Golden Age Baseball IV

Joe Nuxhall pitched at age 15 for the Reds
Joe Nuxhall pitched at age 15 for the Reds | Source

Baseball Survives World War II

With America traumatized by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, baseball owners gave serious consideration to canceling baseball "for the duration." Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to inquire whether the Commander-in-Chief believed this would be proper.

FDR replied that the national pastime, even diminished by the expected enlistment of many of its players, would continue to be much-needed entertainment for a stressed home front. In the ensuing three-plus years, the major leagues did indeed lend most of their stars and supporting casts to the armed forces. Ace pitcher Bob Feller, slugger Hank Greenberg, and others promptly volunteered. Due to the vagaries of population distribution and draft quotas, some front-line players were still performing in 1943 and 1944. But gradually, the big league rosters were being filled by unproven youngsters, others long past their primes, and those with flat feet or other disqualifying disabilities. A 15-year-old pitcher, a 16-year-old shortstop, and a one-armed outfielder were extreme examples of the need to fill shortages on the diamond. A home run total of 22 would lead the American League in 1944 and .309 would be the leading batting average the following year. But, as Roosevelt had predicted, the fans kept coming. With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, a few stars began to trickle back. Feller won five games down the stretch and tuned up for a record-breaking 1946. Greenberg played the last half of the season and hit the pennant-clinchinghome run for his Tigers. With the Japanese surrender in August, baseball fans were assured that the gallant but sometimes pathetic, sometimes laughable imitation of big league baseball would give way to the genuine article the following Spring. More details are available in "Baseball Survives World War II" at Suite101.com.

Barry Larkin and Honus Wagner

Congratulations to Barry Larkin on his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Playing a classy shortstop for all of his 19 major league years with the Cincinnati Reds (1986-2004), Barry was an eight-time .300-hitter with a lifetime .295 batting average, a multi-year All Star, Silver Slugger, and Golden Glover who stole as many as 51 bases in a single season. He was National League Most Valuable Player in 1995.

But although no one living can tell us first hand about Honus Wagner, he remains the gold standard for shortstops on the basis of stats and written accounts. The Pittsburgh Pirates original Hall of Famer played for 21 years ending in 1917, during which he led the NL in hitting eight times as he compiled a .328 lifetime average. An admired fielder with great range, he also stole 723 bases, tenth best all-time, with a season high of 61.

Granted that comprisons with players beyond living memory or regular film or video coverage are difficult, the record of Honus Wagner remains a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Larkin, like Cal Ripkin and Ozzie Smith, is among the few of recent times who can be spoken of on the same page.

The Cubs Were World Champs (Twice)

Chicago Cubs fans are known for their loyalty and their prolonged frustration. As far as I know, there is no Cubs fan old enough to have basked in the glow of their last World Series triumph, in 1908, or to recall that they had also won the previous year, 1907.

The World Series had been played only twice when the 1906 Cubs made it for the first time. They made it on the strength of the best record ever recorded in major league baseball before or since, 116-36 for an astounding .763 percentage. For comparison, the 1927 New York Yankees, often cited as the greatest team of all time, went 110-44.

Perhaps presaging future disappointments, the Cubs proceeded to lose the Series to their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, in six games. But 1907 and 1908 were different. Here are the details.

  • After an opening-game tie in 1907, the Cubs ran off four straight wins to beat the Detroit Tigers. The Cub pitching staff held twelve-time batting champion Ty Cobb to a .200 average.
  • Seeking revenge, the Tigers managed to win only Game 3 of the 1908 Series. Cobb rebounded to hit.368 this time, but there was no doubt which was the better team.
  • The Cubs were the first team to win the World Series twice.
  • They have not won since. Their last appearance, in 1945, was a hard-fought seven-game loss to the very same Tigers who have been their only victims.

The first decade of the 21st century saw the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918 in 2004. The very next year, the Cubs' old cross-town rivals, the White Sox, won their first since 1917. It's now over a century for the Cubs. Who can't feel at least a little sympathy for their cause?

