Sunday, September 27, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): Before "Next Year"--the Dodgers Vexed World Series History

The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees had vastly different post-season histories as they squared off in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series at Yankee Stadium on September 28. The Yankees had been to 20 World Series and won 16 of them. The Dodgers did not win any of the seven World Series they had played, the last five of which were all against the Yankees. And their Fall Classics history seemed particularly vexed, because it always seemed that some odd eventor Billy Martindid them in.

Before "Next Year: Brooklyn's Vexed World Series History

1916: After the Dodgers—then known as the "Robins" after their manager, Wilbert Robinson—lost the opening game of their first World Series to the Boston Red Sox, the two teams battled into the 14th inning of Game 2 in Boston. Both starting pitchers, Sherry Smith for Brooklyn and some guy named Babe Ruth for the Red Sox, were still in the game. After Ruth retired the Robins in order in the top of the inning, Smith walked the lead-off batter, who went to second on a sacrifice bunt, from where he scored on a walk-off single by Del Gainer, pinch-hitting for veteran third baseman Larry Gardner. Gainer was strictly a bench player, but was sent up to hit for the left-handed-batting Gardner, whose .308 batting average was fifth in the league, as a percentage move against the southpaw Smith. Gainer's game-winning hit was his only plate appearance in the 1916 World Series.

Down two games-to-none, Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets caused some controversy by banishing the Red Sox' band of Royal Rooters (a real band) to the far reaches of his ballpark when the Series moved to Ebbets Field, which may or may not have helped his team win Game 3. The Robins took a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 4, only to watch the aforementioned Mr. Gardner slide under the catcher's tag with a three-run inside-the-park home run. (There was no New York review.) The Red Sox won the game, and the next day the Series as well when the teams returned to Boston, where the Royal Rooters put up a celebratory hoot.

1920: Now oh-for-one in World Series competition, Brooklyn was back in the Classic in 1920, against the Cleveland Indians. With the Series tied two games apiece in Game 5 in Cleveland, the Indians jumped off to a 4-0 lead in the first inning when their first three batters touched future Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes for singles to load the bases and clean-up hitter Elmer Smith hit the first grand slam in World Series history. And the Indians still had all 27 outs to play with. 

Later in the 5th inning, as if that World Series first was not enough to victimize the Dodgers—still called the Robins—they hit into the first and only unassisted triple play in World Series history. With runners at first and second, and behind 7-0 in the score, Clarence Mitchell, a very good-hitting pitcher who had relieved the ineffective Grimes, hit a line-drive that seemed destined to land safely in center field—except that second baseman Bill Wambsganss leaped to his right and snared the drive for the out. Both Robins took flight for the next base when the ball was hit—it sure looked like a hit—allowing Wambsganss to touch second to double-up the lead runner and tag out the runner from first, standing just off the keystone sack, for unassisted out number three.

The Robins were shut out the next two games and were now oh-and-two in World Series play. Brooklyn did not return to the Fall Classic for 21 years, during which time the Robins went back to being called the Dodgers once Wilbert Robinson retired.

1941With the Yankees and Dodgers tied at a game apiece, Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher called upon his ace reliever, Hugh Casey, to hold the Yankees at bay in a scoreless tie in Game 3 at Ebbets Field. Casey gave up four consecutive singles and wound up the losing pitcher.

The next day, having entered the game in the sixth inning, Casey was protecting a 4-3 lead that would have tied the Series and had the Yankees down to their last strike—which he got, except that strike three got passed catcher Mickey Owen and Tommy Henrich reached first base, whereupon Casey proceeded to unravel, surrendering a single, a walk, and a pair of doubles that resulted in the Yankees winning the game. The Series mercifully ended the next day, the Dodgers never again with a lead.

