Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Red Sox-Yankee Rivalry, 1946-50: Explaining Why Boston Underachieved

As the Yankees and Red Sox resume their storied rivalry this weekend, this Baseball Historical Insight goes back to the years 1946 to 1950--the first time the two teams' rivalry was actually about the pennant race--to examine why the Red Sox were not as successful as they perhaps should have been.

The Red Sox-Yankee Rivalry, 1946-50:  Explaining Why Boston Underachieved

When war time exigencies caught up with major league baseball in 1943--the first year big league rosters were badly decimated by players being called to the service of their country--the Yankees and Red Sox were the two best teams in the American League, finishing first and second in both 1941 and 1942, although Boston never seriously threatened New York's stranglehold on first place.  When their star players returned from the war in 1946--most prominently, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, and Phil Rizzuto for the Yankees and Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky for the Red Sox--it was Boston who dominated the American League and seemed to have the makings of baseball's next dynastic team.  With a 104-50 record, the Red Sox won the pennant by 12 games over the defending-AL champion Tigers, and the Yankees were never a factor, finishing third, 17 games out.  The two teams' fortunes were reversed in 1947, with the Yankees winning a blowout pennant by 12 games (The Tigers, again, caught in the middle) and the Red Sox coming home third, far behind at 14 games off pace.  The next three years, down to the wire, Boston and New York were fierce competitors for the pennant; Cleveland beat out both teams to win in 1948, and the Yankees won the 1949 and 1950 pennants.  The Yankees' triumph in 1949 was particularly bitter for Boston, since the Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium for the final two games of the season with a one-game lead needing only one victory to go to the World Series.  They lost both games, and thus did the Yankees win the first of an unprecedented five straight pennants and World Series.

How closely competitive were these two teams?  From 1946 to 1950, the Yankees and Red Sox won exactly the same number of games--473; that Boston lost one more than New York (298 to 297) is only because they were forced to play a one-game playoff for the pennant with Cleveland in 1948 after finishing the scheduled season tied for first, which the Red Sox lost.  Not only that, but Boston and New York each won 55 games against each other in that time, with the Red Sox winning two of their season series by identical 14-8 records in 1946 and 1948, and the Yankees winning the other three by identical 13-9 records in 1947, 1949, and 1950.  Had a trifling few of those losses turned to wins, it could have easily been the Red Sox with three pennants (their 1946 blowout, 1948, and 1949), and the Yankees with no more than two (their 1947 blowout and 1950).  And even 1950 might have gone Boston's way had the Red Sox gotten off to a better start, since from August 1 to the end of the season, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League--three games better than the Yankees.

They could have been a dominant team, perhaps should have been a dominant team--particularly after adding power-hitting shortstop Vern Stephens in a trade from the Browns in 1948 (Pesky moving from short to third) and with southpaw Mel Parnell and righty Ellis Kinder emerging that year as two of the best pitchers in the league--but the Boston Red Sox from 1946 to 1950 won just the one pennant.  The New York Yankees, who had looked to be getting old kind of fast in 1946, wound up winning three pennants during that span after refashioning their team, particularly the pitching staff, following their disappointing performance in 1946.  Yet the Red Sox may have actually had the better team, including from 1948 to 1950, when you consider they had more outstanding core regulars (Williams, Doerr, Stephens, Pesky, their DiMaggio) during those years than the Yankees (the DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and possibly Yogi Berra, who did not hit his stride as a great player until 1950).

What margins of difference separated the two teams as their competitive rivalry first took shape?

