Monday, June 29, 2015

60 Years Ago in 1955: Jackie's June Renaissance

In the bottom of the 10th at Ebbets Field on June 30, the Dodgers trailing the Giants 5-4 with one out and the tying run on third, Jackie Robinson caught the Manhattan team flatfooted with a bunt that not only tied the score but resulted in him reaching first base as the second baseman, covering first, botched the play. The Dodgers were excellingthey in fact were ahead of the pace the Chicago Cubs were on at the same point in the schedule when the Cubs won 116 games in 1906but Jackie had been struggling. He was 36 years old, not exactly a favorite of manager Walter Alston  (nor Alston a favorite of his), and seemed near the end of his ground-breaking career. This is the eleventh article in a series on the 1955 seasonsixty years ago. 

Jackie's June Renaissance

In his preview of the 1955 season for Sports IllustratedSI's first ever, since the magazine was still less than a year oldRobert Creamer, making mention of "the sad decline of Jackie Robinson last season" and noting that "age is catching up with the whole team," predicted the Dodgers would "now run with the pack rather than with the leaders."

As to the first part of Creamer's prediction, "sad" may have been perhaps too strong of a word. Plagued by the assorted ailments that suddenly seem to swamp even elite athletes once they reach a certain age, Robinson played in only 124 games and had just 465 plate appearances in 1954. But he did hit over .300 for the sixth consecutive year. That said . . . his was a weak .311 batting average. For the first time in his career, Jackie fell well short of 100 runs scored, crossing the plate only 62 timeswell shy of his previous low of 99 runs scored in 1950and his 59 RBIs were far less than the his typical totals in the mid-80s.

Robinson had started the year batting fourth, his place in the order when Charlie Dressen last graced the top step of the Ebbets dugout, but wound up near the tail end of rookie-manager Alston's 1954 line-up. Indeed, Jackie's relationship with the stolid Walter Alston had been tense and fraught with misunderstandings from the very beginning because his new manager was inclined to believe that age had indeed caught up with Mr. Robinson.

Perhaps most disconcerting to Dodger watchers, the 1954 Jackie Robinson seemed tired and less aggressive than before, not playing the assertive game that was associated with his name. After averaging 24 steals in his first seven years, Robinson swiped just seven bases in 1954. Allan Roth, the Dodgers' statistical guru whose data analysis went beyond the numbers on the back of bubblegum cards, thought that, despite his .311 average, Robinson was no longer an impact player. "He failed to deliver in clutch situations," he said.

But as to the second part of Creamer's pre-season prognostication, about the Dodgers running back in the pack, well . . . Brooklyn was proving him not only wrong, but way wrong:

Even though they had just been shut out by the Braves on June 26, the Dodgers were in absolute command of the 1955 NL pennant race with a 50-18 record when they returned to Ebbets Field to take on the Giants for a three-game set beginning on June 28. Their lead of 12½ games actually seemed bigger than that because the Cubs were hanging in secondas were their Chicago counterparts in the other league, behind the Yankeesand nobody expected the Cubs to stay there for long. The Dodgers' real challengers were the Braves, 13 behind in third, and the defending-World Series-champion Giants were a colossal disappointment at 33-36, 17 games behind in fourth place.

But the Dodgers were having their season of potentially-epic proportions without much contribution from Jackie Robinson. He had gotten off to a good start batting as high as .308 at the end of April, but on May 22 his average was down to .227. His place in the batting order had gone from sixth, to seventh, to eighth by the end of May. Despite all that, however, Robinson had remained in the starting line-up as the Dodger third baseman, having started all but 12 of Brooklyn's first 68 games (although one of his starts was in left field). Neither Don Hoak, who started at third in 12 games, nor Don Zimmer, the starting third baseman in one game, had given much reason for Alston to swap out Robinson.

Creamer had written that Hoak and Zimmer, among the Dodgers' young guns, were going to have to come through to make up for the declining performance of Brooklyn's aging veterans if the Ebbets faithful expected to see their team in a pennant race. Hoak had hit .245 in his rookie year of 1954, but so far in 1955 his batting average was a less-than-inspiring .224, brought low by a .214 month of May . . . and he was under .200 for the month of June. Zimmer had just 7 hits in 18 games, only one of which had come since April.