Famous World Series Home Runs

St. Louis Cardinals future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols guaranteed himself another niche in the record books with three home runs in Game 3 of this year’s World Series. The noteworthy feat placed him in the exclusive company of Babe Ruth (twice) and Reggie Jackson. Nevertheless, fans may remember better his Cardinal teammate David Freese's eleventh-inning homer that won Game 6 and forced a seventh game won by the Cards.

World Series home runs are almost by definition more significant than most hit during the regular season, but some have particularly captured the public imagination and become part of baseball lore. While dramatic blows have been struck by celebrated sluggers like the above-mentioned luminaries, others have come from entirely unanticipated sources.

Here are some of the most famous, at least in their time:

Frank Baker, third baseman in the Philadelphia Athletics “$100,000 infield” smote two in the 1911 World Series to earn the title of “Home Run” Baker. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he hit another in 1913, meanwhile leading the league in homers for three straight years with a season high of 12 in baseball’s deadball era.

Aging New York Giants outfielder Casey Stengel hit two home runs, one an inside the park job, to win the only two games his team won over the New York Yankees in 1923. Stengel would later pilot the Yankees to seven world titles.

In 1932, Babe Ruth hit a home run against the Chicago Cubs after extending a finger towards the pitcher or center field. Whatever his intent, the round-tripper, his second of the game, went into legend as the “called shot.”

Pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes hit a tenth-inning three-run homer to win Game 1 for the Giants over the heavily favored Cleveland Indians. Ironically, the game is best remembered for Willie Mays’ running catch in deep center field of a more than 450-foot drive by Vic Wertz.

Brilliant fielding second baseman Bill Mazeroski led off the ninth inning with a home run to give the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates a 10-9 seventh game victory over the Yankees in 1960. Maz had produced 11 homers in the regular season.

Red Sox catcher Carleton Fiske won Game 6 in 1975 Series with a twelfth-inning blast that retied the Series at three games each. The Curse of the Bambino still being in effect, the Sox lost the seventh game to the Big Red Machine.

Reggie Jackson’s three homers in the sixth and final game led a 1977 Yankee triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Limping Kirk Gibson’s ninth-inning pinch hit homer won the 1988 opener for the Dodgers over the favored Oakland A’s.

Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins forced a seventh game with an eleventh-inning home run to beat the Atlanta Braves, 1-0, in 1991.

Joe Carter hit a walk-off Series-winning homer to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in six games in 1993.

Tino Martinez hit a two-out, two-run ninth-inning homer to tie Game 4 in 2001 and Derek Jeter homered in the tenth to tie the Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Stay tuned, there’s surely more to come.

The Exclusive 40-Wins Club

Baseball fans and the writers and broadcasters who cater to them revel in rare and noteworthy statistical accomplishments. Much fuss is made over entry into the 3,000-hit club, the 300-win club, and the 500-home run club. even though dozens already belong.

Perhaps the most exclusive club, one unlikely to ever again welcome a new member, gets almost no notice. It's the pitchers who won 40 or more games in a single season since 1900, a grand total of two. They are Jack Chesbro, 41-12 for the 1904 New York Highlanders (subsequently the Yankees) and Ed Walsh, 40-15 for the 1908 Chicago White Sox.

Chesbro won 198 games over 11 seasons, leading the National League in victories with 28 for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1902, while compiling a lifetime 2.68 Earned Run Average. In his incredible peak year, he completed 48 of 51 starts and hurled 454 innigs. Ironically, his wild pitch on the last day of that season cost the Highlanders the pennant. New York had to wait 17 more years for the first Yankee league title.

Walsh, while falling one short of Chesbro's season record and three short of his career total, holds the major league lifetime ERA record with 1.82. In his 40-win year, he completed 42 of 49 starts and pitched 464 innings. Unlike Chesbro, he made it into the World Series, beating the Chicago Cubs twice for the 1906 White sox "Hitless Wonders," allowing only one earned run in 15 innings.

