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.

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