Wednesday, June 29, 2016

1956 Reds Power Into First Place (60 Years Ago)

Their Sunday doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals in St. Louis on July 1st, coupled with the Braves single-game loss to the Cubs in Chicago, put the 1956 Cincinnati Reds into a first place tie with Milwaukee (although technically .005 percentage points behind because of the difference in games played). The Redlegs, which was their official nom-de-guerre so as not to be confused with "Reds" at a time when the Cold War was at its height, were on a role with 8 wins in their last 11 games powered by Frank Robinson, Ted Kluszewski, and the long ball. Next stop for the Reds: home to Cincinnati to take on the Braves.

1956 Reds Power Into First Place (60 Years Ago)

The real fireworks would not be until Independence Day celebrations three days hence, but the Reds unloaded on the Cardinals for 26 runs in their Sunday doubleheader The Reds hit 5 home runs to win a 10-inning 19-15 slugfest in the first game, followed by 2 more in their 7-1 victory in the nightcap. Powerful first baseman Ted Kluszewski hit three homers in the opening game off three different pitchers, twice with a runner on, and his final one came with a runner on second and first base open to cap a 6-run 10th inning. 

Big Klu had been a prolific home run hitter in recent years, with three consecutive 40-homer seasons (40 in 1953, 49 in 1954, and 47 in 1955) and seemed on his way to that total once again; he now had 17 for the 1956 season. Kluszewski was up to 227 home runs in his big league career, which began with 12 in his rookie year of 1948. This was the first time, however, that Kluszewski had hit three home runs in a single game. It would also be the last. 

Kluszewski's 17th home run tied him with rookie sensation Frank Robinson for the most on the Reds. Robinson had hit his 17th in the second inning for the first run by either team in the game. On the same day, different cityBrooklynGil Hodges had also hit his 17th, and Duke Snider did all three one better by hitting his league-leading 18th as the Dodgers split their Sunday doubleheader with the Phillies. The Dodgers finished the day a game behind the first-place Braves and Reds.

The latest in a line of exceptional black players who had broken into the National League since Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947including Willie Mays in 1951, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks in 1954, and Roberto Clemente in 1955Frank Robinson was off to a better start than any of them in their rookie season. In addition to his 17 homers, Frank ended the day on July 1 with 38 runs batted in and a .324 batting average. Since being inserted fifth in the batting order behind Big Klu on June 16, Robinson had hit .439 with 4 homers and 13 RBIs and had gotten on base in 53 percent of his plate appearances. His team had won 11 of 17 games in that time.

Frank Robinson had the hottest bat, but in their last 11 games dating to June 22 when they went into Ebbets Field for four games with the Dodgers, of which they won three, the Reds had whacked 20 home runs that drove in 31 of the 69 runs45 percentthey scored while going 8-3. The Reds had the most home runs of any team in the major leagues with 107; the Yankees were second with 99. Of the two presumed favorites for the NL pennant, both clubs with dangerous power hitters in their line-ups, the Dodgers had 77 homers and the Braves 69. 

Having played 67 games, the Cincinnati Reds were well ahead of the pace set by the 1947 New York Giants when they hit 221 home runs to establish the new major league record for a single year. The Giants had 101 home runs in their first 67 games of the 1947 season. 

Six Reds had double-digit home run totals already on the first day of JulyKluszewski and Robinson with 17, Gus Bell with 15 (including one in the second game of the July 1 doubleheader against St. Louis), Wally Post with 14, and Ed Bailey and Ray Jablonski with 13 each. Three of Bailey's home runs came in the first game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field the previous Sunday. Like Kluszewski, it was the first time in his career he had hit 3 homers in one game, and even though he was still in his first full big league season, like Big Klu, it would be his last. Bailey wound up with 155 home runs in his 12-year career.