  • The Red Sox' roster may have been graced with more of the game's best players, but the Yankees had far superior depth.  After former great Yankee manager Joe McCarthy took over the Red Sox in 1948, he started his core regulars game after game and kept them in the whole game, not giving them a break.  Boston position players were in at the end of 97 percent of the games they started from 1948 to 1950.  Beginning with Bucky Harris, when he managed the Yankees in 1948, and certainly after Casey Stengel assumed the reins, the Yankees not only platooned at various positions, but substituted for position players far more often than most other teams.  From 1948 to 1950, the Yankees' starting position players played the complete game only 87 percent of the time. 
  • Boston's more potent offense, leading the league in scoring four times those five years, was more than mitigated by New York's advantage in pitching and defense.  The Red Sox scored 6 percent more runs between 1946 and 1950 than the Yankees, but also gave up 14 percent more runs than their rivals in the Northeast Corridor.  Looked at another way, the Yankees scored 33 percent more runs than their game opponents--outscoring them by an average of 200 runs per year--while the Red Sox outscored theirs by a significantly smaller margin of 167 runs per year, 23 percent more than their opponents.
  • Boston's two best pitchers when they won the 1946 pennant, Tex Hughson and Boo Ferris, never again approached their success of that year because of injuries. While it is true the Red Sox from 1948 to 1950 had two of the game's best pitchers in Parnell and Kinder, the remainder of their staff was suspect.  Defensively, the Red Sox were certainly competent--usually among the teams with the fewest errors--but their defensive efficiency ratio of making outs on balls put into play was mostly middle-of-the-pack, and three times below the league average.  This is certainly consistent with their historical reputation of not being especially good in the field.  The Yankees, with Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat (who arrived by trade in 1948), had the best starting corps in the league from 1947 to 1950, and were first or second in defensive efficiency ratio all five years.
  • Boston's most fundamental problem, however, was being behind the curve at a time when having a capable bullpen with a dedicated relief ace was coming into vogue.  The Yankees had Joe Page, who was instrumental in their winning the 1947 and 1949 pennants.  By virtue of finishing fourth in MVP voting in 1947, Page would likely have won the Cy Young Award that year, had the award existed back then.  The Red Sox lack of an ace reliever likely cost them the pennant in both 1948 and 1949.  That the Red Sox' bullpen was so inadequate seems somewhat surprising since McCarthy not only benefited from a strong relief corps when he managed the Yankee dynasty in the 1930s and early 1940s, but specifically cultivated Johnny Murphy to be his fireman in the bullpen (see earlier post  It was not until after McCarthy resigned as manager early in the 1950 season that Ellis Kinder was specifically designated to be Boston's relief ace, a role at which he excelled into the mid-1950s.
It is hard to argue that  Boston did not have the superior team when considering its core players, but as to the competitive bottom line:  three pennants and three World Series championships for the Yankees between 1946 and 1950 are ... well, two pennants and three World Series championships more than the Red Sox won.  It is very hard to go against that.  After 1950, the Yankees kept winning, but the Red Sox had lost their edge and were on their way to spending the rest of that decade as, at best, a marginally-competitive team.

For a more comprehensive analysis, see my chapter on these two teams in my online manuscript:

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part II: Maddux at His Best--NL's Best Pitcher in the 20th Century

Notwithstanding his recognized place as one of the greatest pitchers in history, Greg Maddux is not a name one normally associates with being one of the most dominant pitchers in history.  This Baseball Historical Insight makes a case, however, (which I acknowledge is likely a minority viewpoint) for Maddux when he was at his best from 1992 to 1998, without being a dominating power pitcher, being arguably more dominant than any other pitcher in the National League over a minimum of five consecutive years in the 20th century. 

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part II:  Maddux at His Best--NL's Best Pitcher in the 20th Century

When talking about the best players in major league history we tend to think in terms of the totality of their careers.  Inherent in those evaluations is what each individual player accomplished when they were in their prime, during their best years, but ultimately the discussion usually comes down to bottom line career numbers--like 3,000 hits or 300 wins. With a lifetime record of 355-227 and the fifth-most victories of any major league pitcher since the beginning of the 20th century, Greg Maddux is a lock to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility next year.  His excellence duly recognized, Maddux, I believe, is nonetheless under-appreciated for the dominating pitcher he was.  My previous post focused on Maddux being unique among the most dominant pitchers in that he alone among them was not dominating in the classical sense of being a power pitcher, or a big strikeout pitcher in the context of his times.  The mild-mannered appearance of Maddux on the mound belied his Mad Dog competitiveness, as though Clark Kent did his super deeds without bothering to change into his Superman tights and cape.

