Wednesday, August 24, 2016

'56 Yankees Going For 7-and-6-in-8 (August 25, 60 Years Ago)

When last we left Phil Rizzuto, he was jogging back to the dugout after being forced out at second base as a pinch runner in the 9th inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1956. That turned out to be the last time he appeared on the diamond as a player, because on August 25, he was unceremoniously releasedno grand farewell tour of American League ballparks or a fond send-off before the home-town fans for the Scooterso the Yankees could bring on board the former Cardinals' star, Enos Slaughter. It didn't seem like a necessary move since they held a safe-and-secure 8-game lead at the time, but Casey Stengel and the Yankees had bigger ambitions. They were out to match the 1936-43 Yankees' mark of seven pennants and six World Series championships in eight years. No other team in history had done that.

But unlike the original 7-and-6-in-8 Yankees who relied almost exclusively on their deep farm system to fill whatever their needs happened to be, the Stengel-era Yankees frequently dealt with other teamsincluding in August waiver dealsto acquire the players they felt were necessary to fly another World Series banner over the Stadium. Did they really need Enos Slaughter? Probably not. But they had visions of Johnny Mize dancing in their head. 

'56 Yanks Going For 7-and-6-in-8
(60 Years Ago, August 25, 1956)

Casey Stengel biographer Robert Creamer describes a poignant scene about Rizzuto's last day wearing No. 10 for the Yankees in Stengel: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster, 1984). General Manager George Weiss and Stengel called Rizzuto into the manager's office, told them they had a chance to sign Slaughter off waivers, that a Yankee player would have to be cut to make room for him, and asked who hethe Scooterthought that player should be. Rizzuto pondered the roster, suggested some names, presumably including hardly-ever used third-string catcher Charlie Silvera (he could not name seldom-used infielder Tommy Carroll, because he was a bonus baby required to stay on the major league roster for being paid the big up-front bonus money), and was told by Stengel why each of the players he named the manager needed.

Until, perhaps not considering at first what Weiss's presence in the meeting actually meant, it finally occurred to him . . . he was supposed to suggest . . . himself. We're not sure if Rizzuto thought it ironic that Enos Slaughter, whose rookie season was three years before his, was a year and a half older than he was. 

Phil Rizzuto was the Yankees' last link to the great Joe DiMaggio Yankees managed by Joe McCarthy, unless we also count Frankie Crosetti, who Rizzuto displaced as the Yankees' shortstop 15 years earlier but was now one of Stengel's coaches. 

When he made the team as a rookie in 1941, the Yankees were coming off the one year since DiMaggio's rookie season in 1936 that they did not go to the World Series. Before that, they had been to four in four years and won all four. When they assembled for spring training in 1941, McCarthy had already come to the conclusion that had the Yankees called up Rizzuto from their American Association farm club in Kansas City in the summer of '40, they would have won five in a row and would be working on six straight. That's because Crosetti, their long-time shortstop, had an abysmal year in 1940, hitting just .199 with a .299 on-base percentage. And he was McCarthy's lead-off batter for most of the year.

The Yankees won pennants in each of Rizzuto's first two years with the club, the World Series in 1941 but not/not in 1942, and then won both another pennant and Series without him and DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich in 1943 while that trio of Yankee stars were already serving their country in World War II. That gave the Yankees 7 pennants and 6 World Series in 8 years.

Now, here were Stengel's Yankees trying to match that. They had won five pennants and World Series in Stengel's first five years as manager (1949-53), with Rizzuto a major reason why in several close-fought pennant races; they did not/not win the pennant in 1954; and won the pennant again in 1955but lost/lost to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. So they were at 6-and-5-in-7 and counting.

With their 8-game lead on August 25, and 123 games down with just 31 left to go, winning their 7th pennant in 8 years was not the issue. Winning the World Series, going for their 6th championship of the baseball world in those 8 years, well . . . that was.

When McCarthy's Yankees won 7-and-6-in-8 they did so with virtually an entirely home-grown ball club besides core veterans whose acquisitions were from before McCarthy won his first pennant in 1932. That was because it was not until 1932 that the Yankees had their own network of minor league affiliates. With the exception of DiMaggio, whose contract they purchased from San Francisco in the Pacific Coast League, every new regular on the DiMaggio Yankees who made the team after 1936 came up through their farm system. 