Granted that Chesbro and Walsh pitched in the "deadball era" when runs were not plentiful, they alone reached a level that defied all contemporaries, including immortals Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Grover Cleveland Alexander, all of whom repeatedly won more than 30 games a season. The latter four also preceded the 40-game-winners into the Baseball Hall of Fame when elections began in the late 1930's. Chesbro and Walsh had to wait for an Old Timers Committee to vote them in in 1946.

Joe DiMaggio, Yankee immortal
Joe DiMaggio, Yankee immortal | Source

The Legend of Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, had an excellent 13-year baseball career. While his .325 batting average and 361 home runs have been dwarfed by the marks of other diamond immortals, he retains a special hold on fans more than a half century after his retirement.

DiMaggio joined the Yankees in 1936, little more than a year after Babe Ruth's departure. The fabled franchise, which had begun winning championships only in the 1920's as Murderer's Row, had managed only one in the 30's. Fans were eager for a new hero to ignite a new dynasty, and future Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig had apparently labored modestly too long in the Ruthian shadow to assume that role.

The rookie from the West Coast responded admirably with four straight years of well above .300 batting, annual home run and run production above 30 and 125, respectively, and fine fielding. His progress culminated in 1939 in a career-high .381 for the batting title and the first of three Most Valuable Player Awards. More important, the Yankees, now known as the Bronx Bombers, won an unprecedented four world championships in those first four years and Joe D. was logically hailed as the indispensable factor.

After a one-year break from the title run, the Yanks won again in 1941, and this time DiMaggio entered not just baseball history but American lore. His new record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games so captured the public imagination that a popular song about "Jolting Joe DiMaggio" was composed. The feat, which has withstood all challenges while most other offensive marks have been surpassed, overshadowed even Ted Williams's .406 batting average, a full 50 points above DiMaggio's, and earned Joe D. his second MVP.

The Yankee Clipper, as he also became widely known, helped win another pennant in 1942 before spending three World War II years in the Army. His return in 1946 with his first sub-.300 average was a downer, but he won MVP honors again in 1947 as the Yanks cruised to another world title. However, injuries and the wartime interruption were taking an obvious toll. Playing hurt a good part of the 1948 season, DiMaggio led the league in home runs and runs batted in as the Yanks contended for the pennant until the last weekend.

Joe D.'s last superstar-level performance came in 1949. After missing more than two months recuperating from heel surgery, he returned with four home runs in his first three game series and batted .346 the rest of the way to spark a relatively punchless Yankee team to another world championship. After barely making .300 in 1950 and slumping to .263 the next year, he bowed out at 37.

But baseball fans were far from through with DiMaggio. He remained the supreme attraction at Old Timers and memorabilia events and continued to be voted to "all-time" teams for decades after his retirement. And if he had not been fully immortalized in 1941, he was--a quarter of a century later-- with Simon and Garfunkel's inquiry about his whereabouts in "The Graduate" movie.

What accounted for this unique hold on the baseball and larger public? Certainly it resulted in part from his New York showcase and from his club's consistent fielding of an outstanding supporting cast, which included stars in their own right like Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Charlie Keller, Phil Rizzuto, and Allie Reynolds. But a lot had to do with some of the unmeasurables that don't show up in box scores but are discerned by aficionados of the game.

Long-time New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon famously articulated this perspective when he wrote, "Baseball isn't statistics. It's DiMaggio rounding second." He meant that Joe D. knew when to take the extra base, and that he made it happen when a game depended on it. He covered the Yankee Stadium center field expanses with a flawless grace that became apparent only when others struggled there. His hitting was timely ernough to intimidate pitchers. He exuded a winning spirit, and the bottom line is that his teams won ten pennants and nine World Series in his 13 seasons.

