Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Who's For Real? (The NL Race 60 Years Ago)

If, as mentioned in my previous post, the long baseball season is best thought of as a marathon rather than a sprint, while the Yankees had taken an early lead in the race and were determined to stay ahead of the pack in the American League, the National League runners were bunched at the front and maneuvering for position. Unlike the previous year, when the 1955 Dodgers won 20 of their first 22 games to take a commanding lead in the race that they would never come close to relinquishing, at the close of the day on May 27, 1956, the St. Louis Cardinals had a one game lead over the Milwaukee Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates were 2½ out, and the defending-World Series-champion Brooklyn Dodgers were in fifth place, 3 games behind the front runner. Which of those teams were for real?

Who's For Real? The NL Race 60 Years Ago

It is often the case in marathon runs that many who lead early invariably fade as the long grueling race drags interminably on and on and on and on precisely because they are not elite competitors. If they don't drop out relatively soon, there is always a heartbreak hill beckoning in the stretch drive. 

The Cardinals, who swept their Sunday doubleheader against the Cubs on May 27, were one such team. They now had 22 wins, the most in the league, and second to the Yankees' 24 for the most in major league baseball, but aside from perhaps their die-hard and hence ever-optimistic fans, nobody expected them to hang around in the pennant race. At least not for long. 

The Cardinals had finished seventh in 1955"the best seventh-place team in the history of the National League," according to Sports Illustratedand were said in SI's preseason prognostications to "definitely be on the way up in 1956," but in the end were nonetheless projected to be just a seventh place club, again. They had the veteran Stan Musial, still great after all these years (his rookie season was 1942), as well as Red Schoendienst, a Hall of Fame second baseman, and the 1954 Rookie of the Year, Wally Moon. SI was also high on the return of pitcher Vinegar Bend Mizell, back from two years fulfilling his Selective Service obligations. 

And indeed, after their Sunday doubleheader sweep, second-game-winner Mizell was 4-2, Moon was batting .347, and Musial was batting .293 and with 7 RBIs for the day had increased his total to 33 on his way to leading the league with 109. No mention in the SI article was made of third baseman Ken Boyer, who had hit .264 with 18 home runs in his rookie season the year before, but he had as much as anyone to do with the Cardinals' red hot start. Starting in every game, his batting average was exactly .500 ten games into the season. He was down to .406 on May 18 and now his average stood at .353. Boyer had just hit his 10th home run of the season in the nightcap and now had 35 RBIs in the Cardinals' first 35 games.

But the Cardinals were not an elite team, and one month later had dropped to fourth place, barely over .500, and within two months were out of the pennant race entirely. St. Louis wound up doing better than SI expected, however, finishing fourth.

The Pirates had won 6 of their last 7, but that wasn't fooling anybody about their competitiveness, probably not even in Pittsburgh. SI had said in its preseason preview that they were in "danger of developing a last-place complex." That's where they had finished the four previous years, the last three under Fred Haney, who was fired for his efforts and was now a coach for the Braves. 

Pittsburgh was thought likely to finish in the basement once again. It turns out they did better than thatbut not anywhere near the front of the pack as they were on May 27, one-fifth of the way into the marathon. They continued to run with the leaders until mid June, then went into a tailspin with 17 losses in 21 games on their way to finishing . . . next to last.

Losing on Saturday and Sunday in Milwaukee, and having now lost five of the seven games they had played against the Bravesa legitimate contenderso far in 1956, the Reds also seemed to be pretenders. Because their pitching was considered "nightmarishly uncertain" and their bench "substandard," Cincinnati was said by SI before the season to be "lucky" if they were to "finish higher than fifth," notwithstanding their exceptional hitting. 

While in most races those who are not recognized as elite competitors ultimately fall by the wayside, usually sooner than later, the 1956 Reds proved to be an unexpectedly resilient runner who would stay with the two leaders of the pack to the very end of the grueling marathon that is the major league season. 

