Saturday, November 26, 2016

Why Branca? Assessing Dressen's Options

Ralph Branca passed away at the age of 90 on the day before Thanksgiving. It was a singular moment in timehe was called in by Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in the third and deciding game of a playoff to determine the National League pennant-winner in 1951, needing just two outs to get the Dodgers to another World Series against the Yankeesbut Branca's pitch to Bobby Thomson resulting in the "Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" home run was one of those iconic moments in baseball history that make baseball junkies thankful for the historical heritage of America's National Pastime. As the victim of Thomson's home runa victim perhaps twice over because of revelations that later surfaced about the Giants' using a powerful spyglass to steal opposing catchers' signs from their center field clubhouse at the Polo GroundsBranca fairly asked, Why me? In fact, Dressen probably felt he had no other choice.

Why Branca? Assessing Dressen's Options

Taking a 4-1 lead into the last of the 9th, three outs away from the pennant, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen needed Don Newcombe to go the distance, exhausted as he was from having now faced 87 batters in 22 innings in three games over five days just to keep Brooklyn's hopes alive for the pennant. The reason why was because the underlying reality, which Dressen surely knew, was that the Dodgers no longer had a bullpen worthy of the name. But after a pair of singles and a double made the score 4-2 with the tying runs in scoring position, only one out, and Bobby Thomson coming to bat, Dressen knew Big Newk could go no further.

He needed just two outs. But who was he gonna call?

Clyde King, who Yankee fans of a certain age remember as one in a long line of managers George Steinbrenner hired and fired in the 1980s, had been the ace of the Dodgers pen . . . until throwing 23 innings in 11 games in 27 days from July 26 to August 22 took such a toll on his arm that he was never the same againas in, really, never. At the time, King was 14-5 with 5 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 38 games out of the bullpen. He appeared in only 10 games the rest of the way in 1951, pitching just 14 innings, and had a 10.67 earned run average, then pitched 58 more games and had an ugly 5.16 ERA the next two years before leaving his big league pitching career behind. So . . . no King to come save the day.

Dressen had 27-year-old Bud Podbielan available. While King's absence caused Dressen to virtually demand complete-games in games that could be won from his starting pitchers, it was Podbielan who pitched the most innings in relief for the Dodgers in their hectic month of September to hold back the surging Giants. Podbielan was the winning pitcher in relief of Newcombe's intrepid 5 innings of relief in the 14-inning season-finale against the Phillies that set up the playoff for the pennant. 

But Podbielan had pitched in only 54 big-league games in parts of three seasons, rarely in the high-stakes situation he was thrust into in that game against Philadelphia. Given his relative inexperience, it is highly unlikely Dressen even considered him in a game of this magnitude, the very pennant at stake with just two more outs needed.

Dressen also almost certainly did not consider either Johnny Schmitz or Phil Haugstad. Schmitz had given up four runs in four innings in his previous appearance and was a southpaw, against whom the right-handed Thomson so far in his career was batting .385 with 10 hits, including a pair of doubles and a homer. And in 1951, Thomson was 2-for-2 against Schmitz. The right-handed Haugstad was awful in September, giving up 9 runs in 7 innings, including a homer to Mr. Thomson.

With Clem Labine having pitched a complete-game victory the day before to keep the Dodgers' hope alive, Dressen was left with only three possible options from his core of starting pitchers. Preacher Roe, his 22-3 record on the season notwithstanding, was not in the mix because recent arm problems had made him ineffectual. That left Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine, both warming up in the bullpen, getting ready for this moment.

Why Branca? Dressen has been criticized for calling on Branca because Bobby Thomson treated him like a batting-practice pitcher in 1951. For the year, Thomson was 4-for-12 against Branca, including two home runs since the beginning of September. The second of those was the difference in the Giants' victoryand Branca's lossin the first playoff game. And Branca in general had not pitched well of late. After starting the season 12-5 with a 2.60 ERA, Branca was 1-7 with a 5.71 ERA since the beginning of September, although he did pitch well8 innings, 3 runs allowedin the first game of the playoff.

Why not Erskine? Carl Erskine was 16-12 on the year, 8-6 with a 4.83 ERA in 19 starts, and 8-6 with a 3.97 ERA in 27 relief appearances. The standard narrative of why Branca and not Erskine is that Dressen made his decision after Oisk bounced a pitch warming up in the bullpen. The subtext of how his decision is portrayed is along the lines of Dressen losing his grip, not thinking clearly in a fraught moment with everythingeverythingon the line. What was he thinking, letting Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson, who had been especially unkind to Mr. Branca the last three games they faced each other, including the game-winning long ball two days before? Thomson, however, was also batting .333 against Erskine (3-for-9) with two homers, both back in May.

What was Dressen thinking? He might have been thinking that Erskine was having control and location problems in his most recent appearances. In his three previous gamestwo starts and one in reliefErskine had given up 8 walks, only one intentional, in 12 innings. And he had averaged 4 walks in 9 innings in 38 innings since the beginning of September, compared to 3.6 per 9 in 151⅓ innings through August. Upon hearing of Erskine's bounced pitch while warming up to enter the game, Dressen may have been reminded of the young right-hander's lack of control of late and concluded Oisk was too much of a risk with two runners in scoring position, representing the tying runs, and the pennant on the line.

And so, Charlie Dressen may have decided Ralph Branca was his only choice to pitch to the Giants' Bobby Thomson. 

NOTE: I cover this and other aspects of Dressen's decisionmaking concerning the third and final game of the 1951 playoff in the chapter, "Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office," in my recent book, The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Here's the link to the publisher's website:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Big Deal for the 1945 Cubs

Just before the trade deadline this year, on July 25, the Cubs traded with the Yankees for fireballing relief ace Aroldis Chapman. Their lead in the NL Central standings at the time was 7 games. The deal was forward-looking to the post-season. Nearly exactly 71 years before trading for Chapman, on July 27, 1945, the Cubs parted with $97,000 sent to the Yankees for one of their starting pitchers, Hank Borowy. Their lead in the unitary NL standings at the time was 4 games. The deal was forward-looking to make sure they got to the World Series. Borowy was a major reason why did they did.

