Thursday, July 30, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Newcombe Again

On the last day of July in the 1955 season, the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers gave the St. Louis Cardinals an 11-2 beat down at Busch Stadium (the new name for Sportsman's Park since beer magnate August A. Busch had bought the Cardinals). The Dodgers not only ran their record to 73-32 and their NL lead to 13½ games, but made a winner of Don Newcombe for the 18th time. Newcombe had lost only once all season, and his earned run average was 2.95.

Newcombe Again

This is the 15th article in a continuing series on the 1955 season, and the third with a focus on Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe. This might seem a bit excessive, but Newcombe's was a compelling story that year, especially because he had struggled mightily in his first year back from two years in the service of his country during the Korean War. In his first three major league seasons before being drafted, Newcombe had won two-thirds of his decisions in quickly becoming the ace of the Brooklyn staff. His record going into the Army was 56-28 with a 3.39 earned run average. He was in his prime.

But his return in 1954 was less-than-stellar. Newcombe was not the imposing, intimidating, go-the-distance pitcher he was before he changed uniforms to that of the USA. After averaging 261 innings and completing 56 percent of his 102 starts from 1949 to 1951, Newcombe in 1954 made just 25 starts, was in at the end of only six of them, and threw only 144 innings—not enough to even qualify for the ERA title, as if his 4.55 earned run average was anything but extraordinarily disappointing for a pitcher of whom so much was expected. His record was 8-9. And the Dodgers, who won back-to-back pennants the two years he was serving his country, did not win in 1954. If anything, Carl Erskine, whose 14-6, 20-6, and 18-15 records led the Dodgers in wins each of the three previous years, had perhaps the best claim to being Brooklyn's top pitcher as the 1955 campaign started up.

At first it looked like 1955 might be a repeat of '54, even though he won his first two starts of the season. Newcombe's ERA in the opening month of April was 5.50; he benefited from terrific support from his Boys of Summer teammates, who tallied 27 runs in the first three games he pitched, while Newk himself gave up 14.

Then he got his swagger on. Newcombe won all five of his starts in May, four of which were complete games, and added a sixth victory pitching two shutout innings of relief at the beginning of the month. His ERA for May was 1.80. Including that win in relief, Newcombe started the season 10-0 before losing to the Cubs at home on June 12th. He was done in by a 6-run 4th inning, with a two-out three-run home run by Harry Chiti the big blow. Although five of those runs were unearned, Newcombe really didn't have it this day.

Since then, Newcombe had made 11 starts and won 8 without a loss. His record in June was 5-1 with a 2.14 ERA. Including his victory against St. Louis on the last day of the month, Newcombe was a perfect 5-0 in July with 5 complete games. Unfortunately for his ERA that month, he was roughed up for 11 earned runs in five innings in the two games he did not complete, both games that the Dodgers won anyway. And he also had a poor outing in relief at the beginning of the month in which he gave up three runs in 1.2 innings wrapping up a Dodgers loss. His earned run average for the month was officially 4.01, but take away those three bad outings and Newcombe pitched to an exceptional 1.80 ERA in his 5 complete-game victories.

The bottom-line, however, was not only that Don Newcombe was back to being an elite starting pitcher, but that he was every bit the Brooklyn Dodgers' stopper. His team had lost only 2 of the 22 games he started, and he personally was the losing pitcher just once. Seven of his 18 victories came after Dodger losses. One stopped a four-game losing streak in May—their longest of the season until September—and another stopped a three-game skid around the All-Star break. Newcombe had completed 13 of his 22 starts, and 15 of his starts were so-called "quality starts."

If there was a criticism to make, it was that Newcombe had a propensity for giving up the long ball. Through the end of July, Newcombe had surrendered a total of 69 runs, both earned and unearned—39 of which trotted home on 23 home runs. That was more home runs than he had given up in any of his first three big-league seasons before he was drafted, and one shy of the 24 he gave up in all of 1954. In his victory against the Cardinals to close out July, home runs by Red Schoendienst and Stan Musual accounted for both runs St. Louis scored that day. In six of the games he pitched, home runs accounted for all the runs scored against him.

After Newcombe's victory against St.Louis to run his record to 18-1, it was 103 games down for the Dodgers and 51 left to go. Even if the second-place Braves were to win two-thirds of their remaining games, the Dodgers could have a losing 22-29 record the rest of the way and still prevail. It may not have been August 11th yet—the anniversary of when the Brooklyn Boys also led by 13½ (up on the Giants) in 1951—but the Dodgers had only two games more on their schedule than the 49 remaining four years before. This time, the Dodgers would take nothing for granted.

Don Newcombe started only 9 more of the Dodgers' 51 games, with a 1-3 record and 3.20 ERA in August and a 1-1 record and 5.23 ERA in September. Having thrown 213 innings going into the final month after just 144 innings in 1954, and zero innings the two years prior to that because he was in the Army, Newcombe appears to have run out of gas. 

Even so, Newcombe finished 1955 with a 20-5 record to lead the league in winning percentage; his 20 wins were second to Robin Roberts' 23; his 3.20 earned run average was second in the league to Pittsburgh's Bob Friend (2.82); he led the league by allowing only 1.1 runners on base by hit or walk per inning; and he finished seventh in the National League MVP voting.

The following year, 1956, it would all come together for Don Newcombe, when his 27-7 record and 3.06 earned run average merited him not only the NL Most Valuable Player Award, but the first-ever major league Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in the game.

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