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Golden Age Baseball V
On to Golden Age Baseball VI
- Golden Age Baseball VI
The next series of stories and vignettes from the golden era of baseball.
The Oakland A's Glory Years
The late night West Coast finishes (from an East Coast perspective) failed to obscure a "historic" four-game sweep of the Yankees by the Oakland Athletics from July 19-22, 2012. Why "historic?" Because the computers instantly told every commentator and writer that the last time this had happened was 1972.
The fact that a team on its way to the 1972 world championship swept a fourth-place team that barely finished above .500 is not remarkable. Those A's had 21-game-winner Catfish Hunter, 19-game-winner Ken Holtzman, reliever Rollie fingers, and a young Vida Blue on a fine and still developing pitching staff. Although left fielder Joe Rudi was their only .300 hitter, they had a balance of slugging, fielding, and speed with Reggie Jackson, Mike Epstein, Sal Bando, and Bert Campaneris.
The '72Yankees, in an era when reaching .500 could not be taken for granted, had no .300 hitters and no 20-game-winners. Bobby Murcer was their best at the plate at .292 with 33 homers, and there was a sharp drop-off after him. Fritz Peterson topped the pitchers with 17 wins, and he had 15 losses as well.
The most interesting piece of history evoked by this return to 1972 is that with the three consecutive A's world championships that began that year, they became the only team besides the Yankees to accomplish that feat. The Yanks won four in a row from 1936-39; five in a row from 1949-1953, and three in a row from 1998-2000. (They came within one inning of making the last one four in Arizona in 2001.)
None of the other great dynasties won more than two consecutive world titles. The Chicago Cubs, believe it or not, were the first, in 1907 and 1908, and apparently shot their wad. The Oakland franchise's Philadelphia predecessors did it twice, as did the Yankees, while the Boston Red Sox, New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and the Toronto Blue Jays accomplished it once each. The rigorous and unpredictable post-season makes it unlikely that anyone will do more than that for a good while.
In Honor of the All Star Game
In honor of tomorrow's annual renewal of the All Star Game, I'm running an article originally published at Suite101.com (and subsequently in this blogger's Even More Golden Age Baseball) which describes its origins and focuses on a great pitching feat which highlighted the second contest way back in 1934. Although I missed that spectacular achievement, it was still being discussed with awe in the 40's and 50's by those who heard it on the radio or read about it the next day. While the Summer Classic has had its share of dramatic home runs, fielding gems, and strikeouts, Carl Hubbell's performance has not been equalled. So here goes with "Putting the All Star Game on the Map"
Baseball's now-familiar All Star Game was launched as a supplement to the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Dreading an anemic turnout in that depth-of-Depression year, the Fair's sponsors welcomed the initiative of the local press to stage a contest that summer between the best players of the National and American Leagues. The AL won, 4-2, and, appropriately, the fabled Babe Ruth hit a home run.
While it was not immediately clear that the baseball "sideshow" would become an annual event, there was enough interest to try a second game, this time at New York's Polo Grounds in July 1934. Selected as the N.L.'s starting pitcher was Carl Hubbell of the Giants, who would be working on his home field. Hubbell, the previous year, had begun what was to be a run of five consecutive 20-victory seasons and an eventual ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was best known for a screwball that broke away from batters.
But Hubbell's opening efforts were far from auspicious. He yielded a single and a walk to the first two hitters and now would have to face Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx. Ruth, the holder then of all season and lifetime home run records, was already fading and would hit a personal low of 22 home runs that year. But Gehrig was still in the ascendancy and would bat .363 with a personal high of 49 home runs that season. And Foxx, who had set the home run record for right-handed hitters at 58 only two years earlier, would bat .344 with 44 homers in 1934. Undaunted, Hubbell employed his screwball to strike all three out.
With thousands of fans agog from that feat, Hubbell began the next inning by striking out Al Simmons, a former batting champion who would also hit .344 that year, and Joe Cronin, a lifetime .301 hitter, before allowing another man on base. His five consecutive victims, all future Hall of Famers, included three of the greatest sluggers of all time and a fourth who had once hit .390. The A.L.'s ultimate 9-7 win was decidedly anticlimactic.
