Tuesday, April 14, 2015

60 Years Ago (April 14, 1955): Enough With Four is Enough

When Don Newcombe took the mound to start the second game of the 1955 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the defending-champion New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on April 14, 1955, he had four black teammates on the field with himJim Gilliam at second, Jackie Robinson at third, Sandy Amoros in left, and Roy Campanella calling the game behind the plategiving the Dodgers five black players in their starting line-up. Although this was not the first time the Dodgers had done so, having a majority of players in the starting line-up who were minorities was a significant milestone in major league baseball's consolidation of integration because it meant a team's manager was starting the best players he thought could win the game without regard to racial considerations.

Enough With Four is Enough

It was not until 1952, six years into the Jackie Robinson era, that a major league team had more than four black players on their roster at any one time. The Dodgers had been the first with four when they opened the 1950 season with Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, and right-hander Dan Bankhead on their roster. In 1951, the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians all had four black players on their rosters at the same time. Twice in 1951 the Giants could have been the first major league team with five blacks on their roster, but chose not to be: they sent down reserve infielder Artie Wilson two days before calling up Willie Mays on May 23, and with outfielders Mays and Monte Irvin, third baseman Hank Thompson, and back-up catcher Ray Noble already on the club, the Giants decided against bringing up Ray Dandridge when Thompson badly injured his ankle on July 18 but remained with the team. Instead the Giants decided to shift Bobby Thomson to third base from the platoon-role he had been playing in the outfield since the arrival of Mays, in no small part because Thomson was struggling at the plate.

Perhaps Wilson earned his demotion with a batting average of only .182 in 22 at bats as a bench player, but Dandridge, one of the all-time greats in the Negro Leagues, was having a terrific season for the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Minneapolis (from where Mays was also promoted), hitting .324 on the season as a 37-year-old. The decision to move Thomson to third rather than call for Dandridge certainly did not hurt the Giants, as Thomson finished the season on a tear, ultimately culminating in his "Giants win the pennant! Giants win the pennant!" home run. As for Thompson with a "p," he pinch hit in seven games in August and another seven in September. Ready to play when the World Series began, courtesy of the Thomson (without a "p") home run, Irvin, Mays, and Hank Thompson became the first all-black outfield in major league historyand in the Fall Classic, no less.

The decision not to bring up Dandridge may have been motivated by the color of his skin, but probably not, in the case of the Giants, because of prejudice as much as by practical considerations to limit the number of blacks on big league rosters in the first years of integration, to avoid pushing the envelope of acceptance too far too fast. 

According to Roger Kahn, the elegant baseball writer who covered the Dodgers at the time and later wrote The Boys of Summer, it was understood in the beginning years of integration that teams should refrain from a majority of players on the field at any one time being blacks. He wrote that when Jim Gilliam made the club in the spring of 1953, the Dodgers sent outfielder Sandy Amoros back to the minor leagues despite his having had an outstanding spring training that followed a terrific season at Triple-A in 1952. Amoros had another terrific year in the minors in 1953 before being promoted to the Dodgers in 1954. 

Because 1954 was also the year that Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe returned from two years as a US Army draft pick during the Korean War, it was inevitable that sooner or later, Brooklyn manager Walt Alston would have a decision to make about exceeding the unofficial "quota"if Kahn's account is correctof no more than four black players on the field at any one time. July 17, 1954, in a game in Milwaukee, was the first time in history that five black playersGilliam, Robinson, Amoros, Campanella, and Newcombewere in a major league starting line-up. Newcombe pitched nine strong innings, giving up only one run, in a game the Dodgers ultimately won, 2-1, in eleven innings. 

These five players were also in Alston's starting line-up in three other games in 1954on August 24 in Cincinnati, a 12-4 Dodger victory; September 6 at home against the Pirates, a 9-7 loss in which Newcombe failed to get out of the first inning; and September 15 at home against the Reds, a 10-4 Dodger winmeaning April 14, 1955, was only the fifth time that a major league starting line-up included five black players. 

Carl Erskine had started for the Dodgers on opening day and pitched a complete game victory against the Pirates, and Johnny Antonelli started for the Giants and lost in Philadelphia. Each had been their team's best pitcher in 1954, so their starting assignments were deserved. But when it came to Dodgers-Giants, a rivalry with real venom, the veteran masters in combat were Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie, and they both had the honor of going at it in the second game for both teams in the 1955 season. 

Both pitchers had much to prove. Maglie was 14-6 for the Giants in 1954, but that was after an 8-9 season and he was about to turn 38 years old later in the month. Newcombe had struggled in 1954 with a 9-8 record and 4.55 earned run average, raising questions about whether he would recover his excellence from before he was drafted into the Army.