A Big Deal for the 1945 Cubs
(And the Rest of Those Guys)

Chicago's pennant fever was stoked by winning 16 of their first 18 games in July to become the front-runner in the National League pennant race. By July 26, they led by four games. Veteran right-hander Claude Passeau, 36 years old, was 11-4 on his way to a 17-9 record; another veteran right-hander, Paul Derringer, who was 38, had a 13-7 record on his was to a 21-win season; and Hank Wyse, yet another righty who would probably not have pitching in Wrigley but for the war, was 14-6 on his way to 22 wins. They were manager Charlie Grimm's top three starters who had carried the Cubs to their tenuous four-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, a team looking for their fourth consecutive trip to the Fall Classic.

Now was the time for Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to go for the kill. And the Yankees had just the pitcher for himHank Borowy . . . whose winter job working in defense industries was his contribution to the war effort, who had a 56-30 record and a 2.74 earned run average since break in at Yankee Stadium in 1942, but who had been placed on waivers even though the Yankees were just four games behind in their own pennant race, still very much in the running. It seems Borowy (10-5 with a 3.13 ERA at the time) was pitching with a sore arm, had won just two of his last six decisions, and had an unsightly 7.53 ERA so far in July. He was damaged goods to the Yankees, but worth $97K to Mr. Wrigley. 

Whatever was ailing him in New York, however, was cured by his move to Chicago. Hank Borowy began his Cubs career with 10 consecutive complete-game starts (he was 8-2, including a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals on an unearned run), started 14 games for the Cubs in all, won 11 of his 13 decisions (to give him a season total of 21 wins between New York and Chicago), and pitched to an ERA of 2.13 the rest of the way. As St. Louis closed in on the Cubs, Borowy made 7 starts in September and was 6-0, including 3-0 against the Cardinals, each time stymieing St. Louis's efforts to get closer.

Wyse was 4-1 in six September starts, and Passeau just 3-3, as the Cubs hung on to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1938, in the not-too-distant past (at least not when compared to 1945 relative to 2016). The Cubs' 22-10 record in the final month was just half a game better than the Cardinals' 21-10, which fell three games short of where they wanted to be.

As for the other Cubs . . . 

Third baseman Stan Hack, the only player on the 1945 Cubs in the Hall of Fame today, had his last top-tier season, batting .323 to finish fourth in the league. First baseman Phil Cavarretta finally had the kind of season the Cubs had been waiting for. He led the league in batting with a .355 average and won the MVP award, and his 97 runs batted in were second on the club to center fielder Andy Pafko's 110. Pafko, in only his second big-league season, was not at war because of high blood pressure. He also hit 12 homers, second on the Cubs to their longtime power threat Bill Nicholson's 13. 

The left-handed-batting right fielder Nicholson was one of the NL's premier sluggers in the three years before wartime call-ups decimated big league rosters, connecting for 72 homers from 1940 to 1942. During the war years, Nicholson led the league in both homers and RBIs in 1943 (with 29 and 98) and 1944 (33 and 142) before his 1945 power outage. Left fielder Peanuts Lowrey, back from a year in the Army because of bad knees, had 89 RBIs.

The remaining core regulars on the 1945 Cubs included catcher Mickey Livingston, a journeyman player at best; shortstop Lennie Merullo, who was pretty good in his rookie season of 1942 (before the war hit baseball rosters big time), but not so much during the war years (despite the much lesser-caliber competition); and second baseman Don Johnson. 

Merullo hit at the bottom of the order and batted just .239 but was a good defensive shortstop. Johnson was a career minor-leaguer whose major league shot was quite likely only because of players serving in World War II. He was already 31 when called up by the Cubs in late September 1943, and his career would effectively be over in 1947. In 1945, however, he hit .302 while batting mostly second in the line-up.

In a typical major league season, the 1945 Cubs would not have beaten out the Cardinals, who played that year without Stan Musial, as well as others of their stars in the service. They also would not have finished ahead of the third-place Dodgers. But for the players they did have, the 1945 Chicago Cubs were a legitimately good team.

So now it was time for William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, to get tickets for Game 4 of the upcoming World Series. He bought a ticket for his goat. A real billy goat. Who must have been a Cubs fan.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The 1945 Cubs' Road to the World Series

The Chicago Cubs are one flight of dugout steps to the playing field of their first World Series in 71 years. The last time they were there, in 1945, the Second World War had ended less than two months before the October 3 start of the World Series. And major league baseball had just played its third season in a row with major league rosters decimated by obviously able-bodied players serving their country in a time of war, including many of the biggest stars in the game. Had it not been for the wartime call-up of Stan Musial in 1945, the St. Louis Cardinals would quite likely have won their fourth consecutive pennant, and the Cubs' failure to reach the World Series would have extended back to 1938.

The Last Time They Were There: 
Cubs' Road to the 1945 World Series

It was not as though making it to the World Series was something unheard of for the Chicago Cubs in 1945. Indeed, they had won the National League pennant four times in the previous 16 years dating back to 1929. If Stalin had his five-year plans, the Cubs seemed to operate on three-year plans, playing in the World Series every three years from 1929 to 1938. They just couldn't win any of them. And in the two-year intervals they didn't win the pennant, the Cubs were usually in contention.

That changed after being swept by the Yankees in the 1938 Fall Classic. The Cubs dropped out of the National League pennant picture in 1939 and remained out of sight until the last war year. A good reason for that was that first the Reds, and then the Dodgers and Cardinals fielded much better teams. 

