Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Fifth Game of the '56 Season (60 Years Ago): Yankees Move Into First For Good

It was a wild one at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, April 21, 1956. The Yankees blew an early 8-0 lead against the Red Sox, then had to come from behind, trailing 10-9, to snatch their fourth victory in five games. This early in the season, the standings didn't necessarily mean anythingcertainly not with 149 games still to playbut their victory combined with the White Sox' loss put the Yankees into first place by half a game. Although there would be one day in May when they had to share top billing, the New York Yankees were never not first in the American League the remainder of the 1956 season.

FIFTH GAME OF THE '56 SEASON (SIXTY YEAR AGO):
YANKEES MOVE INTO FIRST FOR GOOD

The Yankees started the season by winning two of three in Washington and taking the first of a three-game set against the Boston Red Sox in their first home series of the year. The Chicago White Sox, along with the Milwaukee Braves in the National League, were the only undefeated teams going into just the fifth day of the schedule, both with 3-0 records, while the Yankees were 3-1. Whitey Ford had just pitched a five-hit complete game in the Yankees' first home game, with Mickey Mantle hitting his 3rd home run of the year and driving in four runs to pace the Bronx Bombers to a 7-1 victory over Boston.

Wasting no time in their determination to beat up on the Red Sox, the Yankees also made very clear to right-hander George Susce that he was not a "Yankee Killer" despite his success against them as a rookie the previous year. Susce pitched in five games against the Yankees in his first big-league season in 1955, all but the last in relief, giving up just 2 earned runs on 14 hits in 19.1 innings for an anti-Yankee ERA of 0.93. His one decision against the Yankees came in his only start against them, an 8-1 complete-game victory in the last game of the season. 

If Susce thought he might build on that making his first start in the 1956 campaign, the Yankees rudely reminded him why they were the Bronx Bombers. Yogi Berra doubled to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the last of the first, then scored on Joe Collins's single. In the second, Hank Bauer hit a 2-run home run, Mantle hit a 2-run home run, the Yankees now led 6-0, and Susce retired to the showers having pitched just one-and-a-third innings. The Yankees scored a pair of unearned runs in the third and Bob Turley, who was 17-13 in his first year in New York in 1955, had a comfortable, two-grand-slams-ahead 8-0 lead.

They were still coasting with an 8-0 lead in the fifth when Turley gave up a two-run homer to Faye Throneberry and a solo blast to Mickey Vernon. The Yankees made it 9-3 in the sixth, and then the Red Sox unloaded for 4 in the seventh and 3 in the eighth on home runs by Jimmy Piersall and backup catcher Pete Daley off reliever Jim Konstanty to improbably take a 10-9 lead.

That lasted … not at all. Berra immediately tied the score by leading off the Yankee eighth with a home run, and before the inning was over the Yankees henpecked the Red Sox for four more runs to make the final score, New York 14, Boston 10.

With the White Sox crushed by the Kansas City Athletics, 15-1, the Yankees were now in first place by half-a-game over both clubs. In their first five games, the Yankees had scored 43 runs. The Red Sox, with 31 runs, were the closest major league team in terms of offensive productivity. The Yankees had hit 8 home runs and were batting .303 as a team.

And as many were projecting, Mickey Mantle looked like he might have a truly outstanding season. He was batting .444 with a league-leading 4 home runs and 11 runs batted inall in just five games. And Yogi Berra was pretty impressive, too, hitting .467 with 2 home runs and 9 RBIs.

But of course, it was still far too early in the season to draw any conclusions. The Yankees still had 149 games to go, including all 22 against both of their would-be competitors for the pennantthe Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. Still, Casey Stengel ... he who had endless things to say ... sure wasn't complaining about how things so far were going.









Sunday, April 17, 2016

Status of Integration in the American League on Opening Day, 1956 (60 Years Ago)

In contrast to the National League, where 29 black players were on the rosters of seven of the eight NL clubs at the start of the 1956 season, there were only 11 blacks who made the opening day roster on just five of the eight teams in the American League. Six were in the starting line-up in the first game on the schedule on April 17Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso for the White Sox, Al Smith for the Indians, Vic Power and Harry Simpson for the Athletics, and Elston Howard for the Yankees. 