The marquee match-up turned out to be anything but stellar. Maglie lasted only four innings, giving up four runs. Newcombe pitched 7-1/3 innings and gave up eight runs, five earned, on 12 hits. Newcombe got the winand he earned it himself, because however ugly his pitching performance was, Newcombe could hit. Channeling his inner Babe Ruth, Newcombe tagged Maglie for a home run in the fourth, immediately after Campanella had put the Dodgers ahead with a three-run blast. And in the seventh, Newcombe hit a second home run, this time with Campy on base, to give the Dodgers a 10-3 lead. Hank Thompson hit a three-run home run off Newcombe in the bottom of the seventh to make it interesting, and a two-run home run by pinch hitter Bobby Hofmanwhose name is largely lost in historysent Newcombe to the Polo Grounds showers.

For both the Dodgers, now 2-0, and the Giants, 0-2, it was two games down and 152 to go in the 1955 season.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on Integration—The National League

Nine years into the Jackie Robinson era, there were 36 blacks on the 1955 opening day rosters of the sixteen major league teams27 on seven of the eight National League teams. Fourteen were in the starting line-up in their team's first game of the year. This is the third of four articles on the state of integration in major league baseball as Robinson was nearing the end of his great and ground-breaking career. 

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on IntegrationThe National League

The first article in this series focused on the National League's traditional season-opening game on April 11 at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, where the Chicago Cubs beat the Reds, 7-5, with all three of the black playerstwo of whom were in the starting line-upon their roster playing a significant role in the victory. Both teams played again the next day, as the round of major league season-opening games continued.

The Cubs returned home to Wrigley Field to host the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals, playing in the farthest south of big league cities at the time, had not integrated until the 1954 seasonbut this day they started Brooks Lawrence, who was a revelation in his rookie season after being called up the previous June, going 15-6, including 9-2 in 18 starts. In his first opening day start, Lawrence didn't have it. He gave up five runs while getting only two outs in the first inning before being relieved. This proved an unfortunate harbinger of his year to come. Lawrence was sent back to the minor leagues in August with a 3-7, 6.35 record in 45 gamesmostly in relief.

Lawrence resurrected his career the following year, his 19-10 record with the Reds contributing to their pennant push that fell two games short of success in 1956. Of course, the real catalyst of Cincinnati's revival was the arrival of Frank Robinson, who became the first black player to start an opening-day game for the Reds on April 17, 1956. Robinson, batting seventh, got a double in his first big league at bat, a single in his second, went 2-for-3 in the Reds' loss to the Cardinals, and finished the 1956 season with 38 home runsmatching the then-record for the most by a rookieand winning the NL Rookie of the Year.

The Reds traveled to Milwaukee on April 12 for the Braves' opening day. As in the opening game, neither of the Reds' two black players were in the starting line-up, although Bob Thurman reached as a pinch hitter and Chuck Harmon went in to run for him. 

The Braves were fully committed to integration, with seven black players on their opening day roster. Center fielder Bill Bruton (in his third season) and right fielder Hank Aaron (in his second), batting first and second, were key contributors to Milwaukee's 4-2 win in their first game of the year. Bruton led off the game with a single and scored the Braves' first run of the season, and with the Braves up by 3-2 in the eighth, singled and scored an insurance run on Aaron's triple. As a rookie in 1954, Aaron had given many indications he would be an elite player. Bruton was among the first black players to be a consistent regular over at least five successive seasons who was not an elite player.

Of the five other black players on Milwaukee's opening-day roster, the most significant was George Crowe, who had batted .334 with the team's Triple-A club in Toronto in 1954 after two relatively underachieving seasons with the Braves in 1952 and 1953, during which he started in only 55 of the 120 games he played. Crowe made the 1955 Braves as the back-up to Joe Adcock at first base and wound up as Milwaukee's regular first baseman the final two months of the season after Adcock suffered a broken arm when he was hit by a pitch on the last day of July. The next year, Crowe was in Cincinnati, the back-up to Ted Kluszewski, and so started only 25 games. The other four black players on the 1955 Braves' opening roster were sent down to the minors in June.

The Giants at Philadelphia and the Pirates at Brooklyn did not begin their 1955 seasons until April 13. While the Phillies were just as bad as the Red Sox, Tigers, and Yankees in their stance on integration and had no blacks on their opening-day rosterit would not be until two years later, at the start of the 1957 season, that they integrated at the major league levelthe Giants not only had long been fully committed to integration, but had profited thereby. Hank Thompson had been a regular with the Giants since being called up in July 1949, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays were  instrumental to the Giants' epic come-from-behind pennant in 1951, and in 1954 they were joined by Ruben Gomez, who had a 17-9 record in helping New York derail Brooklyn in the National League, and then Cleveland in the World Series.

Mays in center, Irvin in left, and Thompson at third batted third, fourth, and fifth for Leo Durocher's Giants in their opening-day loss to the Phillies. Mays became the Giants' first base runner of the season when he walked, spoiling Philadelphia ace Robin Roberts' bid for a perfect game. Roberts carried a no-hit bid into the ninth, however, before it was broken up by Alvin Dark's one-out single following an error. After Roberts fanned Mays, Irvin doubled to drive home his team's first two runs of the 1955 season in their 4-2 loss.

