Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Chasing Ruth and Berger and the Giants (60 Years Ago, August 31, 1956)

On the last day of August sixty years ago, the Cincinnati Reds belted two homers to run their major league-team-leading total to 191, which included the 35th of the year hit by rookie sensation Frank Robinson, and Mickey Mantle hit his major league-leading 47th home run. This meant that as the 1956 season turned to its final month, three single-season home run records were under assaultthe 1947 New York Giants' team record off 221; Wally Berger's rookie record of 38 set in 1930; and Babe Ruth's famous 60 set in 1927. The first two were little remarked on, but Mantle's run at the Babe's record was a BIG deal.  

Chasing Ruth and Berger and the Giants
(60 Years Ago, August 31, 1956)

The score was tied at 4-4 at Washington's Griffith Stadium when Mickey Mantle came to bat with one out in the 7th inning against Camilo Pascual on the last day of August in 1956. He was batting left-handed against the Senators' 22-year-old Cuban-born right-hander, who was 6-13 so far in the 1956 seasonhis third year in the majors. Mantle proceeded to knock out his 47th home run of the year, giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish.

Another day, another game, another Yankee victory. That was even though Washington outfielder Jim Lemon outdid Mantle by hitting three home runs in the same game . . . off Whitey Ford, no less. Jim Lemon hit 164 homers in his 12-year major league career, 7 of them off Whitey Ford. In all his years of pitching, no other batter touched Ford for more home runs than Lemon, and Lemon is the only player to have hit three in one game against the Hall of Fame master lefty. It was also the only time in the 1,010 games he played that he hit three homers in a single game. (Too bad it was in a losing cause.)

The New York Yankees entered the final month with an 83-46 record, 8½ games ahead of second-place Cleveland. It was 129 games down and just 25 to go for the Yankees. It would take a monumental collapse for the Yankees not to win the American League pennant for the seventh time in eight years, especially with the Indians having just two games left to challenge them head-to-head, the only circumstance under which they could assure a victory by them would mean a gain on the Yankees, since the Yankees could otherwise negate a Cleveland win against anybody else with one of their own.

Instead, the September drama for the Yankees would be whether Mickey Mantle would win the Triple Crown, and even more pertinent, whether he could break the record of 60 home runs belted by Babe Ruth in 1927. So far, the odds looked good for both quests. In addition to his 47 homers, Mantle was well ahead in batting average (.366) and runs batted in (118) for the Triple Crown crown. 

As for chasing the Babe? In 1927, Ruth had 43 home runs at the end of August in the 127 games the Yankees had played. In 1956, Mantle had 47 in 129. The Babe reached 60 by hitting 17 in September; Mantle would need 14 to break his record.

Meanwhile, at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, the Reds' Frank Robinson toed in at right side of the plate to lead off the bottom of the 9th against Cubs righty Bob Rush, his team down 3-2. Rush was the ace of the Cubs' staff and working towards his 13th victory of the year. That came to an end when Robinson crashed his 35 home run of the year to tie the score. The Reds went on to score another run that inning for a walk-off win that left them in third place, 3½ games behind the Braves and 1 behind the Dodgers, going into the final month.

Unlike for the Yankees, the September drama in Cincinnati would actually be a pennant race. With 128 games down and their record at 75-53, the Reds still had 26 games to gomore than enough for them to leapfrog both teams ahead of them, especially since they still had five games left against first-place Milwaukee, the first four of which would be their very next series beginning on September 3, and two against Brooklyn.

Paling in comparison, and quite likely little thought about, was the fact that Frank Robinson was comfortably ahead of Wally Berger's pace when he hit 38 home runs as a rookie outfielder for the Boston Braves in 1930. Both of their teams had played 128 games through the end of August. Berger entered September 1930 with 31 homers, and 26 years later, Robinson now had 35 and would need to hit just 4 more in September to set a new major league rookie record.

Hitting a home run earlier in the game for Cincinnati was catcher Ed Bailey, his 24th of the year. Big Kluslugging first baseman Ted Kluszewskihad 33 and was aiming for a fourth consecutive 40-homer season. Outfielders Wally Post and Gus Bell had 27 and 25, respectively. Including Robinson, five of the Reds' eight core position players had at least 24 home runs. This was a club with long ball power, and it was that power that had them contending with the Braves and Dodgers for the National League pennant.

