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.

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