There have been better hitters, fielders, and runners than Joe DiMaggio among baseball's all-time greats. Still, he is arguably the most valuable of them all.
Source: Baseball-Reference.com
Originally published at Suite101.com

Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb | Source

Ty Cobb's Last Stand

In 1928, 41-year-old Ty Cobb was in his second season with the up-and-coming Philadelphia Athletics after an unparalleled 22 years with the Detroit Tigers. A's manager Connie Mack was seeking to build his second dynasty after a succession of losing seasons through the late teens and twenties. Young hitters, it was correctly surmised, could only benefit from exposure to a three-time .400 batter, twelve-time batting champion, and fabled competitor,

Cobb's presence was an immediate payoff for the A's. Appearing in 133 games, he batted .357 and helped them to a second place finish behind the incomparable '27 Yankees. The next year, age limited him to 95 games, but he still hit .323 to finish his career at an incredible and still unequalled career record .366. He also retired with a record 897 stolen bases, unmatched for half a century, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest number of votes in the initial balloting in 1936.

Had Cobb remained one more year, he would have been a member of a world championship team, a distinction that eluded him through his long career. The Tigers made it into the World Series three straight years from 1907 through 1909, but lost them all, and never made it back. But Mack's plans came to fruition with three straight appearances, including victories in 1929 and 1930. That team of Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove is considered one of the greats of all time.

Ty Cobb didn't reach the heights with them, but he certainly helped in their climb.

Nolan Ryan in the World Series

Throughout the postseason, TV watchers have been treated to shots of Texas Rangers President Nolan Ryan intently rooting his team on. Comments have usually focused on this second consecutive appearance of the club in the World Series and on his long, distinguished pitching career with records for no-hitters and strikouts.

Not many have noted that Ryan's sole on-field World Series experience was at age 22 with the 1969 Miracle Mets. After losing Game 1 as expected to the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, New York had come back with a Game 2 victory to tie the Series. With the benefit of hindsight, Game 3 was to be pivotal, but it's fair to state that few saw it that way at the time.

The Mets sent young Gary Gentry to the mound to oppose future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, and the Amazings jumped out to an improbable 3-0 lead in the first two innings. It was 4-0 in the seventh, and with two outs, Mets skipper Gil Hodges pulled Gentry, who had yielded only three hits but had walked five. He called for Ryan, compiler of a 6-3 record as a spot starter and reliever during the regular season. His 92 strikouts in 89 innings foreshadowed some of his later feats and gave Hodges the confidence that this was the spot for him. Ryan retired the side and pitched two more shutout innings to preserve a 5-0 win and a 2-1 Series lead which the Mets turned into a five-game upset triumph.

In a long career that extended through 1993 and brought him 324 wins, a single season strikout record of 383, a career strikout record of 5,714, a record seven no-hitters, near-unanimous election to the Hall of Fame, and four more post season appearnaces, player Ryan never made it back to the Fall classic. He has now--twice.

Stan Musial, all-time Cardinal great
Stan Musial, all-time Cardinal great

St. Louis and the World Series

The St. Louis Cardinals are making their 18th appearance in the Fall Classic. With a record of 10-7, they have the second most world championships, a distant second to the New York Yankees' 27. But the Redbirds, who beat the Yanks in their first meeting in 1926, still hold a 3-2 edge over the more storied franchise.

Even more important, the Cards have provided some of the most exciting and colorful moments in World Series history. The 1926 debut featured the veteran Grover Cleveland Alexander coming out of the bullpen in the seventh game to strike out Tony Lazzerri with the bases loaded, but not before a Lazzerri drive just missed the foul pole. That game ended with Babe Ruth, who had set a record with four home runs in the Series, being thrown out trying to steal second base.

Two years later, the Bronx Bombers swept the Cards. In 1931, St. Louis outfielder Pepper Martin batted .500 to lead his team over a Philadelphis A's club that had won three straight pennants and the two previous World Series, the latter one over the Cards. The 1934 Classic with the Detroit Tigers was marked by two victories each for 30-game winner Dizzy Dean and his brother Paul.