And the presumptive leaders of the pack? They were the Braves and the Dodgers. Milwaukee was in second place with a 16-9 record, compared to the Cardinals' 22-13, but actually had the higher winning percentage. They had played 10 fewer games than St. Louis, seven fewer than Cincinnati, and six fewer than Brooklyn because rain had washed out so many of their games early in the season. 

As tightly bunched as the front runners were, the Braves looked to be the team in the best position to burst into the lead whenever, as was certain to happen, reality caught up with the Cardinals. For Milwaukee, it was 25 games down and 154 to go. They looked to have more stamina to run the distance than the Dodgers, who were now 17-14, if for no other reason than eight of Brooklyn's core playerspitcher Sal Maglie (39), Robinson and Reese (both 37), Campanella and Furillo (both 34), Hodges (32), and third baseman Randy Jackson and Newcombe (both 30)were no longer twenty-something.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Batting 8th for the New York Yankees, the Pitcher ... (60 Years Ago in 1956)

It's often said that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. After having set the pace out front of everybody else since just the fourth game of the year, the Yankees awoke in Cleveland on May 16, 1956, preparing to play they 27th game of the season—the equivalent of 4.5 miles into a 26-mile marathon—to find that the Indians were now running beside them in the race. True, it was early, but the Yankees definitely preferred that their arch rival since the 1951 season be running behind them, rather than running even. Casey Stengel's starting line-up for the game was quite unorthodox; he had the pitcher bat eighth and his weak-hitting shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, ninth—not so unusual today, perhaps, but in the 1950s it certainly was.

60 Years Ago (1956): Batting 8th for the New York Yankees, the Pitcher . . .

The Indians pulled into a first-place tie with the Yankees in both teams' previous game when left fielder Al Smith led off the last of the ninth with a game-winning, walk-off home run off Johnny Kucks to break a 2-2 tie. Both Yankee runs came on home runs, back-to-back off Cleveland ace Bob Lemon in the fourth by Gil McDougald and Mickey Mantle. For Mantle, it was his 12th of the year, and he now had 26 RBIs in the Yankees' first 26 games. Many had predicted the Mick would have an unbelievable year. They were proving right on that one.

Anyway, Stengel had hard-throwing southpaw Mickey McDermott take the mound for the Yankees in their next game against the Indians. In 1949 McDermott had been a hot-shot prospect for the Red Sox. but he was hardly as disciplined at his craft as, say, his teammate Ted Williams was at his, and never lived up to expectations. He had become a journeyman pitcher. When the Yankees acquired McDermott before the start of the 1956 season, it was primarily to provide pitching depth should something happen to one of their core starting pitchers. He was making his fourth start of the year with a record of 1-2. He was the losing pitcher in his previous start six days before, giving up 4 runs in 5 innings when Cleveland was in New York.

What was unusual about this start was not that Stengel started him opposite Cleveland right-hander Mike Garcia, a very good pitcher in his own right, in a game against the club the Yankees considered to be their principal rival for the pennant, even though Whitey Ford, his ace, was sufficiently rested. No, what was unusual was that McDermott was batting eighth in the line-up and shortstop Phil Rizzuto ninth.

By now, eight years into the Stengel era, if there was any lesson learned about Casey as a manager, it was that he was nothing if not unconventionalfrom his incessant platooning of players, to his constant manipulation of who batted where in the line-up in any given game, to his frequent in-game position-player substitutions. But there was always a method to his madness that he never tired of explaining, although his explanations usually needed explanation.

In the 1950s, the pitcher always batted ninth. The pitcher was presumed to be the weakest hitter in the line-up, and that's just the way it was. It didn't matter, for example, that a pitcher like Brooklyn's Don Newcombe was a damn-good hitter who hit .271 in his career, had 15 career home runs, drove in 108 runs, and was frequently used as a pinch hitter; in the 294 games Big Newk was the starting pitcher in his major league career, not once did he ever bat anywhere but in the No. 9 spot. 