Two of the three black players on the Pirates' opening-day roster were in the starting line-up in Pittsburgh's April 13, 6-1, loss in Brooklynsecond baseman Curt Roberts, batting second, and right fielder Roman Mejias, making his big league debut, batting third. Roberts had been the player to integrate the Pirates in 1954 and was their regular second baseman all season, but major league pitching proved challenging and his starting job at second rested on a thin reed. He went 1-for-4 in the game and 1-for-2 the next day against the Phillies, but by the end of April was sent packing to the minor leagues with a .118 batting average in six games and 19 plate appearances. Mejias was 1-for-3, his first major league hit coming in his second at bat against Brooklyn starter Carl Erskine. Mejias started in only 39 of the 71 games he played and batted only .216, earning him another year of seasoning in the minor leagues the next year.

Pittsburgh manager Fred Haney did not use the third black player on his team in any game until starting him in right field, in place of Mejias (who had only two hits in his first 11 at bats) in the fourth game of the year, on April 17, at home, against the Dodgers. Batting third and in right field, Roberto Clemente got an infield single in his first major league at bat and went 1-for-4. Once in the starting line-up, Clemente was there to stay in Pittsburghthrough 3,000 hits in his last at bat of the 1972 seasonuntil his tragic fate on a personally-organized humanitarian mission to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua late on New Year's Eve.  

The Dodgers' opening day line-up in their win against Pittsburgh featured Jim Gilliam at second, batting first; Sandy Amoros, batting fifth in left field; Jackie Robinsonbeginning his ninth major league seasonat third base, batting sixth; and Roy Campanella, batting eighth and catching. It was Gilliam's home run off Pirates' starter Max Surkont to lead off the bottom of the seventh that proved the ultimate winning run, breaking a 1-1 tie. But it was Jackie Robinson being Jackie Robinson whose at bat was decisive in breaking open the game. With the score still 2-1 on Gilliam's home run, and runners on first and third with two out, Jackie dragged a bunt past the pitcher's mound, where it was fielded by second baseman Roberts, who had no play. Pee Wee Reese scored from third to make the score 3-1 on Robinson's second hit of the dayhe had doubled the previous inningand Carl Furillo followed with a three-run home run to put the game out of Pittsburgh's reach.

Brooklyn's two other black players were both pitchersreliever Joe Black, for whom there was no need in Carl Erskine's complete game victoryand Don Newcombe, the Dodgers' true ace who was reserved to start the second game of the season, against the hated, despised, and defending-champion New York Giants. Since the Pirates had been the worst team in the league in 1954, and would be again this year, the Giants' home opener at the Polo Grounds on April 14 would be the Dodgers' first true test of the 1955 season.

The fourth article of this series on the state of integration in major league baseball in 1955 will center on that game.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on Integration--The American League

Sixty year ago, when the 1955 season opened on April 11, there were 36 blacks on the opening day rosters of the sixteen major league teams, but only nine on five American League teams. This is the second of four articles on the status of integration in the major leagues nine long years into the Jackie Robinson era"long" because baseball careers are so short. Nine years is virtually akin to a full generation of players.

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on IntegrationThe American League

Notwithstanding that by now black players had certainly proven they could play at the major league level, American League teams for the most part remained stubborn holdouts when it came to integration, although they all had blacks playing in their minor league systems. Going into the 1955 season, Larry Doby, Cleveland's center fielder since 1948, and Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox since 1951, were the only black players with any longevity in the AL. Doby and Minoso were two of only four black players written by their managers into the line-up card for the the first game of the season, along with 68 white players. 

As was then the tradition, so the President could throw out the first ball (which President Eisenhower dutifully did), the American League season opened in Washington's Griffith Stadium, where the Senators played host to the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles started the season without any black player in their dugout until they obtained outfielder David Pope from the Indians in a trade in mid-June. 

After becoming the twelfth major league team to introduce a black player in a September call-up the previous year, the Senators opened a season for the first time with blacks on their rosteroutfielder Carlos Paula, who was the September 1954 call-up, and Juan Delis, who could play both third and the outfield. Neither was African American. Both were born in Cuba, where the Senators had an advantage because they were the only major league team to have been scouting players there, white Hispanics to be sure, since the 1930s.

Neither Paula nor Delis were in manager Charlie Dressen's starting line-up, and neither got into the game. After appearing in seven games as a pinch hitter or pinch runner, Delis made the first of his 29 starts in Washington's 15th game of the year. He appeared in only 54 games for the Senators, batting .189 in what would be his only major league season. Paula played in 115 games for the Senators in 1955, getting only 374 plate appearances, and did not make his first start in the outfield until their 23rd game of the season. 

The following day, April 12, the Orioles played their home opener in Baltimore against the Boston Red Soxmajor league baseball's most notorious team when it came to holding out against integration. It would be another four years, three months, and nine daysJuly 21, 1959, to be exactbefore a black player, Pumpsie Green, would take the field for Boston. 

