Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Big Deal for the 1945 Cubs

Just before the trade deadline this year, on July 25, the Cubs traded with the Yankees for fireballing relief ace Aroldis Chapman. Their lead in the NL Central standings at the time was 7 games. The deal was forward-looking to the post-season. Nearly exactly 71 years before trading for Chapman, on July 27, 1945, the Cubs parted with $97,000 sent to the Yankees for one of their starting pitchers, Hank Borowy. Their lead in the unitary NL standings at the time was 4 games. The deal was forward-looking to make sure they got to the World Series. Borowy was a major reason why did they did.

A Big Deal for the 1945 Cubs
(And the Rest of Those Guys)

Chicago's pennant fever was stoked by winning 16 of their first 18 games in July to become the front-runner in the National League pennant race. By July 26, they led by four games. Veteran right-hander Claude Passeau, 36 years old, was 11-4 on his way to a 17-9 record; another veteran right-hander, Paul Derringer, who was 38, had a 13-7 record on his was to a 21-win season; and Hank Wyse, yet another righty who would probably not have pitching in Wrigley but for the war, was 14-6 on his way to 22 wins. They were manager Charlie Grimm's top three starters who had carried the Cubs to their tenuous four-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, a team looking for their fourth consecutive trip to the Fall Classic.

Now was the time for Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to go for the kill. And the Yankees had just the pitcher for himHank Borowy . . . whose winter job working in defense industries was his contribution to the war effort, who had a 56-30 record and a 2.74 earned run average since break in at Yankee Stadium in 1942, but who had been placed on waivers even though the Yankees were just four games behind in their own pennant race, still very much in the running. It seems Borowy (10-5 with a 3.13 ERA at the time) was pitching with a sore arm, had won just two of his last six decisions, and had an unsightly 7.53 ERA so far in July. He was damaged goods to the Yankees, but worth $97K to Mr. Wrigley. 

Whatever was ailing him in New York, however, was cured by his move to Chicago. Hank Borowy began his Cubs career with 10 consecutive complete-game starts (he was 8-2, including a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals on an unearned run), started 14 games for the Cubs in all, won 11 of his 13 decisions (to give him a season total of 21 wins between New York and Chicago), and pitched to an ERA of 2.13 the rest of the way. As St. Louis closed in on the Cubs, Borowy made 7 starts in September and was 6-0, including 3-0 against the Cardinals, each time stymieing St. Louis's efforts to get closer.

Wyse was 4-1 in six September starts, and Passeau just 3-3, as the Cubs hung on to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1938, in the not-too-distant past (at least not when compared to 1945 relative to 2016). The Cubs' 22-10 record in the final month was just half a game better than the Cardinals' 21-10, which fell three games short of where they wanted to be.

As for the other Cubs . . . 

Third baseman Stan Hack, the only player on the 1945 Cubs in the Hall of Fame today, had his last top-tier season, batting .323 to finish fourth in the league. First baseman Phil Cavarretta finally had the kind of season the Cubs had been waiting for. He led the league in batting with a .355 average and won the MVP award, and his 97 runs batted in were second on the club to center fielder Andy Pafko's 110. Pafko, in only his second big-league season, was not at war because of high blood pressure. He also hit 12 homers, second on the Cubs to their longtime power threat Bill Nicholson's 13. 

The left-handed-batting right fielder Nicholson was one of the NL's premier sluggers in the three years before wartime call-ups decimated big league rosters, connecting for 72 homers from 1940 to 1942. During the war years, Nicholson led the league in both homers and RBIs in 1943 (with 29 and 98) and 1944 (33 and 142) before his 1945 power outage. Left fielder Peanuts Lowrey, back from a year in the Army because of bad knees, had 89 RBIs.

The remaining core regulars on the 1945 Cubs included catcher Mickey Livingston, a journeyman player at best; shortstop Lennie Merullo, who was pretty good in his rookie season of 1942 (before the war hit baseball rosters big time), but not so much during the war years (despite the much lesser-caliber competition); and second baseman Don Johnson. 