A St.Louis juggernaut starring Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, and the brother battery of Mort and Walker Cooper won three straight pennants from 1942 through 1944. They stopped a Yankee streak of eight consecutive Series triumphs going back to 1926 in 1942, bowed to the Yanks in 1943, and won the only St. Louis intra-city Series with the Browns in '44.

The first post-World War II Classic in 1946 was a seven-game thriller climaxed by Slaughter's dash from first base with the winning run and three wins by Harry (The Cat) Brecheen over the Boston Red Sox. The next time the Redbirds made it to October was 1964, when they edged the Yankees again behind Bob Gibson. Three years later, Gibson was even better with thee victories and the Red Sox were victims again in seven games. The Detroit Tigers turned the tables on the Cards with a three-game winner of their own, Mickey Lolich, in 1968, but not before Gibson set a new strikeout record of 17 in one game.

After another hiatus, St. Louis defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, then in the American League, in 1982, and seemed to have the '85 Series with the Kansas City Royals in hand before a blown call at first base started a Redbird unraveling. The 1987 World Series with the Minnesota Twins marked the first time that the home team won every game, and the Cardinals were on the short end, 4-3.

In 2004, St. Louis was basically a bystander to the breaking of the Red Sox Bambino curse, with Boston taking its first world championship since 1918 in a sweep. The Cardinals' most recent appearance, in 2006, was more successful: a five-game conquest of the Tigers, their opponents way back in 1934.

What's next?

The Yankees and Dodgers in October


The Brooklyn Dodgers made it to the World Series twice, in 1916 and 1920, before the New York Yankees ever got there. In losing both, the Dodgers started Boston Red Sox lefthander Babe Ruth on his then record streak of 29 scoreless World Series innings in the first one and hit into the only Fall Classic unassisted triple play against Cleveland in the second. The Brooklyn team then experienced a long drought while the Yankees, beginning in 1921, became accustomed to playing for the world championship--and usually winning it.

The Subway Series
The Yankees had played five intra-city World Series with the New York Giants in the 1920's and 1930's. But it wasn't until 1941 that the outer borough of Brooklyn, a much longer subway ride from Yankee Stadium, became one of the locales for an even more intense rivalry.

The Bronx Bombers, winners of their fifth pennant in six years and of eight world championships overall, faced a scrappy, well-balanced Brooklyn club led by fiery manager Leo Durocher. After splitting the first two games, the Yankees won a squeaker to take a 2-1 lead. Leading with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning the next day, the Dodgers seemed to have tied the Series on a swing and miss. But in one of the most shocking reversals in Series history, the third strike eluded catcher Mickey Owen, the Yankees rallied for four runs to win the game, and closed out the Series the next day.

The opportunity for revenge was delayed until 1947. A seven-game Series featured eight and two-thirds innings of no-hit ball in a game lost on the very last pitch from Yankee hurler Bill Bevens, a spectacular game-saving catch of a Joe DiMaggio drive, and a five-inning scoreless relief effort by Joe Page in the clincher. A five-game 1949 rematch was anticlimactic after Tommy Henrich's ninth-inning homer broke up a first-game scoreless tie.

In an unparalleled period of New York dominance in both leagues, the teams clashed again in 1952 and 1953. The first time, the Brooklyn team took a 3-2 lead in games but fell again despite a record-tying four home runs by Duke Snider. In '53, the Yankees extended their seeming mastery by winning in six.

That mastery seemed even more enduring as the Yankees took the first two games of their next meeting in 1955. But the Dodgers rallied to win the next three games and, after losing the sixth game, finally made their breakthrough with a 2-0 shutout saved by a running one-handed catch by left fielder Sandy Amoros. With the shoe on the other foot in 1956, the Brooklyn club breezed in the first two games only to have the New Yorkers reverse roles and take the next three. The third of those was the perfect game by Don Larsen, the only one ever in World Series play. Yet the indefatigable Dodgers bounced back to win the sixth game, 1-0, on a hit by Jackie Robinson. A 9-0 seventh-game shutout featuring two homers by Yogi Berra ended the dream of a Brooklyn streak of their own.

