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. 

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