Looking at a pitcher's minimum of five consecutive years when he was at his best using the wins above the average pitcher and wins above replacement metrics and taking account of "adjusted ERA" (also referred to as "ERA+")--which normalizes a pitcher's earned run average for both the context of the time and his team's home park--can be revealing as to which pitchers were the best when they were at their best.  Based on their best years, the pitchers being considered in this analysis are, in order of appearance with their best years in parenthesis:  Walter Johnson (1910-16); Pete Alexander (1911-17); Lefty Grove (1928-33); Bob Feller (1939-47, not including 1942-45 when he was serving in World War II); Sandy Koufax (1961-66); Roger Clemens (1986-92); Maddux (1992-98); Randy Johnson (1997-2004); and Pedro Martinez (1997-2003).  The fact that some of the indisputably greatest pitchers in history (Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan, for example) are not considered in this analysis is only because their margins of superiority over the league average pitcher was not as great in some of their best years.  Their absence from this analysis is not in any way to suggest they were not dominant pitchers, perhaps even better for the course of their careers than those being considered here, including Maddux.

Unlike the other pitchers in this analysis, each of who led the league in strikeouts at least twice during their best years and had strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratios much better than the league average, Maddux's K-ratio was typically only marginally better than the league average.  K-Man, Maddux surely was not, but his basic numbers for his best years of 1992 to 1998 are impressive:  127 wins against only 53 losses for a .706 winning percentage, an ERA of 2.15, a walks/hits-per inning pitched (WHIP) ratio under 1.00 at 0.97, and control so good that he allowed only 1.4 walks per nine innings.  And 40 of his 269 walks in 1,675.1 innings during those seven years were intentional, accounting for 15 percent of the total bases on balls he surrendered.  After going 20-11 for the 1992 Cubs, who finished the season with a record six games below .500, and signing with the Braves as a free agent, Maddux won 107 and lost only 42 for a .718 winning percentage and had a 2.15 ERA in his first six years with Atlanta from 1993 to 1998.

In 1994, Maddux became the sixth pitcher to win three Cy Young Awards (after Koufax, Seaver, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, and Clemens, who would end up with seven for his career) and the first to win the award three straight times.  (Koufax, Denny McLain, Palmer, and Clemens had won back-to-back Cy Youngs before Maddux.)  The next year, Maddux won his fourth straight Cy Young Award, becoming at the same time the first pitcher ever to win the award that often.  (Randy Johnson matched him with four straight when he was pitching for Arizona between 1999 and 2002, which gave The Big Unit five for his career.)  The last two of his Cy Young Awards, Maddux was the unanimous winner.

After winning 20 games back-to-back in 1992 and 1993, Maddux most likely would have had four straight 20-win seasons were it not for the players' strike/owners' lockout that shortchanged the 1994 and 1995 seasons.  He was 16-6, leading the league in both wins and a 1.56 ERA, when the 1994 season was terminated on August 12, only 114 games into the schedule; Maddux would have had at least nine, and possibly ten, more starts had the season been played to completion.  And in 1995, Maddux finished the shortened-to-154-game season with a 19-2 record and a league-leading 1.63 ERA, having missed two starts while the owners and the players union deliberated on ending their standoff.  (Oakland's Dave Stewart was the last major league pitcher to win 20 games four years in a row, from 1987 to 1990, with not nearly the relative dominance of Mad Dog Maddux.)

Aside from the basic numbers, the case for Maddux as arguably the most dominant National League pitcher in the 20th century includes the fact that his adjusted ERA was more than 150 percent better than the average National League pitcher in 1994 and 1995 and close to twice as good two other years.  Maddux had the league's best adjusted ERA every year from 1992 to 1995 and again in 1998.  Among the NL pitchers being considered in this analysis, Pete Alexander had an adjusted ERA more than 50 percent better than the league average only three times--in each of his 30-win seasons from 1915 to 1917--and Koufax's adjusted ERA was more than 50 percent better than the league average only in his last four years before crippling pain in his arthritic left elbow forced his retirement.  Both had the league's best adjusted ERA only twice during their best years.  Randy Johnson alone is in the argument about whether he or Maddux was the most dominant pitcher in NL history since 1901 based on their "best years," but his best years in the National League straddled the 20th and this century, and while his adjusted ERA was the best in the league every year between 1999 and 2004, except for when injury limited him to only 18 starts and 114 innings in 2003, he never doubled the league average.