1947: Jackie Robinson tormenting the Yankees with his base-running, Al Gionfriddo’s robbery of Joe DiMaggio causing the normally unflustered Yankee Clipper to kick the dirt, and Cookie Lavagetto’s two-out last-of-the-ninth double not only breaking up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter but turning him into the losing pitcher were Brooklyn highlights in the 1947 World Series. But Yogi Berra had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, Bobby Brown went three-for-three as a pinch hitter, and Joe Page pitched five scoreless innings allowing only one runner to reach base to win Game 7 and send the Dodgers to their fourth straight World Series defeat.

1949Don Newcombe, 17-8 in his rookie year with Brooklyn, was dominant for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, making history as the first black pitcher to start in the Fall Classic. He shut out the Yankees through eight innings, giving up just four hits and striking out 11. Unfortunately, Allie Reynolds was just as good for the Yankees. Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth for the Yankees and hit a home run to defeat Newcombe, 1-0. The Dodgers won the next day by the same score, but Brooklyn lost the Series in five games. This game was the undeserved beginning of criticism that Newcombe had a tendency to choke in big games.

1952The Yankees and Dodgers met again in the 1952 World Series. The Dodgers had a 3-games-to-2 advantage, lost Game 6, and in the bottom of the 7th of Game 7, trailing by 4-2, loaded the bases with just one out . . . and did not score a single run. Their last hope died on a popup around the pitcher’s mound that looked for sure like it would drop for a cheap game-tying hit when the Yankee first baseman lost the ball in the sun and the pitcher just stood there. But to the rescue came Billy Martin, charging in from his position at second base, losing his hat racing to the interior of the infield, and making a knee-high catch to end the threat. The Dodgers did not threaten again, and were now oh-for-six in World Series play.

1953It was Billy Martin to the Yankees’ rescue again the next year. This time it was the Yankees batting in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 with a 3-games-to-2 advantage, the score tied 3-3, runners at first and second, one out, Dodgers ace reliever Clem Labine on the mound, and darned if Billy the Kid doesn’t slap a game-winning, World Series-winning, single up the middle. It was his 12th hit of the Series, tying a record, and his 8th run batted in.

The Ebbets Faithful always consoled themselves with, "Wait till next year."

But the Dodgers were up against the Yankees once again in 1955. And wasn’t it just their luck that Billy Martin had returned from his service commitment in September, just in time to help the Yankees win the ’55 pennant and play in the World Series.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Appreciating Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra has passed away, beloved by multiple generations of baseball fans. As much as his assorted "Yogi-isms" were such a delight and made him an American cultural icon beyond baseball, and though the culture often had fun with his seemingly unathletic physique, Berra was very much an athlete—strong, faster than he looked, especially in his youth, and quickand one of the great players of his generation. He played in 14 World Series and managed in two, one with the Yankees and one with the Mets. And he was a man of great dignity and personal integrity, best revealed the two occasions he was fired as Yankee manager. His death comes almost exactly forty years to the day after that of his managerial mentor, Casey Stengel.

Appreciating Yogi Berra

There were four catchers in the debate about the best in history at the time Berra made the Yankees for good in 1947, alternating his rookie season between catcher and the outfield. Three were contemporaries in the late-1920s through the 1930s—Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs, Mickey Cochrane of the Athletics and then the Tigers, and the Yankees' Bill Dickey—and the fourth was 19th century catcher Buck Ewing, one of the earliest entrants into the Hall of Fame

There was no question the Berra kid could hit. The Yankees were still debating what position he should play, however, when Dickey took charge of "learning me his experience," as Yogi put it in one of his earliest Yogi-isms. The two made for an odd couple, at least by appearance—the tall, lanky, statesman-like Bill Dickey at 6-1 and 185, and the short, stout, arguably-neanderthalish Berra at 5-7 and also 185. Anyway, Berra proved a superb pupil and, appearances notwithstanding, had the athletic attributes Dickey could leverage in learning the seemingly awkward kid his experience.

While Mickey Mantle was the superstar when the Yankees dominated the American League in the 1950s, Yogi provided critical ballast. He was a dangerous hitter to complement the Mick, made more so by his uncanny ability to hit pitches out of the strike zone that might have been meant to set him up or throw him off-stride. Perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of championship baseball, Berra was a fine defensive catcher and savvy handler of the Yankee pitching staff, and his leadership and knowledge of the game caused Mr. Stengel to call Yogi his "assistant manager." 

