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.

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