Although Hubbell's accomplishment of that day has been largely forgotten, it was spoken of with awe by generations of baseball fans. Perhaps it was the background of the Depression, the big-name stars involved, the novelty of a game between the best of both leagues, or the powerful hold baseball had on much of the American public in that era.
Clearly, watching (or hearing) Carl Hubbell mow down five of the best in baseball caught the popular imagination and helped make the fledgling All Star game a much-anticipated annual institution.
A-Rod Ties Gehrig
Last week, Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez hit his 23rd career grand slam home run, tying a record held since the 1930's by Hall of Fame Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig.
Gehrig, of course, was more famous for a record broken in 1998 by Cal Ripkin. That was the 2,130 consecutive games that earned him the title of Iron Horse before he was cut down by the neuromuscular disease to which his name has ever since been attached.
But Gehrig was much more than two individual records that lasted a long time. He was a lifetime .340 batter, slugger of 493 home runs in only 14 full seasons, a Triple Crown winner (1934), three-time home run king, five-time runs-batted-in leader, and still holder of the American League's single-season record of 184 RBI's. From an awkward start, he made himself a fine-fielding first baseman, enough that for all-around performance, many rank him 1-2-3 at his position all-time.
Most career grand slams is not a record on the tip of the tongue of many baseball fans. But A-Rod, who up to two years ago was considered a reasonable bet to pass Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds with a new lifetime career home run mark, may have to settle for it as a consolation prize. As Ripkin can tell him, being associated with Gehrig is quite an honor.
Late Season Insurance
Casey Stengel's New York Yankees were unexpectedly holding off a charge from the Boston Red Sox in late August 1949 when they made a surprising acquisition. Long-time National League slugger Johnny Mize, a home run king the past two years with the cross-town New York Giants, had slipped to 18 homers at age 36. The Giants, far out of their pennant race and looking ahead to rebuilding, were willing to part with their erstwhile star first baseman.
Mize didn't do much in 13 games in September for the Yanks, but paid a big dividend with a game-winning pinch hit in Game 3 of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The following year, he stepped into a breach at first base, appearing in 90 games and blasting 25 homers to play a key role in a close repeat title run.
More than happy with Mize's contribution, the Yanks looked to the NL again and picked up Johnny Hopp, a multiyear .300 hitter now with the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 33. Hopp batted .333 in 19 games down the stretch and relieved Mize for defense in the World Series.
Although Hopp lasted only through part of 1952 with the Yanks, Mize provided some additional heroics, primarily as a pinch hitter through 1953. He was pressed into full-time service once more in the 1952 Series, responding with three home runs and a .400 batting average.
Hoping three would be a charm, the Yankees acquired former Boston Braves multiple 20-game winner Johnny Sain late in 1951. Sain's payoff came in the following three years, when he was a valuable reliever and spot starter, winning 14 and a Series game in '53 and saving 22 in '54. Later, he became the club's pitching coach.
The string finally ran out with the acquisition of former Cincinnati Reds star pitcher, Ewell Blackwell, late in 1952. Actually undefeated in three decisions that year and the next, Blackwell appeared in only 13 games altogether, and was injured most of the '53 season, after which he left the Yanks. Only 30 at the time, he had been expected to have a more substantial role.
Luck obviously played a part in the Yankees' unprecedented and probably never-to-be-equalled five world championships in a row from 1949 through 1953.
When Washington Ruled the Baseball World
Okay, it happened only once, and that was almost 90 years and two franchises back.. But the surge of today's Washington Nationals to the top of the National League East has many asking when their town last had a world champion.