Merullo hit at the bottom of the order and batted just .239 but was a good defensive shortstop. Johnson was a career minor-leaguer whose major league shot was quite likely only because of players serving in World War II. He was already 31 when called up by the Cubs in late September 1943, and his career would effectively be over in 1947. In 1945, however, he hit .302 while batting mostly second in the line-up.

In a typical major league season, the 1945 Cubs would not have beaten out the Cardinals, who played that year without Stan Musial, as well as others of their stars in the service. They also would not have finished ahead of the third-place Dodgers. But for the players they did have, the 1945 Chicago Cubs were a legitimately good team.

So now it was time for William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, to get tickets for Game 4 of the upcoming World Series. He bought a ticket for his goat. A real billy goat. Who must have been a Cubs fan.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The 1945 Cubs' Road to the World Series

The Chicago Cubs are one flight of dugout steps to the playing field of their first World Series in 71 years. The last time they were there, in 1945, the Second World War had ended less than two months before the October 3 start of the World Series. And major league baseball had just played its third season in a row with major league rosters decimated by obviously able-bodied players serving their country in a time of war, including many of the biggest stars in the game. Had it not been for the wartime call-up of Stan Musial in 1945, the St. Louis Cardinals would quite likely have won their fourth consecutive pennant, and the Cubs' failure to reach the World Series would have extended back to 1938.

The Last Time They Were There: 
Cubs' Road to the 1945 World Series

It was not as though making it to the World Series was something unheard of for the Chicago Cubs in 1945. Indeed, they had won the National League pennant four times in the previous 16 years dating back to 1929. If Stalin had his five-year plans, the Cubs seemed to operate on three-year plans, playing in the World Series every three years from 1929 to 1938. They just couldn't win any of them. And in the two-year intervals they didn't win the pennant, the Cubs were usually in contention.

That changed after being swept by the Yankees in the 1938 Fall Classic. The Cubs dropped out of the National League pennant picture in 1939 and remained out of sight until the last war year. A good reason for that was that first the Reds, and then the Dodgers and Cardinals fielded much better teams. 

By the time World War II began having a major impact on major league rosters in 1943, the only core regulars from the 1938 Cubs still playing in Chicago were 11-year veteran third baseman Stan Hack, near the end of his career; first baseman-outfielder Phil Cavarretta, still struggling to live up to his potential; and 9-year veteran right-hander Bill Lee (who should never, ever be confused with quirky left-hander "Spaceman" Bill Lee of a much later baseball generation). Gone were star catcher Gabby Hartnett, second baseman Billy Herman, and shortstop Billy Jurges from the three 1930s pennant-winning Cub teams.

Nearly 30 players on the Chicago Cubs' major league roster served their country during the war. If it seemed they had not lost any impact players the likes of the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser, and Hugh Casey . . . well, that was because the Cubs had relatively few impact players on their roster. The most prominent Cubs to avoid military service were Hack, Lee, and right-hander Claude Passeauwho were in or approaching their mid-30sCavarretta, because of an inner-ear ailment; and slugging right fielder Bill Nicholson, who had once hoped for a naval career but was rejected for military service because he was color blind.

The Cubs had finished fourth in 1944 with a 75-79 record, 30 games behind the runaway Cardinals, winners of their third straight pennant. St. Louis won without two-thirds of their starting outfield and annual disruptions to their pitching staff by wartime call-ups. But they still had four cornerstone players during those yearsshortstop Marty Marion, pitcher Mort Cooper, and his brother and catcher, Walker Cooper. Oh, and Stan Musial, who had taken the National League by storm since his rookie season in 1942, including being named MVP in 1943.

In 1945, the Cardinals' luck ran out. Gone that year were both CoopersMort was traded away after an ugly salary dispute, and Walker was draftedand Musial, whose draft board finally called his number. 

The Cubs took advantage. At first it looked to be like another .500 season at Wrigley, but a stretch of 18 wins in 20 games from the end of June to mid-July vaulted them into first place with a 4-game lead at the half-way point in the season. They built a 7-game lead as of August 19 with 41 games remaining, a cushion that enabled them to withstand the Cardinals' September charge to hang on and win the pennant by three games.