In the 10 years from 1949 to 1958, while the Yankees were winning 9 pennants, Berra hit at least 20 home runs every year, with a career-high 30 in both 1952 and 1956. He drove in over 100 runs five times, including four seasons in a row from 1953 to 1956. All this while playing baseball's most demanding position, long before the armor and accoutrements of the modern catcher. And he was durable. In the seven years from 1950 to 1956, Berra caught at least 137 games every year. He was in at the finish of 93 percent of the games he started.

Indicative of his value to the Yankees, Yogi Berra won three MVP Awards, in 1951, 1954 (when, ironically, the Yankees did not win the pennant), and 1955—sixty years ago—which is the focus of most posts on Baseball Historical Insight this season. Beginning in 1958, when he turned 33 but already had nearly 1,500 major league games under his belt, Berra was typically platooned behind the plate with Elston Howard, which nonetheless meant he had by far the most catching responsibility because he was the left-handed-batting half of the platoon. His playing career began winding down in 1960, when he began alternating between catching and playing left field. Howard became the Yankees' regular catcher in 1961, and Berra a valuable part-time catcher-outfielder.

Berra took over as the Yankees' manager in 1964 and retired as a player. In a very eventful season that included the Phil Linz harmonica incident, the most important thing is that he led the Yankees to a pennant they won by a single game after the team looked lost for much of the summer. After falling in seven games to the Cardinals in the World Series, Yogi was gracelessly fired, in a decision that had apparently been made when the Yankee struggles earlier in the summer raised questions about his leadership abilities.

As manager of the Mets, Berra is most remembered for saying “it ain’t over till it’s over” when the 1973 Mets were in last place in mid-August, and then managing his team to the division title and into the World Series by beating an early iteration of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine (winners of 99 games to the Mets’ 82) in the NLCS. Alas, his team was once again on the losing side of a 7-game World Series. But perhaps Berra's best Mets legacy was holding the team together in trying circumstances in 1972 when he took charge following the death of their beloved manager Gil Hodges, who suffered a massive heart attack in spring training. 

Returning to the Yankees as a coach after being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra got to manage the entire 1984 season for George Steinbrenner, not without having to endure considerable Boss interference. He was summarily dismissed just 16 games into the 1985 season, with Steinbrenner sending his GM to do the dirty workan event that said much about the relative integrity of both men and ruptured his relationship with the Yankees for nearly the entire rest of the 20th century.

Bill James in 2001 concluded that Yogi Berra was the best catcher in baseball history. Ahead of Hartnett, Cochrane, and Dickey who came before. Ahead of Campanella who was a contemporary. Ahead of even Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ivan Rodriguez who came later. Given that Joe Mauer, despite having won three batting championships as a catcher, caught 100 games in only five of his 10 big-league seasons before moving over to first base, and that this year will mark only the fourth time Buster Posey has caught 100 or more games, it seems safe to conclude that James's judgment still holds: Yogi Berra, baseball's best catcher ever. 

A final thought: Casey Stengel exited this world on September 29, 1975, almost exactly 40 years ago. Not only was Stengel a mentor to Berra as a leader and game-manager, just as Dickey was to Berra's catcher's skill set, but they were two of the game's most colorful personalities in the use of language—both of whose clever, confusing, confounding words contained (when pondered) some profound meaning, observation, or immutable truth. 

Yogi, of course, was the master of the one-line quip; Casey of the telling anecdote, although each could do the other. They would have made for a great vaudeville act, which was not an uncommon off-season gig for some of the higher-profile names in baseball in the early days of the 20th century. They could have had a dueling banjos kind of act between Stengel-speak and Yogi-speak.