Cincinnati's 191 home runs going into September was ahead of the 182 the New York Giants had hit when they set the major league team record of 221 nine years earlier in 1947. The '47 Giants had played 127 games through August, compared to the '56 Reds' 128. The 1947 Giants ended up with four players hitting more than 20Johnny Mize, who tied with the Pirates' Ralph Kiner to lead the league with 51, followed by Willard Marshall (36), Walker Cooper (35), and Bobby Thomson (29), who were the next three players on the 1947 NL home run leader board.

So heading into the home stretch of the 1956 season, Mickey Mantlewho was leading the league by healthy margins in all three Triple Crown categoriesFrank Robinson, having a sensational rookie year, and the Cincinnati Reds as a team were all poised to challenge major league home run records. 

The only home run chase anyone was really paying attention to, however, was whether the Mick could catch and pass the Babe. The kind of year Mantle was having, as of September 1, 1956, it would have been foolish to bet against him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

'56 Yankees Going For 7-and-6-in-8 (August 25, 60 Years Ago)

When last we left Phil Rizzuto, he was jogging back to the dugout after being forced out at second base as a pinch runner in the 9th inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1956. That turned out to be the last time he appeared on the diamond as a player, because on August 25, he was unceremoniously releasedno grand farewell tour of American League ballparks or a fond send-off before the home-town fans for the Scooterso the Yankees could bring on board the former Cardinals' star, Enos Slaughter. It didn't seem like a necessary move since they held a safe-and-secure 8-game lead at the time, but Casey Stengel and the Yankees had bigger ambitions. They were out to match the 1936-43 Yankees' mark of seven pennants and six World Series championships in eight years. No other team in history had done that.

But unlike the original 7-and-6-in-8 Yankees who relied almost exclusively on their deep farm system to fill whatever their needs happened to be, the Stengel-era Yankees frequently dealt with other teamsincluding in August waiver dealsto acquire the players they felt were necessary to fly another World Series banner over the Stadium. Did they really need Enos Slaughter? Probably not. But they had visions of Johnny Mize dancing in their head. 

'56 Yanks Going For 7-and-6-in-8
(60 Years Ago, August 25, 1956)

Casey Stengel biographer Robert Creamer describes a poignant scene about Rizzuto's last day wearing No. 10 for the Yankees in Stengel: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster, 1984). General Manager George Weiss and Stengel called Rizzuto into the manager's office, told them they had a chance to sign Slaughter off waivers, that a Yankee player would have to be cut to make room for him, and asked who hethe Scooterthought that player should be. Rizzuto pondered the roster, suggested some names, presumably including hardly-ever used third-string catcher Charlie Silvera (he could not name seldom-used infielder Tommy Carroll, because he was a bonus baby required to stay on the major league roster for being paid the big up-front bonus money), and was told by Stengel why each of the players he named the manager needed.

Until, perhaps not considering at first what Weiss's presence in the meeting actually meant, it finally occurred to him . . . he was supposed to suggest . . . himself. We're not sure if Rizzuto thought it ironic that Enos Slaughter, whose rookie season was three years before his, was a year and a half older than he was. 

Phil Rizzuto was the Yankees' last link to the great Joe DiMaggio Yankees managed by Joe McCarthy, unless we also count Frankie Crosetti, who Rizzuto displaced as the Yankees' shortstop 15 years earlier but was now one of Stengel's coaches. 

When he made the team as a rookie in 1941, the Yankees were coming off the one year since DiMaggio's rookie season in 1936 that they did not go to the World Series. Before that, they had been to four in four years and won all four. When they assembled for spring training in 1941, McCarthy had already come to the conclusion that had the Yankees called up Rizzuto from their American Association farm club in Kansas City in the summer of '40, they would have won five in a row and would be working on six straight. That's because Crosetti, their long-time shortstop, had an abysmal year in 1940, hitting just .199 with a .299 on-base percentage. And he was McCarthy's lead-off batter for most of the year.

The Yankees won pennants in each of Rizzuto's first two years with the club, the World Series in 1941 but not/not in 1942, and then won both another pennant and Series without him and DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich in 1943 while that trio of Yankee stars were already serving their country in World War II. That gave the Yankees 7 pennants and 6 World Series in 8 years.