The Newark Bears were the crown jewel of the Yankee system. Their best prospects were sent to Newark in the top-tier International League to prove their major league worth before being promoted to New York. Aggressive and excellent scouting backed up by Yankee dollars helped make the Bears such a formidable club it was said they were better than most major league teams with losing records, and even some with winning records. And in 1937 they had two top-tier minor league affiliates, including Kansas City, where Rizzuto mastered his craft.

The Stengel-era Yankees were still able to call up high-quality players from their minor league affiliates, but were also much more aggressive in the trade market for the players they believed could fill specific needs that would mean the difference between winning another World Series, or not. 

Most famously, on August 22, 1949, they purchased veteran power-hitting first baseman Johnny Mize from the New York Giants to bolster their bench. Mize had led the NL in homers four times, including the previous year, but was in his mid-30s and nearing the end of his career. He became a terrific role-player for the Yankees in each of the next five years, when the Yankees went 5-and-5-in-5. He platooned at first base and was a valuable bat off the bench. And he was a star of both the 1949 and 1952 World Series.

Other such acquisitions by the Yankees were in August 1951 for Johnny Sainhe of Boston Braves' Spahn-and-Sain-then-pray-for-rain famewho would be their relief ace the next three years; Jim Konstanty, baseball first reliever to win the MVP Award with the Phillies in 1950, who they picked up in August 1954; and Bob Turley and Don Larsen, both of whom the Yankees acquired in a block-buster trade with the Orioles in 1955. All were significant contributors to Yankee pennants.

And now the Yankees wanted Enos Slaughter, who had played for them for one year in 1954 but was traded to the Kansas City Athletics early in the '55 season. Sure, he was oldolder than Rizzutoand no longer the outstanding player he had been in his 13 Cardinals years, but he was a professional hitter and the Yankees coveted his bat. Of course, that meant somebody had to go.

So, good-bye, Phil.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Big Newk's '56 Summer of Dominance (60 Years Ago)

It was less than elegant. He coughed up three home runs. He surrendered 5 runs, the most since he had given up 6 to the Braves exactly 10 starts before. But it was enough for Don Newcombe to become the first major league pitcher to win 20 games in 1956 in a dominating stretch from mid-July to mid-August, and it came against one of the two clubs striving to ensure that the Brooklyn Dodgers not get the opportunity to defend their 1955 World Series championship by winning the National League pennant.

Big Newk's '56 Summer of Dominance
(60 Years Ago, August 23, 1956)

The Brooklyn Dodgers showed up at Crosley Field on August 23, 1956, for the first of a three-game series with the Cincinnati Redlegs. Since their loss to the Braves on July 30 dropped them 5 games behind Milwaukee, the Dodgers had the National League's best record, but had picked up only three games in the standings. They had not had even a share of first place since May 20. The Braves were not only persistent, but a very good ball club, and the Reds were unexpectedly competitive. At the start of the day, the Braves were first, the Dodgers two games behind in second, and the Reds third, three games back.

Don Newcombe took the mound for the Dodgers with a 19-6 record. Except for his start against the Braves on July 13, when he was whacked for six runs and retired to the showers after one inning, Big Newk had been pitching brilliantly since the All-Star break. He got no decision in that game, and he had an 11-5 record at the time, but his 4.01 earned run average was not exactly . . . very good.

Whereupon, Newcombe won 8 of his next 9 starts with a near-microscopic 1.07 ERA and held opposing batters to just 37 hits, a .144 batting average, and 16 walks in 76 innings. That included three consecutive nine-inning complete-game shutouts in which he limited the Cubs to 5 hits in a 1-0 victory on July 29, the powerful Braves to just 4 hits in a 3-0 win on August 2, and the Pirates to 6 hits in another 3-0 triumph on August 7. And before his three straight shutouts, he had a pair of complete-game victories in which he gave up one runso that was just 2 runs in 45 innings (a 0.40 ERA in five starts). And after his three straight shutouts, he surrendered 2 runs on just 2 hits in a 5-2 win over the Phillies; one of those two hits was a two-run homer by Stan Lopata.

And his one loss since the All-Star break? At home against the Giants on August 15? Well, Newcombe surrendered just 4 hits, but one was a home run by Willie Mays for the onlyonlyrun of the game. Newk gave up just 1 run again in his next start in a Dodgers win in Philadelphia, his last before coming to Cincinnati.

