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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sixty Years Ago: Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

While the Dodgers were running away with the 1955 National League pennant, their lead at 7½ games on June 2, the New York Yankees were threatening to do the same in the American League. After being swept at home by the Indians in a two-game series on May 10 and 11, which put them four games back of Cleveland in third place with a 14-10 record, the Yankees won 19 of their next 22 games against mostly second-rate teams to put themselves up in the standings by three games over the Clevelanders. Mickey Mantle, the Yankees' emerging superstar, broke out of a two-week batting funk to fuel his team's drive into first place.

Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

So far in 1955, the Yankees' season pretty much tracked with both Mickey Mantle's batting average and the quality of teams that they played. They won 7 of their first 10 games, all against teams with losing records in 1954—the Senators, Orioles, and Red Sox—in which their burgeoning young superstar center fielder hit .353. Over the next thirteen games, the Yankees had a pedestrian 7-6 record while Mantle hit only .167 with 8 hits in 48 at bats, although half of his hits were home runs. Three of his four long balls helped the Yankees to victory as they struggled to get untracked but fell behind both the Indians and White Sox. 

Against the three other American League teams that had winning records as of May 10—the Indians, White Sox, and Tigers—New York had lost four of seven. Chicago, meanwhile, had won seven of eleven against the Indians, Tigers, and Yankees and Cleveland had won seven of twelve against the White Sox, Tigers, and Yankees.

When the Yankees took the field in their home stadium on May 11 for the second of their two-game set with the Indians, they trailed Cleveland by three and Mickey Mantle's slump had diminished his batting average to .244 with six home runs and 14 RBIs through the first 23 games of the season. Early Wynn ran his record to 3-0 while handing Yankee flamethrower Bob Turley his first loss of the year against five victories, but Mantle came out his his slump in a losing cause, driving in a run with a first-inning single and tagging Wynn for a home run in the eighth. 

The Detroit Tigers, whose 15-11 record on May 11 put them in a virtual tie with the Yankees in third place, came next to Yankee Stadium. And Mickey Mantle reached deep to recover his inner superstar. Suggesting his batting slump was an anomaly, in the first game of the series the Mick went 4-for-4 with three home runs. It was the first and only time in his career Mantle hit as many as three home runs in a single game. Right-handed Detroit starter Steve Gromek was the victim for two and southpaw reliever Bob Miller for one.

The next day, the Yankees went into the bottom of the ninth trailing the Tigers, 6-4, with Detroit starter southpaw Billy Hoeft still on the mound. Down to their last out with two runners on, Mickey Mantle singled to score one, and right-hander Al Aber was brought in to face to the right-handed-batting Elston Howard, who already had one hit for the day. Howard lashed a triple to win the game, Mantle crossing the plate with the winning run.

After the Tigers left town, essentially having been eliminated from the pennant race (although they didn't know it yet), the Yankees had the privilege of playing 18 of their next 20 games against losing teams that were not expected to be remotely competitive.

Robert Creamer wrote in his 1955 forecast for the American League in Sports Illustrated's first-ever preview of a major league season that the key to which of the three most-likely contenders—the defending champion Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, whose bid for six championships in a row was derailed by the Indians' 111 wins in 1954, and the up-and-coming Chicago White Sox—would win the pennant was likely to come down to which team had the best record "against the other five teams." In 1954, for example, the Indians' final eight-game margin over the 103-win Yankees was more than accounted for by their 89 wins against "the weak clubs," twelve more than the Yankees managed against those same teams. The Yankees and Indians had played each other to a draw in their 22 meetings during the 1954 season.

The Yankees lost the first game in their window of scheduling-opportunity to the Athletics, but then won seven straight—one against Kansas City, both games against the visiting White Sox, and a four-game sweep of the Orioles. Mantle was instrumental in both Yankee wins against pennant-race rival Chicago: on May 17, Mantle (who also had a single) walked in the sixth inning, advanced to second on a walk to Yogi Berra, stole third, and scored the only run of the game as Yankees ace Whitey Ford (now 5-1) outdueled White Sox ace Billy Pierce (now 2-2); and the next day, with the Yankees ahead 7-6, Mantle hit a seventh-inning grand slam to break open the game.

