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.

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