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.

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