By the time World War II began having a major impact on major league rosters in 1943, the only core regulars from the 1938 Cubs still playing in Chicago were 11-year veteran third baseman Stan Hack, near the end of his career; first baseman-outfielder Phil Cavarretta, still struggling to live up to his potential; and 9-year veteran right-hander Bill Lee (who should never, ever be confused with quirky left-hander "Spaceman" Bill Lee of a much later baseball generation). Gone were star catcher Gabby Hartnett, second baseman Billy Herman, and shortstop Billy Jurges from the three 1930s pennant-winning Cub teams.

Nearly 30 players on the Chicago Cubs' major league roster served their country during the war. If it seemed they had not lost any impact players the likes of the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser, and Hugh Casey . . . well, that was because the Cubs had relatively few impact players on their roster. The most prominent Cubs to avoid military service were Hack, Lee, and right-hander Claude Passeauwho were in or approaching their mid-30sCavarretta, because of an inner-ear ailment; and slugging right fielder Bill Nicholson, who had once hoped for a naval career but was rejected for military service because he was color blind.

The Cubs had finished fourth in 1944 with a 75-79 record, 30 games behind the runaway Cardinals, winners of their third straight pennant. St. Louis won without two-thirds of their starting outfield and annual disruptions to their pitching staff by wartime call-ups. But they still had four cornerstone players during those yearsshortstop Marty Marion, pitcher Mort Cooper, and his brother and catcher, Walker Cooper. Oh, and Stan Musial, who had taken the National League by storm since his rookie season in 1942, including being named MVP in 1943.

In 1945, the Cardinals' luck ran out. Gone that year were both CoopersMort was traded away after an ugly salary dispute, and Walker was draftedand Musial, whose draft board finally called his number. 

The Cubs took advantage. At first it looked to be like another .500 season at Wrigley, but a stretch of 18 wins in 20 games from the end of June to mid-July vaulted them into first place with a 4-game lead at the half-way point in the season. They built a 7-game lead as of August 19 with 41 games remaining, a cushion that enabled them to withstand the Cardinals' September charge to hang on and win the pennant by three games.

Who were the guys that helped the Chicago Cubs get back to the World Series after a six-year absence? Glad you asked, that will be the next article in Baseball Historical Insight.

Six-year absence? Who knew that would be nothing compared to the pennant drought that followed.

Monday, October 10, 2016

What's With Big Newk in the World Series? (60 Years Ago, 1956)

A few days ago, on the 7th of October, Clayton Kershaw and David Price took the mound in post-season games having to live down mystifying questions as why, in the crucible of October baseball, they have been anything but the elite pitchers they are. Sixty years ago, on October 10, 1956, at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' Don Newcombe did the same. 

(60 Years Ago):
What's With Big Newk in the World Series?

Don Newcombe was a 20-game winner for the third time in his six big league seasons, which were interrupted by two years of military service during the Korean War. He was, in fact, exceptional, with a 27-7 recordevery one of his wins necessary for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers to return to the World Series and have a chance to defend their world championship the year before. Pitching and winning the last game of the season on Sunday, September 30, by which the Dodgers secured the pennant by just one game over the Milwaukee Braves, the Brooklyn ace would not have been ready for Game 1 on Wednesday. He would start Game 2 instead on five days of rest. 

Despite having won 70 percent of his decisions (a 112-48 career record) so far in his career, Newcombe went into the '56 World Series having already earned a reputation for a big-time winner in the regular season turned batting practice pitcher / loser in the Fall Classic.

It all began in his rookie year of 1949, when he broke in with a 17-8 record, and led the Dodgers in starts (31), complete games (19), shutouts (5), innings pitched (244), strikeouts (149), and fewest-hits-per-9 innings (8.2). He was first in the league in shutouts, second in strikeouts, and third in complete games and hits-per-9 innings.

He pitched like the ace he was in the opening game of the 1949 World Series, shutting out the Yankees on four hits through eight innings. At Yankee Stadium no less. But Allie Reynolds was even better, shutting out the Dodgers on just two hits, and Reynolds had two of the four hits Newcombe had given up. But Tommy Henrich, the Yankees' first batter in the ninth, homered. The game was over. The Yankees won. So far, the worst you could say about Newcombe in World Series competition was that he pitched brilliantly, Reynolds pitched better, and Tommy Henrich was ... well, Old Reliable.

Just three days after his anguishing loss, Newcombe took the mound again at Ebbets Field in Game 4, needing to win for the Dodgers to tie the Series at two games apiece. Although he struggled through the first inning, giving up two hits and two walks but being helped out by a double play, Newcombe shutout the Yankees through three. He got only one out in the fourth, however, giving up 3 runs on three doubles and a walk before being sent to the showers. The Dodgers lost the game. The next day they lost the World Series.

Because of his time in the US Army, Newk's next World Series did not come until 1955, a season in which he won 20, lost 5, and led the league in winning percentage and in WHIP. He started the opening game against Whitey Ford and gave up 6 runs on 8 hits before being taken out with two outs in the 6th. He did not pitch again in the World Series, most likely because his arm was sore and he had a bad back. Brooklyn nonetheless won in seven games without him. 

Going into his start in Game 2 of the 1956 Series, Newcombe's line in 3 World Series starts was an 0-3 record and 5.19 earned run average in 17 innings. He was up against Don Larsen, a so-so pitcher whose historic date with fate would come in Game 5. Newk gave up a run in the 1st and 5 in the 2nd, leaving with two outs in the inning after Yogi Berra belted a grand slam to make the score 6-0. The only reason Newcombe did not lose the game was because Larsen couldn't get out of Brooklyn's half of the second as the Dodgers scored 6 runs to tie the score on their way to a 13-8 win and a two-games-to-none lead in the Series.