Staked to a 3-run lead in the top of the first at Crosley Field on August 23, Newk gave it all back when Wally Post touched him hard for a 3-run homer in the bottom of the inning. Protecting a 5-3 lead in the sixth, Newcombe gave up a solo blast to Frank Robinson, and now it was      5-4. For Robinson, it was the 32nd home run of his rookie season; he was 8 games ahead of Wally Berger's pace when he set the rookie record for home runs with 38 way back in 1930. And with a 6-4 lead in the 9th, Newcombe gave up a homer to Ed Bailey in the bottom of the inning before getting the final out of his 20th victory.

The run that proved to be the margin of difference in the game was scored in the top of the 9th off Cincinnati ace Brooks Lawrence, who had come into the game as a reliever in the 8th. While Newcombe was on a winning roll, Lawrence had been struggling in the summer heat since starting the season 13-0. He was not the losing pitcher in this game, but he was now 16-7. He had lost all 5 of his starts so far in August. His only victory in the month came in relief against the Cubs in an extra-inning game on August 9.

We will return to Lawrence's struggles later in this Baseball Historical Insight series on the 1956 season. For now, on August 23, 1956 (sixty years ago), Newcombe's 20th win matched his career highs in 1951 (he was 20-9) and 1955 (20-5). There were still five weeks remaining in the season. Even if Newcombe were to start every four days, which was typical for starting aces in the 1950s, he was a long shot to win 30; pitching on three days of rest without missing a start or being given an extra day or two break as a breather would have meant just 9 more starts. And most important was winning the pennant.

Newcombe's 20th left the Dodgers still two games behind the Braves, who won their game against the Phillies, and pushed the Reds to four games back. At 70-47, it was 117 games down for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 37 to go.

It was still a three team race.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto (60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

In his last game as a Yankee, and perhaps in his big league career, on Friday, August 12 of this year, Alex Rodriguez probably did not know that in another four days it would be the sixtieth anniversary of Phil Rizzuto's last game as both a Yankee and a major league ballplayer. A-Rod was treated with a farewell ceremony before the game at Yankee Stadium, being in the starting line-up, and knowing it would be his final farewell appearanceat least in pinstripes. For the Scooter, there was no farewell ceremony; he was not in the starting line-up; and he did not know it would be the final game of his career. Indeed, all Phil Rizzuto knew for certain was that he was still a New York Yankee when the game ended, although now a seldom-used reserve for Casey Stengel.

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto
(60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

Boston right-hander Willard Nixon took a 2-0 lead and a 1-hitter into the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1956. Yankee hopes got a rise when shortstop Milt Bolling booted Gil McDougald's grounder and pinch hitter Mickey McDermotta pitcher who frequently masqueraded as a pinch hitter for Stengel because he could hitsingled to put runners on first and second leading off the ninth. For McDermott, it was the 16th time his manager had sent him up to pinch hit and his fourth hit in 13 official at bats (he also walked twice and had a sacrifice bunt). Billy Hunter was sent in to run for McDermott, representing the tying run.

Yankee starter Don Larsen, himself a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, came to bat, presumably to bunt both runners over, and wound up reaching base himself on a fielding error by second baseman Billy Goodman. The bases were loaded with nobody out and Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle were the next three Yankees due up. 

Perhaps Yankee Stadium was graced by the voice of the home team's long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard, then in only the 6th of his eventual 57 years on the job, intoning . . . "Running for Larsen, Number 10, Phil Rizzuto." (I admit to presuming, since I don't know.)

Rizzuto, representing the could-be winning run, would be running on 38-year-old legs that would be 39 in a little over a month. Once the cornerstone shortstop of Casey Stengel's five pennants and five World Series championships in his first five years as Yankee manager from 1949 to 1953, which included the Scooter finishing second in the 1949 voting for AL Most Valuable Player, winning the Award in 1950, and finishing sixth in the 1953 MVP voting, Phil Rizzuto was now at the end of Casey Stengel's bench.

Hardly able to keep his average above .200 in the summer of '54, Rizzuto was often removed for a pinch hitter if he came to bat and the Yankees had a scoring opportunity. He was benched in favor of Willy Miranda as the starting shortstop in mid-August that year, although Stengel often sent him in as a late-inning defensive replacement. Billy Hunter had the shortstop job in 1955, but the Scooter won his job back in early August and started all seven games in the World Series. McDougald was Stengel's choice to play shortstop in 1956, and this time there was no winning back the job for the baseball-elderly Phil Rizzuto.

