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:

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