Of course, we were now in the middle of the 20th century. Still, it would have been fun.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): The Yankees Win . . . With 2 Games to Spare

For the 1955 Yankees, it came down to game 152, on September 23, with just two left on the schedule. Taking on the Red Sox in the second game of a doubleheader, they claimed a 3-2 victory after losing the opener to officially win the American League pennant for the sixth time in Casey Stengel's now seven years as their manager. Except for their 1953 pennant, which they won by 8 games, all of their pennants so far in the Stengel era had come down to the final few games.

(1955): The Yankees Win . . . With 2 Games to Spare

When last we left the American League pennant race, on September 13, the Yankees despite Bob Turley's 5-hit shutout of the Detroit Tigers trailed the Cleveland Indians by two games. They had 11 games remaining, and the Indians were left with nine. Cleveland was on a mission to become the first team not named the New York Yankees to win back-to-back AL pennants since the 1934-35 Tigers of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Tommy Bridges, and Schoolboy Rowe. 

The Yankees had won 103 games in 1954, more than in any of their five straight pennants under Stengel from 1949 to 1953, but that was eight fewer than the Indians, and so, no six in a row. They were determined to get back to their expected, assumed, even presumed rightful place in the baseball universe—the best team, period.

But there were no more head-to-head match-ups between the two contenders, so the Yankees were going to have to focus on winning their own games and hope that the Indians would stumble in their few remaining games. They might have considered whether their fate would be the same as Cleveland's back in 1952. In that year, the Indians entered the final month of September trailing the Yankees by just two games, but with only one chance to take on the Yankees face-to-face—in the middle of the month. That Indians team preceded to have their best month of season, with a 19-5 record. Despite that, however, they ended the final month of the 1952 season exactly where they were at the beginning of September, two games behind the Yankees, because the New Yorkers matched the Clevelanders win-for-win and had the same 19-5 September record. (FYI: The Yankees won their lone match-up in September.)

The Yankees' two-game deficit at the end of the day on the 13th was their largest in four months, since they were 2½ down back on May 15. They so far had spent the entire month of September in second place, keeping pace with the Indians They began each of the first nine days of the month just half-a-game behind. But Turley's 6-0 shutout of the Tigers was the first of eight straight winstheir longest winning streak of the yearthat put them in a position to take the pennant with just one victory in their final season series, four games in Boston.

While the Yankees were winning eight in a row—two against Detroit, a three-game sweep of Boston in New York, and a three-game sweep of the Senators in Washington—the Indians had lost five of six to be suddenly on the brink of elimination at the start of play on the 23rd. Now trailing by 3½, with only three games left against the Tigers in Detroit and the Yankees with four in Fenway Park, Cleveland needed to win out and hope the New Yorkers lost all four of theirs just to end the 154-game schedule with identical 94-60 records and force a playoff for the pennant.

The Red Sox were not a team from which much was expected in 1955. After their disastrous end to the 1949 seasonwhen they went into Yankee Stadium for two games on the last weekend of the schedule with a one-game lead, needing to win just win to go to the World Series, and lost both games (and the pennant)and inability to make up for a poor start to the 1950 season, ending up just four games behind the Yankees, Boston had become mostly irrelevant in the American League. It surely didn't help that their star shortstop Vern Stephens hurt his knee in 1951 and was never the same again; that their star second baseman Bobby Doerr retired after the 1951 season; that their star third baseman Johnny Pesky was traded away in 1952; that their star center fielder Dom DiMaggio retired in 1953; and that their star of stars, Ted Williams, was flying combat missions in Korea in 1952 and 1953.

Although the Red Sox were technically a first-division ball club in 1954 by virtue of their fourth-place ending, they finished a whopping 42 games out of first place with a losing 69-85 record. Williams, who had threatened to retire after the 1954 season, was a no-show for spring training in '55 and did not join the club until late May, after his very contentious divorce was settled. Without their Splendid Splinter in the line-up, the Red Sox started poorly, but soon after his return, they began winning at a league-best torrid pace. A 41-17 record in June and July brought the Red Sox into contention, and on August 7 they were within a game-and-a-half of first, although still in fourth place. 