STATE OF INTEGRATION IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE ON OPENING DAY APRIL 17, 1956 (SIXTY YEAR AGO)

By now it was accepted that there was no going back on the integration of major league baseball. The "great experiment"to use historian Jules Tygiel's phrase to describe Branch Rickey's signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgershad proven a resounding success. Robinson and the first wave of elite black players who followed him demonstrated they were every bit as good as the best white players. Although most clubs in both leagues initially took a let's-wait-and-see attitude, the National League was more proactive in signing and promoting black players. 

Resistance might have been futile, but resistance there was in the AL outside of a handful of ball clubs. The American League had two enduring black stars of its own during the breadth of Jackie Robinson's careerLarry Doby in Cleveland and Minnie Minoso in Chicagobut was much slower to integrate at the big-league level. 

Just three American League clubs started the 1956 season with as many as two black players on their roster and two other clubs began the season with just one black player, which meant that ten years into the Jackie Robinson era, three AL teams were all-white as they took the field for the first time in 1956. In the National League, six of the eight clubs had at least three black players on their opening-day rosterincluding the Reds with seven, the Dodgers with six, and the Cubs with five. 

And whereas the National League had two high-profile black rookie players who were expected to beand indeed werein their team's opening-day starting line-up in 1956, Cincinnati's Frank Robinson and Brooklyn's Charlie Neal, the American League had none who were first-time rookies on their roster, let alone starting the first game of the year. Of the four black players who were September call-ups in the American League in 1955, only Earl Battey went north with his team, and he played in just four games for the White Soxthe last on May 8before being sent down. And while the National League had more than a handful of dynamic, young black players starring for their teams, several of whom were superstars like Mays, Aaron, and Banks, the American League had . . . none; established veterans Doby and Minoso were both at least 30. 

The two American League teams that had been most enlightened about integration since early in the Jackie Robinson erathe Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Soxfaced off against each other on opening day. The White Sox had the most black players to start the season of any AL teamfour, with Doby, whom they acquired in an off-season trade from the Indians; Minoso; Connie Johnson, a pitcher; and Battey. Well-established as elite players, Doby (batting third in center field) and Minoso (batting fifth in left field) were in the starting line-up. Minoso scored the first run of the game after his single started a two-out rally in the fourth and went 1-for-4 in Chicago's 2-1 victory. Doby, hitless in three at bats in his first game against his old team, walked in his first plate appearance in a White Sox uniform.

Having traded Doby, the Indians now had just one black player on their rosterright fielder Al Smith in his fourth year with Cleveland. Batting third in the opening day line-up, Smith got Cleveland's first hit of the season with a first-inning single off Chicago ace Billy Pierce and went 1-for-4 on the day.

The Kansas City Athletics were the only other American League team to start the season with three black players on the roster, two of whomfirst baseman Vic Power batting lead-off and center fielder Harry Simpson batting clean-upstarted on opening day. Power was beginning his third-big league season, and Simpson had played three years in Cleveland from 1951 to 1953, was demoted to the minor leagues in 1954, and been traded to KC early in the 1955 season. The third black player on KC's opening day roster was their starting third baseman Hector Lopez, who did not play in either of the first two games, but started 144 of the Athletics' 154 games in 1956.

KC's opponent on opening day, who they beat 2-1, were the Detroit Tigers, who along with the Boston Red Sox were the two American League holdouts against integrating at the major league level. The Tigers did not field a black player until 1958 and the Red Sox not until 1959. 

The Red Sox were up against the Baltimore Orioles, who began the season with two black players on their rosterBob Boyd and David Popeneither of whom started on opening day, although both pinch hit in the ninth inning. Both had prior major league experience, but not as core regulars. Until an injury sidelined him for almost three months, however, the left-handed Boyd was used in a three-player, two-position platoon at the beginning of the season, alternating at first base with the right-handed Gus Triandos, who was an everyday player platooning with Hal Smith behind the plate; in effect, the left-handed-batting first baseman Boyd was platooned with the right-handed-batting catcher Smith. 

The Washington Senators also opened the 1956 campaign without any black players on their roster. Carlos Paula, who integrated the Senators in September 1954 and played all of the 1955 season with them, rejoined the team in mid-May. He would be the only black to play for the Senators in 1956. After hitting just .188 in 33 games, mostly as a defensive replacement, Paula was back in the minor leagues by July, never again to resurface in the majors, and the 1956 Senators were back to no black players for the rest of the year. 