To the Ole Perfessor, that didn't necessarily make sense. Sometimes, which was rarely, his pitcher was not necessarily the weakest bat in the line-up. If the ninth spot was for the weakest hitter, and that hitter happened to be a position player, maybe the pitcher should bat eighth instead. Casey experimented extensively with that concept the previous year in 1955.

Of the 2,474 starting line-ups that were made out by the managers of the 16 major league teams in 1955, only 15 had the pitcher not bat last. All 15 of those line-ups were written out by Casey Stengel. Tommy Byrne batted eighth in 8 of the 22 games he started and seventh in 3 other starts in 1955, and Don Larsen eighth in 4 of his 13 starts. That was perfectly logical to Casey because the three position players who batted ninth in those 15 gamesinfielders Rizzuto, Billy Hunter, and Jerry Colemanwere all light-weight hitters in slumps, and both Byrne and Larsen were very good hitters for pitchers. Byrne finished his major league career with 14 home runs and a .238 average. Larsen also had 14 homers in his big league career, while batting .242. 

The game in Cleveland on May 16 was the first time Stengel had his pitcher bat eighth in 1956. McDermott was a good hitter, and not just with the faint praise of "for a pitcher." He was a good hitter, who had hit .281 in his six years in Boston and who would retire with a lifetime .252 average, with 9 homers and 24 RBIs. He was 2-for-7 for a .286 average so far in the season, including 1-for-2 as a pinch hitter. Phil Rizzuto, meanwhile, was still looking for his first hit.

Rizzuto was no longer the Yankee shortstop. In the not too distant past he had been the shortstop cornerstone of the five (pennants)-and-five (World Championships)-in-five (years) Yankee teams from 1949 to 1953. Those years, the Scooter batted first or second in Stengel's line-up. But now he was 38 years old, at the end of his career, and the 25th guy on the club instead of a core regular. On this day, Rizzuto was starting for only the third time all year. He had also played in four games as a late-inning defensive replacement. He was hitless in six at bats.

As it happened, Rizzuto went 1-for-4 to bring his average up to .100 and drove in the Yankees' 3rd run of the game with a sacrifice squeeze bunt. McDermott lasted only 3.1 innings, giving up just one run even though he allowed four walks and three hits. He went hitless in his two at bats. Mantle had a 3-for-4 day to raise his average to exactly .400, including his 13th home run in the seventh to finish off the scoring in the Yankees' 4-1 win. Did I mention many predicted the Mick would have an unbelievable year?

The Yankees were now 17-10 and back in first place all alone, one game ahead of Cleveland and 1½ up on Chicago, their next stop for three games. It was 27 games down and 127 to go. The Yankees never again in 1956 had to look anywhere but down to see how any other team was doing.

As for the pitcher-batting-eighth gambit, of the 2,492 starting line-ups written by managers during the 1956 season (including 4 games that ended as ties because of weather), the pitcher batted 9th in 2,489 of them. On May 9, the White Sox batted pitcher Dick Donovan eighth and struggling rookie Luis Aparicio ninth; then came the game McDermott started against the Indians, and finally on June 3 against Detroit, Stengel batted starting pitcher Larsen eighth and third baseman Jerry Coleman ninth. Coleman had just 1 hit in 10 at bats at the time and was making just his second start of the season.  

BTW: Don Larsen was batting ninth on October 8, 1956, when he pitched his perfect game in the World Series. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aparicio's 1st of 506 (The AL Race, 60 Years Ago)

On May 5, 1956, Luis Aparicio stole the first base of his major league career. The highly-touted 22-year-old rookie shortstop did so as a pinch runner, however, because he had been temporarily benched by Chicago White Sox manager Marty Marion to get his head straight after struggling at the plate in his first eight major league games. As we all know, Luis Aparicio went on to become a Hall of Fame shortstop perhaps most renown for ... the art of the steal.

