Wednesday, August 26, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Introducing a Kid Named Koufax

On August 27, 1955, Sandy Koufax won his first major league game, doing so by shutting out the Cincinnati Reds, 7-0, on just two hits, walking 5, but striking out 14. His victory ended a three-game losing streak that had cut the Dodgers' lead from a season-high 15½ games on August 14 to 10 games. It had been a rough month for runaway Brooklyn. The Dodgers had lost 8 of their previous 11 games and were 9-13 so far in August.

60 Years Ago in 1955: Introducing a Kid Named Koufax

Manager Walt Alston had three starting pitchers he relied on in 1955. Don Newcombe at this point in the season was 18-4, but had lost all three of his decisions in August, although all three were "quality starts." Carl Erskine, the Dodgers' best pitcher the three previous years (two of which Newk was in the service) was 10-6, and Johnny Podres, only 22 years old in his third season, was 8-9. Russ Meyer, Billy Loes, and since the beginning of July, rookie southpaw Karl Spooner, had also contributed as starters to the Dodgers' big lead in the standings. 

The Dodgers had another rookie southpaw all season on their 1955 roster. Fresh out of high school and in Brooklyn only by virtue of being a "bonus baby"—meaning he accepted a signing bonus in excess of $4,000—Sandy Koufax was only 19 years old and very much in a learning mode that more appropriately should have taken place several rungs down the minor league ladder. 

He did not appear in a big-league game until June 24, the 66th game of the season for Brooklyn, in a Dodgers' loss in Milwaukee. His team was already down 7-1 when Alston called upon him for two innings of relief beginning in the fifth. Johnny Logan, the first major league batter he ever faced, singled. After throwing Eddie Mathews' comebacker into center field trying to start a doubleplay and walking Hank Aaron, Koufax found himself in a bases loaded, nobody out situation in his very first game. Still trying for his first out, Koufax escaped the inning unscathed, striking out Bobby Thomson (yes, that Bobby Thomson, now with the Braves), and inducing a doubleplay grounder by Joe Adcock.

Alston next used Koufax five days later to pitch the ninth inning in a game the Dodgers were being blown out, 6-0, by the Giants. Once again Koufax loaded the bases with nobody out on two singles and a walk to Willie Mays, and once again he escaped without surrendering a run as he retired the next three batters, none on a strikeout.

The third game for Koufax was his first start, on July 6 in the second game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh. He lasted only two outs into the fourth inning. Alston came to get him with the bases loaded, the score tied at 1-1, after he walked consecutive batters to force in the tying run. The control problems that plagued Koufax in the early years of his career were certainly evident this day; he walked 8 of the 23 batters he faced and also gave up 3 hits. But under the rules then in place for receiving his big signing bonus, the Dodgers could not send the kid down to the minors to work on his command and control issues. Koufax was spared the loss in his first big-league start because his relief, Ed Roebuck, stranded the bases loaded.

Since then, Koufax had pitched three times in relief in games Alston already considered a lost cause. In four innings, he had given up two runs. When he took the Ebbets Field mound on August 27 for the second start of his big league career, it had been nearly two months since his first.

The Reds were in fifth place, no more in contention than any other National League club, but were an imposing team offensively. Cincinnati ended the season with the second-most runs in the National League after Brooklyn. They had one of baseball's best-slugging line-ups. Ted Kluszewski ended the season with 47 home runs—his third straight year with at least 40 round-trippers; Wally Post hit 40; Gus Bell 27; and Smoky Burgess 20. 

Unintimidated, Koufax pitched the first great game of his career. Kluszewski singled in the first, Sam Mele doubled with two outs in the ninth, and in between only five Cincinnati batters reached base. Before Mele's hit, the Reds had runners in scoring position just twicein the sixth, when Koufax walked Johnny Temple and Burgess back-to-back and committed a balk that put runners on second and third with two out; and in the seventh, when Koufax gave up a pair of two-out walks. He got the third out both times, no problem. Everyone in the Reds' starting line-up went down on strikes except for Temple and Post. Burgess and Roy McMillan each fanned twice, and the left-handed batting Gus Bell was definitely overmatched this day, striking out against Koufax in all four of his at bats. After Mele's two-out double in the ninth, Koufax finished off by getting Rocky Bridges to pop out to the shortstop.