East Coast-West CoastA year later, the Dodgers were on their way to a new home in Los Angeles. Their first World Series experience in California was a winning one in 1959 against the Chicago White Sox. And so was their first encounter with the Yankees, in 1963. In fact, triggered by a then-record 15-strikeout performance by Sandy Koufax in the opener, they accomplished the first four-game sweep in the history of the rivalry.

A longer hiatus ended with the clubs contending in 1977 and 1978. Reggie Jackson's record five home runs, including three in the sixth and final game, highlighted the first of the two meetings. The second saw the Dodgers jump out to a 2-0 lead but lose the next four. The exact reverse occurred in 1981 as the Los Angeles club roared back from a two-game deficit to win four straight behind the .417 hitting of first baseman Steve Garvey.

It's now more than a quarter of a century since these two storied teams clashed for the world championship. History awaits the renewal of the greatest World Series rivalry.
Reference: Baseball Almanac

Originally published at Suite101.com

Do We Need a Longer Season?


Readers of this blog could conclude that I've loved baseball for decades. But do I need it in all seasons? I don't think so.

A proposal to add a second wild-card team to the post-season is gaining wide support. It would provide a chance for another team that did well to get a shot at all the marbles. Perhaps it would prolong the interest (and ticket purchases) of the fans of another team that wouldn't quite make the top three slots in the league. Perhaps it would be one of the lesser-financed teams that couldn't compete with the deep pockets.

The only argument raised against the plan is that, even in its current configuration of a one-game playoff, it would prolong a season which has already moved into November. Wary opponents anticipate the next step, a three-of-five to assure paydays for the owners of both teams.

While fewer and fewer fans remember when the winner of the one-division National League played the winner of the one-division American League in the World Series in the first week in October (through 1968), a few more remember the two divisions of each league settling matters in three-of-five. Then, of course, three divisions necessitated another round of competition and utimately a best-of-seven to determine the league championship.

Spilling into November was first dictated by the tragedy of 9/11. Now it's taken for granted. When does it end? I do love baseball and especially the World Series, but November is for football.

The Yankees' Superchief
The Yankees' Superchief | Source

Allie Reynolds-Superchief

One of the biggest disappointments of the New York Yankees' disappointing 1946 season was second baseman Joe (Flash) Gordon. A hard hitter and superb fielder on five Yankee pennant winners, Gordon had been MVP in 1942. In his first seaon back from military service he dropped to career lows with a .210 batting average and 11 home runs. Allie Reynolds had won 18 games for the wartime Cleveland Indians in 1945, but had slumped to 11-15 in '46. They were traded over the following winter.

Reynolds, eventually dubbed Superchief because of his Native American heritage, immediately became the Yankee ace, winning 19 games and another in the World Series for the '47 world champions. Beginning in 1948, he was teamed with Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat to form a trio which led the Bronx Bombers to a record five straight world titles from 1949 through 1953.

Reynolds was at times overshadowed statistically by Raschi, who won 21 games for three straight years, but he became increasingly valuable. Completing only four starts in '49, when manager Casey Stengel had the luxury of lights-out reliever Joe Page, Allie nevertheless opened the '49 World Series with a 1-0 shutout of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would win one or more in each of the five consecutive Series,for a then record-tying total of seven.

In 1951, Reynolds had two no-hitters among his 17 victories, including one in which Yogi Berra dropped a Ted Williams foul pop which would have been the final out. Superchief got Williams to pop up again and this time Berra held it. Reynolds had his only 20-win season in 1952, compiling a 2.06 earned run average, 24 complete games, and six shutouts.

At 36, and with young Whitey Ford taking over as the Yanks' ace, Allie pitched more in relief than as a starter in 1953, winning 13 games. After another 13-win season in 1954, the Superchief retired with 182 victories and a 3.30 ERA.


