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.

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