As late as September 7, the Red Sox were still ostensibly in the pennant chase, in fourth place but only three out. Then reality caught up with Boston. Twelve losses in the next 14 games, including three in a row at Yankee Stadium, revealed the true Red Sox of 1955, and when the Yankees came into Boston for the final four games, the Bosox were a distant 12 games out. They were, however, a team with a winning record . . . and a chance to play the role of spoilerif they could beat the Yankees in all four games, set up as a Friday doubleheader, an off-day Saturday, and a Sunday doubleheader.

The Indians were off on Friday and could only hope that when they took the field again on Saturday for the first of their final three games, that the Yankees had lost their Friday doubleheader. After Boston won the opening game, 8-4, the Yankees scored twice in the first inning of the second game to take a lead they would not relinquish on their way to a 3-2 win. Stengel called on Whitey Ford in relief when starter Don Larsen gave up a run in the seventh, and Jackie Jensen took Ford deep in the eighth, but the Yankee southpaw retired the Red Sox in order in the ninth to put an end to the 1955 American League pennant race.

The Yankees proved once again in the Stengel era that they were at their best in games they had to win. Until they completed their three-game sweep of Boston at Yankee Stadium on September 18, the Yankees had played 12 games since the beginning of the month with first place directly at stakemeaning they began the day's game either tied for first (once, on September 16), no more than a game ahead (they had last been in first place on August 28), or no more than a game behind (nine times they started half-a-game out of first, and twice they were one game out). They were 9-3 in those games to keep the heat on Cleveland. In their first four pennant races under Stengel, all of which went down to the wire, the Yankees were 30-15 in September games with first place up for grabs.

The World Series was now set. The New York Yankees would take on the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been waiting patiently to see who would win out in the American League since clinching the National League way back on September 8. 

The two teams had a history. Not one that the Dodgers wanted to be reminded of. 

But. . . 

Maybe this would be . . .

. . . Next Year. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): Indians in Weak Command

When the Indians swept the Senators in a doubleheader on September 13, 1955, they took a two-game lead in the American League over the Yankees. With their record now at 90-55, they had played 145 games and had just 9 to go. The Yankees had 11 games remaining. The two teams would face off no more in the 1955 season, meaning Stengel's boys were going to have to play very well for their part and count on the Senators (who the Indians would play once more), the Tigers (six games remaining against the Indians), and White Sox (two left against the Indians) to derail Cleveland.

Indians Look to be in Command

The two-game advantage Cleveland held after defeating the Senators 3-1 and 8-2 in the Sept. 13 doubleheader at Griffith Stadium was their biggest lead of the season since they were three up way back on May 11, their 26th game of the season. For most of the summer, the Indians ran third. They were as far back as 8 games on July 2, hardly looking like the team that set the American League record for wins with 111 the previous year. By the end of July, Cleveland was back in the thick of things.

They began their stretch drive by taking two of three from the Yankees in late August and three of four from the White Sox at the beginning of September, all of those games played in Cleveland. Their three wins against Chicago, one each by their trio of aces—Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Mike Garcia—knocked the White Sox out of first place into third, and put Cleveland at the top of the standings, by half-a-game over the Yankees on September 4. Including their doubleheader sweep, the Indians since then had won 8 of 10, including splitting a vital two-game set against the Yankee played as a Sunday doubleheader in New York on September 11. 

Chicago, meanwhile, had gone into a bit of a tailspin beginning when they lost the last three of their four-game series in Cleveland from September 2 to 4. That was the start of 8 losses in 13 games that now had the White Sox 4½ games out of first. Although not officially done, they had realistically faded from contention. Like the nearby Milwaukee Braves in the other league, the White Sox were an up-and-coming club that had been expected to contend but who were not quite ready for prime time.