Now, here were Stengel's Yankees trying to match that. They had won five pennants and World Series in Stengel's first five years as manager (1949-53), with Rizzuto a major reason why in several close-fought pennant races; they did not/not win the pennant in 1954; and won the pennant again in 1955but lost/lost to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. So they were at 6-and-5-in-7 and counting.

With their 8-game lead on August 25, and 123 games down with just 31 left to go, winning their 7th pennant in 8 years was not the issue. Winning the World Series, going for their 6th championship of the baseball world in those 8 years, well . . . that was.

When McCarthy's Yankees won 7-and-6-in-8 they did so with virtually an entirely home-grown ball club besides core veterans whose acquisitions were from before McCarthy won his first pennant in 1932. That was because it was not until 1932 that the Yankees had their own network of minor league affiliates. With the exception of DiMaggio, whose contract they purchased from San Francisco in the Pacific Coast League, every new regular on the DiMaggio Yankees who made the team after 1936 came up through their farm system. 

The Newark Bears were the crown jewel of the Yankee system. Their best prospects were sent to Newark in the top-tier International League to prove their major league worth before being promoted to New York. Aggressive and excellent scouting backed up by Yankee dollars helped make the Bears such a formidable club it was said they were better than most major league teams with losing records, and even some with winning records. And in 1937 they had two top-tier minor league affiliates, including Kansas City, where Rizzuto mastered his craft.

The Stengel-era Yankees were still able to call up high-quality players from their minor league affiliates, but were also much more aggressive in the trade market for the players they believed could fill specific needs that would mean the difference between winning another World Series, or not. 

Most famously, on August 22, 1949, they purchased veteran power-hitting first baseman Johnny Mize from the New York Giants to bolster their bench. Mize had led the NL in homers four times, including the previous year, but was in his mid-30s and nearing the end of his career. He became a terrific role-player for the Yankees in each of the next five years, when the Yankees went 5-and-5-in-5. He platooned at first base and was a valuable bat off the bench. And he was a star of both the 1949 and 1952 World Series.

Other such acquisitions by the Yankees were in August 1951 for Johnny Sainhe of Boston Braves' Spahn-and-Sain-then-pray-for-rain famewho would be their relief ace the next three years; Jim Konstanty, baseball first reliever to win the MVP Award with the Phillies in 1950, who they picked up in August 1954; and Bob Turley and Don Larsen, both of whom the Yankees acquired in a block-buster trade with the Orioles in 1955. All were significant contributors to Yankee pennants.

And now the Yankees wanted Enos Slaughter, who had played for them for one year in 1954 but was traded to the Kansas City Athletics early in the '55 season. Sure, he was oldolder than Rizzutoand no longer the outstanding player he had been in his 13 Cardinals years, but he was a professional hitter and the Yankees coveted his bat. Of course, that meant somebody had to go.

So, good-bye, Phil.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Big Newk's '56 Summer of Dominance (60 Years Ago)

It was less than elegant. He coughed up three home runs. He surrendered 5 runs, the most since he had given up 6 to the Braves exactly 10 starts before. But it was enough for Don Newcombe to become the first major league pitcher to win 20 games in 1956 in a dominating stretch from mid-July to mid-August, and it came against one of the two clubs striving to ensure that the Brooklyn Dodgers not get the opportunity to defend their 1955 World Series championship by winning the National League pennant.

Big Newk's '56 Summer of Dominance
(60 Years Ago, August 23, 1956)

The Brooklyn Dodgers showed up at Crosley Field on August 23, 1956, for the first of a three-game series with the Cincinnati Redlegs. Since their loss to the Braves on July 30 dropped them 5 games behind Milwaukee, the Dodgers had the National League's best record, but had picked up only three games in the standings. They had not had even a share of first place since May 20. The Braves were not only persistent, but a very good ball club, and the Reds were unexpectedly competitive. At the start of the day, the Braves were first, the Dodgers two games behind in second, and the Reds third, three games back.

Don Newcombe took the mound for the Dodgers with a 19-6 record. Except for his start against the Braves on July 13, when he was whacked for six runs and retired to the showers after one inning, Big Newk had been pitching brilliantly since the All-Star break. He got no decision in that game, and he had an 11-5 record at the time, but his 4.01 earned run average was not exactly . . . very good.