Up by three over Cleveland after sweeping the Orioles, the Yankees lost to the Senators before winning the next three against them, then went on the road where they took three straight in Baltimore, split two in Washington, and trounced the Athletics three times in Kansas City. 

The Yankees won all four games they played against winning teams during their 19-3 stretch from May 12 to June 2—two against the Tigers and two against the White Sox—but, just as important and in a long-established Yankee tradition, beat up on losing teams. They were 4-2 against the Senators, 4-1 against the Athletics, and 7-0 against the Orioles—the teams that were sixth, seventh, and eighth all with winning percentages below .400 by the time the Yankees were through with them. They did what Creamer said they must.

Mantle got a hit in sixteen straight games beginning in the second game of the Indians series at Yankee Stadium, during which he batted nearly .500 with 26 hits in 53 at bats, boosting his average up to .341 on May 27. His .340 batting average for the month of May was his best for the 1955 season. 

Mickey Mantle ended the year with a .306 average, but got on base in 43 percent of his plate appearances, leading the league. The Mick also led the league in home runs for the first time with 37 and in triples with 11, and in slugging (.671) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.042). His 9.5 wins above replacement was the best in all of major league baseball—better even than Willie Mays who had a 9.0 WAR and was Mantle's rival for the apple of The Big Apple's eye. Next year, Mantle would win the Triple Crown.

With 46 down and 108 games to go, the Yankees record stood at 33-13, largely the result of having beaten up on second-tier competition in the American League. The Yankees, however, still had 18 to left to play against the team that had dethroned them in 1954. They had played arch-rival Cleveland just four times in having completed nearly 30 percent of their 1955 schedule, and had lost three of those games. 

Tougher competition was just ahead, beginning the next day, June 3, with the first of four games against the 27-16 White Sox (4½ games behind in third), followed by four games against the 24-20 Tigers, followed by four games against the defending AL-champion Indians, then three more against the Tigers and four more against the White Sox.

If anyone was going to catch the Yankees, the beginning of June would be the time.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

Strategy aside, opposite arguments in the debate about whether the National League should adopt the DH rule so there is uniformity across the major leagues have been very much in play in the first two months of the 2015 season. On the one side, the month of May saw Mets pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard both go 3-for-3 at the plate in a game, and Giants right-handed ace Madison Bumgarner hit a home run to help his own pitching cause in outdueling Clayton Kershaw. On the other side, the month of April saw Cardinals ace right-hander Adam Wainwright rupture his Achilles tendon trying to run out an infield popup, ending his season, just two days after Nationals ace righty Max Scherzer injured his thumb while batting. An angry Scherzer, a veteran of the DH American League, complained about NL pitchers having to bat for themselves, prompting Bumgarner to take issue with his comments that nobody really wants to see pitchers hita sentiment long popular with the "all-DH" crowd. Sixty years ago, in 1955, there was no such debate because there was no DH anywhere to be had. Had there been, Dodgers ace right-hander Don Newcombe would have been squarely on Madison Bumgarner's side, even if Bumgarner is ... a "Giant."

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

On May 30, 1955, in the second game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field, Don Newcombe ran his record to 8-0 with a 2.86 ERA as he beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-3. As satisfying as the pitching victory surely was, Newk might have been more proud of his excellent all-around day. Newcombe went 3-for-4 at the plate to raise his batting average to a robust .357. Who says pitchers can't hit? Two of his three hits were home runs. His two-run fourth-inning blast off Pirates starter Ron Kline with two outs and Gil Hodges on base vaulted the Dodgers ahead in the game, 3-2. He tagged Kline for another home run in the sixth to make the score 5-2.