The Yankees had not been in first place since August 28, but refused to go away. This had been a remarkable characteristic of the pinstripers ever since Stengel took over as their manager in 1949, testifying to both their resilience and relentlessness. With the exception of 1953, when the Yankees won the pennant by a blowout margin, and 1954, when the Indians returned the favor, the Yankees were in a dogfight for the pennant in every September since 1949, and their record in each of those Septembers was better than their winning percentage for the season. The same would be true in 1955.

As the season was now headed into its final 12 days, the Indians with a two-game lead controlled their own destiny. Although they had just one game remaining against a losing team—the Senators, whose record now stood at 50-91, the second-worst record in the big leagues—and the Yankees had three left against Washington, it was arguable which contender faced the more formidable opposition the rest of the way.

The Indians would return home for three against the fifth-place Tigers, who were 72-72 as of the 13th, followed by two in Chicago and their final three games in Detroit. The White Sox, of course, had been a true contender for most of the summer and had a formidable 85-59 record, and while faded from contention, they were still a dangerous team. In their series so far in 1955, Cleveland had done well against both teams, winning 10 of 16 against Detroit and 11 of 20 against Chicago.

The Yankees had one remaining with Detroit before taking on the Red Sox for three at Yankee Stadium, going to Washington for three, and finishing the season with four games at Fenway Park in Boston. With an 82-61 record as of September 13, the Red Sox had played much better than expected for a team that won just 69 games in 1954. In their series so far in 1955, the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in 9 of 15 games and the Senators in 13 of 19. 

Trailing by two, with 143 games down and only 11 to go, the Yankees were surely regretting that they had lost 13 of the 22 times they had played Cleveland. It was the first time in the Stengel era, beginning in 1949, that the Yankees had lost a season-series to a pennant-race rival. Coming into the season, they had faced off against 9 teams in six years that won at least 90 games in the American League, winning six of those series and splitting three—including against Cleveland in both ’53 and ’54. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): Brooklyn Back in the World Series, Milwaukee Waits For Next Year

The Brooklyn Dodgers clubbed the Milwaukee Braves into submission on September 8, 1955—sixty years ago—with a convincing 10-2 win that officially cinched the National League pennant. They were going back to the World Series for the third time in four years, after having finished second in 1954. Not only would National League fans not have the excitement of a September pennant race in 1955, but the Dodgers may have felt great satisfaction in the fact that they secured their return to the Fall Classic so early in the final month against an up-and-coming team that seemed on the threshold of greatness and a good bet to come in first in 1955. 

Brooklyn Back in the World Series, Milwaukee Waits for Next Year

The 1955 Dodgers arrived in Milwaukee on September 7 for the start of a 10-game road-trip—and their final games with the would-be rival Braves—on a hot streak that began on August 27 in Brooklyn when Sandy Koufax shutout the Reds on two-hits for his very first major league victory (the subject of a previous post on Baseball Historical Insight). They had lost only once since, to Milwaukee at home on the last day of August, while winning 11 of 12 to boost their league-lead to 15 games. That included a second shutout by Mr. Koufax for his second big-league win, against the Pirates. In only his third career start, Koufax surrendered five hits but walked only two—the inverse of two hits and five walks in his previous start—and did not allow the Pirates to advance anyone beyond second base. Koufax had yet to lose a game, and he was still nearly four months shy of turning 20.

The three runs scored by the Dodgers after two were out in the first of the two games in Milwaukee were all Billy Loes needed to outduel Lew Burdette, 3-1. If they lost all their remaining games, the Braves would still have to win all of theirs just to tie with Brooklyn at the end of the 154-game schedule. The next day, the 8th of September, the Dodgers emphatically put an end to the pennant race with four runs in the first off starter Bob Buhl, who did not get out of the inning, and four more in the fifth.

It was Brooklyn's 9th straight win and their 12th in 13 games. It was their longest winning streak and best stretch since beginning the season with winning streaks of 10 and 11 games on their way to a 22-2 record.

Being eliminated so early in September was surely a disappointment for the Braves, who expected to be a serious contender for the 1955 pennant. Robert Creamer's conclusion about Milwaukee in SI's pre-season prognostications issue was that "the Braves are a good bet for the pennant, particularly if [Bobby] Thomson proves healthy and the pitchers ["a top-notch pitching staff"] do as expected." He was arguably proven correct, in a negative way, on both calls.