The Dodgers won the opening game of their series with the arch-rival Giants on June 28, with Robinson going 2-for-3. His home run off Giants' ace Sal Maglie in the second put Brooklyn on the Ebbets scoreboard, tying the score. Robinson went 1-for-3 the next day against Ruben Gomez, the Giants winning, and 2-for-4 on June 30, not including his unexpected bunt that brought home the tying run. The Dodgers won the next inning, and . . .

. . . it was now 71 down and 83 games to go for the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. Their record was now 52-19. Their lead over Milwaukee remained at 13 games.

Jackie Robinson was batting .286 as June turned to July and had played in all but 11 of the Dodgers' games, including once as a left fielder and once as a pinch hitter. Assorted aches and pains, however, limited him to playing in only 45 games with just 33 starts in Brooklyn's 83 remaining games on the schedule. Manager Alston's decisions to frequently bench him at the start of games may have taken into account not only his ailments and wanting to preserve as much of a healthy Robinson as possible for the presume-we'll-be-there World Series, but to give Hoak a chance to show what he could do for the Dodgers in the future, 

After hitting .338 in the month of June, Robinson hit just .217 in July (starting in just 6 of the Dodgers' 32 games that month), .208 in 12 starts in August, and .186 in 16 September starts. He wound up hitting .256 with 8 home runs (just 2 after June) and 36 RBIs (25 of them before July) for the season. 

Don Hoak made 45 consecutive starts at third from July 4th to August 21, during which Robinson started 7 times in left field, and Don Zimmer was regularly in Alston's line-up as the second baseman. Hoak hit .258 in the 53 games (49 starts) he played in July and August, but batted a mere .167 in the final month. Zimmer hit .294 in 32 starts in July before the reality of his major league abilities caught up with him; he was back below .200 (.191 to be precise) in 38 August appearances.

Friday, June 12, 2015

60 Years Ago: Cleveland Gives the 1955 Yankees a Reality Check

When last we left the 1955 Yankees, they had just when 19 of 22 games beating up mostly on the second-tier teams in the American League; gone from four games under to three games up; and seemed poised to run away with the pennant the way the Dodgers were doing in the other league. They were embarking on a stretch of 19 consecutive games against the AL teams with winning records, including eight with the White Sox and four with the Indiansthe two other teams expected to contend with the Yankees for the right to go to the World Series. If the Yankees were to be stopped from taking a commanding lead in the pennant race, this was the time. By June 12, their lead was down to 2½ games after losing three of four to the Indians.

Cleveland Gives the 1955 Yankees a Reality Check

After their sweep in Kansas City ran their record to 33-13 on June 2, the Yankees split their four games in Chicago and split four in Detroit but had still upped their lead to five games when they pulled into Cleveland on June 10 for a four-game series with the team that was the defending AL champions, and hence the must-beat team for the pennant. When Tommy Byrne outdueled Mike Garcia, 3-2, to win the opening game of the series, the Yankees' lead was 5½ over the White Sox and 6½ over the Indians. So far on the season, the pinstripers were 6-6 against their presumed primary competition for the pennant. (They were also 5-3 against the fourth-place Tigers, but Detroit was never presumed to be more than a pretend-contender for the throne.)

They were certainly holding their own against the AL's other best teams, but given their recent past ... was that enough?

Beginning when Casey Stengel took charge in 1949, the Yankees had made a habit of beating up the teams they were competing with for the pennant on their way to top honors. Until their blowout pennant in 1953their fifth in a row in the Casey Regimethat excellent habit was the foundation for winning four straight close pennant races, none of which were decided till the final week of the season.

In 1949 they won the pennant by a single game on the last day of the season, beating the Red Sox in 13 of their 22 meetings, including each of the last two games on their schedule. Then they won the World Series.

In 1950 the Yankees either won or split their season series with each of the three other American League teams that won 90 games that year. New York took the pennant by three games over second-place Detroit, against whom they split (11-11) but won two of three in mid-September to bump the Tigers from the top spot, then never themselves relinquished first place. They finished four over third-place Boston, against whom they were 13-9 including a two-game sweep later in September to essentially dash any Red Sox hopes still remaining. And they ended eight ahead of Cleveland, against whom they were 14-8 including a three-game sweep at the end of August that all but sealed the Indians' fate. Then they won the World Series.

In 1951 the Yankees took 15 of 22 against the Indiansa seven-game advantage that exceeded the five games by which New York beat them for the pennant. Then they won a third straight World Series.