Also on April 12, the Detroit Tigers opened the 1955 season against the Athletics, playing their first season in Kansas City. The Tigers were as staunchly opposed to integration at the big league level as the Red Sox, and it would be another three years before they did so with Ozzie Virgil taking the field at third base on June 6, 1958, making Detroit the next-to-last major league team to integrate

For the second year in a row, the Athletics had one blackand one black onlyon their opening day roster. He was Vic Power, who started in center field in 1954 and hit .255 in his rookie season. Power played first base and batted lead-off on this opening day, but manager Lou Boudreau pinch hit for him in the sixth inning, the A's up by 3-2, and the bases loaded. Power had been hitless in three at bats. Power went on to hit .319 for the seasonsecond in the American League, although far behind Al Kaline's .340 average.

The third AL opening-day game on April 12 was Chicago at Cleveland. The Indians and White Sox were the only two American League teams that had an early commitment to integration. Minnie Minoso, however, was the only black player on the White Sox opening day roster, coming off a terrific season in which he was the best player in the league based on the wins above replacement metric, with a league-leading 304 total bases, 116 runs batted in, and a .320 batting average in 1954. Batting third and playing left field, Minoso drove in the only run in Chicago's 5-1 loss to the Indians with a sixth-inning single. 

The Indians started the year with four black players on their roster. Lead-off batter Al Smith went 2-for-4 and Larry Doby went 1-for-3. Smith was Cleveland's batting star for the day; he reached base on an infield hit leading off the Indians' first and scored their first run of the year, then crashed a two-run home run off Chicago starter Virgil Trucks to give Cleveland a 4-0 lead in the second. Both Harry Simpson and David Pope, who were outfield reserves, were traded soon after the season began.

The New York Yankees did not open their season until the next day, April 13, at home against Washington. If there was any team as notorious as the Red Sox and Tigers for their opposition to integration, it was the Yankeeswhose excuse was that they were looking for a black player who could play up to their standard of excellence, and whose line was that they would not be pressured into integrating their dugout at Yankee Stadium. 

Vic Power somehow failed to meet that standard of excellence, despite batting .331 and .349 (winning the batting title) for their Kansas City Triple-A affiliate in 1952 and 1953, and notwithstanding that first base was a position of weakness those years for the Big Club in New York. Power played with a certain amount of flair that was anything but Yankee-regal; rather than keep him down on the farm, the Yankees traded Power to the Athletics, with whom he began his big league career in 1954.

On opening day in 1955, however, the Yankees finally did have a black on their major league roster. Casey Stengel may have jokingly complained that he had the only African American player who couldn't run, but Elston Howard was nothing if not versatilea catcher who could also play the outfield, and even corner infield positions. Despite the Yankees' 19-1 drubbing of the Senators on opening day, Stengel did not find an opportunity to put Howard into the game. 

Howard got into his first big league game in the sixth inning the next day in Boston and singled in his first at bat with two on to drive in Mickey Mantle with the first RBI of his career. He would not make his first start (catching) until the Yankees played their 14th game of the season in Kansas City on April 28, and was not in the starting line-up of a game at Yankee Stadium until May 14 (in left field)—the Yankees' 26th game of the year and their 10th at home.

The next article will examine the state of integration in the National League on opening day in 1955.

Friday, April 10, 2015

60 Years Ago: Opening Day 1955—Mr. Cub, Three and Out, and the Toothpick

On opening day sixty years agoMonday, April 11, 1955the Chicago Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds, 7-5, with significant contributions from all three black players on their season-opening roster. It was four days short of nine years that Jackie Robinson became the first acknowledged black player to play in the major leagues since the 19th century, and although there was no going back to segregated whites-only organized baseball, integration was still a work in progress. This is the first of four articles centered on opening day games on the status of integration in major league baseballnine years into the big league career of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. 

Opening Day 1955: Mr. Cub, Three and Out, and the Toothpick

As was a longstanding tradition to honor the Reds as the first official major league franchise back in 1876, the 1955 National League season opened in Cincinnati on April 11. Both teams were relatively late to integratethe Chicago Cubs not doing so until they called up infielders Ernie Banks and Gene Baker in September 1953, the Reds not until opening day in 1954 with infielder Chuck Harmon and outfielder Nino Escalera as bench players. Harmon started in 63 of the 94 games he played without being able to establish himself as a regular, and Escalera hit .159  in 73 games, making only eight starts in the field.

The Reds once again had two blacks on their opening day rosterHarmon and outfielder Bob Thurman. The Puerto Rican-born Escalera failed to make the Big Club and was assigned to Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate in Havana, Cuba. Thurman, soon to turn 38 years old, was a veteran from the Negro Leagues, had played in the New York Yankee and Chicago Cub farm systems, and had been a standout player in Caribbean winter league baseball. Neither Harmon nor Thurman figured to be a regular for the Reds in 1955, and neither was in the starting line-up on opening day. Harmon did get into the game as a pinch runner in the ninth inning of a losing cause. 