Whereupon, Newcombe won 8 of his next 9 starts with a near-microscopic 1.07 ERA and held opposing batters to just 37 hits, a .144 batting average, and 16 walks in 76 innings. That included three consecutive nine-inning complete-game shutouts in which he limited the Cubs to 5 hits in a 1-0 victory on July 29, the powerful Braves to just 4 hits in a 3-0 win on August 2, and the Pirates to 6 hits in another 3-0 triumph on August 7. And before his three straight shutouts, he had a pair of complete-game victories in which he gave up one runso that was just 2 runs in 45 innings (a 0.40 ERA in five starts). And after his three straight shutouts, he surrendered 2 runs on just 2 hits in a 5-2 win over the Phillies; one of those two hits was a two-run homer by Stan Lopata.

And his one loss since the All-Star break? At home against the Giants on August 15? Well, Newcombe surrendered just 4 hits, but one was a home run by Willie Mays for the onlyonlyrun of the game. Newk gave up just 1 run again in his next start in a Dodgers win in Philadelphia, his last before coming to Cincinnati.

Staked to a 3-run lead in the top of the first at Crosley Field on August 23, Newk gave it all back when Wally Post touched him hard for a 3-run homer in the bottom of the inning. Protecting a 5-3 lead in the sixth, Newcombe gave up a solo blast to Frank Robinson, and now it was      5-4. For Robinson, it was the 32nd home run of his rookie season; he was 8 games ahead of Wally Berger's pace when he set the rookie record for home runs with 38 way back in 1930. And with a 6-4 lead in the 9th, Newcombe gave up a homer to Ed Bailey in the bottom of the inning before getting the final out of his 20th victory.

The run that proved to be the margin of difference in the game was scored in the top of the 9th off Cincinnati ace Brooks Lawrence, who had come into the game as a reliever in the 8th. While Newcombe was on a winning roll, Lawrence had been struggling in the summer heat since starting the season 13-0. He was not the losing pitcher in this game, but he was now 16-7. He had lost all 5 of his starts so far in August. His only victory in the month came in relief against the Cubs in an extra-inning game on August 9.

We will return to Lawrence's struggles later in this Baseball Historical Insight series on the 1956 season. For now, on August 23, 1956 (sixty years ago), Newcombe's 20th win matched his career highs in 1951 (he was 20-9) and 1955 (20-5). There were still five weeks remaining in the season. Even if Newcombe were to start every four days, which was typical for starting aces in the 1950s, he was a long shot to win 30; pitching on three days of rest without missing a start or being given an extra day or two break as a breather would have meant just 9 more starts. And most important was winning the pennant.

Newcombe's 20th left the Dodgers still two games behind the Braves, who won their game against the Phillies, and pushed the Reds to four games back. At 70-47, it was 117 games down for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 37 to go.

It was still a three team race.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto (60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

In his last game as a Yankee, and perhaps in his big league career, on Friday, August 12 of this year, Alex Rodriguez probably did not know that in another four days it would be the sixtieth anniversary of Phil Rizzuto's last game as both a Yankee and a major league ballplayer. A-Rod was treated with a farewell ceremony before the game at Yankee Stadium, being in the starting line-up, and knowing it would be his final farewell appearanceat least in pinstripes. For the Scooter, there was no farewell ceremony; he was not in the starting line-up; and he did not know it would be the final game of his career. Indeed, all Phil Rizzuto knew for certain was that he was still a New York Yankee when the game ended, although now a seldom-used reserve for Casey Stengel.

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto
(60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

Boston right-hander Willard Nixon took a 2-0 lead and a 1-hitter into the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1956. Yankee hopes got a rise when shortstop Milt Bolling booted Gil McDougald's grounder and pinch hitter Mickey McDermotta pitcher who frequently masqueraded as a pinch hitter for Stengel because he could hitsingled to put runners on first and second leading off the ninth. For McDermott, it was the 16th time his manager had sent him up to pinch hit and his fourth hit in 13 official at bats (he also walked twice and had a sacrifice bunt). Billy Hunter was sent in to run for McDermott, representing the tying run.

Yankee starter Don Larsen, himself a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, came to bat, presumably to bunt both runners over, and wound up reaching base himself on a fielding error by second baseman Billy Goodman. The bases were loaded with nobody out and Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle were the next three Yankees due up. 