When Sandy Koufax walked off the mound with his first major league win and a record of 1-0 so far in a career whose prospects were still uncertain, the Dodgers led the second-place Braves by 10 games with an 81-45 record. With 126 games down and just 28 to go, Brooklyn was in coast mode on the way to a third World Series in four years. Who they would play was far from certain. The Yankees ended the day tied with the Cleveland Indians for first, and the Chicago White Sox were breathing hard down their necks, a half-game back.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Frank Lary: Yankee Killjoy

On August 23, 1955, the Yankees' lost their half-game lead in the standings when they were beaten in Detroit by the score of 7-2. They were now tied for first with the White Sox, and the Indians were only a game behind. The winning pitcher for the Tigers was 25-year-old rookie right-hander Frank Lary. He had now beaten the Yankees twice in four starts, which included a loss and a no-decision in a game Detroit lost after he left the mound. It was the beginning of Frank Lary's career as . . . "The Yankee Killer."

Frank Lary—Yankee Killjoy

Frank Lary, who relieved in three games at the very end of the 1954 season, was not even mentioned by Robert Creamer in his preseason American League preview for SI. The Tigers, according to Creamer, did have "three or four reasonably dependable starting pitchers," although he named only veterans Ned Garver—whose career has been unappreciated in part because he pitched for bad teams—and Steve Gromek. Beyond that, Detroit manager Bucky Harris's challenge was to "find starters and relievers from an unholy mess of rookies and proven undependables." (Nice turn of phrase, that.)

The Tigers opened the 1955 season with Garver, Gromek, Billy Hoeft, and the rookie Frank Lary as their four principal starting pitchers. Lary stayed in the rotation all season long, ending his rookie year with a 14-15 record, a 3.10 earned run average, 16 complete games in 31 starts, and a team-high 235 innings pitched.

Lary took the mound against the Yankees on August 23 having lost his previous start five days before against Cleveland. He entered the game with an 11-12 record and 3.38 ERA. This was the fourth time he would be facing the Yankees. Apparently not intimidated by the Yankees' lore, Lary beat them in a 3-1 complete game the first time he faced them on June 8 and the next time, on June 16, took a 2-0 lead at Yankee Stadium into the bottom of the ninth. Unfortunately, Yogi Berra's two-run home run to tie the game and Elston Howard's walk-off pinch-hit single with the bases loaded did him in. In Lary's 24.1 innings against them, the Bronx Bombers had scored just 6 runs on 21 hits.

Opposing him was hard-throwing right-hander Bob Turley, who the Yankees had acquired over the winter to be one of their aces. He came into the game at 13-11, probably a disappointment given the Yankees' expectations. This day, Turley failed to escape the second inning. After giving up a run on two walks and a single in the first, Turley hit the first batter he faced in the second, walked the next two (the second of who was his pitching opponent, Lary) to load the bases with nobody out, and then took a walk himself to the showers when Stengel brought in Johnny Kucks to try to control the situation. Two of Turley's base runners scored. 

Lary did fine protecting Detroit's lead on his way to a complete game victory. He walked just two, while the four Yankee pitchers Casey Stengel used that day were definitely not in control, walking a total of 11 Detroit Tigers in addition to the 8 hits they surrendered.

Every now and again a pitcher for a noncompetitive club emerges who seems unbeatable against an elite team. In his rookie season of 1908, the fourth-place Phillies' Harry Coveleski beat the New York Giants three times in five days to earn his enduring nickname as the "Giant Killer." Coveleski won only four games that year and by the end of the season had appeared in only 10 major league games. But while the chaos that ensued in the Fred Merkle game may have cost the Giants the 1908 pennant, Coveleski's three takedowns of McGraw's team in the final week of the season is what really denied them the top prize.

