Tuesday, July 19, 2016

1956 Yankees Wave Bye-Bye to Rest of League (July 20, Sixty Years Ago)

The first-place Yankees put away the last-place Kansas City Athletics on July 20th, sixty years ago, to extend their advantage over second-place Cleveland to 11 games. After beginning the month with only a 2-game lead over the White Sox, and the Indians 5½ behind, the Yankees' streak of 16 wins in their first 19 games in July had them now firmly in control of the American League pennant race. 

1956 Yankees Wave Bye-Bye to Rest of League

The Yankees began the month of July with three straight wins at home, two of them walk-offs. In the second game of a July 1st Sunday doubleheader against Washington, after Joe Collins's 2-run homer off Camilo Pascual in the 8th inning of the opener lifted the Yankees to a 3-2 win, Mantle blasted his 29th home run of the season with a runner on and the score tied 6-6 in the last of the 9th to end the game. The Mick had also homered in the 7th, that one erasing the Senators' 6-5 lead. 

Two days later, after an off day, Casey Stengel made the unconventional move of sending Mickey McDermott, a pitcher by professionbut a pitcher who could hitup to bat for Gil McDougald with the bases loaded and one out in the last of the 12th in a 3-3 game against the Orioles. That seemed odd, given that McDougald was batting .295 and was 2-for-5 on the day. As so often was the case with Mr. Stengel, his instinct proved the correct one; McDermott singled home the winning run for another Yankee walk-off. For more on Mickey McDermott's prowess with the bat, see my post of May 14 in this series on the 1956 season, "Batting 8th for the New York Yankees, the Pitcher ..." (link at end of article.)

Then it was off to Boston for the Yankees, who were walked-off by a Jimmy Piersall run-scoring single in the bottom of the 11th in the first game of a July Fourth doubleheader, but easily won the second game. Game 2 was the first time all year that Mickey Mantle was given a game off. It wasn't a day off, because he played in the first game. 

In fact, Mantle not playing the second game was less a nice gesture by Stengel to give his best player a breather than concern that Mantle might have reinjured his ever-troublesome right knee charging Piersall's single into center field trying to cut down the winning run at the plate in the opener. Failing to do so, he hobbled off the field and ended up missing the next four games. Mantle returned to play in the final game before the All-Star break, went 1-for-3 before being removed in the 5th inning, then played all 9 innings in the All-Star Game two days later, hitting a home run.

The Yankees' triumph in the second game of their Fourth of July doubleheader in Boston was the first of 11 straight victories that broke open the American League pennant race. It surely helped that five of those wins came consecutively against the only two clubs anyone thought could actually, seriously, challenge the New York Yankees for the 1956 pennant.

The All-Star break ended with the tied-with-Chicago-for-second Cleveland Indians coming to Yankee Stadium for three games beginning July 12. For the Indians, trailing the Yankees by  games, this was a pivotal series, and they went into it with their three best pitchersBob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Herb Scorelined up to face the Bronx Bombers. They got bombed, the Yankees won all three games, and the Indians left New York, New York down by 9½ games. The Yankees won the concluding game of the set, 5-4, in the last of the 10th when Billy Martin greeted relief pitcher Bob Feller, brought in specifically to face him, with a one-out bases-loaded single to drive in the winning run.

The 37-year-old Feller was by now worn out, pitching mostly in relief, and in his last major league season. This was his 10th appearance of the year, and he would pitch in just 9 more games before calling it a career. Feller's last two appearances were complete-game starts 15 days apart in September. He lost both games to go 0-4 for 1956, and 266-162 for his career. If not for missing three full seasons and most of a fourth serving his country during World War II, Bob Feller almost certainly would have been in the neighborhood of at least 340 wins.

The Yankees were the only team against which Feller had a losing record, winning just 30 of 67 decisions in 79 games (73 of them starts). One of those 30 wins was the second of his three no-hitters, a 1-0 masterpiece at Yankee Stadium on April 30, 1946, in which he fanned 11 but walked 5.

Anyway, back to 1956. 

Coming next to New York for a Sunday doubleheader on July 15 were the Chicago White Sox, tied with Cleveland for second, 9½ games back of the Yankees. This really was a make-or-break two games for the White Sox because they had lost 6 in a row. Whitey Ford outdueled Chicago ace Billy Pierce to win the opener, 2-1, and after the White Sox took a 5-4 lead in the top of the 10th of the nightcap, the Yankees won their fourth walk-off in their last 13 games when Hank Bauer lined a two-out bases-loaded single in the bottom of the inning to drive in the tying and winning runs. The White Sox had now lost 8 in a row on their way to a season-destroying 11-game losing streak before they were finally back in the win column.

After splitting their next four games with the Tigers, Kansas City came to New York for three games beginning on July 20. Whitey Ford's victory in the first of those games gave the Yankees their largest lead of the season. Their record at 60-28, the Yankees had won more than two-thirds of their games. 

With 88 games down and 66 to go, their lead over second-place Cleveland at 11 games and Chicago 13 games behind in fourth place, and with Mantle having a year for the ages, the Yankees had effectively said good-bye to the rest of the American League. Especially it being these were The New York Yankees, it was highly improbable they would not win their seventh pennant in the eight years of the Stengel regime, even with more than two months to go. The big question for the Yankees now was:

Might Mickey Mantle, with 31 home runs in the Yankees' first 88 games, keep up the pace to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season? It took the Babe 94 games into the season to get to 31 in 1927, so the Mick was ahead of the Bambino. Both players had missed just four of their team's games by the time they hit their 31st home run.

For more on Pitcher Mickey McDermott, the Batter, see:

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