Of historical note, none of the four blacks who had played so far for the Washington Senators were African American. Paula and Juan Delis, who also spent all of 1955 in Washington but was not invited back, were both from Cuba, and 1955 September call-ups Webbo Clark and Julio Becquer were from Panama and Cuba.

The Senators hosted the New York Yankees on opening day. One of the clubs most staunchly opposed to integration, the Yankees had long taken the so-called principled position of refusing to be pressured into promoting the black players in their stellar minor league seasonwho had once included Vic Powerjust for the sake of appearances. It wasn't until 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson made his debut over in Brooklyn, that the Yankees finally put a black player on their roster. That was Elston Howard, who stayed all year and played 97 games in his rookie season with 10 home runs, 43 RBIs, and a .290 batting average. The Yankees did not call up another black player all that season.

Nor did they in 1956, when Howard was once again the only black player in New York pinstripes the entire year. Howard was in the starting line-up on opening day and had one hit in five trips to the plate. His lead-off single in the sixth with the Yankees ahead of the Senators, 4-2, started a 4-run rally that was capped by Mickey Mantle's 3-run home run. 

Mantle was 2-for-3 on opening day, with two home runs and four runs batted in. That was nothing. Reigning AL Most Valuable Player Yogi Berra went 4-for-4 with a home run and 5 RBIs as the Yankees clobbered the Senators, 10-4. With one game down and 153 to go, the New York Yankees had set the tone for the American League in 1956.

The following is a link to the status of integration in the American League in 1955:

http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2015/04/opening-day-60-years-ago-status-report.html

   




Friday, April 15, 2016

Status of Integration in the National League on Opening Day 1956

Exactly nine years and two days after his major league debut in 1947, Jackie Robinson made the first play of the 1956 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers on opening day, April 17, fielding a ground ball hit to third by the Phillies' Richie Ashburn and throwing him out at first. At the beginning of the 10th year of the Jackie Robinson era of integration in major league baseball, 65 blacksalmost all African-Americanhad so far played in the big leagues. All five rookies on opening day rosters who had yet to play a major league game were on National League teams, including Frank Robinson. 

The 1956 season began with 29 black players on the opening day rosters of seven of the eight National League teams; only the Philadelphia Phillies had still not integrated their roster. Fourteen black players were in their team's opening day starting line-up. All eight clubs played their first game on April 17.

STATUS OF INTEGRATION IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE ON OPENING DAY APRIL 17, 1956 (SIXTY YEAR AGO)

With seven players, the Cincinnati Reds had more black players on their roster than any other major league team to open the 1956 season. The most talked about were right-hander Brooks Lawrence, acquired in an off-season trade with the Cardinals, and highly-touted rookie outfielder Frank Robinson. Questions about Lawrence focused on whether he could recapture what he had going for him in his impressive 15-6 debut for the Cardinals in 1954 after being a bust in 1955 and being sent to the minor leagues in August. Questions about Robinson were about whether he would really be as good as he gave every indication of being.

On opening day, Frank Robinson made a very strong case that indeed he would be. Robinson was the only one of the Reds' seven black players to start on opening day, batting seventh in left field. Facing the Cardinals' Vinegar Bend Mizell, Robinson hit a ground-rule double in his first major league at bat in the second and singled in his next at bat in the fourth. After hitting into a force-out in the sixth, Robinson was intentionally walked with runners on second and third with two outs to load the bases in a tie game in the eighth; the Cardinals, it seemed, preferred to pitch to veteran, light-hitting shortstop Roy McMillan, who had doubled to tie the game after Robinson's single in the fourth, rather than have to deal with the rookie who was now 2-for-3 in his big-league career. Good move. McMillan fouled out to end the threat and Stan Musial hit a two-run home-run in the ninth that decided the game.

