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.

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