Thanks to their power game, the Reds at the end of the day on July 1 had scored more runs358than any other club in the major leagues except the Yankees, who had crossed home plate nearly 400 times. The Dodgers were third in scoring in the National League, and the Braves were sixth. But Cincinnati had also given up the fourth-most runs in the league, and none of the three teams that had surrendered more, including the Cardinals, were presumed contenders. 

Brooks Lawrence had emerged as their best starting pitcher. At 10-0, including 8 victories as a starter and 2 in relief, Lawrence was undefeated so far in the season, but his ERA was also 3.66. He was the Reds' starter in the first game of the July 1 doubleheader, took a 7-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth, and was pulled after surrendering a grand slam to Wally Moon that made the score 7-5 in a game that ultimately ended (it bears repeating, because the score was so outrageous) 19-15.

As the Reds returned home to face the Milwaukee Braves with first place on the line, it was 67 games down, with a 39-28 record, and 87 to go. Despite the questionable quality of their pitching staff, Cincinnati's power game was what had the Reds looking like they might be able to outlast the other presumed pennant pretenders in 1956, like the Cardinals and Pirates, as real contenders to challenge the favored Dodgers and Braves. 

While keeping pace and getting ahead of Milwaukee and Brooklyn were what was most important, Cincinnati also had 87 games in which to hit 115 more home runs that would break the record of 221 set by the 1947 Giants. The two goals were certainly not mutually exclusively, and it was quite possible the firstwinning the pennantmight be dependent on achieving the home run record.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Haney's Hot Hand (More on the 1956 Braves, 60 Years Ago)

Finally. They lost. On June 26, 1956, in Philadelphia, eleven days after the Milwaukee Braves fired Charlie Grimm and replaced him with Fred Haney, the Braves lost for the first time under their new manager. They had won 11 in a row. Sometimes, all it takes is a change in command for the troops to rally and be as good as . . . they were supposed to be.

Haney's Hot Hand (More on the 1956 Braves, 60 Years Ago)

For the most part, the best managers are inextricably linked to the very successful teams they managed. Managers of poor and mediocre teams are not only typically lost to history, but get few subsequent chances. This was particularly true in major league baseball's pre-expansion era.

When Fred Haney was axed by the Pirates after finishing dead last in the National League for the third time in his three years as their manager, it was not obvious that the 60-year-old Haneyso old, he was born in the nineteenth century (but so was the even older Casey Stengel)would get another chance to manage. His first managerial opportunity was with the St. Louis Browns in 1939, a team that had finished last or next-to-last in each of the four previous years. They finished last in Haney's first year at the helm with 111 losses. He brought the Browns home in sixth place in 1940, but was fired early in the 1941 season with his team having won just 15 of 44 games. A terrible team. 

So too were the Pirates, although they lost fewer games than the year before in each year he was their managerfrom 112 losses in 1952 without him to 104 in 1953, to 101 in 1954, to just 94 in 1955. Guess that wasn't improvement enough; his Pirates never winning more than 39 percent of their games doomed his chances to stay on.

Hired by the Braves to be Charlie Grimm's "first lieutenant," Haney for the first time in his managerial career was in position to take over a team that was expected to compete for the pennant, and perhaps even knock off the Brooklyn Dodgers. For all of Grimm's much vaunted "patience"Sport's Illustration's positive characterization of him in the magazine's 1956 pre-season previewthe Braves' owner lost patience with Grimm because his team, at 24-22 when he was replaced by Haney, was very definitely underachieving.

Milwaukee was in Brooklyn in the middle of a four-game series with the Dodgers when Haney replaced Grimm. They had just lost the first two games to fall 3 back of the Dodgers, who were in 2nd place, a half-game behind, of all teams, the first-place Pirates. The Braves came through for their new manager by winning the Sunday double header at Ebbets Field. Then they won four straight in Pittsburgh. It was back to New York for four games at the Polo Grounds, and Milwaukee won all of those games too. Then back to Pennsylvania, this time to Philadelphia, where the Braves won the first of three before losing to Robin Roberts and the Phillies, 4-2.