Of historical note, not only was Frank Robinson back in the line-up for the second game of the seasonhe would start in 150 of the Reds' 155 games in 1956but Cincinnati started a black pitcher in their next game, rookie southpaw Pat Scantlebury, who gave up 4 runs in 5 innings. He was relieved by Joe Black, an African-American pitcher who was NL Rookie of the Year in 1952 as a stellar relief pitcher for the Dodgers, and Lawrence, called in to pitch in the tenth, got the win when Cincinnati scored in the bottom of the inning. Scantlebury pitched poorly in his next start, however, appeared in four games in relief, and spent the rest of the year with the Reds' Triple-A club in Havana. 

With Lawrence no longer on the team, the St. Louis Cardinals had just one black player on their opening day rosterback-up first baseman Tom Alston. Alston integrated the Cardinals in 1954, was their starting first baseman the first two months of that season, spent the rest of his rookie season with Triple-A Rochester, and virtually all of 1955 in the minor leagues. He would do the same in 1956playing just three games as a late-inning defensive replacement before being demoted at the end of April. That left St. Louis without any blacks on their roster until outfielder Charlie Peete was called up in mid-July after having hit .350 in 116 games for the Cardinals' Double-A team in Omaha.

The Chicago Cubs started the 1956 season with five black players on their roster. Second baseman Gene Baker batting second, shortstop Ernie Banks batting clean-up, and veteran Monte Irvin, acquired from the Giants, batting sixth in left field were in their starting line-up for the first game of the season.

The Cubs' opening day opponents were the Milwaukee Braves, starting the season with five black players in their dugout. Hank Aaron, batting fourth, in right field and Billy Bruton, the center fielder batting seventh, started on opening day. In the the Braves' 6-0 home victory over the Cubs, Aaron went 2-for-3, driving in the first run of the game with a single and adding a home run. Bruton went 1-for-4 with a triple that finished off Cubs' starter Bob Rush in the seventh.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants, who met at the Polo Grounds on opening day, both had three black players on their rosters. Roberto Clemente, after hitting .255 for the Pirates in his rookie season the year before, batted third and was 0-for-4 in the game. Willie Mays in center field batting third and third baseman Hank Thompson, batting fifth, played key roles in the Giants' game-winning eighth-inning rally to break a 2-2 tie. Mays doubled with a runner on first for his only hit of the day, putting runners on second and third to start the inning. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Thompson's flyout to center drove in the tie-breaking run, the throw to the plate on which Mays moved up to third. 

More dramatically, with now one out, Willie Mays being Willie Mays took off for the plate on the next playa grounder to shortas soon as the throw was released to first base. He was ruled safe when the catcher, in his haste to make the tag, dropped the relay from first baseman Dale Long. Mays's aggressive pursuit of the run providing the Giants with a 4-2 lead was crucial because Long hit a home run in the ninth to make the final score 4-3.

Finally, the Philadelphia Phillies, whose vicious verbal assaults on Jackie Robinson in his rookie season live on in infamy, including in popular culture (see the movie, 42), were in Ebbets Field for opening day. The Phillies were the only National League teamand one of just three big leagues teams, along with the Tigers and Red Soxthat had refused to integrate, even though it was clear by now that there was no going back to segregated major league baseball. 

While the Phillies had no blacks in their dugoutand would not all seasonthe Brooklyn Dodgers opened with five of their six black players in the starting line-up. Their ace, Don Newcombe, took the mound, against Philadelphia ace Robin Roberts; Jim Gilliam was in left field batting first; catcher Roy Campanella was the clean-up hitter; Jackie Robinson was at third base batting sixth; and Charlie Neal was at second base batting eighth in his major league debut. Sandy Amoros, a left-handed hitter who had platooned in left field the previous yearand who made the catch that saved Game 7 for the 1955 World Champion Dodgerswas on the bench. It looked likely that Amoros would spend most of the season coming off the bench because the Dodgers had decided to move the switch-hitting Gilliam from second base to play left field every day so that rookie prospect Neal could play second.

The Dodgers lost their first game in defense of their 1955 championship. But Gilliam went 1-for-2 with an inside-the-park home run into the left-center field gap off Roberts; Campanella went 2-for-4 and also tagged Roberts for a home run; Neal went 0-for-4 in his first game; and Jackie went 0-for-3 in what would be the last opening day of his career, with a sacrifice fly. Newcombe's second-inning double gave the Dodgers a brief lead, but while his bat was willing, his pitching stuff proved weak as he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits in 4.2 innings and took the loss. He would lose only six more times all year.
  