Perhaps Yankee Stadium was graced by the voice of the home team's long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard, then in only the 6th of his eventual 57 years on the job, intoning . . . "Running for Larsen, Number 10, Phil Rizzuto." (I admit to presuming, since I don't know.)

Rizzuto, representing the could-be winning run, would be running on 38-year-old legs that would be 39 in a little over a month. Once the cornerstone shortstop of Casey Stengel's five pennants and five World Series championships in his first five years as Yankee manager from 1949 to 1953, which included the Scooter finishing second in the 1949 voting for AL Most Valuable Player, winning the Award in 1950, and finishing sixth in the 1953 MVP voting, Phil Rizzuto was now at the end of Casey Stengel's bench.

Hardly able to keep his average above .200 in the summer of '54, Rizzuto was often removed for a pinch hitter if he came to bat and the Yankees had a scoring opportunity. He was benched in favor of Willy Miranda as the starting shortstop in mid-August that year, although Stengel often sent him in as a late-inning defensive replacement. Billy Hunter had the shortstop job in 1955, but the Scooter won his job back in early August and started all seven games in the World Series. McDougald was Stengel's choice to play shortstop in 1956, and this time there was no winning back the job for the baseball-elderly Phil Rizzuto.

If Rizzuto was not exactly the 25th man in the dugout, it was only because the Yankees were obligated to keep 19-year-old infielder Tommy Carroll on their major league roster because he signed as a "bonus baby," and because Stengel chose to keep third-string catcher Charlie Silvera on the team. Carroll would appear in 36 games for the 1956 Yankees and get into the starting line-up just once, when Stengel started him at third base in the last game of the season. Silvera spent virtually the entire season warming up pitchers in the bullpen, appeared in just seven games all year, and also got just one starthis in the Yankees' 139th game on the schedule on September 12. 

When Stengel called on him to pinch run for Larsen with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th inning on August 16, 1956, it was only the 31st time Rizzuto had gotten into a game so far in the season. He had started just 15 games, including seven straight from June 24 to July 1, during which he had 5 hits in 19 at bats. The last game he started was on August 2 in Cleveland, where he went hitless in three at bats against Herb Score, who shutout the Yankees on 4 hits. Rizzuto had not played in any game since.

Faced with a bases loaded, no out jam, Red Sox pitcher Nixon fanned Bauer and got Martin to hit into a force out at second base, a run scoring on the play, but Mantle flied out to end the game. Forced at second by Martin for the second out of the inning was Phil Rizzuto. As he jogged back to the dugout, the Scooter could not imagine that that would be his last act as a major league player. 

There is no record of any appreciative applause by the Yankee Stadium fans for a terrific career by a player who had been instrumental in the Yankees winning nine American League pennants and seven World Series going back to his rookie year in 1941. Nobody knew it would be his last game.

For the 75-39 Yankees, whose lead was now 9½ games over Cleveland as a result of that loss, it was 114 games down and just 40 to go in the 1956 season. Phil Rizzuto surely figured he'd still be in pinstripes for those 40 games, even if hardly used, and would get into his tenth World Series with the Yankees, or at least get to watch from a prime seat in the dugout.

In fact, he had little over a week left as a New York Yankee.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Temporary Yankee Lethargy in the Summer of '56 (60 Years Ago, August 7, 1956)

With the game scoreless, the bases loaded with Red Sox, and nobody out in the bottom of the 11th inning on August 7, 1956, at Fenway Park, Yankee manager Casey Stengel brought in southpaw Tommy Byrne to pitch to the great Ted Williams. The Red Sox won on a walk-off walk to Mr. Williams. The Yankees had now lost 7 of their last 8 games. Their lead in the American League pennant race was down to 7 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. It had been 10 games just eight days before. Was it time for the Yankees to panic? Nah.

Temporary Yankee Lethargy in the Summer of '56 
(60 Years Ago, August 7, 1956)

Although there was no dramatic Ted Williams home run to win the game, the Red Sox' 1-0 victory over the Yankees was not without its Splendid Splinter drama. Taking umbrage at being booed by the hometown fans after dropping a routine fly ball to left hit by Mickey Mantle with two outs in the top of the 11th, Teddy Ballgame spit at the crowd behind the Boston dugout as he left the field at the end of the inning. Ironically, they were cheering him when he did so, for he had just robbed Yogi Berra of an extra-base hit that would have scored Mantle with a nifty over-the-head running catch in front of the Green Monster to end the Yankees' 11th.