Don Newcombe now had four home runs and seven runs batted in for the season. It was the second time in 1955 that Big Newk had hit two round-trippers in a game to help his own cause, the first time coming in his first start of the season against the defending-champion and arch-rival New York Giants. See the following article in my series on the 1955 season, sixty years ago:

Newcombe was one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game, and 1955 turned out to be his most productive at the plate (even if not his best on the mound, although he wound up the season with a 20-5 record to lead the league in winning percentage as he also did with his 1.1 walks and hits allowed per inning pitched). Big Newk batted .359 on the year with seven home runs and 23 runs batted in. His on-base plus slugging percentage was 1.028. So potent was his bat, manager Walt Alston used Newcombe as a pinch hitter 23 times during the season, in which role Newk was 8-for-21 for a .381 average and drove in four of his 23 runs. All seven of his long balls, however, were in support of his personal pitching efforts.

Over the course of his career, Newcombe batted .276 as a pitcher with 15 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He struck out in only 14 percent of his plate appearances and had a .308 batting average for the times he did not strike out. His hitting prowess was such that Newcombe appeared in 106 games as a pinch hitter, batting .227 without any home runs but with 10 RBIs. Don Newcombe is in the argument about the best-hitting pitchers of all time. 

Historical comparisons for pitchers as hitters must start with The Bambino, George Herman Ruth. From 1914 to 1917 when Ruth was exclusively a pitcher, but also got into games as a pinch hitter, Babe batted .299 with 9 home runs and 50 RBIs, striking out in 16 percent of his plate appearances. One of those home runs was as a pinch hitter. His season-high as a pitcher was 4 home runs in 1915. Of course, these were the "Dead Ball" days.

Ruth had five more home runs as a pitcher in 1918 and 1919, the years he began his conversion from the mound to become a day-to-day regular. Leading the majors in home runs both years with 11 and 29, Ruth was inaugurating both his legend and a revolution in how the game was played. Once he moved to New York and became a full-time outfielder, Ruth pitched only five more games in his career, during which he hit two more circuit-clouts, giving him a total of 16 home runs (out of his 714) in the games he pitched. The Babe's last home run as a pitcher came the last time he took the moundthe final game of the 1933 season, in the bottom of a three-run fifth inning that gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead, after which Ruth the pitcher gave back five runs to the Red Sox.

The players who hit the most home runs in major league careers exclusively as a pitcher, with the occasional pinch-hitting and rare fielding-position appearances, were Wes Ferrell (who surrendered four of the Babe's home runs) with 38, Bob Lemon with 37, Red Ruffing with 36, Warren Spahn with 35, and Earl Wilson with 33. Don Drysdale just missed 30 with 29. Lemon and Spahn were contemporaries of Newcombe's pitching generation. 

Wes Ferrell's most productive years with the bat were when he hit nine home runs in 1931, seven in 1933, and seven in 1935—probably his best year at the plate, since he also batted a career-high .347 and drove in a career-high 32 runs. One of his home runs in 1935 was as a pinch hitter. Ferrell, whose lifetime average was .280 with 208 RBIs, hit two home runs in a game five times. 

Red Ruffing, a direct contemporary of Ferrell's, hit .269 for his career with 273 runs batted in—the most by a pitcher since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920—and twice hit as many as four home runs in a season (4 in 1930 and 5 in 1936). Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter.

Bob Lemon, who failed to make the major league grade as a third baseman but had a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher, had a .232 lifetime average with 147 RBIs. He hit five home runs in 1948, seven in 1949, and six the following year. Lemon's only multi-homer game was in 1949. Two of his career home runs came as a pinch hitter.

The great southpaw (363 victories) Warren Spahn never hit more than four round-trippers in a single season (twice, in 1955 and 1961), did not hit much for average (a lifetime mark of .194), but does hold the mark for the most consecutive years with at least one home run by a pitcherseventeen, from 1948 to 1964. Unlike the other top pitchers who could hit with unaccustomed power for a twirler, Spahn was rarely used off the bench to pinch hit.