Who were the guys that helped the Chicago Cubs get back to the World Series after a six-year absence? Glad you asked, that will be the next article in Baseball Historical Insight.

Six-year absence? Who knew that would be nothing compared to the pennant drought that followed.

Monday, October 10, 2016

What's With Big Newk in the World Series? (60 Years Ago, 1956)

A few days ago, on the 7th of October, Clayton Kershaw and David Price took the mound in post-season games having to live down mystifying questions as why, in the crucible of October baseball, they have been anything but the elite pitchers they are. Sixty years ago, on October 10, 1956, at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' Don Newcombe did the same. 

(60 Years Ago):
What's With Big Newk in the World Series?

Don Newcombe was a 20-game winner for the third time in his six big league seasons, which were interrupted by two years of military service during the Korean War. He was, in fact, exceptional, with a 27-7 recordevery one of his wins necessary for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers to return to the World Series and have a chance to defend their world championship the year before. Pitching and winning the last game of the season on Sunday, September 30, by which the Dodgers secured the pennant by just one game over the Milwaukee Braves, the Brooklyn ace would not have been ready for Game 1 on Wednesday. He would start Game 2 instead on five days of rest. 

Despite having won 70 percent of his decisions (a 112-48 career record) so far in his career, Newcombe went into the '56 World Series having already earned a reputation for a big-time winner in the regular season turned batting practice pitcher / loser in the Fall Classic.

It all began in his rookie year of 1949, when he broke in with a 17-8 record, and led the Dodgers in starts (31), complete games (19), shutouts (5), innings pitched (244), strikeouts (149), and fewest-hits-per-9 innings (8.2). He was first in the league in shutouts, second in strikeouts, and third in complete games and hits-per-9 innings.

He pitched like the ace he was in the opening game of the 1949 World Series, shutting out the Yankees on four hits through eight innings. At Yankee Stadium no less. But Allie Reynolds was even better, shutting out the Dodgers on just two hits, and Reynolds had two of the four hits Newcombe had given up. But Tommy Henrich, the Yankees' first batter in the ninth, homered. The game was over. The Yankees won. So far, the worst you could say about Newcombe in World Series competition was that he pitched brilliantly, Reynolds pitched better, and Tommy Henrich was ... well, Old Reliable.

Just three days after his anguishing loss, Newcombe took the mound again at Ebbets Field in Game 4, needing to win for the Dodgers to tie the Series at two games apiece. Although he struggled through the first inning, giving up two hits and two walks but being helped out by a double play, Newcombe shutout the Yankees through three. He got only one out in the fourth, however, giving up 3 runs on three doubles and a walk before being sent to the showers. The Dodgers lost the game. The next day they lost the World Series.

Because of his time in the US Army, Newk's next World Series did not come until 1955, a season in which he won 20, lost 5, and led the league in winning percentage and in WHIP. He started the opening game against Whitey Ford and gave up 6 runs on 8 hits before being taken out with two outs in the 6th. He did not pitch again in the World Series, most likely because his arm was sore and he had a bad back. Brooklyn nonetheless won in seven games without him. 

Going into his start in Game 2 of the 1956 Series, Newcombe's line in 3 World Series starts was an 0-3 record and 5.19 earned run average in 17 innings. He was up against Don Larsen, a so-so pitcher whose historic date with fate would come in Game 5. Newk gave up a run in the 1st and 5 in the 2nd, leaving with two outs in the inning after Yogi Berra belted a grand slam to make the score 6-0. The only reason Newcombe did not lose the game was because Larsen couldn't get out of Brooklyn's half of the second as the Dodgers scored 6 runs to tie the score on their way to a 13-8 win and a two-games-to-none lead in the Series.

But Newcombe had now allowed 16 earned runs in the 19 innings he had pitched in four World Series starts. His World Series ERA was now up to 7.58, and over 9.00 since the Tommy Henrich game. And so his reputation for "choking" in the big games went to the mound with him in Game 7. 

