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.

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