What explains Haney's hot hand? The Braves' batters found their hitting shoes after a very lethargic first half of June. No National League club scored fewer runs than the Braves' 47 in the first sixteen days (and 17 games) of June, during which they gave up 68 runs. Outscored by a per-game-average of 4 runs to 2.8, Milwaukee not too surprisingly was only 5-12, costing Grimm his job. They had hit just 8 home runs with a batting average of only .231 in those 17 games. As a result, the Braves dropped from fourth in total runs scored at the end of May to seventh by the time Grimm was let go. Only the 20-31 Giants had scored fewer runs.

In the heart of the Braves' line-up so far in the month of June, Hank Aaron (batting 3rd) hit just .219 with one homer and 7 runs batted in to bring his average down to .303 from .351 at the end of May; Eddie Mathews (batting 4th) hit just .206 with 2 homers and 4 RBIs to bring his batting average down to .247 with a team-leading 10 homers; and Bobby Thomson (batting 5th) hit just .222 without a home run and 6 runs batted in, and was now batting .278 on the year. 

During their 11-game winning streak after Haney took charge, the Braves scored 56 runsthe most of any other NL team since June 16and gave up only 25. Mathews hit 3 home runs and drove in 12 runs while batting .275, and Thomson had 2 homers and 7 RBIs. Aaron continued to struggle, although his .239 average was still better than in the first half of June. Milwaukee was now back up to third in scoring, trailing only Cincinnati and St. Louis.

After their 11-game winning-streak to begin the Haney regime ended on June 26, the Braves with a 35-23 record were in first place by 1½ games over the second-place Reds, and 2½ over the third-place Dodgers. As was predictable, the Cardinals (5 games behind) and the Pirates (5½ out) were dropping fast out of contention. It was 58 games down and 96 to go. The Milwaukee Braves were looking good.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Grimm Ending (The 1956 Braves, 60 Years Ago)

After the Milwaukee Braves lost a second consecutive one-run game to the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field on June 16, 1956, veteran manager Charlie Grimm was out and Fred Haney was in. Grimm's fate was sealed by the Braves' desultory start to what was expected to be a great year. They were only 24-22 on the season, but worsethe Braves had won just 5 of the 17 games they had played so far in June.

A Grimm Ending--the Milwaukee Braves 60 Years Ago in 1956

The Braves were supposed to be better than this. They had begun the month of June in first place, at 19-10, having won nearly two-thirds of their games. But they were just one game ahead of the Cardinals at the time, two ahead of both the Pirates and Reds, and three up on the defending-champion Dodgers. 

After spending most of the last half of May on the road, the Braves were back at home for the first half of June, beginning with four games against the Pirates followed by four against the Dodgers. It went badly. They lost three of four to both Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, then four of their next seven. At the end of their 15-game home stand on June 14, the Braves were in fifth place. But they trailed by just a game-and-a-half, behind the Reds and Pirates—tied for first—and the Dodgers and Cardinals, who were half-a-game out of first.

As observed in a previous post, neither Pittsburgh nor St. Louis was expected to keep up the pace in a long marathon, roughly 50 games into the season, two-thirds of which was still to be run.  It still seemed the safe bet was on Brooklyn and Milwaukee being the two clubs most likely to be running neck and neck to the finish line, or that one or the other would break ahead of the pack—as the Yankees were doing in the American League—and run away with it. Either way, the Braves or the Dodgers.

Now the Braves were at Ebbets Field for a four-game series that might set the tone going forward.

In the first game on June 15, the Braves failed to hold onto a 4-1 lead they took into the last of the seventh. Carl Furillo tagged Braves' starter Lew Burdette for a home run that inning to make it 4-2 and then singled in the eighth off reliever Dave Jolly to drive in the tying run. In the ninth, it was a two-out walk-off bases-loaded single by Brooklyn backup catcher Rube Walker that won the game; Walker, batting .167 when he came to the plate, was in the game only because the Dodgers had pinch run earlier for Roy Campanella. 