Early Wynn, '59 White Sox Cy Young Award winner
Early Wynn, '59 White Sox Cy Young Award winner | Source

The 50's White Sox-Another Forgotten Team

Our inaugural article on the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies Whiz Kids got some unusual attention, so here's one about another attractive team of the 50's whose time at the top was only brief.

The Chicago White Sox had been consistently mediocre since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. But in 1951, under Manager Paul Richards, they began an unprecedented run of first-division finishes that culminated in their first pennant in forty years in 1959. An infusion of Latin talent, including outfielder Minnie Minoso and shortstop Chico Carrasquel, created an aura of excitement around the club that soon had them labeled the Go-Go Sox.

By mid-decade, Al Lopez, another respected former catcher, had replaced Richards, and the team development continued. The 1958 acquisition of Early Wynn, a veteran of a Cleveland Indians championship staff, set the stage for a serious pennant run in 1959. By this time, speedster Luis Aparicio had moved in at shortstop to form a brilliant double play combination with Nellie Fox, the eventual '59 MVP with a .306 average. Aparicio would lead the league in stolen bases with 56 that year.

Chicago got off to a good start as the Yankees, who had been AL champs for all but one year in the decade, floundered. With Fox the only .300 hitter and catcher Sherm Lollar the home run leader at 22, speed and defense behind excellent pitchingwere the key elements. Wynn won 22, Bob Shaw 18, and Billy Pierce 14. The race was primarily between the Sox and the Indians, and owner Bill Veeck acquired former Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski late in August to try to give Chicago an edge. Kluszewski responded by starring in a September sweep of a series between the contenders and the Sox went on to take the flag by five games with 94 wins.

An 11-0 trouncing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series behind two Kluszewski homers gave Chicago a whiff of Fall glory, but the team ultimately fell to LA in six games. It would be 2005 before the Windy City got its next shot, and this time the White sox took their first world championship since 1917 with a sweep of the Houston Astros.


Robin Roberts, long-time Phillies ace
Robin Roberts, long-time Phillies ace | Source

The Philly Whiz Kids

The Philadelphia Phillies, long accustomed to National League second-division status, surprised even their own fans with a third-place finish in 1949. By the end of the next season, they were the toast of baseball as the pennant-winning Whiz Kids.

Manager Eddie Sawyer, in only his second full year at the helm, had an excellent young pitcher in 23-year-old Robin Roberts, proven .300-hitting outfield stars in Del Ennis and Richie Ashburn, and enough potential in a bunch of other youngsters to make a serious run for the Phillies' first league championship since 1915.

It was a banner year. Roberts's 20 wins, including the clincher on the very last day of the season, began a six-year 20-victory streak for him. The even younger Curt Simmons, only 4-10 in '49, contributed 17 wins in a season cut short by Korean War service. Bob Miller won 11, and 33-year-old Jim Konstanty, an anomaly on the youthful staff, won 16 and saved 22 in a then-record 74 relief appearances.

Ennis, only 25 himself, came through as expected at .311 with a team-leading 31 home runs and 126 runs batted in, while 23-year-old Ashburn hit .303 and played a rangy centerfield. The third outfielder, Dick Sisler, hit .296 and the pennant-winning home run. A young infield in which Eddie Waitkus was the senior man at 30, provided tight defense from the keystone combination of Granny Hamner and Mike Goliat, and some punch from Willie (Puddinhead) Jones with 25 homers. Catcher Andy Seminick hit 24 homers and provided steady receiving.

The excitng young Phils had to defend a one-game lead against the defending NL champion Dodgers at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on the last day of the season, refusing to fold in a tense thriller that went into the tenth inning before Sisler homered with two on. Earlier, Ashburn had thrown out the potential winning run for the Dodgers at home plate.

The Phillies lost three straight one-run games to the Yankees in the World Series before succumbing, 5-2, in the final. The sweep did little to dim the glory of what was expected to be years of championship competition for the young hustlers. By the following yesar, they were back in fifth place, never rose above fourth for the rest of the decade, and next played in the Fall Classic in a long-awaited winning effort in 1980.

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