Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Red Sox - (Cardinals) : 1946 Pivot Year as Good as it Got for Boston

As the Cardinals and Red Sox meet in the World Series for the fourth time, this Insight looks at the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox surrounding the first time they met in 1946.  While that year was the capstone of the Cardinals' dynasty of the 1940s, as noted in my previous post, it seemed at the time to mark Boston's rise to dominance for the rest of the decade, which proved to be an ephemeral illusion.

Red Sox - (Cardinals) : 1946 Pivot Year as Good as it Got for Boston

Same as for the Cardinals, 1941 was the foundation year for the Red Sox' drive to their 1946 meeting with St. Louis.  By the time the exigencies of World War II eviscerated major league rosters beginning in 1943, Boston had assembled a talented team that included Bobby Doerr at second base, Johnny Pesky at shortstop, Dom DiMaggio in center field, and (of course) Ted Williams in left field.  The Red Sox had not won a pennant (let alone a World Series) since 1918 and were still no match for the Joe DiMaggio-led Yankees, but were shaping up to be their primary rival for the American League pennant. They finished second to the Yankees in 1941, albeit 17 games behind, and narrowed the Yankees' pennant-winning margin to 9 games in 1942.  Both the Yankees' and Red Sox' rosters were hard hit by military call-ups--Boston losing Pesky, DiMaggio, and Williams for three years and Doerr for one--but the team in New York had sufficient depth of talent to win again in 1943, and stay in the hunt until late in the season each of the next two years.  The team in Boston, on the other hand, plummeted in the standings, finishing seventh in both 1943 and 1945 (and fourth in 1944).

When stars from both teams returned from the war in 1946, it was the Red Sox who dominated the AL, winning the pennant by 12 games.  With the Yankee veterans getting older, it looked like the Red Sox might be the team to beat in the American League for the foreseeable future.  Instead, despite strengthening the club with the addition of power-hitting shortstop Vern Stephens in a trade with the Browns (with Pesky moving over to third) and the arrivals of Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder to bolster the rotation, the Red Sox did not win again that decade--and lost three straight pennants in heartbreaking fashion: losing a one-game playoff to Cleveland in 1948; going into Yankee Stadium with a one-game lead and two games remaining in 1949, only to lose both and the pennant; and having the best record in the American League after mid-June in 1950, only to fall four games short because of a bad start to the season.

The Red Sox may have had more of the game's best players, but the Yankees had superior depth.  The Red Sox may have had a more potent offense, but the Yankees had the advantage--arguably, a significant advantage--in pitching and defense.  The Red Sox had Joe McCarthy managing in their dugout, but the Yankees had Casey Stengel.  The much-heralded McCarthy was only three years older than the much-maligned (at the time he took over in the Yankee dugout) Stengel, but Stengel was just discovering his inner genius as a manager while McCarthy was increasingly out of touch with the game and its players. See my earlier post, "The Red Sox-Yankee Rivalry, 1946-50:," http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-red-sox-yankee-rivalry-1946-50.html, for a more complete discussion "Explaining Why Boston Underachieved."

Red Sox fortunes in the late 1940s may have turned on key in-game decisions by McCarthy in the final games of the 1948 and 1949 seasons.  Finishing the scheduled 1948 season with Cleveland having an identical record, McCarthy had his best pitcher, 15-game winner Mel Parnell, available with three days of rest to pitch in a one-game playoff for the pennant (the American League's preference for deciding such things), but chose instead to start little-used Denny Galehouse, who failed to last four innings, thus denying baseball of its only shot at an all-Boston World Series (the Braves having won the NL flag).  Other than the specific choice of Galehouse, McCarthy's decision had a certain logic since Cleveland's most dangerous hitters and top run-producers--Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon, and Ken Keltner batting third, fourth, and fifth--were all right-handed batters.  Parnell, a rookie southpaw, would have been facing them at Fenway Park, with that inviting wall for right-side hitters.  Moreover, Parnell started most often on four days of rest that year and had made only one start on three days rest since early August--that just four days before, meaning that he would be pitching back-to-back games on three days of rest if he got the ball for the win-or-go-home playoff.  On the other hand, eight of Parnell's 15 wins came at Fenway, twice against the Indians, whom he had beaten three times all told.  If not Parnell, McCarthy's only other option was right-hander Ellis Kinder, because his two other right-handed mainstays in the starting rotation--Jack Kramer (18-5) and Joe Dobson (16-10)--had pitched the last two days of the season.  Kinder was 10-7, pitching well, and was sufficiently rested (four days), but he had not been in McCarthy's starting rotation at the start of the season and only one of his wins was against either of the two other top teams (Cleveland and New York) in the league.

A similar tale unfolded in the final game of the 1949 season against Stengel's Yankees when McCarthy made two momentous decisions--first to pinch hit for his starting pitcher, Kinder, in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game the Yankees were winning, and then to replace Kinder with Parnell, who had pitched into the fifth inning the day before, been hit hard by the Yankees, and was near exhaustion from his workload in the heated drive for the pennant.  Kinder was pitching brilliantly when he was removed for the pinch hitter, and while it was not unusual at the time for managers to stay with a pitcher who was pitching well in a close game in the late innings, even if he was losing, McCarthy's decision on the pinch hitter was clearly intended to start a needed rally.  That the Red Sox did not rally did not mean the decision was wrong.  Bringing in the weary Parnell, on the other hand, was a gamble, never mind that he was the ace of the staff and had won 25 games.  He had also pitched 295 innings on the season and had made seven starts, appeared twice in relief, and hurled 59-1/3 innings since September 1.  Parnell did not get an out, giving up a home run and a single, and the Yankees plastered his relief, Tex Hughson, for three more runs, which provided the cushion needed to withstand a three-run Red Sox rally that fell short in the ninth.  Hughson had been buried in the bullpen and was probably not McCarthy's first choice out of the bull--hence Parnell--because, how much faith can a manager have in a pitcher with a 5.31 ERA and a 1.6 WHIP with the pennant directly on the line?  The problem for McCarthy in that fateful game was that, unlike when he managed the Yankees, he had not seen fit to include a reliable reliever in his pitching corps, as had now become a must-have for competitive teams.  Indeed, the lack of a reliable reliever probably precluded the Red Sox from winning the pennant outright and avoiding a playoff with Cleveland the previous year.

Having squandered their potential to forge a late-1940s dynasty, the Red Sox did not have the talent in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to compete for a pennant.  But what was worse, the team was generally dispirited and factionalized, and neither the front office nor whoever was the manager came to grips with this.  Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and, among managers, Pinky Higgins in particular, were part of the problem, fostering a much-remarked upon country club atmosphere and hard-hearted resistance to integration at the big league level.  Things did not begin to change until Dick O'Connell became general manager in 1965, and in 1967 new manager Dick Williams demanded a level of accountability from his players that had been sorely lacking in Red Sox culture.  Oh, and perhaps most significantly, the 1967 pennant-winning Red Sox featured catcher Elston Howard, first baseman George Scott, third baseman Joe Foy, center fielder Reggie Smith, outfielder Jose Tartabull, and relief ace John Wyatt--black players all--in key roles.

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