And in 1952, the Yankees' final two-game margin of victory over the Indians precisely matched the two-game edge of their 12-10 record against Cleveland in their season series. Although the Indians were not eliminated until the next-to-last game of the season, it was the Yankees beating them three in a row in mid-June that sent them from being tied at the top of the standings to having to play catch-up forever thereafter in 1952. The Indians stayed close, caught up for one day in late August (another tie), and that was thatexcept for the Yankees winning the World Series part, which the New Yorkers had down pat by now.

The Yankees split their season series with the Indians in both of the blowout pennant races of the next two years, first when they outdistanced Cleveland by 8½ games in 1953 (after which, another Fall Classic triumph) and then when they lost by eight games to Cleveland in 1954. For good measure, they were 13-9 against 89-win, third-place Chicago in 1953 and 15-7 against 94-win third-place Chicago in 1954. (They split against the third-place, never-in-contention Red Sox in 1951 and were 14-8 against the third-place White Sox in 1952).

For the record, the Yankees did not lose a single season series against any American League team that finished second or third or won at least 90 games on their way to winning five-and-five-in-five from 1949 to 1953, nor did they when they didn't win the pennant in 1954.

In building their 5½-game lead this week sixty years ago, the Yankees up to now were 5-3 against the White Sox and, after Byrne's victory, 2-3 against the Indians. Had they taken two of the remaining three in Cleveland on Saturday and Sunday, the Yankees would have knocked the Indians 7½ backa staggering blow from which the Clevelanders might not have recovered. But instead it was the Indians who made the statement, "not so fast, guys, we're still playing for keeps. There will be no embarrassing failure to put up a fight for American League bragging rights."

On Saturday, Cleveland overcame five first-inning Yankee runs to knock out Eddie Lopat in the fourth and won the game on a two-out, ninth-inning walk-off single by 1954 batting champion, Bobby Avila, who was off to a sluggish start batting just .273.

In Sunday's doubleheader, they hammered Bob Turley for four runs in the sixth and six in the seventh to win the first game, and in the second game, the Indians scored three in the first off starter Bob Grim and four in the seventh off Whitey Ford on their way to a 7-3 triumph. The Yankees were still first, but their 5½-game lead was now down to 2½ over the White Sox and 3½ over the Indians.

For the Yankees, now 38-20, it was 58 games gone and 96 to go in the 1955 schedule of games for the American League pennant. The pennant race was on!

(Over in the other league, meanwhile, the Dodgers' lead was an imposing 10½ games with 56 down and 98 to go.)

Note: This is the tenth post in a series on the 1955 season. See earlier posts on Baseball Historical Insight.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sixty Years Ago: Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

While the Dodgers were running away with the 1955 National League pennant, their lead at 7½ games on June 2, the New York Yankees were threatening to do the same in the American League. After being swept at home by the Indians in a two-game series on May 10 and 11, which put them four games back of Cleveland in third place with a 14-10 record, the Yankees won 19 of their next 22 games against mostly second-rate teams to put themselves up in the standings by three games over the Clevelanders. Mickey Mantle, the Yankees' emerging superstar, broke out of a two-week batting funk to fuel his team's drive into first place.

Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

So far in 1955, the Yankees' season pretty much tracked with both Mickey Mantle's batting average and the quality of teams that they played. They won 7 of their first 10 games, all against teams with losing records in 1954—the Senators, Orioles, and Red Sox—in which their burgeoning young superstar center fielder hit .353. Over the next thirteen games, the Yankees had a pedestrian 7-6 record while Mantle hit only .167 with 8 hits in 48 at bats, although half of his hits were home runs. Three of his four long balls helped the Yankees to victory as they struggled to get untracked but fell behind both the Indians and White Sox. 

Against the three other American League teams that had winning records as of May 10—the Indians, White Sox, and Tigers—New York had lost four of seven. Chicago, meanwhile, had won seven of eleven against the Indians, Tigers, and Yankees and Cleveland had won seven of twelve against the White Sox, Tigers, and Yankees.

When the Yankees took the field in their home stadium on May 11 for the second of their two-game set with the Indians, they trailed Cleveland by three and Mickey Mantle's slump had diminished his batting average to .244 with six home runs and 14 RBIs through the first 23 games of the season. Early Wynn ran his record to 3-0 while handing Yankee flamethrower Bob Turley his first loss of the year against five victories, but Mantle came out his his slump in a losing cause, driving in a run with a first-inning single and tagging Wynn for a home run in the eighth. 