But Newcombe had now allowed 16 earned runs in the 19 innings he had pitched in four World Series starts. His World Series ERA was now up to 7.58, and over 9.00 since the Tommy Henrich game. And so his reputation for "choking" in the big games went to the mound with him in Game 7. 

The Dodgers' defense of their 1955 championship was on the line. Berra hit a two-run homer in the 1st and another 2-run homer in the 3rd to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Newk's day was done when Elston Howard led off the 4th with a home run. The Dodgers lost, 9-0, in what turned out to be . . . The LAST World Series game played in Brooklyn.

In baseball, post-season failures when everything is on the line can be unforgiving because that is when the games are most visible. Charlie Dressen, the Brooklyn manager for whom Newcombe pitched in 1951, once derided his ace's failures in big games as a "terrible flaw." Perhaps Dressen was not remembering that Newcombe's pitching in the last week of that season is what enabled the Dodgers to finish the schedule tied for first, forcing the playoff that ended with Bobby Thomson's home run. Newcombe rose to the occasion in those "big" games. Specifically, Newk had two complete-game victories, including a shutout, and pitching 5 innings of shutout relief in a Dodgers' win in their 154th game on the schedule—all absolute-must win games for Brooklyn—in the last five days of the season.

Perhaps if his World Series record was not 0-4 in 5 starts with an atrocious 8.59 ERA, that might have made a difference the times he has since been considered for Hall of Fame validation. It's not necessarily apparent why some elite players have had such great struggles in the post-season, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with any "terrible flaw"—unless that flaw is taking on the psychological burden of being perceived as, even having to be, the savior because of their excellence during the season. 

Just as few would question today the excellence of either Clayton Kershaw or David Price despite their post-season let-downs, Don Newcombe was an outstanding pitcher—one of the best of his era—without whom the 1949-56 Dodgers would not have been as successful as they were. 

And as we all know, in those two post-season games on October 7 of this year, neither Kershaw nor Price pitched to the level typically expected of them. Kershaw struggled through 5 innings and gave up 3 runs on 8 hits. He got the win and is now 3-6 with a 4.65 ERA in the post-season. Price had another terrible start, giving up 5 runs in 3⅓ innings and is now 2-8 in post-season games with a 5.54 ERA. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The 1956 Cincinnati Redlegs--For Real, or Not? (60 Years Ago)

Sixty years ago, the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers were back in the World Series with a chance to defend their championship from the year before. They got there without a game to spare, winning their final game on the last day of the regular season, putting an end to a taut three-team race. The 2nd-place Milwaukee Braves finished just one back, and the 3rd-place Cincinnati Redlegs, two back. The Braves had been expected to contend, and had they won the pennant, it would have been neither an upset, nor a surprise. 

The Reds, for their part, tied the major league single-season record for home runs. Frank Robinson tied the major league record for most homers by a rookie. Brooks Lawrence had the most wins by a Cincinnati pitcher since Ewell Blackwell won 22 back in 1947. The Reds, however, were not expected to contendyet they did . . . until the very end. Were they a true contender, or more of a pretender?

(60 Years Ago):
The 1956 Cincinnati Redlegs--For Real, or Not?

The Braves spent 110 days in first place in 1956, and the Dodgers only 23. At the end, it might well have been the depth of experience by the aging Dodgers that enabled them to prevail. 

The team that spent the second-most days in first place29were the Redlegs. Winning 13 of 18 going into the All-Star break, beginning with three victories in four games at Ebbets Field from June 22 to 24, gave Cincinnati a 1½ -game lead when the season paused for the mid-summer contest between the two leagues. (Back then, the All-Star Game was played, very competitively, for league bragging rights, not for home field advantage in the World Series.) Losing their first two games after the season resumed, Cincinnati dropped out of first place, never to hold the top spot again. But they also did not fade from contention.

Projecting Cincinnati to finish fifth in its preseason prognostications, Sports Illustrated observed that the Redlegs had an offensively very potent ball club with a "tremendous prospect" in rookie left fielder Frank Robinson. They were right on both counts.

Robinson had a terrific rookie year with 38 homers, 83 RBIs, and a .290 average. He played in 152 of the Reds' 155 games, starting in 150 of them. Ahead of Wally Berger's pace when he set the rookie record for home runs in 1930, Frank Robinson seemed certain to break it when he hit his 38th homer on September 11 against the Giants in New York. There were still 16 games left on the schedule and nearly three weeks to go. How could he not hit just one more?

It was not to be. Other than his first month in the big leagues, Frank Robinson had the worst stretch of his season the rest of the way. He had just 13 hits, batting .232, none of them home runs. Wally Berger, who turned 51 a month after Robinson tied his record, no longer held the record alonebut he hadn't been eclipsed either.

And when pinch-hitter Smoky Burgess hit his 12th homer of the year in the 8th inning of their next-to-last game of the season, the Reds tied the single-season team record of 221 home runs set by the New York Giants in 1947. They needed just one home run in their final game of the season to set a new record. That, too, was not to be. They beat the Cubs, 4-2, on the last day, but none of their runs crossed the plate on a home run. 

The 1956 homerific Reds, however, did set a new record by becoming the first team with five players to top 25 homers in a single season. Frank Robinson's 38 were tops on the club (only Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider hit more that year), followed by right fielder Wally Post's 36, slugging first baseman Ted Kluszewski's 35, center fielder Gus Bell's 29, and catcher Ed Bailey's 28.  

Cincinnati's offense was not a problem. The Redlegs led the league in scoring with 775 runs (the Dodgers were second with 720), but the 658 runs they surrendered were much more than either the Dodgers (601) or the Braves (a league-leading fewest 569) allowed. In its preseason issue, Sports Illustrated called the Reds' pitching "nightmarishly uncertain." And so it was. 

