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.

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