If Rizzuto was not exactly the 25th man in the dugout, it was only because the Yankees were obligated to keep 19-year-old infielder Tommy Carroll on their major league roster because he signed as a "bonus baby," and because Stengel chose to keep third-string catcher Charlie Silvera on the team. Carroll would appear in 36 games for the 1956 Yankees and get into the starting line-up just once, when Stengel started him at third base in the last game of the season. Silvera spent virtually the entire season warming up pitchers in the bullpen, appeared in just seven games all year, and also got just one starthis in the Yankees' 139th game on the schedule on September 12. 

When Stengel called on him to pinch run for Larsen with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th inning on August 16, 1956, it was only the 31st time Rizzuto had gotten into a game so far in the season. He had started just 15 games, including seven straight from June 24 to July 1, during which he had 5 hits in 19 at bats. The last game he started was on August 2 in Cleveland, where he went hitless in three at bats against Herb Score, who shutout the Yankees on 4 hits. Rizzuto had not played in any game since.

Faced with a bases loaded, no out jam, Red Sox pitcher Nixon fanned Bauer and got Martin to hit into a force out at second base, a run scoring on the play, but Mantle flied out to end the game. Forced at second by Martin for the second out of the inning was Phil Rizzuto. As he jogged back to the dugout, the Scooter could not imagine that that would be his last act as a major league player. 

There is no record of any appreciative applause by the Yankee Stadium fans for a terrific career by a player who had been instrumental in the Yankees winning nine American League pennants and seven World Series going back to his rookie year in 1941. Nobody knew it would be his last game.

For the 75-39 Yankees, whose lead was now 9½ games over Cleveland as a result of that loss, it was 114 games down and just 40 to go in the 1956 season. Phil Rizzuto surely figured he'd still be in pinstripes for those 40 games, even if hardly used, and would get into his tenth World Series with the Yankees, or at least get to watch from a prime seat in the dugout.

In fact, he had little over a week left as a New York Yankee.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Temporary Yankee Lethargy in the Summer of '56 (60 Years Ago, August 7, 1956)

With the game scoreless, the bases loaded with Red Sox, and nobody out in the bottom of the 11th inning on August 7, 1956, at Fenway Park, Yankee manager Casey Stengel brought in southpaw Tommy Byrne to pitch to the great Ted Williams. The Red Sox won on a walk-off walk to Mr. Williams. The Yankees had now lost 7 of their last 8 games. Their lead in the American League pennant race was down to 7 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. It had been 10 games just eight days before. Was it time for the Yankees to panic? Nah.

Temporary Yankee Lethargy in the Summer of '56 
(60 Years Ago, August 7, 1956)

Although there was no dramatic Ted Williams home run to win the game, the Red Sox' 1-0 victory over the Yankees was not without its Splendid Splinter drama. Taking umbrage at being booed by the hometown fans after dropping a routine fly ball to left hit by Mickey Mantle with two outs in the top of the 11th, Teddy Ballgame spit at the crowd behind the Boston dugout as he left the field at the end of the inning. Ironically, they were cheering him when he did so, for he had just robbed Yogi Berra of an extra-base hit that would have scored Mantle with a nifty over-the-head running catch in front of the Green Monster to end the Yankees' 11th.

He was also none too happy about walking-in the game-winning run, instead of driving it in, and tossed his bat high in the air in exasperation after receiving ball four. Then he took his frustrations out on a water cooler and generally behaved like a jackass in the clubhouse afterwards. It was, perhaps, Ted just being Ted, except worse than usualand Ted being Ted never had the kind of eccentric charm of future Red Sox' left fielder "Manny being Manny."

Anyway, while the Red Sox had some public mending to do, some may have thought the Yankees were in need of some mending of their own. Every team, no matter how good, goes through hard times in a long season. And this was the Yankees' time for those hard times. 

They had lost four in a row at the beginning of June, and 6 of 8 at the start of that month, and also lost four in a row to the second-place White Sox in late June that cut their lead from five games to one, but each time they recovered their winning ways, decisively. After their four straight losses to the Chisox, the Yankees won 18 of their next 20 to take a commanding lead in the pennant race.