Harmon played in 96 games for the Reds in 1955, batting .253 with five home runs and 28 runs batted in, but started in only 60 at third base and left field. He played only 99 more games in the big leagues, his last with the Phillies in 1957in the year Philadelphia became the last National League team to integrate their big league roster. Thurman started in only 27 of the 82 games he appeared and would play for the Reds for three more years, coming off the bench.

As for the visiting Cubs, for the second straight opening day they started Gene Baker at second and Ernie Banks at short. Batting sixth, Banks singled in the second to help set up the Cubs' first run of the season and came around himself to score on a double, and Bakerbatting secondgreeted reliever Joe Nuxhall in the third with a home run to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead. But the star of the game was the third black player on the Cubs' opening day roster, right-hander Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubs had acquired Jones from the Indians, for whom he had spent the four previous years pitching at the Triple-A level in their minor league system and a total of 16 games in parts of the 1951 and 1952 seasons. 

Cubs' manager Stan Hack brought Sam Jones into the first game of the year in relief of the starting pitcher and ace of the staff, Bob Rush. It was only the fourth inning and Jones was asked to protect a 4-2 lead with runners at the corners and two outs. At the plate stood the Reds' powerful first baseman, Ted Kluszewski, who had led the majors with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs the previous year and who would finish the 1955 season leading the league in hits with 192, of which 47 cleared the fence. Big Klu had homered the previous inning against Rush and now had the chance to give Cincinnati the lead in this at bat, but Jones got the better of him, inducing a ground out to first.

Sam Jones pitched five innings, giving up just one run on two hits to get the win. He left the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning, leading 7-4, after surrendering back-to-back walks. Reliever Hal Jeffcoat hit the next batter to force in a run, but got the final out to save the game for Jones. 

Bob Rush may have been the Cubs' nominal ace, but Sam Jones had the most starts (34) and the most wins (14) for the 1955 Cubs. He finished the season with a 14-20 record for a team that ended up sixth with only 72 wins. Jones led the National League in strikeouts with 198 and in strikeouts-per-nine innings for the first of four consecutive years. Alas, control was a problem, witness Jones also leading the league in walks with 185.

Banks, Baker, and Jones were archetypes of the black experience in the first decade of integration in the major leagues. Ernie Banks was, of course, a transcendent starjust beginning his way to a Hall of Fame career as arguably the best National League shortstop since the days of Honus Wagner. After finishing second in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year in 1954, Banks had his breakout season in 1955, blasting 44 home runs, driving in 117 runs, and finishing third in the MVP voting. His excellence assured he could not be denied a starting role in the major leagues. 

Although, like Banks, only in his second season, Gene Baker epitomized the very talented black player who did not make the major leagues until he was approaching 30 years old, deprived of an opportunity to start his major league career any earlier than late September 1953 because of the color of his skin. He was not signed until he was 25 and then played 656 games in the minor leagues before getting his shot in the Big Time, side-by-side with Banks, who was six years younger. There was no question that Baker would have made the big-league grade sooner, especially given that both middle infield positions were a significant weakness for not-very-good Cubs teams since 1950, but the Cubs took a go-slow approach when it came to integrating at Wrigley Field.

Baker was the Cubs' regular second baseman from 1954 through 1956 before being traded to Pittsburgh, where neither he (nor anyone else) was about to take away Bill Mazeroski's job. Injuries wound up derailing his career, which amounted to 630 big league games, 448 with the Cubs. Gene Baker was not an elite player, but he was a capable big leaguer. The three years he was a regular for the Cubs, during which he hit .267, Baker averaged about 2.3 wins above replacementat the bottom range of performance expected of a big league regular. 

Unless they played for the Dodgers, Giants, or Braves, three years for most of the 1950s was about the norm for blacks who were not elite players to be a regular on their team before they were shunted aside. If an important benchmark for the consolidation of integration was whether black players with average major league ability, not just elite players, were given the opportunity to fairly compete and hold on to starting jobs on big league teams, Gene Baker probably didn't get the chance he deserved. 

One who did was Sam Jones, nicknamed "Toothpick" because he liked to chomp on one but who also could have earned the nickname for being tall (6-4) and skinny (192 pounds), although he never pitched for any one team longer than three years. From 1955 to 1960, pitching two years for the Cubs, two for the Cardinals, and two for the Giants, Jones was a regular in their starting rotations, four times starting at least 34 games. Jones had a very respectable career, finishing up with a 102-101 major league record. His best season was in 1959, when his 21-15 record and league-leading 2.83 ERA was instrumental to the Giants competing for the pennant until the last week of the season.