One game down with 153 to go, the Dodgers were not in first placeafter having been there all year in 1955.

The following are links to my posts on the status of integration in the National League on opening day in 1955:

http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2015/04/60-years-ago-opening-day-1955mr-cub.html

http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2015/04/opening-day-60-years-ago-status-report_12.html

http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2015/04/opening-day-60-years-ago-status-report_12.html

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Interview on Beyond the Game About Major League Integration

April 15 is the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut in 1947. In February, I appeared on the White Plains Community Media program Beyond the Game hosted by John Vorperian to discuss my recent book, The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

Our discussion focused on the historical arc of integration in major league baseball, including the struggles of black players with more average major-league ability than the likes of Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Minoso, Mays, Aaron, and Banks--elite players all who were the trailblazers in integration--for the opportunity to compete with white players of comparable ability for starting positions, may the best player win. Other topics in the interview included player-managers and the 1964 Phillies collapse.

http://wpcommunitymedia.org/beyond-the-game/02032016-1086

OR:

http://wpcommunitymedia.org/community/beyond-the-game#!mm-75298

Saturday, April 2, 2016

LOOKING AHEAD 60 YEARS AGO: ASSESSING AL CONTENDERS

The Yankees won their sixth pennant in Casey Stengel's first seven years as their manager in 1955, beating out the Indians by three games and the White Sox by five. As close as that race was, and notwithstanding that the Yankees lostyes, lostthe World Series to the Dodgers, Sports Illustrated's preseason scouting report on the Yankees' prospects in 1956 began with the simple question: "How are you going to beat them?"

LOOKING AHEAD 60 YEARS AGO: WHO SHOULD CONTEND IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE?

If Sports Illustrated underestimated the Yankees in their preview of the 1955 seasonthey picked them second, in part because the Indians had beaten them out the previous year by a blowout 8-game marginthey were not about to do so again.

The Yankees, of course, had Mickey Mantle. If there were any questions about his talent and ability—and there really weren't—1955 put them to rest. It was by far the best of his five major league seasons. He led the league in home runs for the first time with 37, and also in triples with 11. He drove in 99 runs and batted .306. His .431 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage were the best in the league. Advanced metrics weren't then in vogue, but Mantle's 9.5 wins above replacement made him the best player in both major leagues—just ahead of Willie Mays's 9.0 WAR. And Mantle had been consistent all year, having only one "bad" month, in June when he batted just .248 in 30 games, but still hit 7 home runs with 17 runs batted in. Every other month, Mantle was over .300. His best months were May, when his "Triple Crown" home run /RBI /batting average splits were 8/26/.340, and August, when they were 12/22/.333.  

"Mickey Mantle is so good," according to Sports Illustrated's scouting report on the Yankees in its preview of the 1956 season, "they say he has a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." They got that right. It turned out he didn't hit .400, so big disappointment, but Mantle did hit .353 with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in to win the Triple Crown.

But the Yankees were more than just Mantle. They had Yogi Berra, who had just won his third MVP Award in 1955, after having also won the award in 1954. (Mantle, incidentally, came in fifth—can you believe it? fifth—in the MVP voting in 1955, and failed to get a single first place vote.) And if the other Yankee position regulars were not "star" players, they were all solid. SI made a point of observing that while other teams' managers had to worry about finding a single player to fill a certain position, "canny old Casey Stengel worries only about which one or two—or three or four—of almost equal ability is going to play that day."

Of the other Yankee position players besides Mantle and Berra, who would you suppose was the only one to get a specific shoutout by SI in its list of "Mainstays"? Versatile infielder Gil McDougald, "who does everything well" and was slated to play shortstop in 1956? Nope. How about Hank Bauer, "a fixture in right field"? Not him either. Maybe Bill Skowron and Joe Collins, who were expected to platoon at first base? Not them. They just got mentions. 'Twas second baseman Billy Martin got the shoutout as "the peppery spark of the Yankee infield . . . who seems to improve each year." And SI singled him out even though he missed the entire 1954 season and nearly all of 1955 serving in the US Army. Martin played in just 20 games for the 1955 Yankees, hitting exactly .300. The only year he had been a regular on Casey's club was 1953, when he hit .257 in 149 games. And then he got drafted.

