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. 

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