Like Spahn, Earl Wilson's lifetime average was below .200 at .195, but he hit seven home runs in both 1966 and 1968, six in 1965, and five in 1964. Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter, and he had only one game in which he went deep twice.

But back to 1955. Newcombe's offensive outburst and triumph on the mound on May 30 made it 42 games down and 112 to go for the Dodgers. Their 32-10 record was the best in all of major league baseball and had them comfortably in front of their prime would-be competitors for the NL pennantthe Giants, who were 10 games behind in third place, and the Milwaukee Braves, who were 11½ games out in fourth place with a losing record. The Chicago Cubs were second, six back of Brooklyn, but nobody took them seriously. Indeed, while the Dodgers would have the best record in the NL in games played after May 30, the Cubs would have the worst on their way to a 72-81 record and sixth place.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Judge and the Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

The Miami Marlins' decision to name General Manager Dan Jennings as their new field managerwithout the word "interim" as a qualifier to his positionis both highly unusual and virtually unprecedented in the major leagues since before the Great Depression because he has absolutely zero experience managing, coaching, or even playing the game at a professional level. None. You have to go back to former-Judge Emil Fuchs, who happened to be owner of the Boston Braves, in 1929 and to first-rate college football coach Hugo Bezdek from 1917 to 1919 to find the last major league managers of any consequence without a players resume even in the minor leagues.

The Judge and The Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

Dan Jennings played college baseball, but has no professional experience in a baseball uniform at any level as either a player, coach, or manager. But he clearly loves the game and has made it his livelihood since the mid-1980s, evaluating talent as a scout and executive involved in player development. Jennings joined the Marlins front office in 2002 and was promoted to General Manager in 2013. He was largely responsible for putting together the team he is now managing. According to the Marlins' President of Baseball Operations, the strengths Jennings brings to the position, besides being intimately familiar with the skills and abilities of Miami's players, include his energy, ability to motivate, and being an inspirational leader.

Is that enough? Because, while much has been made with regard to recent new managers having no managing experience at any level, it has always been an implicit cardinal rule that major league managers have experience as at least having played professional baseball

Having played the game, even if never making it out of the minor leagues, is taken for granted as essential for any manager to establish credibility with his players. Otherwise they could not possibly understand the experience, which is founded on struggle and failure. Managers who never played at the major league level such as Hall of Fame skippers Joe McCarthy (15 years as a minor league infielder) and Earl Weaver (14 years as a minor league infielder) had the respect of their players in big league dugouts precisely because they had played the game professionally, knew first-hand how difficult it is to succeed, and had mastered the nuances of strategy and the ebb and flow of seasons.

Not counting Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner's one-day vanity stint as manager of his team at the very end of the 1977 season(the Braves lost their 101st game of the year, 6-2, under his managerial acumen)we must go back all the way to 1929 to find a manager with any appreciable time in the role who had never played professional baseball, let alone coached or managed. He was a much earlier Braves' owner, when the team was still in Boston, by name of Emil Fuchs. Emil Fuchs was better known as "Judge" Fuchs, because, well, that's what he wasan attorney who was a magistrate in New York City for four years in the 'teens, got close to John McGraw and became the New York Giants' lawyer, and who was persuaded by McGraw to put in a bid to buy the NL team in Boston before the 1923 season got under way.

After six years with the Braves getting progressively worse, Fuchs decided to take the top step of the dugout for himself. He had gone through four managers, all who had played the game, including star Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft and Rogers Hornsby, whose greatness as a player needs no introduction. The 1928 Braves had been terrible under the controversial Hornsby, who was traded to the Cubs after the season, giving Fuchs reason to believe he couldn't do any worse.

His one year at the helm did not go so well. The 1929 Braves did lose five fewer games, but finished dead last in the National League on the short side of 98 games, 10 games behind the seventh-place Reds and 43 games back of Joe McCarthy's Cubs, who benefited greatly from Hornsby's presence in the batting order. For whatever it's worth, Fuchs did enjoy being the manager when his team was at the top of the NL heap 13 games into the season, but thereafter was a disaster. For 1930, Fuchs hired a real manager to take over the Bravesa gentleman by name of Bill McKechnie, one of baseball's all-time great managers.