SI senior baseball writer Robert Creamer concluded that the Yankees would be in trouble "only if the pitching falters," which raised the rhetorical question in SI's scouting report: "The pitching staff is weak?" Not with Whitey Ford, who led the league with 18 wins in 1955, lost just 7, and had a 2.63 earned run average. Bob Turley won 17, Tommy Byrne won 16, and they were back. The Yankees' pitching was the best in baseball in 1955, with a major-league low ERA of 3.23.

As for the Yankees' competition, SI figured the Cleveland Indians to finish second again. Other than 1954, when the Indians interrupted the Yankees' string of five straight pennants only by virtue of 111 victories, second place seemed to be Cleveland's lot in American League life during the Yankees' Casey Stengel era. They were second to the Yankees in 1951, and 1952, and 1953, and again in 1955. One big thing changed over the winter. That was that the Indians traded their star center fielder Larry Doby (whose "only weakness in Cleveland was his temperament") to the White Sox for shortstop Chico Carrasquel and outfielder Jim Busby. The Indians may have lost a little something on offense, but they shored up their infield.

Either way, however, the Indians with Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Herb Score, and Mike Garcia still had "the best pitching staff in baseball," SI wrote. Creamer, however, made the astute observation that that had been true for years, and only once had they overtaken the Yankees. Their excellent pitching just would not be enough. He had that right: Wynn, Lemon, and Score would each win 20, and it turned out in the end not to be nearly enough.

Finally, the Chicago White Sox, who went into September 1955 with the slimmest of leads only to fade out and finish thirdtheir fourth consecutive year with third as their final resting place. Third was where they were projected to end up once again in 1956, even though SI's scouting report was very high on them. Chicago's line-up, according to SI, was "one of the most impressive in baseball. They can hit (well), run (very well), and field (beautifully)." Their offense was bolstered by the addition of Doby, and they were counting on highly-regarded Venezuelan rookie prospect Luis Aparicio to be successful at shortstop. He was why Carrasquel was expendable, especially to get Doby in return.

Creamer thought the White Sox had "the best chance of anyone" to beat out the Yankees, but made that contingent on outfielder Minnie Minoso returning to form. After batting .309 in his first four years with the White Sox, Minoso had slumped to .288 in 1955 and was not hitting well in spring training.

SI's bottom line looking ahead to the American League pennant race in 1956: the Yankees? "How are you going to beat them?"




Monday, March 28, 2016

LOOKING AHEAD 60 YEARS AGO: ASSESSING NL CONTENDERS FOR 1956

Sixty years ago in 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers were set to defend not only their eighth National League pennant, but their first ever World Series triumph, having taken down the New York Yankees in seven games after failing in the two teams’ five previous Fall Classic match-ups. And the Yankees were angling to repeat as American League champions. 

After an off-season hiatus, this blog—Baseball Historical Insight—returns this year to follow the 1956 pennant races (along with other items of historical note that might come up from developments in the 2016 season), beginning with this first of two articles on how the would-be contenders stacked up for the baseball season about to begin on April 17, 1956. 

Spoiler Alert (since you can look it up): Both the Yankees and the Dodgers met once again in the World Series, but the Yankees got there by winning in a landslide, while Brooklyn won a hard-fought race by one game over the Milwaukee Braves and two over the Cincinnati Redlegs.

LOOKING AHEAD 60 YEARS AGO: WHO SHOULD CONTEND IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE?

In 1955, Sports Illustrated's preseason prognostications cautioned that the Brooklyn Dodgers might have trouble contending against either the Braves or Giants because of the advancing age of so many of their core regulars. As it happened, however, the Dodgers got off to a phenomenal start winning 20 of their first 22 games and never looked back on their way to a blowout pennant. Writing an overview essay previewing the 1956 season, baseball writer Robert Creamer observed that while Brooklyn was a "big favorite" to win again, one had to "wonder if an aging team like the Dodgers can hold up if [their] pitching let's down.”