Of course, starting from a 10-game lead after winning their sixth in a row on July 30, it was the best of times for the '56 Yankees to have their worst of times. First they lost three straight in Cleveland (after Whitey Ford had won the opener of the four-game series). The Indians outscored them 14 to 1 in winning the next three games. Early Wynn shutout the Yankees on 3 hits on July 31, and Herb Score did the same on 4 hits two days later.

Then the Yankees went to Detroit, where they lost all three games and were outscored 23 to 13. They ended their six-game losing streakwhich would be their longest of the seasonwith a 4-3 win in their first game at Fenway, only to fail to score any runs in 11 innings on August 7, despite Ted Williams dropping a routine fly ball that led to the latest (just mentioned) of his periodic epic spit-a-sodes.

During their eight-game hibernation from typical Yankee baseball, the Bronx Bombers scored just 18 runs and batted just .221 as a team. They not only weren't hitting, their on-base percentage was a woeful .293. They would hit .270 with an on-base percentage of .347 for the year. 

Mantle had the worst stretch of his season so far, with a .267 average, 8 hits in 30 at bats, and striking out 9 times in 35 plate appearances. He went hitless in five of the eight games, including the three losses to Cleveland. Only once before in the entire seasonMay 11 and 12 against the Orioles, when he was still batting over .400did Mantle go consecutive games without a hit. Three of his hits, however, were home runs, giving him 37 in the Yankees' first 105 games. Mantle was still two home runs ahead of the Babe's pace when he knocked out 60 in 1927.

The Yankees gave up 41 runs in their eight-game slide, 10 of which were unearned, for an earned run average of 4.16. Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston hit a collective .262 against Yankee pitchers in that stretch. And Yankee pitchers had command and control problems, walking 37 batters in addition to the 66 hits they surrendered, while striking out just 26. For the year, the Yankees held opposing batters to a .249 average and had a team ERA of 3.63.

With their record at 68-37, it was 105 games down and 49 to go for the 1956 New York Yankees. Despite their recent lethargy in the summer heat, the Yankees still had a seven-game lead. It would never again in the 1956 season be that low. In direct opposition to their 7 losses in 8 games, the Yankees turned around to win 7 of their next 8 to bump their lead up to 10½ games half-way through August. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dodgers Trip the Braves (60 Years Ago, August 2, 1956)

Just in case the 1956 Milwaukee Braves were getting too comfortable about their voracious drive to the top (and then some) after Fred Haney took over the manager's job from Charlie Grimm in mid-June, the Brooklyn Dodgers reminded them that theyDem Bumswere not only the defending-National League champions, but the defending World Series champs, by taking three of four from the Braves at Ebbets Field as July turned to August, sixty years ago. Jackie Robinson, in what would be his final year, was playing well and played a key role in two of those victories. Don Newcombe delivered the coup de grace by shutting out the Braves in the series finale, 3-0, on four hits to earn his 16th win.

Dodgers Trip the Braves 
(60 Years Ago, August 2, 1956)

For the Dodgers, 1956 was nothing like 1955. In 1955, the Dodgers won 22 of their first 24 games to open up a 9½-game lead before the season was even a month old. After June 11, just shy of two months into the schedule, Brooklyn's lead was always in the double-digits and never less then 10 games. They coasted to 98 victories and a 13½-game final margin of victory over runner-up Milwaukee.

But so far in 1956, the Dodgers had spent hardly any time in first place. The last time they had not trailed in games behind was after their doubleheader sweep of the Cubs on May 20, and even then, their winning percentage was just third-best behind the Braves and Cardinals. All three clubs were just half-a-game ahead of the Reds at the time. The Dodgers did pull within half-a-game of the Pirates for top of the heap by beating the Braves in the first two of a four-game series the last time Milwaukee visited Brooklyn in mid-June. The main significance of those victories, however, turned out to be a boon to the Braves, who fired Grimm and replaced him with Haney.

While the Braves played extraordinarily well under their new manager, the Dodgers continued at an uneven pace, almost seeming disinterested in the National League pennant-race proceedings. They were six games out in third place following a 13-6 pummeling by the Cardinals in St. Louis on July 21. It was their 9th loss in 14 games, which included losing four in a row to the Braves in Milwaukee in their first series after the All-Star break.

But then the Dodgers woke up. While eight wins in a row only gained them two games in the standings, they nonetheless showed the Braves that the Dodgers were still in this thing. With Milwaukee coming back to Brooklyn for their first visit since the events that deposed their manager, now the Dodgers had a chance to prove it.