The next article will examine the state of integration in the American League on Opening Day in 1955.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

60 Years Ago, When the Wait for "Next Year" Finally Ended (First in a Series): 1955 Pre-Season Pennant Race Handicaps

"Wait Till Next Year." Sixty years ago, that was the mantra at Ebbets Field because the Dodgers had lost every World Series they had been in1916, 1920, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953not to mention having lost the first two playoffs ever for the National League pennant, in 1946 and 1951, and not being counted down and out for good until the final game of the 1950 season. Wait till Next Year. Well, sixty years ago, "next year" finally came when the Dodgers won their firstand, it turned out, onlyWorld Series championship in Brooklyn. This is the first in a series throughout this season on the National League and American League pennant races sixty years ago, beginning with the first ever preseason forecasts by a new publication whose first issue was just the previous August, Sports Illustrated.

1955 Pre-Season Handicaps

The baseball world must have felt a bit off by what transpired in 1954. Surely it was strange that the New York Yankees did not play in the World Series. After all, they had won each of the five previous American League pennants, and each of the five previous World Seriesan unprecedented achievement. Not only that, the 1954 Yankees won more games than any of the five-and-five-in-five championship teams between 1949 and 1953. Their 103 victories, however, were good for only second place, and not even a close second. The Cleveland Indians won 111 games, wound up eight games in front of the Yankees, and were the favorites to win the World Series until Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes hit home runs coming off the bench to win Games 1 and 2, and the New York Giants swept the Indians four straight.

And surely it was equally strange in 1954 that for the first time since 1948 the Brooklyn Dodgers were not either the National League pennant-winner or still competing for the honor down to the very last game they played. Indeed, two dramatic, heart-rending losses were all that stood between the Dodgers and their matching the Yankees with five straight World Series appearances between 1949 and 1953. In 1950, the Dodgers had a chance to make history with a stirring comeback from 9 games down with only 16 left to play to force a playoff with the Phillies, whom the scheduling gods set them up to meet at home in the final game of the season, only to see the would-be game-winning run thrown out at the plate in the last of the ninth and the Phillies win the game and secure the pennant on a three-run home run in the tenth. And in 1951, well, you know... Ralph Branca... Bobby Thomson... enough said.

The Dodgers had finished second in 1954. They were last in first place, tied with the Giants, on June 13. Thereafter, although they stayed in second and were never far behind the Giants, the Dodgers never really made a serious play for first place either. They pulled to within half-a-game after sweeping the Giants at Ebbets Field in mid-August, but six days later were four games behind. The Dodgers basically spent all summer treading water. They ended up five games out.

Robert Creamer, previewing the 1955 season for Sports Illustrated, summed up the Dodgers as smooth and seasoned, but aging and with "notoriously undependable" pitching. He wrote that "young replacements" had yet to prove themselves, although this was an uncharitable assessment with regard to one young 'un he namedJim Gilliam, entering his third year as the Dodgers' second baseman with a .280 batting average and .372 on base percentage in 297 big league games. Creamer did not count Brooklyn out, however. Noting that Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe all played below their established standards for excellence in 1954, Creamer predicted that if they returned to their past level of performance, "these three could bring the championship back to Flatbush."

One thing was obvious, wrote Creamer, and that was that the defending-champion Giants and the up-and-coming Milwaukee Braves were the "best-balanced" teams in the National League. "They are beautifully matched, these two teams," he wrote, concluding that "the Giants should win the pennant." "The difference between the clubs is spelled W-i-l-l-i-e- M-a-y-s-." 

Creamer's assessment of the American League ultimately came down to "how close the Indians come to winning 111 games again," indicating a slight nod to the Yankees, without coming out and saying so explicitly. The Yankees had depth, the best catcher in baseball (Yogi Berra), Mickey Mantle ("who threatens to grow from good to great"), and good pitching led by Whitey Ford. Their big question marks were how much "the once-great Yankee shortstop" Phil Rizzuto had left and who would replace Allie Reynolds, who had just retired. He did mention that the Yankees now had Bob Turley, who in 1954 was 14-15 for the seventh-place, 100-loss Orioles.

The Indians, on the other hand, had probably "the worst-fielding infield to ever win a major league pennant," were slow and unimaginative on the bases, and despite "one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history," also an aging pitching staff. In fact, advanced fielding metrics that did not exist at the time indicate that Cleveland's infield defense was the second-best in the league (after the White Sox) up the middle, but quite problematic at the corners, including the worst in the league at third base, Al Rosen's position. As for the pitching, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who both won 23 for the '54 Indians, were in their mid-30s, Bob Feller was 36 (although he had made only 19 starts in 1954), and Creamer might also have mentioned that Mike Garcia, who was 19-8 with a league-leading 2.64 ERA in 1954, was 31. Joining the Cleveland staff, however, would be Herb Score, said to be "so good you can't believe it."

With the Yankees and Indians having split their season series in 1954, the difference in outcome for 1955 could well be the same as it was the previous yearwhichever team had the better record against the rest of the American League.

