Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Judge and the Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

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

The Judge and The Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

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

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

Fading Feller, Rising Score (May 1, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.