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.

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