He was also none too happy about walking-in the game-winning run, instead of driving it in, and tossed his bat high in the air in exasperation after receiving ball four. Then he took his frustrations out on a water cooler and generally behaved like a jackass in the clubhouse afterwards. It was, perhaps, Ted just being Ted, except worse than usualand Ted being Ted never had the kind of eccentric charm of future Red Sox' left fielder "Manny being Manny."

Anyway, while the Red Sox had some public mending to do, some may have thought the Yankees were in need of some mending of their own. Every team, no matter how good, goes through hard times in a long season. And this was the Yankees' time for those hard times. 

They had lost four in a row at the beginning of June, and 6 of 8 at the start of that month, and also lost four in a row to the second-place White Sox in late June that cut their lead from five games to one, but each time they recovered their winning ways, decisively. After their four straight losses to the Chisox, the Yankees won 18 of their next 20 to take a commanding lead in the pennant race.

Of course, starting from a 10-game lead after winning their sixth in a row on July 30, it was the best of times for the '56 Yankees to have their worst of times. First they lost three straight in Cleveland (after Whitey Ford had won the opener of the four-game series). The Indians outscored them 14 to 1 in winning the next three games. Early Wynn shutout the Yankees on 3 hits on July 31, and Herb Score did the same on 4 hits two days later.

Then the Yankees went to Detroit, where they lost all three games and were outscored 23 to 13. They ended their six-game losing streakwhich would be their longest of the seasonwith a 4-3 win in their first game at Fenway, only to fail to score any runs in 11 innings on August 7, despite Ted Williams dropping a routine fly ball that led to the latest (just mentioned) of his periodic epic spit-a-sodes.

During their eight-game hibernation from typical Yankee baseball, the Bronx Bombers scored just 18 runs and batted just .221 as a team. They not only weren't hitting, their on-base percentage was a woeful .293. They would hit .270 with an on-base percentage of .347 for the year. 

Mantle had the worst stretch of his season so far, with a .267 average, 8 hits in 30 at bats, and striking out 9 times in 35 plate appearances. He went hitless in five of the eight games, including the three losses to Cleveland. Only once before in the entire seasonMay 11 and 12 against the Orioles, when he was still batting over .400did Mantle go consecutive games without a hit. Three of his hits, however, were home runs, giving him 37 in the Yankees' first 105 games. Mantle was still two home runs ahead of the Babe's pace when he knocked out 60 in 1927.

The Yankees gave up 41 runs in their eight-game slide, 10 of which were unearned, for an earned run average of 4.16. Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston hit a collective .262 against Yankee pitchers in that stretch. And Yankee pitchers had command and control problems, walking 37 batters in addition to the 66 hits they surrendered, while striking out just 26. For the year, the Yankees held opposing batters to a .249 average and had a team ERA of 3.63.

With their record at 68-37, it was 105 games down and 49 to go for the 1956 New York Yankees. Despite their recent lethargy in the summer heat, the Yankees still had a seven-game lead. It would never again in the 1956 season be that low. In direct opposition to their 7 losses in 8 games, the Yankees turned around to win 7 of their next 8 to bump their lead up to 10½ games half-way through August. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dodgers Trip the Braves (60 Years Ago, August 2, 1956)

Just in case the 1956 Milwaukee Braves were getting too comfortable about their voracious drive to the top (and then some) after Fred Haney took over the manager's job from Charlie Grimm in mid-June, the Brooklyn Dodgers reminded them that theyDem Bumswere not only the defending-National League champions, but the defending World Series champs, by taking three of four from the Braves at Ebbets Field as July turned to August, sixty years ago. Jackie Robinson, in what would be his final year, was playing well and played a key role in two of those victories. Don Newcombe delivered the coup de grace by shutting out the Braves in the series finale, 3-0, on four hits to earn his 16th win.

Dodgers Trip the Braves 
(60 Years Ago, August 2, 1956)

For the Dodgers, 1956 was nothing like 1955. In 1955, the Dodgers won 22 of their first 24 games to open up a 9½-game lead before the season was even a month old. After June 11, just shy of two months into the schedule, Brooklyn's lead was always in the double-digits and never less then 10 games. They coasted to 98 victories and a 13½-game final margin of victory over runner-up Milwaukee.