There would be nothing so dramatic about Frank Lary's ritual takedowns of the New York Yankees. There were no pennants denied the Bronx Bombers because they couldn't solve the mystery of Frank Lary. Lary's reputation as the "Yankee Killer" was nonetheless well-deserved, particularly because the Yankees were such a dominant club at the time he pitched for the Detroit Tigers: 

·        Lary pitched nine complete seasons in Detroit, from 1955 to 1963, and the Yankees won the pennant in eight of them.
·        Lary won 123 games with the Tigers, 28 of them against the Yankees. His highest victory total against any other team was 18 at the expense of the Senators-Twins franchise, who were one of the worst teams in baseball in the first six of Lary's years in Detroit, when they were in Washington before their move to Minnesota.
·        Lary’s 28-13 career record against the Yankees gave him by far his highest winning percentage (.683) against any team, and was very substantially higher than his career winning percentage of .528 (123-110) in a Tigers uniform. His career mark against the Senators-Twins was 18-15 (.545).
·        Indeed, the Yankees and the Senators-Twins were the only non-expansion franchises that Frank Lary had a winning record against. He was 14-14 in his career against both the Red Sox and White Sox, and had a 3-1 mark against the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Against the four other pre-expansion-era AL franchises and the new expansion team in Washington (also called the Senators), Lary had a losing record.

The Yankees had been riding a hot hand when they were beaten by Frank Lary. They had won 10 of their previous 11 games. But their winning ways had meant just one game in the standings, from a game behind the the White Sox on August 9 to tied with the White Sox on August 23, and Cleveland was just a game back. 

For the Yankees at 75-48, it was now 123 games down with 31 left on the schedule in a tight race in which all the contenders were playing well. There might well have been relief in the Yankee clubhouse that they had just one two-game series remaining with the Tigers, meaning they would have to see Frank Lary starting against them only one more time at most.   

The Tigers at 63-60 had also played 123 games, but they were 12 games back and playing out the string. Perhaps mercifully for the Yankees, since they trailed by a game-and-a-half when they next played the Tigers in mid-September, Lary had started against the Senators the game before that series began, and so the Yankees did not see him again until next year.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--The Scooter's Comeback

Casey taketh away and Casey giveth back. On August 10, 1955, Stengel wrote Phil Rizzuto back into the Yankees' line-up as the starting shortstop in the midst of a tight four-team race. It was 111 games down and 43 to go for the third-place Yankees who were one game behind the White Sox, half-a-game behind the Indians, and just half-a-game ahead of the Red Sox (who were still close but not really a contender). This was almost exactly a year after Stengel had taken Rizzuto out of the Yankees' line-up as the starting shortstop, when they were in what was still a fight for the pennant with the 1954 Indians. Between August 15, 1954, and August 10, 1955, Rizzuto had started in only 17 of the 147 games the Yankees played. 

Scooter's Comeback

It hadn't always been thus. Casey Stengel wrote only a handful of names onto his starting line-up card on a daily basis when the Yankees won five consecutive pennants and five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953—Yogi Berra behind the plate, Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle (their playing-health permitting) in the outfield, Gil McDougald somewhere in the infield after he was called up in 1951, and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop. With the Yankee Clipper at the end of his great career, and Mantle at the beginning of his, Berra and Rizzuto were the cornerstone players on those teams. They each won an MVP Award, Rizzuto in 1950 and Berra the year after.

In addition to his defensive excellence, the Scooter was effective in getting things started for the Yankees batting first or second at the top of the order. He was extraordinarily proficient in moving runners into scoring position, leading the league in sacrifice bunts every year from 1949 to 1952. So outstanding were his bunting skills that Rizzuto frequently beat out bunts for hits. All things considered, including his contributions at the plate, Phil Rizzuto was the best at his position in the American League, rivaled for the best shortstop in baseball only by fellow New York shortstops Pee Wee Reese at Ebbets Field and Alvin Dark at the Polo Grounds.

After playing Rizzuto nearly every day and rarely taking him out of games in his first four years at the Yankee helm, Casey in 1953 determined it was time to take account of his shortstop's 35 years on planet Earth by relieving him of the burden of playing complete games. Although the Scooter had another very good year in 1953—batting .271, continuing to shine on defense, and finishing 6th in MVP voting—Rizzuto was still in the game for the final pitch in only 91 of the 132 games he started, almost always because Stengel chose to pinch hit for him, usually late in the game, in a bid for more runs. His thinking was clearly along the line of ARod's famous comment about another Yankee shortstop, nearly half-a-century later, not being someone opposing teams worried about when they assessed the Yankee line-up.