It didn't go any better the next day. The Braves had just tied the score at 2-2 in the eighth when Duke Snider led off the bottom of the inning with his 15th home run of the year off reliever Ernie Johnson, which turned out to be the deciding run of the game. The day after that, the Milwaukee Braves had a new manager. 

Charlie Grimm had seen this scenario unfold up close and personal before. In 1932, he was a 32-year-old first baseman for the Chicago Cubs when he was called upon in early August to become manager of a club not doing as well as expected. He was replacing an iconRogers Hornsby, possibly the greatest right-handed batter of all-time, but as a manager, controversial to say the least; the Rajah alienated both his players and the front office he worked for. The Cubs were in second place, 5 games behind at the time, but treading water. Grimm was a lighter touch. The Cubs went on to win the pennant. 

In 1938, Grimm witnessed that scenario in reverse. This time it was mid-July, the Cubs were in third place, 5½ games behind, and they were nothing if not streaky. Grimm paid the price for his team playing less than their presumed best and was replaced by Chicago's star catcher, Gabby Hartnett, whose somewhat tougher approach helped the Cubs to another come-from-behind pennant.

Charlie Grimm's strong major league managerial resume was why he was named manager of the Braves about a quarter of the way into the 1952 season; he had won three pennants (1932, 1935, and 1945) in two stints as the Cubs' manager (1932-38 and 1944-49), and the Braves' owners, who would move their franchise from Boston to Milwaukee the next year, were counting on that experience being what was needed to lead an increasingly-talented team to the World Series in their new home town. With Grimm in charge, the Braves finished second in 1953—their first year in Milwaukee—then third, then second. The expectation in the Braves' front office was that 1956 was to be their year. But it wasn't working out.

There was now a sense, in 1956, that time had passed him by. Grimm had a reputation for being a players' manager, including participating in boys-will-be-boys clubhouse banter. By the 1950s, however, particularly after the societal and cultural changes in postwar America, ball players had become more sophisticated; the game a bigger business; and even managers popular with their players had to establish professional distance and honor boundaries. For example, in his case, although there is no indication he discriminated against black players when it came to baseballhe insisted, for example, that Hank Aaron be promoted to the Braves in 1954, a full year before the front office had plannedGrimm nonetheless joined in clubhouse razzing of the black players on his team, including the indisputably great Aaron. 

There had been speculation in the days leading up to Grimm's ouster, when the Braves' playing so poorly made it obvious he could not last much longer, that they might try to get Leo Durocher to come to Milwaukee and take charge. Durocher was without a job, having been let go by the Giants after the previous season. Instead it was Fred Haney, now a coach on the Braves, three years older than Grimm and without anywhere near the success of his predecessor in either of his two previous terms as a big-league manager with terrible teamsthe 1939-41 St. Louis Browns and the 1953-55 Pittsburgh Pirates.

And if Haney had thought about it (which he probably did), it was no small irony that the Pirates—the team he had managed to three straight last-place finishes and which won just 35 percent of their games under his command until he was fired at the end of the 1955 season—that team was in first place in the National League on the day he took charge of the Braves. 

But Milwaukee was just 3½ games out of first place. And, with just 56 games down, there were still 98 to go. More than enough time.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rocky (60 Years Ago, 1956)

Our last mention of Rocky Colavito was briefly in my previous post on Mickey Mantle. If Mantle was living up to his advance billing for the 1956 season, Colavito was not. Just six days after his two-run homer began a monster comeback in Cleveland's 15-8 victory at Yankee Stadium, Rocky Colavito was sent packing to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League.