Among the American League pitchers being considered in this analysis, Lefty Grove--who had the AL's best adjusted ERA four years running at 50 percent better than the league average from 1929 to 1932--and Roger Clemens, who led the league three times between 1986 and 1992, both had only one year in which their adjusted ERA was more than double the league average.  Bob Feller in his best years never led the league in adjusted ERA, probably done in by his wildness.  Walter Johnson's seven best years from 1910 to 1916 were probably the best of any major league pitcher in the 20th century; his adjusted ERAs relative to the league average over his best years were marginally superior to Maddux's, and his basic numbers much better.  Johnson, however, pitched in the very different  dead ball era, whereas Maddux's best years encompassed the first half of the so-called "steroids" era when, as he and Atlanta pitching sidekick Tom Glavine commiserated in a commercial at the time, "chicks dig the long ball."

Pedro Martinez has the strongest case for best years that were the most dominant in baseball history, for his between 1997 (his last year with Montreal before traded on the cusp of his free agency to Boston) and 2003.  In five separate seasons, Martinez's adjusted ERA was more than double the league average--and in 2000, nearly triple.  Martinez, however, did not have the durability of Greg Maddux who, rarely missing a start, led the league in innings pitched four straight years from 1992 to 1995 and was in the top three two other times.  Excluding the two strike-shortened seasons, Maddux always started at least 33 games, and he averaged 7.4 innings per start.  Martinez made as many as 33 starts only once in his best years (in 1998) and averaged fewer than seven innings per start in the last three of his best years, the first of which he made only 18 starts because of rotator cuff problems.

A final word on Greg Maddux.  In 1993, his first season in Atlanta (still in the NL's Western Division), the Braves won 41 of their last 56 games to dramatically overcome the 7-1/2 game lead the Giants enjoyed at the end of July to beat out San Francisco for the division title with 104 wins by only one game in the last true pennant race before the wild card format would have put both teams in the post-season.  Maddux, who went into the month of August with a 12-8 record and a 2.83 ERA, was brilliant down the stretch: 8-2 in 12 starts with an ERA of 1.46 in 92.1 innings.  And in 1994, when the Braves (now in the NL East) were only 20-18 from July 1 till the season was suspended (and ultimately ended) on August 12, slipping to six games behind the Expos, Maddux in eight starts during that dismal Atlanta stretch won six, lost two, and had a sub-one ERA at 0.93.  


Friday, May 17, 2013

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part I: Not a K-Man, But Dominant Nonetheless

Even among Hall of Fame pitchers, there are very few whose dominance on the mound is so vastly superior to the average pitcher every year for at least five years running that they count as epic.  Greg Maddux is the outlier among these pitchers because he alone among them was not a big strikeout pitcher relative to the context of the times.   This Baseball Historical Insight is the first of two on the unique Maddux phenomenon: a dominating pitcher without overpowering stuff.   

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part I:  Not a K-Man, But Dominant Nonetheless

It is often said that the game's dominant pitchers, in the past as well as today, are the K-men--power pitchers whose strikeout ratios are significantly higher than those of the average pitcher.  It is somewhat counterintuitive, then, given how we think about a pitcher's dominance over an extended period of time, to count the seven years Greg Maddux had from 1992 to 1998 among the most dominating of any pitcher in modern history (since the birth of the American League in 1901).  Using both the wins above average pitcher and wins above replacement pitcher metrics for player value and the advanced statistic of "adjusted ERA" (also referred to as "ERA+")--which normalizes a pitcher's earned run average for both the context of the time and for his home park--as a baseline for assessing a pitcher's dominance over at least five consecutive years, some of the greatest pitchers in history (Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan to name a few) are not among this group, not because they didn't have outstanding seasons that were better than virtually all of their peers for as many consecutive years, but because their margins of superiority over the league average in some years was not as great.

