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.

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