Rocky (60 Years Ago, 1956)

 "Looks like a 22-year-old Joe DiMaggio and has some of the traits—speed, a fine arm, real love for the game, and ability to hit the long ball." That's what Sports Illustrated had to say about Rocky Colavito when looking ahead to the 1956 season. Colavito had hit 68 home runs and driven in 230 runs in his 1954 and 1955 seasons with Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, earning a call-up to the major leagues in September 1955. 

Used sparingly in only five games (entering games twice as a pinch hitter, twice as a pinch runner, and once as a defensive replacement), Colavito had a day to remember and whet Cleveland's appetite as to what he might do in the years ahead in the Indians' next-to-last game of the '55 season, just after they had been eliminated from the pennant race. After Al Smith led off the game with a single, manager Al Lopez put Colavito in as a pinch runner and kept him in for the rest of the game. Colavito doubled in the third, doubled in the fifth, singled in the seventh, and singled again in the ninth. A 4-for-4 day.

Colavito began the 1956 season as Cleveland's fourth outfielder, starting in just 4 of the Indians' first 17 games in right field. The right-handed slugger hit his first major league home run in only his second major league start on April 25 off Kansas City left-hander Bobby Shantz and got a double in his fourth big-league start two days later . . . but those were his only 2 hits in 18 at bats. 

In mid-May, Colavito started 10 consecutive games in right field, but aside from a three-run home run off Kansas City's Arnie Portocarrero to break open a game the Indians were leading by 5-4, Cleveland's young slugger was still struggling at the plate. The homer, the second of his career, was one of only 4 hits in 32 at bats during his starts. His batting average at .120, Colavito started in a platoon role for the rest of the month. His next six starts were all against southpaws; Colavito regained his swagger with 8 hits in 18 at bats during his starts, including 2 more home runs. 

His average now up to .205 for his rookie season, Colavito earned his way back into the starting line-up. In his next six starts, four against right-handers, Colavito got 5 hits in 18 at bats, including that home run off Don Larsen. On June 14 in Boston, three games after he was last in the starting line-up, Colavito was sent up to pinch hit in the ninth inning of a game the Indians were losing 10-9 against left-handed reliever Leo Kiely. A home run could tie the game. Colavito grounded out to short.

It was premature to cue the Rocky theme. 

For the Cleveland Indians, who were 28-24 and about to open a three-game series at home against the Yankees, the front-runner they trailed in second place by 5 games, it was 52 games down and 102 to go. For Rocky Colavito, it was 37 games down (26 in the starting line-up), and back to the minor leagues in San Diego.

Clearly, Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Colavito was not, although it should be noted that SI did not say he was the second coming of the Yankee Clipper, only that he had some of the same traits. DiMaggio's rookie season 20 years earlier, in 1936, was exceptional. He went 3-for-6 in his first game and ended the season with 206 hits, 29 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a .323 average. By going 9-for-19 in his first four games, DiMaggio not only established he was really something, but … from his very first game, Joe DiMaggio never ended a day in the major leagues in which his lifetime batting average was less than .300.

Colavito was batting .215 when he was sent down, with 5 home runs and 17 runs batted in. His next 35 games were for the minor league Padres, and Colavito made a compelling case he belonged in the stadium off Lake Eire, not one off the Pacific Ocean. Batting a robust .368, Rocky knocked out 12 homers and drove in 32 runs for the Padres.

He convinced Cleveland management, and on July 24, Rocky Colavito was back in the major leagues to stay. He was in the starting line-up, batting fifth, and went 3-for-4 in his first game back, against the Senators, driving in three runs. And in the line-up he stayed for the rest of the season. Colavito started all but five of the Indians’ remaining 67 games, batting .301 with 16 home runs and 48 RBIs.

