis had taken too much of a physical toll, or perhaps he came back too soon, Donovan pitched poorly in losing his next five starts before shutting out Kansas City in his final start of the year. It was Chicago's next-to-last game of the season, by which time their third place destiny was sealed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

60 Years Ago--No Spahn Sighting in Brooklyn

The Milwaukee Braves pulled into Brooklyn on July 22 in second place for what would be a make-or-break-the-season four-game date with the Dodgers. Having played 92 games to a less-than-impressive 50-42 record for a second-place team, the Braves had only 62 to go and trailed by 13½. Anything less than winning three of four would likely be the kiss of death to their season, but the Braves did not have Warren Spahn, their ace, slated to start any of those games. With good reason.

60 Years Ago—No Spahn Sighting in Brooklyn

Even if the Dodgers' 22-2 start to the season was a crippling blow to what was expected to be the breakthrough season for Milwaukee, 1955 had been monumentally disappointing for the Braves. The Braves had finished second (by 13 games to the Dodgers) in 1953 and third (8 games behind the Giants and 3 behind the Dodgers) in 1954—their first two years in Milwaukee after leaving the Red Sox to their lonesome in Boston—and were considered by some to be the favorite to win the National League in 1955.

By all accounts, they were expected to be in this thing till the end, win or lose. But the Brooklyn Dodgers, aging Boys of Summer though they might have been in 1955, had a 9½-game advantage after just 24 games and, refusing to relent, had widened their lead. The Braves were mostly a disappointing .500 team until mid-June when 10 wins in 12 games, including two of three from the visiting Dodgers, created some separation from the break-even mark, but notwithstanding a six-game winning streak right before the All-Star break, Milwaukee had returned to playing mostly .500 ball since then.

Ebbets Field was the last stop of a four-city eastern swing the Braves began after their home city, Milwaukee, hosted major league baseball's annual All-Star showcase. They began the break having reduced their deficit to the Dodgers from 14½ to 11½ games on the back of their aforementioned six-game winning streak. Unfortunately, it appears that the three days off broke their momentum. They split two games in Philadelphia, split four games at the Polo Grounds, and then lost two of three in Pittsburgh.

Both the Braves losses in Steel City were Pirate walk-offs, the first one in especially gut-wrenching fashion. It was with 19th inning. The Braves had scored in the top half of the inning to break a 2-2 tie on a single by Chuck Tanner—remembered, if remembered at all these days, for having managed the "We Are Fam-i-ly" Willie Stargell-led Pirates to the World Championship in 1979—only to lose the game in the bottom of the 19th on a double by Dale Long that tied the score and an error by Braves' catcher Del Crandall, who failed to hold onto the ball on a play at the plate as Long barreled home on a subsequent hit.

For what it's worth, Pirates starter Vern Law pitched the first 18 innings, facing 64 batters. There is no record of his pitch count. Braves starter Lew Burdette went eight and Ernie Johnson threw seven innings in relief, but all eight of Milwaukee's starting position players—including the surely exhausted Crandall—played the entire game. All four hours and forty-four minutes of it. It was a long day, not made any better the next day—July 20—when the Pirates won on a bases-loaded pinch-hit single that ended a 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth. Crandall again caught the whole game.

The Braves had now lost for the fifth time in the first eight games of the road trip. Warren Spahn salvaged the final game in Pittsburgh with a 5-3 complete-game victory, but the Brooklyn-bound Milwaukee-ans had lost two games in the standings to the Dodgers, who began their post-break schedule with six wins in nine games.

Going into their most important series of the season, manager Charlie Grimm's rotation against the Dodgers called for Gene Conley, whose 11-6 record at the time was the best on the staff, to pitch on Friday; Bob Buhl, 7-7 with a 3.18 ERA, on Saturday; and in the Sunday doubleheader, Lew Burdette, disappointing so far in 1955 with a 7-5 record and 4.25 ERA (down from 6.65 at the end of May), and Ray Crone (4-4 / 3.54 mostly in relief). Having just pitched in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Spahn was not in line to pitch in this all-important series.