Lefty Joe Nuxhall, 17-12 for the fifth-place 1955 Reds, was the opening day starter, led the '56 Reds with 32 starts, but finished just 13-11. In 8 of his starts, Nuxhall gave up more runs than innings he pitched. Right-hander Johnny Klippstein, who had pitched mostly in relief his first six big league seasons, became a regular in the Reds' starting rotation at the end of the 1955 season and made 29 starts for the '56 Reds, winning 10 and losing 11. Art Fowler, 23-20 in his first two big-league seasons, was just 11-11 in 1956 and made only three of his 23 starts after July, while appearing 11 times in relief. Replacing Fowler as a starter was Hal Jeffcoat, a converted outfielder, 10 of whose 16 starts came in the final two months, during which he was 5-1 (8-2 on the season).

It was Brooks Lawrence, however, acquired in the off-season from St. Louis, who emerged as the Reds' ace in 1956. He finished with a 19-10 record13-9 in 30 starts and 6-1 in the 19 games he was called out of the bullpen. Half of his starts (15) were quality starts, including two in August when he lost each of the 6 games he started. 

Backup Cincinnati first baseman George Crowe, a black player, later insinuated that Lawrence made only three starts in September, and none after September 15 with half the month and 13 games remaining, because manager Birdie Tebbetts did not want a black man to win 20 games.

That allegation seems far-fetched if, for no other reason, than winning a pennant would have been a crowning achievement for Tebbetts, who was in just his third year as a manager. And notwithstanding his struggles in August, it was Lawrence who Tebbetts called upon to relieve in critical games down the stretch for the Reds, which have been discussed in my previous posts since the beginning of September on Baseball Historical Insight. That does not sound like a manager who didn't want his best pitcher to win 20 games for any reason, let alone because he was black.

The answer to the question, "were they a true contender, or more of a pretender," is somewhere in between. The 1956 Reds did not have the pitching or the bench depth to realistically compete with the Dodgers and Braves for the pennant. If not for two black players who were newcomers to the team, the rookie Frank Robinson and the pitcher Brooks Lawrencethe 1956 Cincinnati Reds almost certainly would not have come as close as they did, just two games off pace, to winning what would have been only their fourth pennant since 1901 (and their first since 1940).

Indicative, perhaps, of their real capacity as a team, with most of their core players back the next yearalthough Kluszewski missed much of that season with a bad backthe Reds were not in the National League pennant picture in 1957, ending up fourth, 15 games out of the running. Frank Robinson, however, had an even better year than in 1956, and arguably so too did Brooks Lawrence, who once again led an otherwise mediocre pitching staff with a 16-13 record.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Last Day 60 Years Ago, September 30, 1956

On Saturday, September 29, the Dodgers swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in a doubleheader at Ebbets Field while the Braves lost a 12-inning heartbreaker in St. Louis. That meant Brooklyn held a one-game lead over Milwaukee going into the final day of the regular season. Win with their ace, Don Newcombe, on the mound, and it wouldn't matter what the Braves didthe Dodgers would be back in the World Series with a chance to make it two championships in a row at the Yankees' expense. Lose, however, and a win by the Braves would mean the Dodgers would be in their third best-of-three playoff series for the National League pennant in eleven years. Only twice before in National League history was a playoff necessary after completion of the 154-game schedule to decide the pennant-winner, the Dodgers were in both, and the Dodgers lost on both previous occasionsto the Cardinals in 1946, and (most famously) to the Giants in 1951.

Last Day
(60 Years Ago, September 30, 1956)

The Dodgers trailed the Braves by half-a-game going into the final day of the season. It was 151 down for Brooklyn and three to go; for Milwaukee, 152 down and two to go. Making his first start since his no-hitter against Philadelphia four days before, Sal Maglie won the opener of Brooklyn's Saturday doubleheader, 6-2. The Pirates wasted no time breaking up any hope of Maglie having a Johnny Vander Meer moment and depriving him of a shutout in the 1st inning when Dale Long singled and Frank Thomas homered. But in the bottom of the 1st, Jackie Robinson drove in the first Dodgers run with a single and came home on Sandy Amoros's 14th home run of the season. Maglie shutout Pittsburgh the rest of the way. 

Indicative of how times were different back then, Dodgers' relief ace Clem Labine pitched a complete game 3-1 victory in the second game. It was only the third start Labine had made all year, all in September. Manager Walt Alston had been using Labine exclusively in relief as his bullpen ace until then. And Clem Labine was excellent in the role, appearing in 59 games with a 9-6 record, league-leading 19 saves, and a 3.34 ERA in 97 innings of relief. He had figured directly in 28 of the Dodgers' first 91 wins as a reliever, and his victory in Brooklyn's 153rd game meant he had now contributed directly to 29 of the Dodgers' 92 wins as they went into the final day.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, after the Braves' Bill Bruton smacked his 8th home run of the year as the second batter in the game, Milwaukee did not score in any of the next 11 innings, even if Hank Aaron did go 3-for-5. Fresh off his 20th win (on the same day Maglie pitched his no-hitter), Warren Spahn shut out the Cardinals through the first five innings before back-to-back doubles with two out in the 6th tied the score. Tied at 1-1 it remained after nine, ten, and eleven innings. 

Spahn was still on the mound in the 12th. Stan Musial, whose propensity to torture the Dodgers at Ebbets Field had long ago earned him the grudging sobriquet "Stan the Man" (as in, here comes "that man" again) from a frustrated Brooklyn resident, doubled with one out. Ken Boyer, having a terrific second season with 26 homers, 98 RBIs, and a .306 batting average, was intentionally walked, after which Rip Repulski touched Spahn for a game-winning walk-off double.