The Dodgers' defense of their 1955 championship was on the line. Berra hit a two-run homer in the 1st and another 2-run homer in the 3rd to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Newk's day was done when Elston Howard led off the 4th with a home run. The Dodgers lost, 9-0, in what turned out to be . . . The LAST World Series game played in Brooklyn.

In baseball, post-season failures when everything is on the line can be unforgiving because that is when the games are most visible. Charlie Dressen, the Brooklyn manager for whom Newcombe pitched in 1951, once derided his ace's failures in big games as a "terrible flaw." Perhaps Dressen was not remembering that Newcombe's pitching in the last week of that season is what enabled the Dodgers to finish the schedule tied for first, forcing the playoff that ended with Bobby Thomson's home run. Newcombe rose to the occasion in those "big" games. Specifically, Newk had two complete-game victories, including a shutout, and pitching 5 innings of shutout relief in a Dodgers' win in their 154th game on the schedule—all absolute-must win games for Brooklyn—in the last five days of the season.

Perhaps if his World Series record was not 0-4 in 5 starts with an atrocious 8.59 ERA, that might have made a difference the times he has since been considered for Hall of Fame validation. It's not necessarily apparent why some elite players have had such great struggles in the post-season, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with any "terrible flaw"—unless that flaw is taking on the psychological burden of being perceived as, even having to be, the savior because of their excellence during the season. 

Just as few would question today the excellence of either Clayton Kershaw or David Price despite their post-season let-downs, Don Newcombe was an outstanding pitcher—one of the best of his era—without whom the 1949-56 Dodgers would not have been as successful as they were. 

And as we all know, in those two post-season games on October 7 of this year, neither Kershaw nor Price pitched to the level typically expected of them. Kershaw struggled through 5 innings and gave up 3 runs on 8 hits. He got the win and is now 3-6 with a 4.65 ERA in the post-season. Price had another terrible start, giving up 5 runs in 3⅓ innings and is now 2-8 in post-season games with a 5.54 ERA. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The 1956 Cincinnati Redlegs--For Real, or Not? (60 Years Ago)

Sixty years ago, the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers were back in the World Series with a chance to defend their championship from the year before. They got there without a game to spare, winning their final game on the last day of the regular season, putting an end to a taut three-team race. The 2nd-place Milwaukee Braves finished just one back, and the 3rd-place Cincinnati Redlegs, two back. The Braves had been expected to contend, and had they won the pennant, it would have been neither an upset, nor a surprise. 

The Reds, for their part, tied the major league single-season record for home runs. Frank Robinson tied the major league record for most homers by a rookie. Brooks Lawrence had the most wins by a Cincinnati pitcher since Ewell Blackwell won 22 back in 1947. The Reds, however, were not expected to contendyet they did . . . until the very end. Were they a true contender, or more of a pretender?

(60 Years Ago):
The 1956 Cincinnati Redlegs--For Real, or Not?

The Braves spent 110 days in first place in 1956, and the Dodgers only 23. At the end, it might well have been the depth of experience by the aging Dodgers that enabled them to prevail. 

The team that spent the second-most days in first place29were the Redlegs. Winning 13 of 18 going into the All-Star break, beginning with three victories in four games at Ebbets Field from June 22 to 24, gave Cincinnati a 1½ -game lead when the season paused for the mid-summer contest between the two leagues. (Back then, the All-Star Game was played, very competitively, for league bragging rights, not for home field advantage in the World Series.) Losing their first two games after the season resumed, Cincinnati dropped out of first place, never to hold the top spot again. But they also did not fade from contention.

Projecting Cincinnati to finish fifth in its preseason prognostications, Sports Illustrated observed that the Redlegs had an offensively very potent ball club with a "tremendous prospect" in rookie left fielder Frank Robinson. They were right on both counts.

Robinson had a terrific rookie year with 38 homers, 83 RBIs, and a .290 average. He played in 152 of the Reds' 155 games, starting in 150 of them. Ahead of Wally Berger's pace when he set the rookie record for home runs in 1930, Frank Robinson seemed certain to break it when he hit his 38th homer on September 11 against the Giants in New York. There were still 16 games left on the schedule and nearly three weeks to go. How could he not hit just one more?