Say what? The Braves best pitcher and a historically-great pitcher in the middle of his best years in the 1950s not pitching in a series that meant . . . everything to Milwaukee? Seriously?

Perhaps the great Warren Spahn was not having the kind of season expected of a pitcher who was a 20-game winner in five of the past six seasons, including the Braves' first two in Milwaukee. His record was only 8-10 following his victory in Pittsburgh, and his ERA at 3.76. He had yet to win more than two consecutive starts and had done so only twice, and just once since starting the season 2-0. He had twice lost three starts in a row. But still, Spahn was the staff ace and a money pitcher.

Perhaps more remarkably—for those of us looking back 60 years with the knowledge that Warren Spahn won 363 games in his career, won 20 games 13 times, including six in a row from 1956 to 1961, and led the league in wins eight times—Spahn had not pitched in any of the Braves'  nine games against the Dodgers so far in 1955. And for good reason. The Brooklyn Dodgers owned Warren Spahn. And had for many years.

Spahn had not had a winning record against the Brooklyn Boys since the Braves' pennant-winning season of 1948, back when they were still in Boston and "Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain" was the prevailing mantra. He was 4-2 against them that year. Since then, he was only 6-17 in 26 starts against the the Dodgers. The Boys had so much his number that Spahn made only three starts against them in 1953, going 0-2, and did not start any games against Brooklyn in 1954 and pitched against them just once in relief. That was after losing all five of his decisions to the Dodgers in 1952. He had not beaten Brooklyn since 1951.

More specifically, since 1949 the Dodgers had a collective .276 batting average against Spahn. All the other teams were batting only .235 against the Braves' stellar southpaw. Brooklyn, of course, had formidable right-handed hitters—including Jackie Robinson (.351 with 7 home runs off Spahn since 1949), Pee Wee Reese (.347 against Spahn), Gil Hodges (.329 against Spahn with 4 home runs), and Roy Campanella (perhaps only .274 against Warren since 1949, but with 3 home runs and 13 RBIs).  

But it was even worse for Spahn at Ebbets Field. The last time he won a game before the Brooklyn faithful was way back in 1948. Since then he had made only 11 starts at Ebbets, had lost 9 games without a win at Ebbets, and had 47 earned runs in 85 innings in the Dodgers' lair. Just so there's no confusion on the point, that's an 0-9 / 4.98 record for Spahn at Ebbets Field since 1949, and he had made only two starts in Brooklyn's lion's den (for him) since 1952.

It turned out, in fact, that Warren Spahn would make only one more start against the Dodgers before they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, and never again took the mound at Ebbets Field. He surely felt no nostalgia for the place when it finally met the wrecking ball in 1960.

As for that four-game series at Ebbets Field, the Braves won two, the Dodgers won two, and Milwaukee failed to make a dent on Brooklyn's 13½-game lead. With 96 down, the Braves now had just 58 games remaining on the schedule. Although their deficit was the same as the Giants famously faced with many fewer games left to play in 1951, the Braves certainly could not count on history repeating itself. The Dodgers weren't going to let that happen. Not again. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

All-Star Break 60 Years Ago: Yankees Poised to Put '55 Pennant Race Away

At the end of play on Sunday, July 10, 1955, when the major league baseball season adjourned for the annual All-Star Game, the pennant races in both leagues had a clear favorite to advance to the World Series. On the strength of their 22-2 start to take a 9½-game lead as early as May 10, the Dodgers were just biding time till October. They had been playing a bit ragged of late, having lost 7 of the 13 games they had played so far in July, but Brooklyn was very comfortably 11½ games out front of Milwaukee. The Yankees had a more modest five-game lead heading into the break, but also looked to be likely unstoppable. This is the 12th article in a series on the 1955 season60 years ago.