Opening day would be April 11, 1955. More to come.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

The argument for one-run games being a possible indicator of a manager's skill and effectiveness in game-on-the-line circumstances is that these are the games where his decisions would have the most obvious impact, as suggested by several exciting games of the 2014 post-season mentioned in my previous article. The prevailing view among sabermetric analysts, however, is that it is misleading to evaluate any manager's performance based on such indicators as his record in one-run games, which are decided as much by luck as a manager's game-management skills. Inspired by Branch Rickey's famous dictum, "Luck is the residue of design," this Insight seeks to explore that issue.

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

As noted in my previous article, Nats' manager Matt Williams' decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann in a 1-0 game with the tying run on base but needing only one more out to even the division series blew up in his face; O's manager Buck Showalter's decision to put the potential winning run on base with the tying run on second, with only one out and his team just two outs away from advancing to the ALCS, proved a masterstroke; and Royals' manager Ned Yost's decision to use a starting pitcher instead of his go-to seventh-inning guy to protect a one-run lead in the sixth in the wild card game nearly cost KC the game and their ultimate road to the World Series.

Games decided by one-run are not simply low-scoring affairs, such as often associated with the Dead Ball Era, but also games decided by scores like 9-8, 8-7, and 7-6. Most are legitimately on the line in the late innings, even if some one-run games begin as blowouts and become close only because of frenetic comebacks that fall just short.

The percentage of major league games decided by one run was typically between 30 and 35 percent during the Dead Ball Era; mostly between 25 and 30 percent from the 1920s through the 1950s when the power game was prevalent; and consistently back over 30 percent in the 1960sincluding 35 percent in 1968, which was so much the "Year of the Pitcher" that the permissible height of the mound was dramatically lowered beginning the next year. 

There was a marked divergence between the American and National Leagues in the first two decades of the DH rule beginning in 1973, where one-run games accounted for about one-third of the outcomes in the NL but for only between 25 and 30 percent in the AL. The major league average was about 27 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, with the NL only slightly higher than the AL. In the last five years, about 30 percent of major league games have been decided by one-run, including 29 percent in the American League and 32 percent in the National League last year. (All of the above data is available on the baseball-reference website for every season played since 1900.)

As countless teams have experienced and millions of fans have endured, however, the outcome of games decided by only one run could very much depend on a lucky break or the ability (or inability) of players to executeevents that say nothing about the actual merits of a manager's decisions. It is a matter of inches, after all (or so they say), between fair and foul balls, safe and out on the bases or at the plate, home runs or long fly ball outs to the wall that decide the outcome of games

Precisely because so much is up to chance is a strong argument for why a manager's record in one-run games as an indicator of his game-management skills and performance is misleading. 

After all, the Orioles' record in one-run games over the last three years under Buck Showalter, one of the most respected managers in baseball today, is marked by extremes. The 2014 O's had a 32-23 record in games decided by one runa winning percentage only 11 points below Baltimore's 96-66 record for the season. But the previous year, Showalter's record in one-run games was an extraordinarily ugly 20-31, below .400, for a team that in 2013 had a .525 winning percentage, while in 2012 the Orioles were at the other end of  extraordinary with an amazing 29-9 mark in one-run affairs. It would surely be ludicrous to suggest Showalter is only a good manager in tight games in the even-numbered years.

Grounded in a long history of play-by-play data, sabermetric analysis typically discounts teams' records in such close games as an indicator of their manager's decisionmaking prowess. For example, the probabilities of a team scoring a run indicates that managerial decisions to play for one run using strategies such as sacrifice bunts to advance runners at the expense of an out, or stolen baseswhich, if unsuccessful, cost an out and eliminate a runneroften actually reduces the odds of scoring. 

Furthermore, most game strategies are obvious and pro forma, such as whether to sacrifice bunt in the late innings in a tie game, to walk a dangerous hitter with the tying run in scoring position and first base open, or even to bring in a left-handed specialist to pitch to a dangerous left-handed batter at a critical spot in the game. Whether to go "by the book" or not is the manager's choice and the outcome is often indeed dependent on his players' ability to execute or a matter of luck.

Still, bearing in mind Branch Rickey's Bartlett's quotation about "luck being the residue of design"which is itself a variation of Roman philosopher Seneca's dictum that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" (well-read in the classics was Mr. Rickey)managers making decisions to play for one run do so because they believe just one run is what is needed at that moment to ultimately win the game, particularly if it is the late innings, and therefore is worth the risk and the sacrifice of a potentially bigger inning. Even if their strategy to play for one run actually reduces the odds of scoring according to the probabilities of run-expectancy from their decision, their bias is towards not blowing the opportunity to score just one run. And it is the same concerning decisions about pitching changes, defensive alignments, and how and even whether to pitch to particular batters.

Their players may fail to execute. Fate may intervene in a bad bounce, a great defensive play, or a lousy call (although replay challenges are a remedy to that problem). But managers make the decisions they do at the moments they do for the very purpose, they believe, of maximizing their team's chance to win the game. We should be careful never to assume that the manager did not have very good reasons for making the decisions he dideven those that backfired and have fans and pundits screaming, What was he thinking!