So the Dodgers started the last day of the 1956 schedule with a one-game lead over the Braves. Don Newcombe, taking a 26-7 record to the Ebbets mound, retired the Pirates in order in the 1st, and then happily watched Duke Snider hit his league-best 42nd homer with two runners on before Pittsburgh starter Vern Law had retired anyone. Roberto Clemente's 2-run single in the 3rd cut Brooklyn's lead to 3-2, but Jackie Robinson hit his 10th homer of the year, and the 137th and last regular-season home run of his career, in the bottom of the inning. Newcombe led off the 5th with a double and scored on a sacrifice fly, after which Snider increased his league-lead with another home run, giving him 43. A homer by Amoros in the 6th made it a 6-2 lead.

But four-run leads can be tenuous. Pittsburgh came back with 3 in the 7th, and after Lee Walls touched Newcombe for a homer with one out in the 8th to cut Brooklyn's lead to 7-6, Big Newk was given the rest of the day off. With Labine having pitched a complete game the day before, Alston could not call on his relief ace. Instead he went with second-year right-hander Don Bessent, who had already saved 8 games in 37 relief appearances. Bessent pitched the rest of the game to save Newcombe's 27th win of the 1956 season.

It didn't matter that the Braves beat the Cardinals in St. Louis on that same last day. With 154 games down and none to go, Milwaukee had run out of time. They came up one game short. The Brooklyn Dodgers had won their 9th National League pennant since 1901. It was time to . . . bring on the Yankees.

There were some warnings and minor rumblings, but little did the Brooklyn faithful expect 1956 would be the last time their borough would host a World Series.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pitchers' Day--September 25, 1956 (Sixty Years Ago)

On September 25, 1956, with less than a week left before the regular season ended, Cleveland's Early Wynn beat Kansas City for his 20th win. That had no bearing on the American League pennant race since the Yankees had already officially punched their ticket to the Fall Classic. But in a game that did have significant pennant-race implications, Milwaukee's Warren Spahn won his 20th beating Cincinnati, a pretender that had become a real contender. That kept the Braves on top of the National League and all but officially eliminated the Reds from contention. Oh, and Sal Maglie's 12th win of the year kept the Dodgers within half-a-game of the Braves. But Maglie's 12th wasn't just any win. It was a no-hitter.

Pitchers' Day
(60 Years Ago, September 25, 1956)

In the bottom of the 10th on September 25, rookie Rocky Colavito made a 20-game winner of Cleveland starter Early Wynn with his 21st home run against the KC Athletics. For Wynn it was his fourth 20-win season in six years going back to 1951.  

Wynn's win, however, did not come in the heat of a pennant race since the Cleveland Indians had been officially eliminated nine days earlier when they split a doubleheader with the Yankees. They won their next six games. The fourth of those wins was a 5-hit shutout by Wynn's mound mate, Bob Lemon, on September 19, which made him the second pitcher in the American League, after Chicago's Billy Pierce on September 13, to win 20 games in 1956. Four days after Lemon's shutout, Detroit's Frank Lary ended the Indians' 6-game winning streak with his 20th win of the season.

So, Early Wynn was the fourth American League pitcher to join the 1956 chapter of the 20-win club. The next day, he and Lemon were joined in the 20-win club by their teammate, Cleveland's phenomenal southpaw, Herb Score. It was the third time in six years that the Indians' staff featured three 20-game winners; Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, and Wynn did it for Cleveland in 1951, and Wynn, Garcia, and Lemon in 1952. No other team had as many as three 20-game winners in a single season since the 1931 Philadelphia Athletics with Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, and Rube Walberg.

Meanwhile, over in the National League, it was 150 games down and just 4 to go when Warren Spahn took the mound at Cincinnati's Crosley Field on September 25, 1956. Not only was he going for his 20th win, which would make for seven 20-win seasons so far in his career, but more importantly, his Braves had the slimmest of leads in a taut three-team pennant racehalf a game up on the Dodgers and just 1½ ahead of the Reds. 

Once again for the Redlegs, another critical game. They had won six straight since four consecutive lossestwo to the Dodgers and two to the Phillies (discussed in the two previous posts)—had seemed to put an end to their pennant ambitions. But Cincinnati didn't fold; instead they picked up three games in the standings. But they had also played 151 games and were down to their final 3. Lose this game, and they would need to win both of their remaining games against the Cubs in Chicago while hoping that the Braves lost all of their final three games against the Cardinals and that the Dodgers won no more than one of their remaining games.

Larry Jansen started for the Reds. Once a premier pitcher for the New York Giants from 1947 to 1951, he was back in the minor leagues in 1955 trying to recover from arm problems. Signed by the Reds before the '56 season started, Jansen pitched for Seattle in the Pacific Coast League before being called up in August to help with the pitching. He won his first two startsboth complete-game victories—but was 0-2 with an 8.40 earned run average since then, dating back to August 24. He had given up 8 runs in his last 10 innings. Reds ace Brooks Lawrence, meanwhile, had not pitched since working in his seventh game in eight days five days before.

Perhaps Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts should have tried Lawrence. Jansen got just 4 outs and gave up 3 runs before he was shown to the showers. After three innings, the Braves led, 6-1. Lawrence pitched two shutout innings later in the game. Spahn was efficient9 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, just 2 strikeoutson his way to becoming the National League's second 20-game in 1956, more than a month after Don Newcombe had won his 20th. 

It was also a very good day on the mound for the Dodgers' Sal Maglie. He didn't win his 20th. It was only his 12th win of the year. Not only did he not give up any runs, Maglie also didn't give up any hits. Like Spahn in winning his 20th, Maglie was efficient on the mound, striking out three, walking two, and hitting one, and, of course, no hits.