All-Star Break 60 Years Ago: Yankees Poised to Put 1955 Pennant Race Away

Less than a month earlier, on June 18, it looked like the American League might witness a tight three-team race when the White Sox pulled into a first-place tie with the Yankees after winning the first two in a four-game set at the Baseball Cathedral in the Bronx otherwise known as the Yankee Stadium; Cleveland was just 2½ behind the New Yorkers and Chicagoans. But the Yankees swept the White Sox in their Sunday double-header—the start of a stretch in which they won 12 of 13 to assume a 6½-game lead over second-place Chicago on July 2. And at eight games off the pace in third place, the defending AL-champion Indians looked like they might not put up much of a fight in defense of their 1954 bragging rights.

Seven of those wins were against the teams with the three-worst records in the American Leaguethree against Kansas City (in sixth place), two against Baltimore (in last place), and two against Washington (in seventh). But in addition to their two wins against Chicago to start that streak, the Yankees had also taken three at home from the Indians, against whom they also lost their only game between June 18 and July 3. Cleveland had come into Yankee Stadium four games behind; they left six games out.  

The Yankees won just three more games before the All-Star break, all against the Senators in Washington on the final weekend before the season was adjourned, but had lost just a game-and-a-half of their lead. At the break, their record stood at 55-29, and four Yankees made the All-Star team, with Mantle and Berra voted into the starting line-up. 

The two other Yankee All-Stars were their top two pitchers—lefty Whitey Ford, whose record was 10-4 with a 2.69 ERA at the break, notwithstanding having given up eight runs in eight innings in his last two starts, and Bob Turley, whose shutout of the Senators on July 9 gave him an 11-7 record and 3.06 ERA to take into the American League All-Star clubhouse. Ford's recent ineffectiveness wound up extending to the All-Star Game, played in Milwaukee, when he came on to pitch in the seventh inning with the AL leading 5-0 and surrendered the lead without surviving the eighth. The NL won the game, 6-5, in the 12th on a Stan Musial walk-off home run.

Although each had highlight moments vs. the Yankees' two principal rivals for the pennant, Ford and Turley both had losing records against the White Sox and Indians. Ford was 1-2 in four starts against Chicago, but his win was a 1-0 seven-hit shutout on May 17. He had also thrown a four-hit shutout against Cleveland on June 26. The Indians had otherwise roughed up the slick lefty, however, hammering Ford for 13 runs in 10.1 innings covering another start and two relief appearances; he was the losing pitcher in only one of those debacles, however.

And Turley was 1-2 in three starts vs. the White Sox and 0-2 in two starts vs. the Indians. His one win was a one-hitter on April 26 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Sherm Lollar got the only hit, a second-inning single. Turley was less than sharp in his one-hit shall we call it a masterpiece (?), walking nine (that's "9") batters, striking out 10, and throwing an uncounted but presumably outrageous number of pitches. He was helped out by three double plays turned by the Yankee infield.

The Indians and White Sox both had five players named to the AL All-Star team. Chicago second baseman Nellie Fox was voted into the starting line-up and Billy Pierce, with only a 5-6 record but an excellent 2.11 ERA, was selected to start. White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar, shortstop Chico Carrasquel, and pitcher Dick Donovan, who had an outstanding 10-2, 2.38 mark at the break, rounded out the Chicago contingent to the AL All-Stars. 

Cleveland had nobody starting in the game, but position players Bobby Avila (second base), Al Rosen (third base), and Larry Doby (center field) made the team, as did rookie phenom Herb Score—whose record was only 8-7 but was setting the league afire by striking out more than a batter an inning—and Early Wynn (11-4, 2.71) as pitchers. Wynn had beaten the Yankees in complete games in all three of his starts against the team that seemed poised to run away with the title. 