In the first game, on July 30, the Braves took a 7-1 lead into the 8th on homers by Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, and Hank Aaron and held on to win 8-6. The next day, Jackie Robinson singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 9th to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win. Having hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, Robinson drove in all three of Brooklyn's runs. The home run was his 8th of the year and the 135th of his career. He would hit just two more and end up with 137 home runs.

For Jackie, his 3-for-4 day was a redemption of sorts. It was his first start in more than two weeks in what had been a long struggle of a season. Starting the year as the Dodgers' everyday third baseman, Robinson was hitting only .236 at the end of May and spent most of June on the bench nursing a battered ego as Randy Jackson got the playing time. Once he was back in the starting line-up at the end of June, Robinson hit .359 in his next 14 games before getting hurt in the final game of the series in Milwaukee after the break. He appeared just four times as a pinch hitter before getting back in the starting line-up against the Braves on this last day of July. 

The next day, the first day of August, Jackie Robinson was at it again against the Braves, going 2-for-4. More importantly, he began the game-winning rally with the score tied at 1-1 when he led off the bottom of the 8th by touching Lew Burdette for a single, and came around to score what proved the winning run on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell's two-out single. This hit was probably the highlight of Mitchell's brief Dodgers' career . . . unless one wants to consider taking a called third strike for the final out of Don Larsen's World Series perfect game two months down the road to have been a personal Dale Mitchell highlight.

Welcome to Brooklyn, Mr. Mitchell! It was his first at bat for the Dodgers since being acquired from the Cleveland Indians just days before. Mitchell had been the Indians' regular left fielder for seven years from 1947 to 1953, during which time he batted .314, mostly as their lead-off batter. But by now he was 34 years old and over the hill. Cleveland was not unhappy to dispense with his .133 average in 38 games as a pinch-hitter when Brooklyn came looking for a left-handed bat off the bench.

The next day, August 2, it was Don Newcombe's turn to take the hill. Newk was on a roll, having won his six previous decisions, and 8 of his last 9. He was masterful this day. Aaron singled in the first. Adcock doubled to lead off the second, and at second base he stayed. Jack Dittmar, the Braves' second baseman and lead-off hitter, singled in the sixth. Bill Bruton singled in the ninth. And that was it. No other Milwaukee Brave reached base. Newk walked nobody. Only Adcock got as far as second. Newcombe struck out 10 of the Braveshis highest strikeout total of the season. 

Don Newcombe was now 16-5 for the season. The Dodgers were now 57-41. More importantly, from the Ebbets Field perspective, the Milwaukee Braves' 5½-game lead of exactly one week ago was down to just a single game over the Cincinnati Reds, and two over the Dodgers.

If the Yankees, barring an un-Yankee-like collapse, had the field to themselves in the American League, the National League was settling in for a three-team run to the finish line. For the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was 98 games down and two months and 56 to go. Five would be against the Reds and four against the Braves.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Good Day For Aces (60 Years Ago, July 29, 1956)

On Sunday, July 29th, 1956 (sixty years ago), Billy Pierce won his 16th game of the year and Don Newcombe and Brooks Lawrence won their 15th.

A Good Day for Aces (60 Years Ago, July 29, 1956)

In Chicago's Comiskey Park, southpaw Billy Pierce surrendered 7 hits to run his record to 16-4 as the White Sox beat up on the Red Sox, 11-2. Pierce was the ace of the Chisox staff and one of the best pitchers in baseball. With two months to go in the season, Pierce was well on his way toward being a 20-game winner for the first time in his (so far) nine-year career. The most games he had ever won was 18 in 1953, but Pierce also had three 15-win seasons for Chicago, including 1955the previous yearwhen he was 15-10 and led the majors in both ERA (1.97) and fewest hits plus walks (1.1) per inning . 

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, the Dodgers' Don Newcombe pitched a 5-hit, 1-0 shutout to go 15-5 on the season as the Dodgers downed the Cubs. The only run of the game was a home run by Pee Wee Reese, his 7th, off Chicago starter Jim Davis to break up a scoreless pitching duel in the eighth. Dee Fondy, with a pair of doubles, was the only Cub to reach second base; nobody made it to third. It was Newcombe's second shutout of the season. The first was also against the Cubs, back on May 8 at Wrigley Field, when he shut them down on only three hits. Only one Cub got as far as second base in that one.