But so far in 1956, the Dodgers had spent hardly any time in first place. The last time they had not trailed in games behind was after their doubleheader sweep of the Cubs on May 20, and even then, their winning percentage was just third-best behind the Braves and Cardinals. All three clubs were just half-a-game ahead of the Reds at the time. The Dodgers did pull within half-a-game of the Pirates for top of the heap by beating the Braves in the first two of a four-game series the last time Milwaukee visited Brooklyn in mid-June. The main significance of those victories, however, turned out to be a boon to the Braves, who fired Grimm and replaced him with Haney.

While the Braves played extraordinarily well under their new manager, the Dodgers continued at an uneven pace, almost seeming disinterested in the National League pennant-race proceedings. They were six games out in third place following a 13-6 pummeling by the Cardinals in St. Louis on July 21. It was their 9th loss in 14 games, which included losing four in a row to the Braves in Milwaukee in their first series after the All-Star break.

But then the Dodgers woke up. While eight wins in a row only gained them two games in the standings, they nonetheless showed the Braves that the Dodgers were still in this thing. With Milwaukee coming back to Brooklyn for their first visit since the events that deposed their manager, now the Dodgers had a chance to prove it.

In the first game, on July 30, the Braves took a 7-1 lead into the 8th on homers by Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, and Hank Aaron and held on to win 8-6. The next day, Jackie Robinson singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 9th to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win. Having hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, Robinson drove in all three of Brooklyn's runs. The home run was his 8th of the year and the 135th of his career. He would hit just two more and end up with 137 home runs.

For Jackie, his 3-for-4 day was a redemption of sorts. It was his first start in more than two weeks in what had been a long struggle of a season. Starting the year as the Dodgers' everyday third baseman, Robinson was hitting only .236 at the end of May and spent most of June on the bench nursing a battered ego as Randy Jackson got the playing time. Once he was back in the starting line-up at the end of June, Robinson hit .359 in his next 14 games before getting hurt in the final game of the series in Milwaukee after the break. He appeared just four times as a pinch hitter before getting back in the starting line-up against the Braves on this last day of July. 

The next day, the first day of August, Jackie Robinson was at it again against the Braves, going 2-for-4. More importantly, he began the game-winning rally with the score tied at 1-1 when he led off the bottom of the 8th by touching Lew Burdette for a single, and came around to score what proved the winning run on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell's two-out single. This hit was probably the highlight of Mitchell's brief Dodgers' career . . . unless one wants to consider taking a called third strike for the final out of Don Larsen's World Series perfect game two months down the road to have been a personal Dale Mitchell highlight.

Welcome to Brooklyn, Mr. Mitchell! It was his first at bat for the Dodgers since being acquired from the Cleveland Indians just days before. Mitchell had been the Indians' regular left fielder for seven years from 1947 to 1953, during which time he batted .314, mostly as their lead-off batter. But by now he was 34 years old and over the hill. Cleveland was not unhappy to dispense with his .133 average in 38 games as a pinch-hitter when Brooklyn came looking for a left-handed bat off the bench.

The next day, August 2, it was Don Newcombe's turn to take the hill. Newk was on a roll, having won his six previous decisions, and 8 of his last 9. He was masterful this day. Aaron singled in the first. Adcock doubled to lead off the second, and at second base he stayed. Jack Dittmar, the Braves' second baseman and lead-off hitter, singled in the sixth. Bill Bruton singled in the ninth. And that was it. No other Milwaukee Brave reached base. Newk walked nobody. Only Adcock got as far as second. Newcombe struck out 10 of the Braveshis highest strikeout total of the season. 

Don Newcombe was now 16-5 for the season. The Dodgers were now 57-41. More importantly, from the Ebbets Field perspective, the Milwaukee Braves' 5½-game lead of exactly one week ago was down to just a single game over the Cincinnati Reds, and two over the Dodgers.

If the Yankees, barring an un-Yankee-like collapse, had the field to themselves in the American League, the National League was settling in for a three-team run to the finish line. For the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was 98 games down and two months and 56 to go. Five would be against the Reds and four against the Braves.