The Yankees' 6½-game lead on July 2nd and July 3rd, despite their 5-0 loss that day to the visiting Senators, would be their biggest of the season. Their loss to Washington began a stretch straddling the All-Star break in which they dropped 13 of 18 to lose the entirety of their All-Star-break lead by July 23. On that date, the White Sox had moved into a tie with them for first and the Indians had closed to within a game of the top. It was now 94 games down for the Yankees with a 57-37 record and 60 to go. Cleveland had the same number of games remaining on their schedule after July 23, and Chicago had 62 left.

Monday, June 29, 2015

60 Years Ago in 1955: Jackie's June Renaissance

In the bottom of the 10th at Ebbets Field on June 30, the Dodgers trailing the Giants 5-4 with one out and the tying run on third, Jackie Robinson caught the Manhattan team flatfooted with a bunt that not only tied the score but resulted in him reaching first base as the second baseman, covering first, botched the play. The Dodgers were excellingthey in fact were ahead of the pace the Chicago Cubs were on at the same point in the schedule when the Cubs won 116 games in 1906but Jackie had been struggling. He was 36 years old, not exactly a favorite of manager Walter Alston  (nor Alston a favorite of his), and seemed near the end of his ground-breaking career. This is the eleventh article in a series on the 1955 seasonsixty years ago. 

Jackie's June Renaissance

In his preview of the 1955 season for Sports IllustratedSI's first ever, since the magazine was still less than a year oldRobert Creamer, making mention of "the sad decline of Jackie Robinson last season" and noting that "age is catching up with the whole team," predicted the Dodgers would "now run with the pack rather than with the leaders."

As to the first part of Creamer's prediction, "sad" may have been perhaps too strong of a word. Plagued by the assorted ailments that suddenly seem to swamp even elite athletes once they reach a certain age, Robinson played in only 124 games and had just 465 plate appearances in 1954. But he did hit over .300 for the sixth consecutive year. That said . . . his was a weak .311 batting average. For the first time in his career, Jackie fell well short of 100 runs scored, crossing the plate only 62 timeswell shy of his previous low of 99 runs scored in 1950and his 59 RBIs were far less than the his typical totals in the mid-80s.

Robinson had started the year batting fourth, his place in the order when Charlie Dressen last graced the top step of the Ebbets dugout, but wound up near the tail end of rookie-manager Alston's 1954 line-up. Indeed, Jackie's relationship with the stolid Walter Alston had been tense and fraught with misunderstandings from the very beginning because his new manager was inclined to believe that age had indeed caught up with Mr. Robinson.

Perhaps most disconcerting to Dodger watchers, the 1954 Jackie Robinson seemed tired and less aggressive than before, not playing the assertive game that was associated with his name. After averaging 24 steals in his first seven years, Robinson swiped just seven bases in 1954. Allan Roth, the Dodgers' statistical guru whose data analysis went beyond the numbers on the back of bubblegum cards, thought that, despite his .311 average, Robinson was no longer an impact player. "He failed to deliver in clutch situations," he said.

But as to the second part of Creamer's pre-season prognostication, about the Dodgers running back in the pack, well . . . Brooklyn was proving him not only wrong, but way wrong:

Even though they had just been shut out by the Braves on June 26, the Dodgers were in absolute command of the 1955 NL pennant race with a 50-18 record when they returned to Ebbets Field to take on the Giants for a three-game set beginning on June 28. Their lead of 12½ games actually seemed bigger than that because the Cubs were hanging in secondas were their Chicago counterparts in the other league, behind the Yankeesand nobody expected the Cubs to stay there for long. The Dodgers' real challengers were the Braves, 13 behind in third, and the defending-World Series-champion Giants were a colossal disappointment at 33-36, 17 games behind in fourth place.

But the Dodgers were having their season of potentially-epic proportions without much contribution from Jackie Robinson. He had gotten off to a good start batting as high as .308 at the end of April, but on May 22 his average was down to .227. His place in the batting order had gone from sixth, to seventh, to eighth by the end of May. Despite all that, however, Robinson had remained in the starting line-up as the Dodger third baseman, having started all but 12 of Brooklyn's first 68 games (although one of his starts was in left field). Neither Don Hoak, who started at third in 12 games, nor Don Zimmer, the starting third baseman in one game, had given much reason for Alston to swap out Robinson.