It was not to be. Other than his first month in the big leagues, Frank Robinson had the worst stretch of his season the rest of the way. He had just 13 hits, batting .232, none of them home runs. Wally Berger, who turned 51 a month after Robinson tied his record, no longer held the record alonebut he hadn't been eclipsed either.

And when pinch-hitter Smoky Burgess hit his 12th homer of the year in the 8th inning of their next-to-last game of the season, the Reds tied the single-season team record of 221 home runs set by the New York Giants in 1947. They needed just one home run in their final game of the season to set a new record. That, too, was not to be. They beat the Cubs, 4-2, on the last day, but none of their runs crossed the plate on a home run. 

The 1956 homerific Reds, however, did set a new record by becoming the first team with five players to top 25 homers in a single season. Frank Robinson's 38 were tops on the club (only Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider hit more that year), followed by right fielder Wally Post's 36, slugging first baseman Ted Kluszewski's 35, center fielder Gus Bell's 29, and catcher Ed Bailey's 28.  

Cincinnati's offense was not a problem. The Redlegs led the league in scoring with 775 runs (the Dodgers were second with 720), but the 658 runs they surrendered were much more than either the Dodgers (601) or the Braves (a league-leading fewest 569) allowed. In its preseason issue, Sports Illustrated called the Reds' pitching "nightmarishly uncertain." And so it was. 

Lefty Joe Nuxhall, 17-12 for the fifth-place 1955 Reds, was the opening day starter, led the '56 Reds with 32 starts, but finished just 13-11. In 8 of his starts, Nuxhall gave up more runs than innings he pitched. Right-hander Johnny Klippstein, who had pitched mostly in relief his first six big league seasons, became a regular in the Reds' starting rotation at the end of the 1955 season and made 29 starts for the '56 Reds, winning 10 and losing 11. Art Fowler, 23-20 in his first two big-league seasons, was just 11-11 in 1956 and made only three of his 23 starts after July, while appearing 11 times in relief. Replacing Fowler as a starter was Hal Jeffcoat, a converted outfielder, 10 of whose 16 starts came in the final two months, during which he was 5-1 (8-2 on the season).

It was Brooks Lawrence, however, acquired in the off-season from St. Louis, who emerged as the Reds' ace in 1956. He finished with a 19-10 record13-9 in 30 starts and 6-1 in the 19 games he was called out of the bullpen. Half of his starts (15) were quality starts, including two in August when he lost each of the 6 games he started. 

Backup Cincinnati first baseman George Crowe, a black player, later insinuated that Lawrence made only three starts in September, and none after September 15 with half the month and 13 games remaining, because manager Birdie Tebbetts did not want a black man to win 20 games.

That allegation seems far-fetched if, for no other reason, than winning a pennant would have been a crowning achievement for Tebbetts, who was in just his third year as a manager. And notwithstanding his struggles in August, it was Lawrence who Tebbetts called upon to relieve in critical games down the stretch for the Reds, which have been discussed in my previous posts since the beginning of September on Baseball Historical Insight. That does not sound like a manager who didn't want his best pitcher to win 20 games for any reason, let alone because he was black.

The answer to the question, "were they a true contender, or more of a pretender," is somewhere in between. The 1956 Reds did not have the pitching or the bench depth to realistically compete with the Dodgers and Braves for the pennant. If not for two black players who were newcomers to the team, the rookie Frank Robinson and the pitcher Brooks Lawrencethe 1956 Cincinnati Reds almost certainly would not have come as close as they did, just two games off pace, to winning what would have been only their fourth pennant since 1901 (and their first since 1940).

Indicative, perhaps, of their real capacity as a team, with most of their core players back the next yearalthough Kluszewski missed much of that season with a bad backthe Reds were not in the National League pennant picture in 1957, ending up fourth, 15 games out of the running. Frank Robinson, however, had an even better year than in 1956, and arguably so too did Brooks Lawrence, who once again led an otherwise mediocre pitching staff with a 16-13 record.