Big Newk's victory was his 14th in 21 starts. He also got a win in his only relief appearance, which happened to be . . . against the Cubs, right here at Ebbets Field back on May 20. Having given up 6 runs in 2⅓ innings the previous day, Brooklyn manager Walt Alston called on him with one out in the fourth inning and two runners on, the score tied at 2-2, to get the Dodgers out of the inning. He got a double play and hung around for the rest of the game to pick up the win, his 6th of the year at the time, giving up an unearned run in the eighth. 

Back to July 26: we're now at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh where the Reds' Brooks Lawrence also won his 15th game, giving up just one run on four hits as Cincinnati beat the Pirates, 6-1. For Lawrence, the win was much welcomed after having lost his two previous starts, which were so far his only two losses of the season. Lawrence had gone into the All-Star break undefeated at 12-0 and improved to 13-0 on July 17 when he beat the Dodgers, 4-3. His double in the bottom of the ninth off Sandy Koufax started the game winning rally in that one. His victory that day pushed the third-place Dodgers five games back of the first-place Braves; the Reds were a game out in second.

It was four days later, on July 21 at home against the Pirates, that Brooks Lawrence suffered his first loss of the season, thanks to a three-run 9th-inning homer by Roberto Clemente that overturned a 3-1 Cincinnati lead. Two days later Lawrence won his 14th game pitching two innings of relief against the Pirates. This time he retired Clemente on a grounder to third in the eighth for his final out before being removed for a pinch hitter. The Reds won the game in the last of the eighth, making Lawrence the winning pitcher. He was now 14-1.

On just one day of rest after pitching those two innings in relief, Lawrence was back on the mound. On July 25. At Ebbets Field. In Brooklyn. Against Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe. The two right-handers hooked up in a classic pitchers' duel. Frank Robinson hit his 22nd home run of the season in the third, and Carl Furillo answered by hitting a long fly in the fourth. The game stayed tied at 1-1 until Duke Snider ended it with his 24th home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Both Newcombe and Lawrence now had 14 wins, and four days later they each won their 15th.

With two months to go, Newcombe and Lawrence both seemed sure bets to win 20—long the accepted standard of excellence in any given season for a pitcher. (The advanced metrics of recent years, not to mention significant changes in how pitchers are used, including the notion of 6-inning "quality starts" and the use of dedicated 7th and 8th and 9th inning relievers to secure victories, have diminished the importance of the 20-win season.) 

Big Newk had been a 20-game winner twice before, in 1951 (20-9) and 1955 (20-5), and was on a roll since starting the season 6-3 with a 4.15 ERA through May 25. Since then, he was 9-2 with a 3.01 earned run average in 13 starts, including six in a row for the month of July. His only blemish in July was surrendering 6 runs in just 1 inning in Milwaukee in his first start after the All-Star break, but the Dodgers came back to tie the score, taking him off the hook before they eventually lost the game.

Brooks Lawrence was in uncharted territory, for him. His 15th win before the end of July matched the number of games he won as a 29-year-old rookie for the St. Louis Cardinals two years earlier. But he started only 18 games that year, while relieving in 17 others, and was 9-2 as a starting pitcher and 6-4 in relief. The next year, ineffectiveness and health issues severely compromised his season; he pitched terribly (3-8, 6.56, mostly as a reliever); he was demoted; and he became expendable. So he was traded to the Reds for a journeyman southpaw named Jackie Collum. 

Four of Lawrence's 15 wins so far in 1956 had come in 8 relief appearances. He was 11-2 in his 21 starts. After following-up Lawrence's 15th win with another victory in the second game of their Sunday doubleheader, the Reds ended the day at 56-39, 2½ games behind the first-place Braves, but a game-and-a-half up on the third-place Dodgers. Now clearly the dominant starting pitcher on the Cincinnati staff, it was on the health and continued effectiveness of Brooks Lawrence that the Cincinnati Redlegs' 1956 pennant chances arguably rested. 

But Lawrence had now pitched 151 innings, just 7 less than he had pitched for the Cardinals in his 1954 rookie campaign. And there were two months to go, one of them the presumed-to-be-beastly hot August.

