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.

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