Going back in time, the other pitchers being considered in this analysis as having dominated their time include Walter Johnson from 1910 to 1916, when he won 199, lost 100, and never had an earned run average higher than 1.90 (the Big Train's ERA for the seven years was 1.56 in 2,485 innings); Grover Cleveland Alexander--later best known as "Pete"--from his rookie season in 1911 to 1917, during which he won 190, lost only 88, and had three consecutive seasons (1915-17) of 30 wins and ERAs well under 2.00; Lefty Grove from 1928 to 1933 (152-41 for a phenomenal .788 winning percentage), which included four consecutive ERA titles and a 31-4 record in 1931; Bob Feller from 1939 to 1947 (not including four years when he was serving in World War II), with five consecutive 20-win seasons, leading the American League each time; and Sandy Koufax, whose performance from 1961 to 1966 was said in my youth to rival that of Lefty Grove for the best five or six years any pitcher ever had at any time (verbal redundancy deliberate).  Koufax voluntarily retired because of crippling arthritis in his pitching elbow after back-to-back 26-8 and 27-9 seasons, and finished with five straight National League ERA titles, during which his earned run average was 1.95 over 1,377 often painful innings.

More recent claimants to such a string of outstanding seasons on the mound include Roger Clemens in his Boston years from 1986 to 1992, which included four ERA titles; Pedro Martinez from 1997 to 2003 (including an injury-curtailed 2001 season when he made only 18 starts), with 5 ERA titles, an ERA of 2.20 during those years, and a .766 (118-36) winning percentage; Randy Johnson from 1997 to 2004 (including an injury-curtailed 2003 season when he made only 18 starts), who led his league in winning percentage three times and in ERA three times; and Maddux from 1992 to 1998.  After winning his first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards in 1992 with a 20-11 record for the Chicago Cubs, who were six games under .500 for the season, Maddux  won 107 and lost only 42 for a .718 winning percentage in his first six years with the Atlanta Braves, had an ERA of 2.15, leading the league four times, and allowed less than one base runner per inning.

Maddux did not once lead the National League in strikeouts, although he was in the top five six times and in five consecutive seasons from 1991 to 1995 was in the top three in total Ks.  His ratio of strikeouts-to-innings pitched, however, was typically only marginally better than the league average.  Greg Maddux was not a K-man.  Each of the others won at least two strikeout titles during their best consecutive seasons being considered in this analysis, and their strikeout ratios were much better than the league average.

In the first half of the century, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller figured in one of those great baseball debates--the one about which of the three had the most overpowering fastball.  Johnson led the AL in Ks 12 times during his career, including eight seasons in a row, and twice struck out more than 300 in the dead ball era, when teams averaged only 4.2 strikeouts per game.  Grove also led the league in strikeouts eight consecutive times.  Feller won seven straight strikeout titles (discounting his four war years when he had priorities other than throwing a baseball at blazing speed), including 348 in 1946 for a strikeout ratio of 8.4 per nine innings that was nearly double the league average of 4.3.  Pete Alexander may not have been in the fastest-ever discussion, but he led the NL in Ks in five of the seven years he was at his best.

That Maddux's strikeout ratio of 6.9 per nine innings from 1992 to 1998 was higher than Alexander's ratio in any one season, was exceeded only twice in any season by Walter Johnson (both times when he struck out 300 batters), and was better over seven years than the highest single-season K ratio achieved by Grove--whose fastball was nonetheless legendary--was only because Maddux pitched in an era when hitters were much more disciplined and focused on making contact.  Indeed, throughout the first half of the 20th century, striking out was an embarrassment for most hitters.  (Well, maybe not for the Babe, but even he never struck out more than 93 times in a season.)  Indicative of the difference between then and now, fireballer Feller and finesse artist Maddux had exactly the same 6.1 strikeout ratio per nine innings for their career.  In the only season Maddux corralled 200 Ks (1998), his career-high 7.8 strikeout ratio matched Feller's second-highest K ratio--in 1938 when Rapid Robert won his first strikeout title with 240.