Amid reports of ailing pitching arms in camp and with World Series hero Johnny Podres doing time in the service of his country—the draft was still in effect even though the Korean War was no longer being fought (it still has not officially ended, as North Korea keeps reminding us)—pitching was considered to be a potential achilles’ heel, notwithstanding the return of Don Newcombe who was 20-5 in 1955. SI's scouting report acknowledged that the Dodgers’ core regulars collectively were "at a fairly ripe old age," but concluded that if their pitching was decent, they "should not have too much trouble—they are that good." Manager Walt Alston was confident in his staff, wrote SI, and Jackie Robinson, just turned 37 and about to begin his tenth season in Brooklyn, "on any given day can be the Most Valuable Man in Baseball."

The 1955 Milwaukee Braves had been considered "a good bet" to win the pennant instead of the old guys in Brooklyn, according to SI at the time, but were overwhelmed by the Dodgers' fast start and never came close. In 1956, SI's projections for the Braves were slightly more modest, concluding that "If Brooklyn can be beaten, the Braves are the team with the best chance to do it." Not only did they have Eddie Mathews (41 home runs and 101 RBIs in 1955) and Hank Aaron, who emerged as a star in 1955, his second big-league season, but they possessed a "solid" pitching staff led by Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl, all three of whom had somewhat disappointing seasons the previous year.

The Giants, third in 1955, could finish "anywhere from first to fifth," SI speculated for 1956, concluding they would most likely be third again. With the best young player in baseball by name of Willie Mays(although the team on the opposite side of the Harlem River in the Bronx would certainly have disagreed)the Giants "will be hard to beat" if the "pitching jells." All three of the Giants' top pitchers the previous yearJohnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, and Jim Hearnhad losing records, so even if promising prospect Al Worthington delivered as hoped, that analysis in the SI scouting report seemed perhaps a tad optimistic.  

SI projected the Phillies to be fourth before finally getting around to the Cincinnati Reds, then known as the "Redlegs" because at the height of the Cold War, with the brutal Korean War and the McCarthy era of naming names of supposed Communist sympathizers fresh in memory, being called the "Reds" had bad optics. 

Cincinnati, fifth in 1955, had not had a winning season since 1944 during World War II when major league rosters were decimated by many of baseball's best players serving in the war. The Reds had been improving steadily, however, from 68 wins in 1953 to 74 in '54 to 75 in 1955. First baseman Ted Kluszewski hit 47 home runs and right fielder Wally Post had 40. And in 1956 the Reds were adding a young outfielder by name of Frank Robinson, who SI considered "a question mark" in part because he hurt his shoulder in spring training and "now babies his once powerful-arm." That aside, SI's scouting report said he had a good spring and was, all in all, a "tremendous prospect." SI also noted that Brooks Lawrence, a right-hander the Reds had acquired from the Cardinals to bolster their weak pitching staff, had both suffered ulcers and "lost his stuff" in 1955. Lawrence did, however, look good in spring training. 

SI's preseason bottom line on Cincinnati: "On some days, this is the best club in baseball, depending on who's pitching. Except for pitching (and disregarding the inadequate reserves), the Reds have a fabulous baseball team." But SI picked the Reds to finish fifth in 1956.

NOTE: The following is a link to the first article on my series following developments in the 1955 pennant race that was the focus of Baseball Historical Insight last year:  



Thursday, January 14, 2016

Monte Irvin and the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff

As we remember Monte Irvin, who passed away this week just a month-and-a-half shy of his 97th birthday, it is worth considering the decisive role he played in the New York Giants' epic comeback from 13½ games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11, 1951, to the National League pennant. On account of his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth three-run home run off Ralph Branca to “win the pennant! win the pennant!” Bobby Thomson is of course the ultimate hero of the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff." Monte Irvin, however, was the Giants' best player, their most valuable player, and arguably should have been the National League MVP in 1951.

Monte Irvin and The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff


Monte Irvin is honored in the Hall of Fame as a star player in two separate baseball universes—the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, where he did not get the chance to play until he was 30 years old in 1949 because black players were not allowed. Irvin was among the trailblazers following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, and many Negro League players believed he should have been the one to integrate major league baseball. He and infielder Hank Thompson were called up by the Giants as their first black players on July 8, 1949.