Not getting any younger, it was even more frustrating for Rizzuto in 1954. In mid-August, his batting average at .202 and the Yankees only three games behind the Indians while trying to capture their sixth pennant in a row, Stengel replaced the Scooter at shortstop with Willy Miranda. 

Willy Miranda is not a name anyone thinks about when thinking "1950s New York Yankees." His role had been as Rizzuto's defensive replacement after Stengel pinch hit for him, typically in the last third of the game. Now it was the Scooter's role to be Miranda's defensive replacement. He came into 19 games as a defensive replacement after Stengel had removed Miranda, himself a weak hitter, for a pinch hitter. 

Rizzuto started just three more games the rest of the year, all after Cleveland had wrapped up the American League pennant. All told Rizzuto appeared in 126 games at short, started 97 of them, and played a complete game only 50 times in '54.

In SI's preseason preview for 1955, Robert Creamer referred to Rizzuto as "the once-great Yankee shortstop" and mentioned Jerry Coleman as his likely replacement. In fact, however, it was Billy Hunter's turn to be the Yankee shortstop. 

Hunter had been acquired from Baltimore in a massive trade after the 1954 season ended that ultimately involved countless players—well, OK, 16 playersincluding those to be "named later." Bob Turley and Don Larsen were the most notable Yankee acquisitions in the deal, with all due respect to Mr. Hunter, who had been the Orioles' starting shortstop the two previous years, including his rookie season of 1953 when the Orioles were still the St. Louis Browns. He was considered to be much better defensively than he was at the plate, but in both disciplines . . . well he must better than Phil Rizzuto, now 37 years old.

Rizzuto started the first seven games of the season for the '55 Yankees, batting eighth in the order. His .294 batting average and on-base percentage close to .500 was not enough to persuade Stengel to keep him in the line-up, and Hunter took over as the starting shortstop. Although often removed for a pinch hitter with the Scooter replacing him defensively, Hunter started all but eight of the next 98 games. Rizzuto did not see his name in the starting line-up again until over a third-of-a-season in games and nearly two full months later—on June 16. After three consecutive starts, Rizzuto started at shortstop only once more until August 6.

By then, Billy Hunter had played his last game for the Yankees in 1955. His hitting deficiencies were just too many for Stengel to accept. The Yankees were now in a white-hot pennant race with both the Indians and White Sox. On August 4, the Yankees played host to Cleveland in the finale of a three-game series, the two teams tied for second but only a single game back of Chicago. Trailing 2-1 in the sixth with the tying run at third, only one out, and the imposing power-pitcher Herb Score on the mound, Stengel pinch hit for Hunter. For Stengel, the move itself was not unusual. But having gone hitless in what proved to be his last seven starts of the season, his average dropping from a season-high .244 to .227 (and his on-base percentage from .285 to .269), the next day it was off to the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Denver for Billy Hunter to work on his skills. 

Phil Rizzuto started at shortstop in 31 of the Yankees' remaining 48 games after Hunter's departure as the Yankees battled for AL bragging rights and a return to the World Series. In September he played much like the Rizzuto of days gone by, except batting at the bottom instead of the top of Stengel's line-up, often-times even ninth when the madcap Perfessor chose to bat the pitcher eighth. He batted .297 in September as the Yankees went 17-6 in the final month to beat out the Indians by 3 games. Rizzuto started all seven games in the World Series, in which he batted .267 but also drew five walks, and so was often on base.

It was the Scooter's last hurrah. Casey Stengel no doubt valued and was grateful for Phil Rizzuto's contributions to the five straight championships he won in his first five years as the Yankees' manager. But no sentimentalist was the Old Man. In stark contrast to how a future Yankee shortstop was handled, Rizzuto was called into Stengel's office in mid-August 1956 and unceremoniously dumped from the team. No final fond farewells even by Yankee opponents and a touching tribute at Yankee Stadium for Rizzuto, as there was for Derek Jeter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Billy Pierce

Billy Pierce passed away on Friday. One of baseball's premier pitchers in the 1950s, the southpaw Pierce, along with his teammate Minnie Minoso, was among those players from major league baseball's "golden era" being considered for Cooperstown immortality last year by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee. Neither player, nor anyone else on the list for that matter, was voted in. But Billy Pierce surely had much to commend him, even if his lifetime 211-169 (.555) record and 3.27 ERA are not on-the-surface Hall of Fame-impressive.

