Monday, September 9, 2013

Revisiting the 1956 Brooks Lawrence Affair

The Reds are virtually guaranteed a post-season berth this year even if they finish third in their division.  In 1956, Cincinnati finished third in the NL with 91 wins, only two games out, but had to go home for the winter since this was long before the wild card option.  This Baseball Historical Insight re-examines the Brooks Lawrence Affair about the reasons why Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts started his best pitcher--Lawrence--only three times down the September stretch with a pennant at stake.  Was it that Tebbetts did not want Lawrence to win 20 games because he was black?  Or simply the good baseball reason that Lawrence had not been pitching well since July?  Or, as this Insight argues, was it Tebbetts' decision to use Lawrence to pitch seven innings in the most critical game of the Reds' season with only one day of rest that ultimately led to Lawrence having so few starts in September?

Revisiting the 1956 Brooks Lawrence Affair

After eleven straight losing season dating to 1945, the Cincinnati Reds found themselves in the middle of a three-team pennant race with Brooklyn and Milwaukee through the summer of 1956.  (Historical note: the major league team in Cincinnati was then known as the "Redlegs" because it seemed politically unwise at the time to be called "Reds" during the Cold War red scare ginned up by Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s.)  The Reds' revival was mostly attributable to the arrival of two black players--rookie outfielder Frank Robinson and pitcher Brooks Lawrence, obtained in a trade with the Cardinals--who kept them in contention.  Lawrence won his first 13 decisions, 10 as a starter, and had 17 wins after a complete game victory against the Cubs on September 1.  In third place, 3-1/2 games off the pace, but with 29 days and 25 games remaining, Lawrence could have made at least seven more starts on the typical three days rest that was the norm at the time.  Instead he made only two--his last on September 15, when Lawrence won his 19th game, by far the most on the staff, to bring the still-third Reds within two of the top.  With 13 games remaining over two weeks, Lawrence could have made at least three more starts pitching on normal rest, and possibly four if winning the pennant came down to that.  Instead, Lawrence pitched only 4-2/3 innings in five games the rest of the season, all in relief, finishing with the same 19-9 record he had on September 15.

The competing accounts of Lawrence's lack of September starts stem from the allegation made by Lawrence to Hank Aaron (and related in Aaron's autobiography, I Had a Hammer) and also by backup Reds first baseman George Crowe (a black player), that Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts did not want a black man to win 20 games.  The counterargument is that Tebbetts had a very good baseball reason for not relying on Lawrence down the September stretch:  his "best" pitcher had been anything but in August.  In 10 August appearances, Lawrence had gone 1-6 with a high 5.89 ERA, including losing all six of his starts that month.  These were hardly numbers to inspire confidence in his manager as the Reds headed into September in a tightly-contested three-team race.

Revisiting the events of Cincinnati's (ultimately failed) September stretch for the 1956 pennant, however, a strong case can be made that Tebbetts not only did not have negative racial considerations in mind as he strived to bring Cincinnati its first pennant since 1940, but had confidence in Brooks Lawrence, despite his August struggles, when it mattered most, although with unfortunate consequences for the short rest of the season, as it turned out:

  1. However badly he had pitched in August, Lawrence was still in turn when he started on September 1 and threw a 4-hit masterpiece for his first victory as a starting pitcher in more than a month, raising his record to 17-8 on the season.  At this point, no other Cincinnati starter had more than 11 wins.
  2. On September 3, after losing the first game of a double-header to the first-place Braves to fall temporarily 4-1/2 games back, the Reds' 5-2 lead in the bottom of the third inning of the second game was in grave jeopardy when Cincinnati starter Larry Jansen loaded the bases with nobody out and Hall of Fame sluggers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews next up for Milwaukee. Despite Lawrence having pitched a complete game victory just two days before, Tebbetts brought him in to squelch the rally--surely a vote of confidence in Brooks Lawrence if ever there was one.  Lawrence not only escaped the jam by getting Aaron to pop out to shallow left and Mathews to bang into a double-play, he finished the game, pitching a total of seven innings on only one day of rest.
  3. If Tebbetts did not trust Lawrence's competitiveness and ability to get outs, this would not have been the time or place to bring him into the game, especially on one day of rest.  This was, after all, a game that meant the difference between the Reds leaving Milwaukee 3-1/2 games out, but still in the pennant chase, if they could hang onto their lead, or 5-1/2 down--almost certainly too big a difference to make up with only 22 games remaining--if they lost.
  4. Thanks to Lawrence's gutty performance, the Reds were still in the hunt, trailing by the same 3-1/2 games they brought into the double-header.  Using Lawrence in that second game, however, threw Tebbetts' starting rotation out of alignment.  Having thrown 16 innings in the space of three days, Lawrence needed recovery time.  Tebbetts handled Lawrence exactly as if he were in the starting rotation, his next start coming after four days of rest against the Cardinals.  Lawrence pitched badly, taking the loss after giving up four runs in two innings and failing to get an out in the third.  
  5. Although his next start was not until a week later, Lawrence was still in Tebbetts' rotation--the Reds had played only four games between Lawrence's starts, during which he had been used twice in relief. Lawrence's victory against the Pirates in what turned out to be his final start was not a work of art--he surrendered four runs in 6-1/3 innings--but it pulled Cincinnati to within two games of Milwaukee and Brooklyn, who were tied at the top.
  6. By the time it would have been Lawrence's turn again, the Reds had lost four in a row to dump them 4-1/2 behind with only nine games left on the schedule.  Basically, the pennant race was over for Cincinnati.  Lawrence did not make another start even as the Reds won eight of their last nine games without him in the rotation, although he did appear five times out of the bullpen.
Tebbetts had a last opportunity to start Lawrence when it might have made a difference--at home against the Braves on September 25, their deficit down to 1-1/2 games with three games remaining.  Tebbetts chose to start Jansen instead, who imploded in the last major league game he would ever pitch, giving up three runs in less than two innings. Why did Tebbetts not start Lawrence, who had not pitched in five days?  The answer might be that Lawrence by this time was dog tired.  His 216 innings of work were far more than in either of his two previous big league seasons, when he was used mostly in relief, and Lawrence had been mostly ineffective in his four relief appearances since his last start.  The Reds lost Jansen's start against the Braves, eliminating them from the race, during which Lawrence pitched two innings of mop-up relief.

Whatever the truth of the matter--and racial prejudice seems the least likely explanation, if for no other reason that it would mean Tebbetts deliberately undermined his own team's pennant chances--Brooks Lawrence returned to the top of the Reds' starting rotation in 1957.

No comments:

Post a Comment