Irvin had an outstanding Negro League resume and was hitting .373 for Triple-A Jersey City when he was called to New York. With Bobby Thomson, Willard Marshall, and Whitey Lockman all hitting over .300 in the Giants’ outfield, however, there was little reason for manager Leo Durocher to make a change; Irvin played in just 36 of the 81 games the Giants had left on their schedule; he started in just 19 and came to the plate only 93 times.

Durocher, however, certainly knew the quality player he had. After starting the 1950 season with Jersey City, where he hit .510 in 18 games (yes, .510 is correct), Irvin was back in New York, in the starting line-up—first in right field, then at first base—and hit .299 in his first substantive year of major league baseball. The next year Monte Irvin began at first base, finished up in left field, and validated that he was not merely a legitimate major league player, but an elite player. 

Bobby Thomson is the hero remembered, but there would have been no Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff without Monte Irvin in the Giants’ line-up. Moreover, the legitimacy of Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” has since been somewhat tarnished, or at least called into question, by the revelation that he may have had help—Bobby Thomson always denied this was so—from spying eyes beyond center field at the Polo Grounds. 

The story well told in his book, The Echoing Green, Joshua Prager relates how Giants batters benefited at home when Durocher sent coach Herman Franks to spy on opposing catchers' signs through a powerful telescope from the Giants' center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, beginning on July 20. It was from that point that Thomson, who had been in a season-long batting funk that forced him into a platoon situation, came alive at the plate. He also resumed playing regularly on that very day as a replacement for Hank Thompson at third base after Thompson suffered a grievous injury that sidelined him for virtually the entire rest of the season.

Monte Irvin's hitting, however, carried the Giants at least as much as Thomson's. And Irvin had been hitting all year. At the time Durocher's spy operation went into effect, Irvin was batting .302, had 12 home runs, and his 61 runs batted in led the team. He finished the year with 24 home runs—second on the Giants to Thomson—121 RBIs to lead the league, and a .312 batting average.

When Durocher was canvassing his clubhouse to get his team's buy-in, quite likely making the point as an offer they could not refuse, Monte Irvin, according to Prager, had the temerity to tell his manager he didn't need extra help to be a dangerous hitter. Irvin proved his point, less by continuing to hit well at home (3 home runs,16 RBIs, and a .300 batting average from July 20 till the end of the season), than by going into other team's ballparks and tearing the place apart. 

In 39 road games after July 20, Irvin hit .340 with 9 home runs and 44 runs batted in. Irvin's productivity in road games was critical because not only did the Giants play more away games after July 20 than at home, all but seven of their scheduled games in the final month were on the road—where they did not have their unique Polo Grounds advantage—and they still had to make up a big deficit to catch the Dodgers.

In the three-game playoff to decide the pennant with the Dodgers, Irvin had one hit in each game, including a home run in the first game when the Giants got the jump on Brooklyn by beating them in Ebbets Field. So dramatic were the Giants' pennant drive and the Thomson home run to win it all that the ensuing World Series against the all-mighty Yankees was almost an afterthought. The Giants lost in 6 games, but Monte Irvin hit .458 (11 hits in 24 at bats) to lead both teams, got on base in exactly half of his plate appearances (also the best on both teams), and stole two bases—including home with guardian Yogi Berra making a desperate lunge to tag him out. Unlike Mr. Berra's insistence till the end of his days that Jackie Robinson, in another World Series steal of home plate against the Yankees, was out—OUT! OUT!—Yogi did not say the same about Monte Irvin's theft.

Based on the wins above replacement metric, Monte Irvin was only the fourth-best position player in the National League in 1951, after Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Ralph Kiner. But especially given his clutch performance in the final two months of the season—Irvin hit .338 with 11 home runs and 49 runs batted in—when his team had to make up a seemingly insurmountable deficit against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a strong argument can be made that Monte Irvin was the Most Valuable Player in the National League. The Giants surely would not have won without his exceptional productivity.

Monte Irvin wound up with only five first-place votes for MVP, second-most in the balloting, and finished third overall in the voting. Brooklyn's Roy Campanella, who had 33 home runs, 108 RBIs, and a .325 average, won the award by a land slide, getting 11 first-place votes. Stan Musial finished second overall.

Through no fault of his own, Monte Irvin did not have the major league career that by rights should have been his. That does not change that he was one of the greatest players of his generation, and one of the best of all time.