Bobby Thomson struggled in his comeback year following a severe ankle injury in spring training 1954 that limited him to 43 games and opened the door for Hank Aaron's entry into the major leagues. Three times in '55 he was out of action for at least seven days, and his 12 home runs were his fewest yet in any season he had at least 100 at bats dating back to his big league debut in September 1946. He hit only.257 and his player value as measured by wins above replacement was that of a marginal big leaguer.

And the Braves' pitching was good, but not at the level of expectations. Rather than his customary 20 wins, Warren Spahn finished the year with a 17-14 record, although his 17 wins were third and his 3.26 ERA fourth in the league. Burdette's 13-8 record was among the league leaders in winning percentage, but his victory total was down from back-to-back 15-win seasons and his ERA had jumped from a second-best 2.76 in 1954 to a less-than-ace-like 4.06 in '55. Buhl rebounded from a mediocre sophomore year in 1954 to match the victory total of his rookie year in '53 with a 13-11 record. Gene Conley (11-7) and Chet Nichols (9-8), who each started 21 games, both had ERA's over 4.00.

But the real reason for the Braves' disappointing season in 1955 was that the Dodgers got off to such a phenomenal start, winning 22 of their first 24 games, to grab a 9½-game lead as early as May 10th. No matter how well they played, no matter that Hank Aaron had a breakout season with 24 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a .314 average, no matter than Eddie Mathews knocked out 41 home runs, falling 10 games behind—as the Braves did—before May was even half over was a tough deficit for any team to overcome. From then till the rest of the way, the Milwaukee Braves were only 3½ games worse than the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Now, on September 8, 1955, with 138 games gone, their record at 92-46, their lead up to 17 games, and just 16 games to go ... and with the Braves having just 15 games left... the Dodgers could lose every remaining game and Milwaukee could win every remaining game, and it would not make a difference. The middle three games of the 1955 World Series were going to be played in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Perhaps this year "wait till next year" would become a reality.

But first, the Dodgers would have to wait to see who would win out in the American League, where the Yankees and Indians were in a tight tango for the pennant and the White Sox were still hanging around.

As for the Braves ... Well, for the third consecutive year since moving to Milwaukee, more fans came to see their home games than any other team, including the Yankees in the AL. Over 2 million visited Milwaukee's County Stadium in 1955, and the Braves home attendance since 1953 now stood at just under 6 million (5,963,621 to be precise). They would finish second for the second time since moving to Milwaukee. But after their loss to the Dodgers on September 8, 1955, it was the Braves who were waiting for next year.

Monday, September 7, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955): Whitey Ford's Back to Back One-Hitters

Whitey Ford won his 17th game of the 1955 season on September 7, allowing just one hit in beating the Kansas City Athletics, 2-1. It was his second consecutive start pitching a complete-game one-hitter. Five days before, Ford had defeated the Washington Senators, 4-2, giving up just one hit. In between, he pitched an inning-and-a-third against the Senators to pick up a save, retiring all four batters he faced. Every win was important because both the Indians and White Sox were keeping pace with the Yankees, all three teams maneuvering within two games of the top.

Whitey Ford's Back-to-Back One-Hitters

Neither of Ford's one-hitters, both pitched in Yankee Stadium, came against one of the better teams in the American League. Only one of the 16 major league teams had a worse record than the 46-81 Washington Senators when Ford took the mound against them. Their most dangerous hitter was Roy Sievers, who had been red-hot in the month of August, batting .363 and hitting 6 of the 25 home runs he had at the end of the season. The Kansas City Athletics, who stood at 56-79 on the day they faced Ford, had the fourth-worst record in the big leagues. Gus Zernial, whose 30 home runs for the year would be second in the league, was KC's most potent power threat, but Vic Power, who finished with a .319 batting average and 19 home runs, probably their most dangerous hitter.