A manager's decisions are made in the context of not only the game situation, but also his years (and years) of learned experience in the game, as well as the philosophical approach and willingness to take risks that he brings to the game as part of his personal and, sometimes, his team's organizational history. In this regard, it would seem their decisions are less about luck (although still dependent on execution) than about the manager's judgment. If so, a manager's record in one-run games may indeed be telling as a valid indicator in the outcomewin or loseof close and sometimes critical games.

There will be further consideration of this issue in the future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering the 2014 Postseason: Decisions Have Consequences

The 2014 postseason showed that of the many roles of a manager, that of game-tacticianespecially the situationally-dependent decisions he makes that can be pivotal in games decided by a single runare those where he is most open to criticism and second-guessing. This first of two articles will hearken back to three dramatic moments in the post-season just past, to be followed by an article engaging the debate on whether a manager's decisions in one-run gamesand specifically his record in games decided by one runis a valid indicator of managers' impact and effectiveness.  

Decisions Have Consequences

In Game 2 of the NLDS, the Nationals hosting the Giants, Washington held a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of a game they needed desperately to win, it being that they had lost Game 1 in the best-of-five series and the next two games would be in San Fran. Just six days after he had pitched a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season, Jordan Zimmermann was again pitching as though this was Masterpiece Theatre. He had retired 23 consecutive batters when Joe Panik came to bat in the top of the ninth, the Giants down to their last out. But Zimmermann walked Panik on a pitch that may or may not have been in the strike zone, putting the tying run on base, and bringing Nats first-year manager Matt Williams to the mound.

In a decision for which he was extensively criticized even as he made it, Williams decided to remove Zimmermann in favor of Nats' closer Drew Storen. Zimmermann had thrown just 100 pitches, was in the flow of another brilliant performance, and was arguably unhittable. He had in fact given up only three hits, none since the third. Storen had a history about which the fans at Nationals Park were well aware, and while history doesn't necessarily have to repeat itself, well... 

First, the history: Storen had been rather unceremoniously dumped from the closer role after having blown a 7-5 lead he was called upon to save in the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against St. Louis. He loaded the bases, got two outs, and with the Nationals just one out away from victoryand a trip to the NLCSgave up back-to-back singles that scored four Cardinals runs, ending Washington's breakout season in bitter defeat. When Rafael Soriano, who replaced him as closer, struggled late in the 2014 season, Storen returned to the role in September and was excellent, not allowing a run the entire final month of the season ... until ...

History did seem to repeat itself: instead of getting the final out to save Zimmermann's masterpiece and even-up the series, Storen surrendered a single and a double that tied the score, and only a runner being thrown out at the plate prevented the Giants from going ahead and winning in nine. The Giants did eventually win, in 18 innings, to take a two-games-to-none lead back to San Francisco that the Nationals were unable to overcome. 

In Game 3 of the ALDS, Baltimore at Detroit, a debated managerial move in a one-run game had a different outcome. The Orioles had a two games-to-none advantage in the Series and, with a 2-1 lead, were two outs away from sweeping the Tigers, but the Tigers got the tying run to second base. 

Veteran Orioles manager Buck Showalter ordered his relief ace, lefty Zach Britton, to intentionally walk Nick Castellanos who hit only .259 during the season and had struck out 140 timesthe second-highest K total on the Tigers. Although a right-handed batter, Castellanos had fared worse when facing southpaws, hitting only .237 against them. He had walked in his only plate appearance against Britton during the season.

Deliberately walking Castellanos was certainly an unconventional move because it put the possible winning run on base. But it did set up a double play situationwhich is exactly what the Orioles got to win the game and advance to the ALCS against ...

The Kansas City Royals, whose trip to the World Series was nearly stopped short in the AL wild card game by manager Ned Yost's controversial decision concerning who to call on in relief of starter James Shields to protect a sixth-inning lead. The Royals led 3-2, but the Oakland A's got two on with nobody out in the sixth when Yost came to get Shields. Left-handed power-hitter Brandon Moss was waiting to bat.

Kelvin Herrera, the Royals' highly-regarded seventh-inning guy, was available, and with the post-season on the line, this was perhaps a time Yost might bring him in to get crucial outs in the sixth inning. Instead, Yost called upon right-handed power starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. Power against power, Moss greeted Ventura with a three-run home run that gave the A's the lead, and only a stirring comeback in the eighth and ninth innings, and again in the twelfth, allowed KC to prevail, 9-8, to go on to the ALDS, and then the ALCS, and finally the World Series.

These are just three examples of decisions by managers at critical moments of one-run games in the 2014 postseason. As was also demonstrated in the series of articles I wrote last year concerning some of manager Gene Mauch's decisions during the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, such decisions have consequences, affecting the outcome of games. 

So, the question before us is: does his team's record in one-run games say anything meaningful about a manager's impact and effectiveness in game situations? My next article will grapple with that issue.