Maglie took the mound knowing this was a crucial game. Since Carl Furillo's walk-off homer to beat Brooks Lawrence eight days earlier, the Dodgers had lost four of six. If he could pitch his team to a victory and Milwaukee lost, Brooklyn could end the day in first place. The other way around, they'd be 1½ back.

Maglie retired the first eight Phillies he faced before walking the opposing pitcher. The Phillies did not have another base runner until Willie Jones walked to lead off the 8th. He was wiped out in a double play. Maglie also hit Richie Ashburn with a pitch with two outs in the 9th, then got Marv Blaylock to ground out to second to end the game. Roy Campanella's 2-run homer in the 2nd was all that Maglie needed in what was, in the end, a 5-0 Dodgers win to stay within a half-game of the Braves. 

It was now 150 games down and just 4 to go for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers. With one game left against the fifth-place Phillies, who were 69-81 after being no-hit, and three with the sixth-place Pirates, who were 66-85, while the Braves would be up against a better teamthe 74-76 fourth-place CardinalsBrooklyn, with the same number of losses and one fewer victory than Milwaukee, was in a good position to make up the difference and try to defend their 1955 World Series championship against the Yankees.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

This Wouldn't Happen Today (60 Years Ago, Sept. 19, 1956)

As if pitching in five games in six days between September 12 and 17 wasn't enough as the Cincinnati Reds fought to stay close to the National League front-runners with the 1956 season rapidly approaching its end, Brooks Lawrence pitched each of the next two days as well, both times in relief. In fact, from the first day of September, when he pitched a complete game victory, to the 19th, Lawrence started 3 games and relieved in 7 others for a total of 10 appearances on the mound in the space of 20 days. 

This Wouldn't Happen Today
(60 Years Ago, September 19, 1956)

When Brooks Lawrence walked off the mound having given up Carl Furillo's 10th inning walk-off at Ebbets Field on September 17, Cincinnati's pennant prospects looked bleak indeed. Since winning three of four against the first-place Braves at Milwaukee in the beginning of September to get to within 1½ games of the top as of September 5, the Redlegs had won just 3 and lost 6, including that heart-breaker against the Dodgersthe new first-place club in the National Leaguethat seemed quite possibly to be a season-ender.

There were only 11 games left to play, and they were in third place, 4 games behind, and now the Reds faced back-to-back doubleheaders in Philadelphia the next two days. The Phillies, however, were a fifth-place club with a losing record whose pitchers and defense had given up 39 more runs than any other team in the National League. The Dodgers, meanwhile, would play two over the next two days against the fourth-place Cardinals, a team with a winning record. The Braves over the next two days had one against the sixth-place Pirates. If the Reds could win all four of their games and the Dodgers lost both of theirs, they could move within a game of Brooklyn. It would be a real three-team race again.

Instead, they lost the first game of their September 18 doubleheader, 4-3. Not a good opening. Lawrence did not pitch in that game. In the nightcap, the Phillies took an early 5-0 lead behind their ace, Robin Roberts. But a 3-run homer by Ed Bailey capped a 4-run top of the 8th, and with his team now in striking distance of a possible victory, Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts once again called on . . . Brooks Lawrence to hold the Phillies in place.

Including the 6 innings he had thrown in his start on September 15, it was the fourth consecutive day that Lawrence had to pitch for his team. After striking out Roberts, he walked Richie Ashburn, gave up a double to Solly Hemus, and intentionally walked Stan Lopata to load the bases with just one out and the dangerous clean-up hitter Del Ennis at bat. And Lawrence got him to hit a double play grounder, 6-to-4-to-oops . . . second baseman Johnny Temple's relay to first turned into a two-base throwing error. Two runs scored, the first of which was earned. Cincinnati lost, 7-4, dropping both games of the doubleheader.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee moved into a first-place tie with Brooklyn, who lost, and the Reds were now 4½ games behind with just 9 left on the schedule. Still not impossible, but not looking good.

The next day, the Reds scored 4 in the top of the 1st and took a 6-1 lead into the 8th when their starter, Johnny Klippstein, faltered. The score was now 6-3, runners on first and third, and Granny Hamner at the plate representing the tying run when, once again, Tebbetts called on Brooks Lawrence to get the Reds out of the inning. Even though he was not yet 30, Hamner was no longer the Whiz Kid he had been when the Phillies unexpectedly won the 1950 pennant. He was nearing the end of his career. Hamner was hitting only .224, but had a hot handhe already had two hits in the game, one a triple, and had two hits off the Reds the previous day. 

Lawrence was taking the mound for the fifth day in a row. For the fourth day in a row, Tebbetts was asking his ace starter to get outs as a reliever in a high-stakes situation. He was exhausted. He should have known Lawrence was exhausted. Tebbetts could have called on Hersh Freeman, his relief ace. 

As poorly as he pitched in August, giving up 9 earned runs and 17 hits in 8 inningsFreeman was throwing well in September. He had appeared in 10 games so far in the September stretch and given up just 3 earned runs in 20 innings. But he had also pitched in each of the four previous days, totalling 5 innings, compared to Lawrence's 9. Notwithstanding a run he gave up to the Dodgers in the game Lawrence ultimately lost, Freeman was pitching more effectively. That was the only run he had given up in his four straight days of work, compared to Lawrence having surrendered seven, six earned.

But Lawrence was who Tebbetts wanted. His stalwart right-hander walked Hamner to load the bases, and then Tebbetts decided to bring in Freeman. Freeman got the final out of the inning and pitched a scoreless 9th for his 14th save, and Cincinnati's four-game losing streak had come to an end.

The Reds also won the second game of the September 19 doubleheader, a 3-hit shutout thrown by rookie Tom Acker who was making just his 6th major league start. Even though the Dodgers won their game that day, by winning two, the Reds were able to pick up a half-game on Brooklyn. They now trailed first-place Brooklyn by 4 and were 3½ behind second-place Milwaukee. Cincinnati had played 147 games, however. There were just 7 to go.