Strikeout ratios for power pitchers increased dramatically after the 1950s, and Maddux's 6.9 K-rate in his best years from 1992 to 1998 pales in comparison to those of Koufax, Clemens, Martinez, and Randy Johnson--not to mention other great power pitchers like Seaver and Ryan.  Sandy Koufax exceeded 10 Ks per nine innings five times in his career, including when he set a new major league strikeout record with 382 in 335.2 innings in 1965 (broken by Nolan Ryan with one K to spare in 1973).  In 18 of his 24 years on the mound, Roger Clemens (who led the AL in Ks five times) averaged at least 8 strikeouts per nine innings.  Pedro Martinez, meanwhile, struck out more than one batter an inning nine consecutive years with a K-ratio of 10.8 from 1996 to 2004, including 13.2 with 313 strikeouts in 213.1 innings in 1999. Randy Johnson, The Big Unit, led the major leagues in Ks every year from 1998 to 2002, averaging 350 over those five years with a strikeout ratio of 12.4 per nine innings pitched, and led the majors again with 290 in 2004.

Greg Maddux was most definitely not a dominating power pitcher. He was an artist who pitched with command and finesse. Yet from 1992 to 1998, the years he was at his best, Maddux was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time.  My next post in Baseball Historical Insight will explain why.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Final Reflections on "42": The '59 Dodgers and the Consolidation of Integration

After Jackie Robinson had "made it" in the major leagues, especially with Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe at his side, it was a certainty that black superstars like Mays, Aaron, Banks, and Frank Robinson would find a place in starting line-ups.  Black players whose abilities were not indisputably superior to that of the white players they were competing with for jobs, however, were not necessarily going to get a fair chance to become regulars in the major leagues.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at how the success of the 1959 Dodgers made the most compelling case for integration by winning the pennant and World Series with four black players, whose abilities were more typical of the average major league regular, in key starting roles in the pennant-race drama.  

Final Reflections on "42":  The '59 Dodgers and the Consolidation of Integration

My previous post about the first generation of black players following Jackie Robinson into the major leagues noted that the majority of those who became core regulars for at least five years between 1947 and 1960 were elite players who were among the best in their league or with a career arc headed towards the Hall of Fame.  I concluded by writing: "for integration to take hold, it was still necessary for black players blessed with only average major league ability to be given the chance to compete for--and win--regular positions against white players of comparable, ordinary major league ability."  Even enlightened Brooklyn was careful at first not to push the envelope on integration too far beyond the comfort level of most major league teams in the first five years of Jackie's career, limiting the number of blacks on their team to three superior players--Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe.

It was not until 1952 that the Dodgers began to expand their horizons about which blacks would be given a chance in the major leagues.  Joe Black made a substantial contribution as an ace reliever to the  Dodgers' 1952 pennant (winning NL Rookie of the Year honors); second baseman Jim Gilliam did the same when Brooklyn was the NL's best team in 1953 (winning Rookie of the Year honors), 1955, and 1956; and outfielder Sandy Amoros was a competent platoon player on the 1955 and 1956 Dodgers, making an iconic catch in the 7th game of the 1955 World Series to help preserve Brooklyn's one and only World Series triumph.  But the cornerstone players on the Dodgers' four pennant-winning teams in Brooklyn in the 1950s (before their westward ho) still included Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe, although big Newk missed out on 1952 and 1953 when he was serving as a draft pick in the Selective Service on account of the Korean War.  All three were elite players:  from his rookie season until he started slowing down in 1954, only Stan Musial and Ted Williams could credibly be considered better players than Jackie Robinson, and he was the best player in major league baseball in 1951 and 1952 according to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for player value; Campanella won three National League MVP awards in the odd-number years between 1951 and 1955; and Newcombe won the first-ever Cy Young award and was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1956.