Billy Pierce

Acquired from Detroit in 1949 in what turned out to be a steal of a trade, Billy Pierce was the first piece in the Chicago White Sox building momentum towards ending their decades of baseball purgatory occasioned by the ignominy of the eight Black Sox who conspired with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. Just as Minnie Minoso's arrival in 1951 became the foundation of the "Go-Go" Sox, Pierce was the cornerstone of a first-rate pitching staff that was essential for the White Sox to compete with the Yankees and Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant.

By 1955, the White Sox were ready to enter the fray in the pennant race. As readers of Baseball Historical Insight know, this year we are focused on that season—sixty years ago—but this article is not part of that series. It's a reminder of how good Billy Pierce really was. Suffice it to say, Pierce had one of the best years of his big-league career that year. He ended up the season with a record only 15-10, but he led the league with a 1.97 earned run average—far better than anyone else in the bigs—and was the best pitcher in the major leagues in 1955, at least according to the wins above replacement metric for pitchers. Pierce had back-to-back 20-win seasons each of the next two years. When the White Sox finally beat out the Yankees for the AL pennant in 1959, Pierce was only 14-15 with a 3.62 ERA, and did not get a start in the World Series, although he pitched in three of the six games in relief.

With all due respect to Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce was probably the best southpaw in the American League in the 1950s, if not the league's best pitcher, period. He stood only 5-10 and was slight of build, but Pierce was an agile and highly coordinated athlete whose compact motion enabled him to sizzle fastballs past batters. He led the league in strikeouts in 1953 and in strikeouts-per-nine-innings in both 1953 and 1954. The only two pitchers in major league baseball with more accumulated pitchers' wins above replacement in the 1950s were Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts, both in the other league.

If he had pitched for the Yankees, who dominated the American League in his years with the White Sox by winning pennants in all but two of them, Billy Pierce almost certainly would be in the Hall of Fame—joining his fellow small-stature lefty who did pitch for the Yankees, the aforementioned Mr. Ford. Let's pick up from 1953 and not include 1949, the year before Ford first wore pinstripes; 1950 when Ford did not arrive on the scene until July and pitched only 112 innings; and the two following years that Ford spent in the military as a draftee during the Korean War:

  • From 1953 to 1961, with Pierce pitching for Chicago and Ford in New York, Whitey Ford's record was 149-62 and Billy Pierce was 137-95. That's a very big advantage for Ford.
  • And Ford's .706 winning percentage relative to the Yankees' .625 for those nine years was appreciably better than Pierce's .591 winning percentage relative to the White Sox' .572. Notwithstanding that the Yankees were a much better team than the White Sox, that's another very big advantage for Whitey Ford.
  • But with 33.4 pitcher's wins above replacement, Billy Pierce was by that advanced metric a more effective pitcher than Ford, whose pitcher's WAR was 29.8.
  • And Pierce accumulated 2,044 innings pitched those nine years; Ford's total was slightly less at 1,925.
None of this is to say that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s, let alone more deserving. And the performance distance between the two widens when one considers Ford's excellence from 1962 to 1965, during which time Billy Pierce's career had come to an end after three years in San Francisco.

Pierce was 16-6 for the Giants in 1962, however, without which his new team would not have won their first pennant in San Francisco, which required winning a three-game playoff against the Dodgers. Surrendering only three hits, Pierce shut out the Dodgers in the opening game of the playoff showdown, beating Sandy Koufax. Two days later, he pitched a shutdown ninth inning after the Giants scored 4 runs in the top half of the inning at Dodger Stadium to take a 6-4 lead, sending San Francisco to the World Series. After losing Game 3 of the Series, giving up 2 runs in the seventh of what had been a scoreless game before being relieved, Pierce beat Whitey Ford in Game 6, surrendering just 3 hits, to force a decisive Game 7—the one that ended with Willie McCovey hitting that vicious line drive right at Bobby Richardson.

Again, none of this is to make an argument that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s . . . but had the White Sox been able to beat out the Yankees a time or two more for the pennant during those years, well       . . . Billy Pierce might well have been honored in Cooperstown last weekif he hadn't already been before.