Aparicio's 1st of 506

Following literally in the footsteps of Chico Carrasquel, the White Sox shortstop from 1950 to 1955, Luis Aparicio was the second in a line of athletic, nimble, great-glove, dynamic arm, dazzling defensive shortstops from Venezuela. Both were in the first wave of players from the Caribbean Basin. That wave was a consequence of integration that gained momentum with the success of the White Sox' Minnie Minoso, a black Hispanic from Cuba, who was one of the game's the best players in the first half of the 1950s. And it was not just black Hispanic ballplayers who benefited from this unprecedented major league attention, but white Hispanics as well.

Baseball was popular in Venezuela too, but Cuba and Puerto Rico were the first Caribbean targets of big league scouts because their leagues were well known—including by major leaguers who played in them during the winter off-season. In 1950, Carrasquel became just the third Venezuelan to play in the big leagues; Aparicio was the seventh. The son of a legendary shortstop in Venezuelan baseball history after whom he was named, Luis Aparicio was signed by the White Sox as a 19-year-old in 1954 on the recommendation of Carrasquel.  

By 1956, after just two years in the minor leagues, Aparicio was deemed ready to take over at shortstop in Chicago. As the Sports Illustrated preview for the 1956 season put it, "he looked so good in the minors, the Sox were willing to trade away Carrasquel." His baseball attributes? "Slick defense, fair hitter, a whiz on the bases."

Aparicio was in Marty Marion's opening day line-up, batting eighth against the Cleveland Indians, to whom Carrasquel was traded so Luis could take over at short. He went 1-for-3. Aparicio went 1-for-3 the next game, too, but was hitless in his next 12 at bats before getting a single in his second at bat against the Orioles on May 1. When his turn came to lead off the ninth inning of a tie game, Marion removed him for a pinch hitter. Aparicio was batting .150, had yet to score a run, nor had he stolen any bases. There were no problems with his defense, however; he had made just one error so far in 20 chances through Chicago's first seven games.

Back in the starting line-up the next game, Chicago's eighth of the season on May 3, Aparicio was once again hitless in three at bats, although he did score his first run after reaching on an error. Once again Marion took him out for a pinch hitter in the late innings, this time with a runner on base and the White Sox trailing the Senators by three runs in the eighth. Aparicio's average now down to .130, Marion benched his rookie shortstop each of the next two games.

Aparicio did not get into the game in the White Sox' 5-2 win in Washington on May 4. The next day the Sox were trailing the Senators by a single run, 3-2, when pinch-hitter Bob Nieman led off with a single. With the tying run at first, Marion sent in the speedy Aparicio as a pinch runner. Washington pitcher Chuck Stobbs was a southpaw, and so had the advantage on being able to look directly at Aparicio as he came set. There was a fly ball out to left. Another to right. Aparicio was still sizing up Stobbs from first. Then he stole second base. A popup to third ended the scoring opportunity, and Aparicio finished the game at shortstop. But he had his first major league stolen base.

The Chicago White Sox lost that day, leaving them with a 6-4 record in third place, 2 games behind the first-place Yankees and half-a-game back of the Indians. It was 10 games down and 144 to go for the Chicago White Sox; Aparicio would be the starting shortstop in 143 of them.

Back in the starting line-up the next day, Aparicio went 2-for-4 against the Yankees. That was the start of a 10-game hitting streak that brought his batting average up to .264. On May 20, he was hitting .292.  Aparicio finished the season batting .266 with 21 steals in 25 attempts. He was named the American League's 1956 Rookie of the Year, with 22 out of a possible 24 first-place votes.

Luis Aparicio was at the leading edge of a return to prominence of the stolen base in an era where power was the name of the game. His 21 steals in 1956 were the first of 506 in his career. It was also the first of nine consecutive years he led the league in steals. That's something no other player has ever done. Not Ty Cobb; he led the league just six times in stolen bases. Not Maury Wills, the NL leader in steals six straight seasons from 1960 to 1965. Not Lou Brock—winner of eight NL stolen base titles in nine years between 1966 and 1974, four times in a row, twice. Not even Rickey Henderson, who led the AL seven straight times from 1980 to 1986, and 12 times overall.