Brooks Lawrence had pitched in 7 games in 8 days dating back to September 12, totaling 10 innings, given up 9 earned runs on 14 hits, four of which were homers, and had walked 5. He would get the next five days off.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Paging Brooks Lawrence, Again (60 Years Ago, September 17, 1956)

Just as he had two weeks earlier, Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts called on his front-line ace Brooks Lawrence to save the day in relief  just two days after he had started and won a critical game in a tight pennant race, this time against the new first place clubthe Brooklyn Dodgers. Once again, a must-win game in the other team's ballpark. How did it go?

Paging Brooks Lawrence, Again
(60 Years Ago, September 17, 1956)

The Cincinnati Redlegs had been hanging close in the National League pennant race all summer, but had not been on top since the first day after the All-Star break. They had some close calls that could have dropped them from realistic contention earlier than this.

Up till now, the Reds' most important series of the season was in the beginning of September when they took three of four against the Braves in Milwaukee to stay relevant in the pennant race. As readers will recall from an earlier post, Brooks Lawrence arguably saved their season with 7 strong innings in relief for his 18th win on September 3 by coming into a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the 3rd inning, his team's lead in jeopardy, and retiring Hank Aaron on a short fly out and getting Eddie Mathews to hit into a double play. That was just two days after he had pitched a complete-game victory against the Cubs. His aborting a Braves' rally may have meant a two-game difference in the standingsbetween the 3½-game deficit they in fact ended the day with, or a 5½-game deficit had they lost.

Lawrence had started twice and relieved twice since his pitching heroics against the Braves. Given four days of rest after pitching 16 innings in three days, Lawrence lost his next start on September 8 in St. Louis, failing to make it out of the 3rd inning. Both of his next two appearances on back-to-back days, in New York at the Polo Grounds and in Pittsburgh, were in relief. Against the Giants on September 12, he came into the game in the 6th inning with the Reds already behind 6-0 and gave up three runs in one-third of an inning. And against the Pirates on September 13, manager Birdie Tebbetts called him into the game with the score tied 3-3 in the 7th. Pitching just the one inning, Lawrence gave up the tie on a home run to Frank Thomas, but Cincinnati scored twice in the 9th to win.

Two days after that, on September 15, Lawrence was back on the mound against the Pirates, making his 30th start of the year. He won his 19th, but left in the 7th inning after surrendering back-to-back homers to Bill Mazeroski, a two-run shot, and Hank Foiles that narrowed the Reds' lead to 6-4, the final score. He had given up 18 hits and 11 earned runs in 9⅔ innings since rescuing, at least temporarily, the Reds' season in Milwaukee back on September 3. The Reds had not been home since, and their next two series were also on the road.

Lawrence's victory in Pittsburgh kept the Reds within two games striking distance as they went to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field for exactly two games with the first-place Dodgers. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Braves, who were tied with the Dodgers in first, were also in New York for two games, against the Giants at the Polo Grounds.

For the Reds, this was their new most critical series of the season. Thirteen games were all they had left on the schedule. They trailed both the Dodgers and the Braves by two games. These were the last games they had left on their season-schedule against the Dodgers. If they were to make their move towards first place, this was the time. Winning both would put them in a tie with the Dodgers. There was nothing they could do about the Braves, but should the Braves lose twice at the Polo Grounds, all three teamsBrooklyn, Milwaukee, and Cincinnatiwould be tied for first place.

With Sal Maglie on the mound, the Dodgers won the first of the two games,     3-2. Lawrence, the very day after pitching 6⅓ innings in his start against the Pirates, was called in to get the Reds out of the 2nd inning with runners on second and third and one out; he did so, retiring Roy Campanella and Maglie  without giving up a run. His job done successfully, and the pitcher's spot due up first in the 3rd, he left the game for a pinch-hitter. 

The Reds' loss left them three behind the now first-place-all-by-themselves Dodgers with just 12 games remaining on their schedule . . . making the second game of the seriesand their season finale against the Dodgers on the scheduleone they REALLY HAD TO WIN. Clem Labine started for Brooklyn. Hal Jeffcoat started for Cincinnati. After the Reds scored three times in the 9th on a two-run homer by catcher Ed Bailey and a solo shot by pinch-hitter Ray Jablonski to tie the score at 4-4, it was Brooks Lawrence who Tebbetts once again called upon . . . this time to win the game.

Lawrence was pitching for the fourth time in five days, which included his 6⅓-inning start just two days before. What was Birdie Tebbetts thinking? Especially since the overworked Lawrence hadn't exactly been pitching very well? Perhaps that he had used his putative relief ace, Hersh Freeman, in the 8th (he gave up a run) and pinch hit for him in the top of the 9th? And that, at 19-9, Lawrence was the best pitcher he had available, despite his recent struggles and no rest, and with their pennant chances on the line . . . he had no choice but to go with his best?

Lawrence gave up a single and a walk in the 9th, the runners advancing to second and third on a passed ball with two out, but he got Sandy Amoros on a pop up to short to end the inning and the game went into extra innings. The Reds got their first two batters on in the 10th, but Carl Erskine came in to retire the side without giving up a run.

The first batter in the Dodgers' 10th was Carl Furillo, who was batting .298 and had already driven in two runs in the game. Furillo sent the Ebbets Faithful home happy with his 20th home run of the season over the left-center field wall. Instead of winning his 20th, Lawrence lost his 10th. And for the Cincinnati Redlegs

—With 153 games down and just 11 to go, times were now desperate. They now trailed Brooklyn by four games and Milwaukee by three. Their next stop   . . .  Philadelphia. For four games. In back-to-back doubleheaders. Perhaps now, Brooks Lawrence would get some rest. Perhaps.