Creamer had written that Hoak and Zimmer, among the Dodgers' young guns, were going to have to come through to make up for the declining performance of Brooklyn's aging veterans if the Ebbets faithful expected to see their team in a pennant race. Hoak had hit .245 in his rookie year of 1954, but so far in 1955 his batting average was a less-than-inspiring .224, brought low by a .214 month of May . . . and he was under .200 for the month of June. Zimmer had just 7 hits in 18 games, only one of which had come since April.

The Dodgers won the opening game of their series with the arch-rival Giants on June 28, with Robinson going 2-for-3. His home run off Giants' ace Sal Maglie in the second put Brooklyn on the Ebbets scoreboard, tying the score. Robinson went 1-for-3 the next day against Ruben Gomez, the Giants winning, and 2-for-4 on June 30, not including his unexpected bunt that brought home the tying run. The Dodgers won the next inning, and . . .

. . . it was now 71 down and 83 games to go for the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. Their record was now 52-19. Their lead over Milwaukee remained at 13 games.

Jackie Robinson was batting .286 as June turned to July and had played in all but 11 of the Dodgers' games, including once as a left fielder and once as a pinch hitter. Assorted aches and pains, however, limited him to playing in only 45 games with just 33 starts in Brooklyn's 83 remaining games on the schedule. Manager Alston's decisions to frequently bench him at the start of games may have taken into account not only his ailments and wanting to preserve as much of a healthy Robinson as possible for the presume-we'll-be-there World Series, but to give Hoak a chance to show what he could do for the Dodgers in the future, 

After hitting .338 in the month of June, Robinson hit just .217 in July (starting in just 6 of the Dodgers' 32 games that month), .208 in 12 starts in August, and .186 in 16 September starts. He wound up hitting .256 with 8 home runs (just 2 after June) and 36 RBIs (25 of them before July) for the season. 

Don Hoak made 45 consecutive starts at third from July 4th to August 21, during which Robinson started 7 times in left field, and Don Zimmer was regularly in Alston's line-up as the second baseman. Hoak hit .258 in the 53 games (49 starts) he played in July and August, but batted a mere .167 in the final month. Zimmer hit .294 in 32 starts in July before the reality of his major league abilities caught up with him; he was back below .200 (.191 to be precise) in 38 August appearances.

Friday, June 12, 2015

60 Years Ago: Cleveland Gives the 1955 Yankees a Reality Check

When last we left the 1955 Yankees, they had just when 19 of 22 games beating up mostly on the second-tier teams in the American League; gone from four games under to three games up; and seemed poised to run away with the pennant the way the Dodgers were doing in the other league. They were embarking on a stretch of 19 consecutive games against the AL teams with winning records, including eight with the White Sox and four with the Indiansthe two other teams expected to contend with the Yankees for the right to go to the World Series. If the Yankees were to be stopped from taking a commanding lead in the pennant race, this was the time. By June 12, their lead was down to 2½ games after losing three of four to the Indians.

Cleveland Gives the 1955 Yankees a Reality Check

After their sweep in Kansas City ran their record to 33-13 on June 2, the Yankees split their four games in Chicago and split four in Detroit but had still upped their lead to five games when they pulled into Cleveland on June 10 for a four-game series with the team that was the defending AL champions, and hence the must-beat team for the pennant. When Tommy Byrne outdueled Mike Garcia, 3-2, to win the opening game of the series, the Yankees' lead was 5½ over the White Sox and 6½ over the Indians. So far on the season, the pinstripers were 6-6 against their presumed primary competition for the pennant. (They were also 5-3 against the fourth-place Tigers, but Detroit was never presumed to be more than a pretend-contender for the throne.)