Before Fuchs, the last manager of any consequence to have not played, coached, or managed baseball at any professional level was Hugo Bezdek. 

Bezdek is historically remembered for being a great college football coach in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1917, while coaching the University of Oregon football team, Bezdek was also the West Coast scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the Pirates started the season losing 40 of their first 60 games, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss called upon Bezdek, with no prior professional baseball experience of any kind, to take over at Forbes Field. He didn't do that badly. After finishing up a dismal season, the Pirates were 65-60 in the World War I-shortened 1918 season and 71-68 in 1919 under Bezdek, finishing fourth both years. Once the baseball season was over, Bezdek also coached football both years at Penn State, about 135 miles east of Pittsburgh, before returning full-time to what he did bestcoaching college footballin 1920, remaining at Penn until 1930.

Baseball pundits have taken notice that teams in very recent years appear quite willing to take a chance on youngish guys who have not managed at any level before, observing that this indicates a change from thinking about managers as masterminds of game-situations in the dugout to thinking about how they handle the outside world as well as the dynamics of the clubhouse. That was true of Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura, and Bryan Price when they became first-time major league managers last year, and Paul Molitor, Kevin Cash, and Craig Counsell this season. All except Price played in The Big Time, and Price pitched in the minor leagues. Should Dan Jennings be successful in the dugout, he might be at the forefront of a new paradigm for major league managers.

Friday, May 8, 2015

May 10, 1955 (60 Years Ago): NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The 1955 Dodgers' longest winning-streak of the season reached 11 games on May 10 when Don Newcombe shut out the Chicago Cubs, 3-0. It was only 24 games into the season, but the Dodgers already had a stunning 9-1/2-game lead with a 22-2 record. As it turned out, the NL pennant race was already over, because Brooklyn continued to play the best baseball in the league.

May 10, 1955: NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The Brooklyn Dodgers were obviously not buying into the narrative that their failure to win the 1954 pennant after having won back-to-back in '52 and '53 was indicative of the "boys of summer"as Roger Kahn would later christen thembeing past their peak and on the down slide. When Newcombe took the mound at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Dodgers had lost only twice all year. 

Both losses were to the defending-champion New York Giants, who beat them 5-4 on April 22 and 11-10 in ten innings two days later. Those victories trimmed the Dodgers' lead on April 24 to 2-1/2 games over the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Since then, the Dodgers had won ten straight, the Braves were still second, but just one game over .500 at 12-11, and the Giants were in third, struggling to get untracked with an 11-11 record.

As hot as the Dodgers had been, Don Newcombe was still finding his footing in his second year back from two years as a US Army draft pick occasioned by the Korean War. Newcombe had an impressive 56-28 record and 3.39 career earned run average after three seasons when duty called, but struggled with a 9-8 record and 4.55 ERA in his first year back in 1954. Particularly with the Giants defending a championship and the Braves a fast-rising club, Brooklyn's prospects in 1955 were said to rest to a great extent on whether the power right-hander would recover his pre-military-draft excellence. 

So far, Newcombe had won two of his first three starts, which included a no-decision in the Dodgers' April 24 loss to the Giants, but he also had a less-than-ace-like 5.50 ERA. This was his first start since then, with his only appearance in the previous 15 days a victory in two innings out of the bullpen in an extra-inning game against the Phillies on May 6.

Newcombe was brilliant this day against the Cubs. Pitching his first shutout since the late September heat of the 1951 pennant race, Don Newcombe allowed the Cubs only one base runner while striking out six. Gene Baker's single up the middle in the fourth inning was the only hit Big Newk allowed. It was the second and last one-hitter of his career (he never pitched a no-no); Newcombe had one-hit the Pirates in June 1951, althoughlike in this onethere was no drama of flirting with a no-hitter because Ralph Kiner singled in the first inning. 