The Detroit Tigers, whose 15-11 record on May 11 put them in a virtual tie with the Yankees in third place, came next to Yankee Stadium. And Mickey Mantle reached deep to recover his inner superstar. Suggesting his batting slump was an anomaly, in the first game of the series the Mick went 4-for-4 with three home runs. It was the first and only time in his career Mantle hit as many as three home runs in a single game. Right-handed Detroit starter Steve Gromek was the victim for two and southpaw reliever Bob Miller for one.

The next day, the Yankees went into the bottom of the ninth trailing the Tigers, 6-4, with Detroit starter southpaw Billy Hoeft still on the mound. Down to their last out with two runners on, Mickey Mantle singled to score one, and right-hander Al Aber was brought in to face to the right-handed-batting Elston Howard, who already had one hit for the day. Howard lashed a triple to win the game, Mantle crossing the plate with the winning run.

After the Tigers left town, essentially having been eliminated from the pennant race (although they didn't know it yet), the Yankees had the privilege of playing 18 of their next 20 games against losing teams that were not expected to be remotely competitive.

Robert Creamer wrote in his 1955 forecast for the American League in Sports Illustrated's first-ever preview of a major league season that the key to which of the three most-likely contenders—the defending champion Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, whose bid for six championships in a row was derailed by the Indians' 111 wins in 1954, and the up-and-coming Chicago White Sox—would win the pennant was likely to come down to which team had the best record "against the other five teams." In 1954, for example, the Indians' final eight-game margin over the 103-win Yankees was more than accounted for by their 89 wins against "the weak clubs," twelve more than the Yankees managed against those same teams. The Yankees and Indians had played each other to a draw in their 22 meetings during the 1954 season.

The Yankees lost the first game in their window of scheduling-opportunity to the Athletics, but then won seven straight—one against Kansas City, both games against the visiting White Sox, and a four-game sweep of the Orioles. Mantle was instrumental in both Yankee wins against pennant-race rival Chicago: on May 17, Mantle (who also had a single) walked in the sixth inning, advanced to second on a walk to Yogi Berra, stole third, and scored the only run of the game as Yankees ace Whitey Ford (now 5-1) outdueled White Sox ace Billy Pierce (now 2-2); and the next day, with the Yankees ahead 7-6, Mantle hit a seventh-inning grand slam to break open the game.

Up by three over Cleveland after sweeping the Orioles, the Yankees lost to the Senators before winning the next three against them, then went on the road where they took three straight in Baltimore, split two in Washington, and trounced the Athletics three times in Kansas City. 

The Yankees won all four games they played against winning teams during their 19-3 stretch from May 12 to June 2—two against the Tigers and two against the White Sox—but, just as important and in a long-established Yankee tradition, beat up on losing teams. They were 4-2 against the Senators, 4-1 against the Athletics, and 7-0 against the Orioles—the teams that were sixth, seventh, and eighth all with winning percentages below .400 by the time the Yankees were through with them. They did what Creamer said they must.

Mantle got a hit in sixteen straight games beginning in the second game of the Indians series at Yankee Stadium, during which he batted nearly .500 with 26 hits in 53 at bats, boosting his average up to .341 on May 27. His .340 batting average for the month of May was his best for the 1955 season. 

Mickey Mantle ended the year with a .306 average, but got on base in 43 percent of his plate appearances, leading the league. The Mick also led the league in home runs for the first time with 37 and in triples with 11, and in slugging (.671) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.042). His 9.5 wins above replacement was the best in all of major league baseball—better even than Willie Mays who had a 9.0 WAR and was Mantle's rival for the apple of The Big Apple's eye. Next year, Mantle would win the Triple Crown.

With 46 down and 108 games to go, the Yankees record stood at 33-13, largely the result of having beaten up on second-tier competition in the American League. The Yankees, however, still had 18 to left to play against the team that had dethroned them in 1954. They had played arch-rival Cleveland just four times in having completed nearly 30 percent of their 1955 schedule, and had lost three of those games. 

Tougher competition was just ahead, beginning the next day, June 3, with the first of four games against the 27-16 White Sox (4½ games behind in third), followed by four games against the 24-20 Tigers, followed by four games against the defending AL-champion Indians, then three more against the Tigers and four more against the White Sox.

If anyone was going to catch the Yankees, the beginning of June would be the time.