Monday, March 28, 2016


Sixty years ago in 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers were set to defend not only their eighth National League pennant, but their first ever World Series triumph, having taken down the New York Yankees in seven games after failing in the two teams’ five previous Fall Classic match-ups. And the Yankees were angling to repeat as American League champions. 

After an off-season hiatus, this blog—Baseball Historical Insight—returns this year to follow the 1956 pennant races (along with other items of historical note that might come up from developments in the 2016 season), beginning with this first of two articles on how the would-be contenders stacked up for the baseball season about to begin on April 17, 1956. 

Spoiler Alert (since you can look it up): Both the Yankees and the Dodgers met once again in the World Series, but the Yankees got there by winning in a landslide, while Brooklyn won a hard-fought race by one game over the Milwaukee Braves and two over the Cincinnati Redlegs.


In 1955, Sports Illustrated's preseason prognostications cautioned that the Brooklyn Dodgers might have trouble contending against either the Braves or Giants because of the advancing age of so many of their core regulars. As it happened, however, the Dodgers got off to a phenomenal start winning 20 of their first 22 games and never looked back on their way to a blowout pennant. Writing an overview essay previewing the 1956 season, baseball writer Robert Creamer observed that while Brooklyn was a "big favorite" to win again, one had to "wonder if an aging team like the Dodgers can hold up if [their] pitching let's down.”

Amid reports of ailing pitching arms in camp and with World Series hero Johnny Podres doing time in the service of his country—the draft was still in effect even though the Korean War was no longer being fought (it still has not officially ended, as North Korea keeps reminding us)—pitching was considered to be a potential achilles’ heel, notwithstanding the return of Don Newcombe who was 20-5 in 1955. SI's scouting report acknowledged that the Dodgers’ core regulars collectively were "at a fairly ripe old age," but concluded that if their pitching was decent, they "should not have too much trouble—they are that good." Manager Walt Alston was confident in his staff, wrote SI, and Jackie Robinson, just turned 37 and about to begin his tenth season in Brooklyn, "on any given day can be the Most Valuable Man in Baseball."

The 1955 Milwaukee Braves had been considered "a good bet" to win the pennant instead of the old guys in Brooklyn, according to SI at the time, but were overwhelmed by the Dodgers' fast start and never came close. In 1956, SI's projections for the Braves were slightly more modest, concluding that "If Brooklyn can be beaten, the Braves are the team with the best chance to do it." Not only did they have Eddie Mathews (41 home runs and 101 RBIs in 1955) and Hank Aaron, who emerged as a star in 1955, his second big-league season, but they possessed a "solid" pitching staff led by Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl, all three of whom had somewhat disappointing seasons the previous year.

The Giants, third in 1955, could finish "anywhere from first to fifth," SI speculated for 1956, concluding they would most likely be third again. With the best young player in baseball by name of Willie Mays(although the team on the opposite side of the Harlem River in the Bronx would certainly have disagreed)the Giants "will be hard to beat" if the "pitching jells." All three of the Giants' top pitchers the previous yearJohnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, and Jim Hearnhad losing records, so even if promising prospect Al Worthington delivered as hoped, that analysis in the SI scouting report seemed perhaps a tad optimistic.  

SI projected the Phillies to be fourth before finally getting around to the Cincinnati Reds, then known as the "Redlegs" because at the height of the Cold War, with the brutal Korean War and the McCarthy era of naming names of supposed Communist sympathizers fresh in memory, being called the "Reds" had bad optics. 

Cincinnati, fifth in 1955, had not had a winning season since 1944 during World War II when major league rosters were decimated by many of baseball's best players serving in the war. The Reds had been improving steadily, however, from 68 wins in 1953 to 74 in '54 to 75 in 1955. First baseman Ted Kluszewski hit 47 home runs and right fielder Wally Post had 40. And in 1956 the Reds were adding a young outfielder by name of Frank Robinson, who SI considered "a question mark" in part because he hurt his shoulder in spring training and "now babies his once powerful-arm." That aside, SI's scouting report said he had a good spring and was, all in all, a "tremendous prospect." SI also noted that Brooks Lawrence, a right-hander the Reds had acquired from the Cardinals to bolster their weak pitching staff, had both suffered ulcers and "lost his stuff" in 1955. Lawrence did, however, look good in spring training. 

SI's preseason bottom line on Cincinnati: "On some days, this is the best club in baseball, depending on who's pitching. Except for pitching (and disregarding the inadequate reserves), the Reds have a fabulous baseball team." But SI picked the Reds to finish fifth in 1956.

NOTE: The following is a link to the first article on my series following developments in the 1955 pennant race that was the focus of Baseball Historical Insight last year: