The Yankees won their sixth pennant in Casey Stengel's first seven years as their manager in 1955, beating out the Indians by three games and the White Sox by five. As close as that race was, and notwithstanding that the Yankees lost—yes, lost—the World Series to the Dodgers, Sports Illustrated's preseason scouting report on the Yankees' prospects in 1956 began with the simple question: "How are you going to beat them?"
LOOKING AHEAD 60 YEARS AGO: WHO SHOULD CONTEND IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE?
If Sports Illustrated underestimated the Yankees in their preview of the 1955 season—they picked them second, in part because the Indians had beaten them out the previous year by a blowout 8-game margin—they were not about to do so again.
The Yankees, of course, had Mickey Mantle. If there were any questions about his talent and ability—and there really weren't—1955 put them to rest. It was by far the best of his five major league seasons. He led the league in home runs for the first time with 37, and also in triples with 11. He drove in 99 runs and batted .306. His .431 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage were the best in the league. Advanced metrics weren't then in vogue, but Mantle's 9.5 wins above replacement made him the best player in both major leagues—just ahead of Willie Mays's 9.0 WAR. And Mantle had been consistent all year, having only one "bad" month, in June when he batted just .248 in 30 games, but still hit 7 home runs with 17 runs batted in. Every other month, Mantle was over .300. His best months were May, when his "Triple Crown" home run /RBI /batting average splits were 8/26/.340, and August, when they were 12/22/.333.
"Mickey Mantle is so good," according to Sports Illustrated's scouting report on the Yankees in its preview of the 1956 season, "they say he has a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." They got that right. It turned out he didn't hit .400, so big disappointment, but Mantle did hit .353 with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in to win the Triple Crown.
But the Yankees were more than just Mantle. They had Yogi Berra, who had just won his third MVP Award in 1955, after having also won the award in 1954. (Mantle, incidentally, came in fifth—can you believe it? fifth—in the MVP voting in 1955, and failed to get a single first place vote.) And if the other Yankee position regulars were not "star" players, they were all solid. SI made a point of observing that while other teams' managers had to worry about finding a single player to fill a certain position, "canny old Casey Stengel worries only about which one or two—or three or four—of almost equal ability is going to play that day."
Of the other Yankee position players besides Mantle and Berra, who would you suppose was the only one to get a specific shoutout by SI in its list of "Mainstays"? Versatile infielder Gil McDougald, "who does everything well" and was slated to play shortstop in 1956? Nope. How about Hank Bauer, "a fixture in right field"? Not him either. Maybe Bill Skowron and Joe Collins, who were expected to platoon at first base? Not them. They just got mentions. 'Twas second baseman Billy Martin got the shoutout as "the peppery spark of the Yankee infield . . . who seems to improve each year." And SI singled him out even though he missed the entire 1954 season and nearly all of 1955 serving in the US Army. Martin played in just 20 games for the 1955 Yankees, hitting exactly .300. The only year he had been a regular on Casey's club was 1953, when he hit .257 in 149 games. And then he got drafted.
SI senior baseball writer Robert Creamer concluded that the Yankees would be in trouble "only if the pitching falters," which raised the rhetorical question in SI's scouting report: "The pitching staff is weak?" Not with Whitey Ford, who led the league with 18 wins in 1955, lost just 7, and had a 2.63 earned run average. Bob Turley won 17, Tommy Byrne won 16, and they were back. The Yankees' pitching was the best in baseball in 1955, with a major-league low ERA of 3.23.
As for the Yankees' competition, SI figured the Cleveland Indians to finish second again. Other than 1954, when the Indians interrupted the Yankees' string of five straight pennants only by virtue of 111 victories, second place seemed to be Cleveland's lot in American League life during the Yankees' Casey Stengel era. They were second to the Yankees in 1951, and 1952, and 1953, and again in 1955. One big thing changed over the winter. That was that the Indians traded their star center fielder Larry Doby (whose "only weakness in Cleveland was his temperament") to the White Sox for shortstop Chico Carrasquel and outfielder Jim Busby. The Indians may have lost a little something on offense, but they shored up their infield.
Either way, however, the Indians with Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Herb Score, and Mike Garcia still had "the best pitching staff in baseball," SI wrote. Creamer, however, made the astute observation that that had been true for years, and only once had they overtaken the Yankees. Their excellent pitching just would not be enough. He had that right: Wynn, Lemon, and Score would each win 20, and it turned out in the end not to be nearly enough.
Finally, the Chicago White Sox, who went into September 1955 with the slimmest of leads only to fade out and finish third—their fourth consecutive year with third as their final resting place. Third was where they were projected to end up once again in 1956, even though SI's scouting report was very high on them. Chicago's line-up, according to SI, was "one of the most impressive in baseball. They can hit (well), run (very well), and field (beautifully)." Their offense was bolstered by the addition of Doby, and they were counting on highly-regarded Venezuelan rookie prospect Luis Aparicio to be successful at shortstop. He was why Carrasquel was expendable, especially to get Doby in return.
Creamer thought the White Sox had "the best chance of anyone" to beat out the Yankees, but made that contingent on outfielder Minnie Minoso returning to form. After batting .309 in his first four years with the White Sox, Minoso had slumped to .288 in 1955 and was not hitting well in spring training.
SI's bottom line looking ahead to the American League pennant race in 1956: the Yankees? "How are you going to beat them?"