The Dodgers were an offensive juggernaut early in the 1955 season. Their three runs against the Cubs gave them 152 in the first 24 gamesby far the most in the major leagues. Even with Newcombe not pitching at his Newcombesque-best, at least until this game, the Dodgers had given up the far fewest runs in the National League, only 83. 

It may have been only 24 games into the seasonthere were still 130 remaining on the scheduleand the Dodgers' .917 winning percentage was certainly unsustainable for much longer. Their winning streak came to an end the next day and the Dodgers lost six of their next nine, which shaved three games off their lead.

But still, a 9-1/2-game lead so early was a huge deficit for would-be competitors to make up. The Braves ultimately finished second with 85 wins. The Dodgers could have had a losing 64-66 record the rest of the way and still finished first. 

Brooklyn's hot start did in fact basically settle things, and even with 84 percent of the schedule yet to be played after May 10, there would be no drama of a National League pennant race. The Dodgers did not let up. While they could not match their torrid start to the season, the played as the best team in the National League the rest of the way, with a record 3-1/2 games better than any other NL team in games played after May 10. 

The closest any team came to the Dodgers after May 10 was Chicago pulling within 5-1/2 games of Brooklyn on the last day of May. But nobody considered the Cubs a legitimate contender, and they ended up sixth with a losing record. After that slump in the standings, the Dodgers put the pennant race away for real by winning 10 of their next 11 to take a 10-1/2-game lead with a 42-12 record on June 11. They were still on a pace, more than a third-of-the-way through the season, to pass the 1906 Chicago Cubs' major league record of 116 wins in a single season. In the remaining 100 games they had left after that, Milwaukee would be one-game better, but Brooklyn's lead was never less than those 10-1/2 games.

Meanwhile, over in the American League, as predicted, a three-team race was developing. The Indians went into Yankee Stadium for a two-game set on May 10, a week after the teams had split two games in Cleveland. The Indians won, 9-6, even though their ace Bob Lemon did not pitch well in running his record to 6-1. The next day, a three-run fourth proved decisive in the Indians' 4-3 win over the Yankees.

The loss kept the Yankees in third place. They were now four games behind with a 14-10 record, which would turn out to be their biggest deficit of the season. The Indians, at 19-7, now led by three games over the second-place White Sox, which would turn out to be their biggest lead of the season.

After May 11, it was 24 games down for the Yankees and 130 to go.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fading Feller, Rising Score (60 Years Ago, May 1, 1955)

Sixty years ago, Cleveland's Bob Feller won the first game of a May 1st doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox by pitching the twelfth one hitter of his remarkable career, which had begun nearly twenty years before as a 17-year old in 1936. In Game 2 of the doubleheader, Feller's teammate, 21-year-old rookie southpaw Herb Score, did his best imitation of the young Rapid Robert with a breakout performance, striking out 16 batters in a complete-game 2-1 victory.  

Fading Feller, Rising Score (May 1, 1955)

When he took the mound against Boston for the first game of the May 1 doubleheader, the Indians tied with the Yankees one game behind the Tigers, Feller had made only one previous starta poorly pitched loss in Chicago. Feller was now playing out the end of his brilliant career, which would have been even more impressive had he not lost nearly four full seasons serving in the US Navy during World War II. He was no longer a dominant, overpowering pitcher, and had made only 19 starts with a 13-3 record in Cleveland's 111-win 1954 season.

Score was to start the second game. As noted in the first article in this series on the 1955 season, Sports Illustrated's first-ever preseason prognostications observed that the defending-AL champion Cleveland Indians not only were returning "three superb first-line starters in Bob Lemon (23-7 in 1954), Early Wynn (23-11), and Mike Garcia (19-8)," who had given them "one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history," but were adding Herb Score, the "best pitcher in the minors last year ... who has been described as so good, you can't believe it." In only his third professional season, Score had gone 22-5 in 32 starts for the Indians' Triple-A club in Indianapolis in 1954, and more to the point, whiffed 330 batters in 251 inningsnearly 12 strikeouts for every nine innings of work. It seemed likely that Herb Score was the second-coming of Bob Feller, except left-handed.

Score would be making only the fourth start of his career. Although his record was 1-1 with a less-than-stellar 5.48 earned run average, he was as advertised with overpowering stuff, having struck out 24 batters in his first 23 innings in the big leagues.

Just as the young Feller was impressive with his strikeouts but lacked command of his control, so too was Score on the wild sidehe had walked 18 batters in those 23 inningseven while racking up strikeouts. In his big league debut on April 15 at Detroit, the Indians' third game of the season, Score not only struck out nine batters, but also walked nine, in a complete-game victory.

This was reminiscent of Feller's fifth big league start, still only 17 years old, on September 13, 1936, when he whiffed 17 Philadelphia Athletics tying the record for strikeouts by a single pitcher in a nine-inning game, while also walking nine. Feller had struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first major league start (after six relief appearances) on August 23, but walked only four. For what it's worth, the Browns and the Athletics were the two worst teams in the American League.

The two pitchers were a study in contrasts in the games they pitched on May 1. No longer in possession of his once fearsome fastball, Bob Feller pitched with a veteran's savvy making do with what he had. He shut out the Red Sox, 2-0, allowing only two base runners, walking one while striking out only two. Boston's clean-up hitter, catcher Sammy White, broke up Feller's bid for a fourth career no-hitter with a one-out single in the seventh. This was the last great game pitched by Feller, who made only nine more starts in 1955finishing the season with a 4-4 record in 25 games, 3-4 as a starterand just four in 1956 (he was 0-4 for the year) before calling it a career.

Herb Score overwhelmed the Red Sox in his start. His first nine outs were all strikeouts, although they were interrupted by a pair of doubles by Sam Mele and Ted Lepicio that resulted in Boston's only run of the gameand of the day. Score gave up only two other hits and walked only four while striking out 16 batters. Those 16 strikeouts included whiffing the Red Sox' left fielder four times. That unfortunate player, however, was not the great Ted Williams, but Faye Throneberry (brother of Marv, for any long-suffering Mets fans out there). Teddy Ballgame sat out the beginning of the 1955 season waiting for his divorce proceedings to be resolved before signing his contract.

This was the first of eight starts during the 1955 season in which Herb Score fanned at least 10 in a game. Score would finish the season with 16-10 record and 2.85 ERA in 32 starts, striking out 245 in 227.1 innings of work. He also walked 154 batters, an average of 6.1 walks every nine innings. Score's 9.7 Ks per nine innings was the first time any major league pitcher qualifying for the ERA title had averaged more than a strikeout an inning.

(Bob Feller's highest qualifying K/9 rate was 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 1946 when he struck out 348 batters, one shy of Rube Waddell's 349 Ks in 1904 for most strikeouts since the turn of the century. Feller had averaged 11 strikeouts per nine in his rookie season of 1936 and 9.1 in 1937, butstill a teenagerin neither year did Rapid Robert pitch enough innings to qualify for the league-lead in that category.)

Score had an even better year in 1956, with a 20-9 record, 2.53 ERA, and 263 strikeouts (along with 129 walks) in 33 starts and 249.1 inningsaveraging 9.5 Ks per nine. Entering his fifth start of the 1957 season, Score was again averaging better than a strikeout an inning when fate intervened in the worst possible way: Gil McDougald, the second batter of the game for the Yankees, slammed a line drive up the middle that crashed into Herb Score's face ... ending his season ... and short-circuiting what looked to be a brilliant career in the making.

As for 1955, the Indians' double-header sweep on May 1 left them alone in first place with an 11-6 record, half-a-game ahead of the Yankees and Tigers, both teams at 10-6. It was 17 games down and 137 to go for Cleveland, 16 down and 138 to go for New York.