Monday, July 25, 2016

For the '56 Braves, Change Was Looking Good (Status of NL Race, July 26, 1956)

The Braves crushed the Giants, 11-0, on July 26, 1956, to take a 5½-game lead in the National League. Their lackluster beginning behind them, the 1956 Milwaukee Braves were now threatening to do to the National League what the Yankees were doing in the Americanrun away with the pennant. Led by a scorching hot Hank Aaron, the Braves had won 15 of their 17 games since the All-Star break, and they were now 32-10 (.762) since Fred Haney replaced Charlie Grimm as manager on June 17.

For the '56 Braves, Change Was Looking Good 
(NL Race, 60 Years Ago)

Sometimes change is good, even ifin the case of major league baseball, for examplethere is no intrinsic evidence one way or the other that one manager (in this case, Fred Haney) is better than another (Charlie Grimm). In fact, neither man(ager) would go down in history as one of the game's top-flight managers. 

Although Grimm did win three pennants with the Cubs (1932, 1935, and 1945since which the Cubs have not been back to the World Series), there was a sense that his mid-1930s Cubs could have been more successful than they were (and not just in the World Series). And although Haney would eventually lead the Braves to two pennants and win a World Series, his reputation has not lived down the widespread perception that he managed to manage the Braves out of a third straight pennant in 1959.

Even though they had been swamped by the Brooklyn juggernaut of 1955, the Braves were considered one of the best teams in baseball going into the 1956 season, and certain to give the Dodgers a run for their money. Whether Grimm's managerial talents or style were at fault, or not, the Braves' getting off to a 24-22 start was definitely disappointing for the quality team they had, and so he paid the price. More importantly, no sooner had Haney taken over than the Braves got hot, as in really hot, winning their first 11 games under their new manager. At the All-Star break, in what was developing into a very competitive National League pennant race, the Braves were second to the Reds, down by a game-and-a-half, and the Dodgers were third, half a game back of Milwaukee.

The Braves' first four games after the break were at home against the Dodgers. Since these were the two clubs everyone expected to battle it out for the right to play the Yankees in the World Serieswhich seemed safe to say, since the Yankees had command of the American League racethis series would be a marker of where the two clubs stood. By winning all four, the Braves sent a clear message they intended to be top dog, and if any other NL team was going to the World Series, they were going to have to go through Milwaukee first. 

Their fourth win in the series, on July 14, came in dramatic fashion. Joe Adcock erased a 2-0 Brooklyn lead by tagging Sal Maglie for a two-run homer in the seventh. (The Dodgers had acquired Maglie from Cleveland in mid-May. He may have been 39 years old, but Maglie was a tough-minded veteran who knew what he was doing on the mound. His first victory for the Dodgers was a three-hit shutout against the Braves in Milwaukee back on June 4.) Back to the July 14 game. The clubs battled into extra innings after Adcock's homer, whereupon Hank Aaron's one-out single with runners on first and second in the bottom of the 10th inning for a walk-off win completed the Braves' four-game sweep of the Dodgers.

Hank Aaron was just getting started. At the All-Star break, the Braves' young phenom was batting .309 with 9 homers and 40 runs batted in. After going 3-for-5, including his 15th home run of the year, and driving in 4 runs in Milwaukee's 11-0 clobbering of the last-place Giants on July 26, in the 17 games since the break, Aaron hit .452 with 18 RBIs. He had hit in all but one game since the break and had 12 multi-hit games.Twelve of his 33 hits were for extra bases, including 5 home runs. Aaron was now leading the league with a .340 batting average.

The Braves as a team were revving on all cylinders coming out of the All-Star break. In their 17 games after the season resumed, they scored 115 runs, whacked 29 home runs, and batted .292. On the pitching side, they gave up 58 runs and limited opposing batters to a .264 average. Warren Spahn, just 7-7 at the break, had complete-game victories in all three of his starts since then, giving up just 8 runs.

As they left New York City after their victory on July 26 for two games in Philadelphia with a record of 56-32, it was 88 games down for the 1956 Milwaukee Braves and 66 to go. Their lead was now 5½ games over the second-place Redlegs and 6 over the Dodgers. On Monday they would be returning to New York, this time to the borough of Brooklyn, for four games with the Dodgers.

The last time they were in Brooklyn, the Braves came to town having lost 10 of their last 15 games, and Charlie Grimm was the man(ager) in charge. After dropping the first two of four at Ebbets Field, they left with Fred Haney running the show. Change was good.