Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday the 13th in the 1956 NL Pennant Race

On Friday the 13th sixty years ago in 1956, Phillies' southpaw Curt Simmons singled off Reds' reliever Tom Acker in the 8th inning to drive in the go-ahead run in a 4-4 game at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, and shortstop Granny Hamner singled off reliever Don Gross in the 9th to add an insurance run to topple the Reds out of 1st place. Meanwhile, further west in Milwaukee, the Braves took two in their doubleheader with the Dodgers to regain first place. For those among the Redlegs who might have had a superstitious bentand baseball is replete with terrific stories about superstitionstheir Friday the 13th loss was justifiably, as it turned out . . . ominous.

Friday the 13th in the 1956 Pennant Race

At the All-Star break, the National League pennant race was down to three teams. In first place were the Cincinnati Redlegs at 44-30, there mostly by virtue of a strong power game. They led by 1½ games over the Milwaukee Braves at 41-30, who had played much better since changing managers in mid-June, and by two over the Brooklyn Dodgers at 42-32, hardly enjoying their runaway from the year before.

Beginning with their doubleheader sweep in St. Louis on the first day of July, Cincinnati had won 7 of 9 games before the All-Star break to be able to look down at the rest of the league at the official half-way mark of the season. Five of those victories were against the Cardinals, who were now outed as the pretenders they were. The Reds went into the break with 13 victories in their last 18 games, including winning 3 of 4 against the Dodgers in Brooklyn and splitting a two-game series with the Braves at home on July 2 and 3.

When baseball resumed following the National League's 7-3 victory in the All-Star Game, the Reds returned home to Crosley Field to take on the last-place Phillies. Their first game back on July 12, the Reds took a 3-2 lead into the 9th only to surrender 5 runs as their ace reliever, Hersh Freeman, gave up 3 hits and a walk to the five batters he faced. In Milwaukee, Bob Buhl shutout the Dodgers, 2-0, to pull the Braves within a half-game of the first-place Reds.

Brooks Lawrence was undefeated in 12 decisions when he took the mound for Cincinnati on Friday the 13th. His earned run average at the break was 3.48. But since his masterful 2-hit, 2-walk 6-0 shutout of the Dodgers in Brooklyn on June 22, Lawrence had pitched less elegantly in his three starts previous to this one, showing a propensity for giving up the long ball. In 13⅓ innings in starts against the Pirates, Cardinals, and Cubs, Lawrence had given up 10 runs on 21 hits, including 4 home runs; he had surrendered just 6 home runs in the 87 innings he had thrown before then.

Although he had won both of his previous starts against the Phillies, and had a third victory against them in 2 innings of relief in mid-June, Lawrence was hexed on this day. He gave up a home run to fellow All-Star Stan Lopata in the 1st, and after the Reds tied the score in their half of the inning, gave up a 2-run blast to Granny Hamner in the second to fall behind, 3-1. Lawrence had now given up 6 home runs in his last 15 innings. Judging that his ace did not have his best going for him this day, Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts pinch hit for Lawrence in the 2nd. A three-run homer by Gus Bell put the Reds in the lead, but the Phillies tied in the 4th, and scored single runs in the 8th and 9th to defeat Cincinnati a second consecutive day.

Friday the 13th was good luck for Milwaukee, and not so much for Brooklyn. The Braves scored 6 first-inning runs to end Don Newcombe's day before it hardly began on their way to an 8-6 win in the opener of a twin bill, then came from behind to win the second game 6-5. Including their 11-game winning streak immediately after Fred Haney replaced Charlie Grimm as manager, the Braves had now gone 19-8 under new management and now had a one-game lead in the standings.

The Dodgers were now 3½ games behind the Braves in third place. They had not been in first since May 20, when they were tied with the Braves and Cardinals. Since rising to 8 games above .500 when their victory over Milwaukee precipitated the Braves' managerial change, the Dodgers had gone just 13-14. But while Friday the 13th didn't leave the Dodgers in good spirits, it also didn't kill their spirit.

For the Cincinnati Redlegs, for whom it was now 76 games down with 78 to go, the morning of Friday the 13th turned out to be the last day in the 1956 season they would wake up in first place. And yet, they did not fade from contention. They just wouldn't cross the divide.

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