Ford had already beaten the Senators twice in two starts, winning blowout games by 19-1 (on opening day) and 7-2 , and was 3-0 in his three starts against the Athletics, winning 6-1, 7-3, and 3-2.

And neither of his one-hitters was a work of art, especially not for a pitcher whose reputation already was, or would soon become, that of a sublime left-hander—at only 5-10 and 178 pounds, hardly an imposing figure on the mound—who was an artist in the craft of pitching. Ford walked four batters in his September 2 start against the Senators, although one was intentional, and he walked six in his September 7 start against the Athletics, two intentionally. In both games, the only hit Ford allowed came in the seventh inning—late enough in the game for the fans in the Stadium to take notice that a no-hit possibility was in the offing, building drama, but not so late in the game that the drama built to compelling anticipation. 

And, as the final scores indicate, neither game was a shutout.

On September 2, Ford held the Senators hitless through six innings, allowing just two base runners on walks in the first (so much for the perfect game) and fourth. But after Ford's party-hearty running-mate Mickey Mantle had just hit a three-run home run off Bob Porterfield to break-up a scoreless pitching duel, the top of the seventh was uncharacteristically sloppy for Ford and the Yankees. Ford walked Mickey Vernon for the second time to start the inning, got the dangerous clean-up hitter Sievers to foul out, and then witnessed not only Carlos Paula break up his no-hitter after 6.1 innings with a single to left, but left fielder Irv Noren throw the ball away to allow Vernon to score and Paula to reach third. He scored on a Tommy Umphlett grounder to short. Ford allowed another walk, then retired the final seven batters he faced.

With both Cleveland and Chicago winning, Ford's one-hitter kept the Yankees tied with the Indians in second place, a mere half-game behind the White Sox. It was an important victory, if for no other reason than the Yankees had been playing somewhat raggedly since winning 13 of 16 to take a 1½-game lead on August 25. Since then they had lost four of six, including two of three in Cleveland that left the two teams tied for first.

Two days after the one-hitter, manager Casey Stengel called on Ford to relieve Bob Turley in the eighth inning with two outs and the Yankees leading, 7-3, but with two runners on. Switch-hitter Ernie Oravetz, in his first of only two years in the majors, was at the plate. No problem. Ford retired him, and all three Washington batters in the ninth to preserve the victory. The Yankees were still half-a-game behind. 

On September 7, Ford again had a no-hitter going when he took the mound in the 7th inning, the Yankees with a 1-0 lead on a fifth-inning single by Billy Martin, another of Ford's (and Mantle's) party-heart running-mates. The seventh once again proved messy for Ford and the Yankees. Ford, who had already walked three, made that four with four pitches the umpire called balls to Hector Lopez. This was after retiring the first two batters in the inning. Jim Finigan rapped a ground-rule double to break up the no-hitter, after which Stengel chose discretion as the better part of valor with pinch hitter Enos Slaughter at the plate, batting .312, by having Ford intentionally walk him to load the bases. Sadly for the shutout bid, Ford unleashed a wild pitch with pinch-hitter Elmer Valo at the plate, on which Lopez scored and the two other runners moved up. Valo was intentionally walked to load 'em up, but as in his previous start, Ford again retired the last seven batters he faced. 

Perhaps ironically, because the Athletics had six runners reach base on walks against Ford, the Yankees won this game on a walk-off walk. The Yankees had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the ninth for Irv Noren, whose plate discipline led to a walk down to first for him, and to home for the runner on third to secure a 2-1 triumph for the Bronx "Bombers," whose only two extra-base hits were doubles.

The victory gave the Yankees an 83-54 record in the 137 games they had played so far as the September stretch loomed ahead. With both Cleveland and Chicago again winning, Ford's second consecutive one-hitter kept the Yankees half-a-game back of the Indians. The White Sox were now a game behind the Yankees in third. (And for Red Sox Nation, Boston was still in the race, three games out of first.) Just 17 games remained for the New Yorkers.