They were certainly holding their own against the AL's other best teams, but given their recent past ... was that enough?

Beginning when Casey Stengel took charge in 1949, the Yankees had made a habit of beating up the teams they were competing with for the pennant on their way to top honors. Until their blowout pennant in 1953their fifth in a row in the Casey Regimethat excellent habit was the foundation for winning four straight close pennant races, none of which were decided till the final week of the season.

In 1949 they won the pennant by a single game on the last day of the season, beating the Red Sox in 13 of their 22 meetings, including each of the last two games on their schedule. Then they won the World Series.

In 1950 the Yankees either won or split their season series with each of the three other American League teams that won 90 games that year. New York took the pennant by three games over second-place Detroit, against whom they split (11-11) but won two of three in mid-September to bump the Tigers from the top spot, then never themselves relinquished first place. They finished four over third-place Boston, against whom they were 13-9 including a two-game sweep later in September to essentially dash any Red Sox hopes still remaining. And they ended eight ahead of Cleveland, against whom they were 14-8 including a three-game sweep at the end of August that all but sealed the Indians' fate. Then they won the World Series.

In 1951 the Yankees took 15 of 22 against the Indiansa seven-game advantage that exceeded the five games by which New York beat them for the pennant. Then they won a third straight World Series.

And in 1952, the Yankees' final two-game margin of victory over the Indians precisely matched the two-game edge of their 12-10 record against Cleveland in their season series. Although the Indians were not eliminated until the next-to-last game of the season, it was the Yankees beating them three in a row in mid-June that sent them from being tied at the top of the standings to having to play catch-up forever thereafter in 1952. The Indians stayed close, caught up for one day in late August (another tie), and that was thatexcept for the Yankees winning the World Series part, which the New Yorkers had down pat by now.

The Yankees split their season series with the Indians in both of the blowout pennant races of the next two years, first when they outdistanced Cleveland by 8½ games in 1953 (after which, another Fall Classic triumph) and then when they lost by eight games to Cleveland in 1954. For good measure, they were 13-9 against 89-win, third-place Chicago in 1953 and 15-7 against 94-win third-place Chicago in 1954. (They split against the third-place, never-in-contention Red Sox in 1951 and were 14-8 against the third-place White Sox in 1952).

For the record, the Yankees did not lose a single season series against any American League team that finished second or third or won at least 90 games on their way to winning five-and-five-in-five from 1949 to 1953, nor did they when they didn't win the pennant in 1954.

In building their 5½-game lead this week sixty years ago, the Yankees up to now were 5-3 against the White Sox and, after Byrne's victory, 2-3 against the Indians. Had they taken two of the remaining three in Cleveland on Saturday and Sunday, the Yankees would have knocked the Indians 7½ backa staggering blow from which the Clevelanders might not have recovered. But instead it was the Indians who made the statement, "not so fast, guys, we're still playing for keeps. There will be no embarrassing failure to put up a fight for American League bragging rights."

On Saturday, Cleveland overcame five first-inning Yankee runs to knock out Eddie Lopat in the fourth and won the game on a two-out, ninth-inning walk-off single by 1954 batting champion, Bobby Avila, who was off to a sluggish start batting just .273.

In Sunday's doubleheader, they hammered Bob Turley for four runs in the sixth and six in the seventh to win the first game, and in the second game, the Indians scored three in the first off starter Bob Grim and four in the seventh off Whitey Ford on their way to a 7-3 triumph. The Yankees were still first, but their 5½-game lead was now down to 2½ over the White Sox and 3½ over the Indians.

For the Yankees, now 38-20, it was 58 games gone and 96 to go in the 1955 schedule of games for the American League pennant. The pennant race was on!

(Over in the other league, meanwhile, the Dodgers' lead was an imposing 10½ games with 56 down and 98 to go.)

Note: This is the tenth post in a series on the 1955 season. See earlier posts on Baseball Historical Insight.