With black players not of superstar stature having been added seamlessly, although piecemeal, to the roster throughout the 1950s, by the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, it was no longer necessary for the black players they promoted from their vaunted farm system to be great players the caliber of Brooklyn's early trailblazers. When the Dodgers in 1959 unexpectedly--(because they had ended the previous year next-to-last in the National League)--competed with a far superior Milwaukee Braves team coming off back-to-back pennants for the right to go to the World Series, they did so without their Big Three from Brooklyn; Robinson had retired (after being traded to the arch-rival New York Giants, it must be said); Campanella was paralyzed in a tragic accident before their first season in LA; and Newcombe had been traded to Cincinnati after an 0-6 start to the 1958 season.  Most of the other "boys of summer" from Brooklyn were also either gone or in the twilight of their careers. The Dodgers would not have finished the scheduled season tied for first with the Braves and gone on to sweep a best-of-three playoff to win the pennant without significant contributions from four blacks in their starting line-up--none of whom would ever play to the level of Robinson, Campanella, or Newcombe.

  • Switch-hitting Jim Gilliam, a regular in the Dodgers line-up since his rookie season in 1953, was a versatile player who had started out as Jackie Robinson's replacement at second base (with Jackie finishing his career alternating between third and left field) and moved to third in 1959, hitting .286 in the lead-off spot.  He was in the middle of a very respectable fourteen-year career in Dodger blue.  His season high was .349 at the All-Star break, which was crucial to an inferior Dodgers team keeping pace with the Braves and the Giants, only a half-game behind both at the break.
  • Charlie Neal made Brooklyn's spring training cut in 1956, by 1957 had replaced Pee Wee Reese at shortstop (with Reese moving his body of declining skills to third), and by 1958 was the Dodgers' new second baseman in their first season in LA (with Gilliam alternating between the outfield and third base). Batting behind Gilliam, Neal had the best season of his career in 1959, hitting .287 and leading the team in runs scored (103), hits (177), doubles (30), and triples (11, which also led the league).  Neal hit .295 down the September stretch, and his 4.5 wins above replacement was the second-highest (behind outfielder Wally Moon) on the '59 Dodgers.
  • Catcher Johnny Roseboro was in his second full season with the Dodgers in 1959, after becoming their backstop the previous year only because of the accident that abruptly ended Campanella's career.  A left-handed hitter, Roseboro was platooned at catcher with Joe Pignatano and had only 41 plate appearances against southpaws, hitting .232 with 10 home runs.  His 10th home run broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning of the first playoff game against Milwaukee and proved the difference in LA's 3-2 victory.
  • Maury Wills was called up in June and became the Dodgers' regular shortstop beginning on July 4, displacing Don Zimmer, who was batting all of .175 at the time. Batting primarily in the eighth spot, Wills hit .260 in 88 games for the season, but his .345 batting average in September was absolutely indispensable to the Dodgers winning the pennant in a tight three-team race that also involved the Giants until the final week of the season.

All four were productive players through most of their big league careers.  But none of the four were so good that had they come along in the first years of integration they would have been given the opportunity to compete for a position as a regular on a major league team at the expense of a white player.  According to the WAR metric, in their collective fifty years in the major leagues, only Gilliam (in 1956 and 1963) and Wills (in 1962 and 1965) played at or close to All-Star level, contributing at least 5 wins above what would be expected of a replacement-level player.  Of the four, only Wills received any Hall of Fame votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and though he was on the BBWAA ballot all fifteen years of eligibility, Wills never came close to the threshold for Cooperstown immortality.

It was almost certainly necessary for Jackie Robinson and his fellow trailblazers to be far better than the typical (white) major league player for them to win and hold onto starting roles before blacks became accepted in major league baseball.  But integration could only be consolidated once teams allowed any black player with potential major league ability to realistically compete for a starting position.  It was the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers winning the pennant and World Series with Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe no longer in Dodger blue but four blacks (Jim Gilliam, Charlie Neal, Johnny Roseboro, and Maury Wills) who were not close to being elite players that paved the way for major league baseball's broader acceptance, based on merit, of African Americans and black Latinos--not just superstars and a token handful of others--in starting positions.

The powers that be in major league baseball surely took notice, including teams that even by 1959 were slow-walking integration (even though it was obvious by now there was no going back to segregated baseball).  Because, even for an ownership group that was in general not enlightened about racial diversity, still less about equality, winning was the bottom line.