With a statistical line of 21 homers, 65 RBIs, and a .276 batting average, Rocky Colavito finished second to the White Sox’ Luis Aparicio for American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Headline: Mickey's in a Slump ! (60 Years Ago, 1956)

As the Yankees began play on June 9, 1956, their lead over the second-place Cleveland Indians—the team considered the most likely to compete with them for the American League pennant—was down to 3½ games. They were shutout by the visiting Indians the previous day, 9-0, behind the 5-hit pitching of their ace, Early Wynn. The first of those five hits was a double by Mickey Mantle, who went hitless in his next three at bats to bring his batting average down to an even .400. The Mick was in a slump.

Headline: Mickey's in a Slump ! (60 Years Ago, 1956)

 In singing Mantle's praises in its preview of the 1956 season, Sports Illustrated wrote: "Mantle is so good, they say he has a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." That was hyperbole, perhaps, but the point was well taken. After five big-league seasons, and having led the American League in home runs in 1955 with 37 to go along with 99 runs batted in and a .306 average, Mantle was poised for a tremendous year.

Except, maybe they were really serious about the .400 part. On May 9, after going 3-for-4 in a 6-5 Yankee loss to the Indians, Mantle was batting .446. It was 20 games into the season. Mantle had played in every game. He had gone hitless in just three and been on base in all but one. He had multi-hit games in twelve. And in addition to his .446 batting average, the Mick also had 10 home runs and 24 RBIs in the 20 games. Nobody could get the guy out.

Batting third in Casey Stengel's line-up, Mantle was certainly helped by the protection of Yogi Berra hitting behind him in the clean-up spot. Berra, having also played all 20 games, was batting .351 with 9 homers and 23 RBIs. Pitchers, pick your poison. Undoubtedly worried about the three-time MVP Berra coming up next, Mantle had walked just 12 times as of May 20, and none were intentional walks. 

One month and 29 games later, Mantle was batting a mere .400. Berra, a model of consistency, had seen his average dip to .330, but it was now back to .351. Opposing teams were now definitely pitching more carefully to Mantle. After going 1-for-4 against Wynn in the first game of the series on June 8, Mantle's average since May 9 was .373—certainly excellent for anyone else, but maybe not for the player who SI said would "have a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." (Hey, they were just kidding ! Kind of.)

Some slump, if we must call it that. He had failed to get a hit in only five of the Yankees' 29 games since May 9, and he had played in them all. Mantle had hit 11 more home runs, bringing his total to 21 in the Yankees' first 49 games, and he had driven in 28 runs, so now he had 52 RBIs.

There's a reason why .400 is such rarefied air. It's harder to do than to climb the highest Himalayan mountains (not to demean the difficulty and magnitude of that achievement). 

After walking in his first at bat against Cleveland starter Mike Garcia at Yankee Stadium on June 9, Mantle led off the bottom of the third off reliever Don Mossi with a single up the middle. The Yankees were already ahead, 4-0, and he soon came around to score on a 2-RBI single by Bob Cerv. That hit brought his batting average up to .403. The next inning, still facing Mossi, Mantle grounded into a fielder's choice. His average was now .401. 

That would be the last time in what was becoming—and would forever be—the epic Mickey Mantle season, that the Mick's batting average was over .400 for the season. While the Indians came roaring back to win the game, 15-8, starting with rookie Rocky Colavito's two-run homer in the fourth (the fifth of his career), Mantle flied out in the sixth with a runner on first and the Yankees' holding onto a now-slim 8-7 lead. He was now just a shade below .400 at .399. In the last of the 8th, the Mick popped out to the shortstop, making him 1-for-4 on the day and bringing his average down to .397.

The Yankees' loss reduced their lead over the Indians to 2½ games. Their record was now 31-19a .620 winning percentagewith 50 games down and 104 to go. They played even better with a .635 winning percentage the rest of the way, 6½ games better than Cleveland. 

As for Mickey Mantle, he batted .327 the rest of the season with 31 more home runs and 78 RBIs. When all was said and done for 1956, Mickey Mantle had won the Triple Crown with a .353 average, 52 homers, and 130 runs batted in. 

But he didn't hit .400.