I don't think I can do better than reprint an article on the 1924 Washington Senators I did some years back for Suite 101.com. Its focus is Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher ever, and the then reigning strikeout king. Think Stephen Strasburg in his twilight years after the expected Hall of Fame career. Here goes:
Walter Johnson's World Series
As the 1924 American League campaign drew to an end, Walter Johnson could look back on perhaps the most brilliant pitching career in baseball history. His eleventh season with 20 or more victories had brought him close to the 400-level topped only by Cy Young, and he held records for strikeouts and consecutive scoreless innings. But most significant, after pitching most of his eighteen years for losing teams, the "Big Train," as he was affectionately known, was going to the World Series with the Washington Senators' first pennant winner.
The Senators' consistent lack of success since the formation of their league in 1901 had given rise to the embarrassing gibe: "Washington-first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." But a new owner, Clark Griffith, a long-time player and manager, had taken over in 1920 and invested in hitting, fielding, and pitching talent to supplement Johnson. Perhaps his most prescient move was to designate his 27-year-old second baseman, Bucky Harris, as player-manager.
But baseball is nothing if not a game of ironies. Harris's men bounced back again to win the sixth game and, after trailing in the decisive seventh game, tied it in the eighth inning with the help of an error. Into the game came the briefly pitied old master to throw four innings of scoreless relief, long enough for the baseball fates to conjure up a winning combination for the Senators. It took a Giant catcher stumbling on his discarded mask to drop a pop foul, and a ground ball bouncing off a pebble for the game-winning hit, but the Washington team prevailed in 12 innings for its first--and only--world championship. And Walter Johnson, a charter Hall of Famer and considered by many the greatest pitcher of all time, finally had a World Series win.
As a post-script irony, the Senators repeated their AL victory in 1925 and, helped by two Johnson wins, took a seemingly insurmountable three games-to-one lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. But it was the Pirates who rallied this time to tie the Series and the Big Train who went to the well once too often, taking a bitter seventh game defeat
Names from the Past: Joe Gordon
Well launched into a new dynasty as the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees brought up a promising rookie second baseman, Joe Gordon, in 1938. His job was to fill the shoes of one of the holdovers from the late 1920's Murderers Row, Tony Lazzeri.
After a dozen years notable both for slugging and fielding, Lazzeri had slumped to .a career-low 244 in 1937. While batting only .255, Gordon made an impressive debut by hitting 25 home runs and driving in 97 runs in 127 games. His fielding was excellent enough to earn him the name of Flash, for the popular sci-fi comic strip and movie serial hero of the era, Flash Gordon. He was then and remained consistently at or near the top in putouts, assists, and fewest errors at his position.
Gordon got his batting average up to .284 in his second year and drove in over 100 runs for the first of three times with the Yankees. His best year was 1942, when he hit .322 with 18 homers and 103 RBI's and won the American League's Most Valuable Player Award. Despite his achievements, many observers felt the award shiould have gone to Ted Williams, who won the league's Triple Crown that season, but Teddy Ballgame was notoriously unpopular with many voting writers.
After a slump to .249 in 1943, Flash served in World War II for two years. Returning in 1946, he was reinstalled at second base even though his wartime replacement, Snuffy Stirnweiss, had won the batting titkle in 1945. Disappointingly, Gordon was one of several Yankees to underperform in that first postwar season, batting .210 with 11 home runs as the Yanks finished a distant third.
During the winter, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Allie Reynolds. It proved to be one of the most mutually beneficial baseball trades. Gordon rebounded to .272 with 29 home runs and formed a splendid double play combinmation with Indians playeer-manager Lou Boudreau. The following year, he was a pillar of the last Indians world championship team, batting .280 with career-high home run and RBI totals of 32 and 124, respectively. Reynolds for his part won 19 games and a World Series start in 1947 and became part of a pitching trio with Vic Raschi and Ed Lopat that sparked the Yankees to a record five straight world championships beginning in 1949.
Gordon played two more years in Cleveland and retired after the 1950 season. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009 by the Veterans Committee.
Names from the Past: Ernie Lombardi
Ernie Lombardi was an outstanding catcher, a lifetime .300 hitter, two-time batting champion, a seven-time All Star, and 1938 National League MVP who has totally faded into obscurity. Playing 17 years in the 1930's and 1940's, he was known as Schnozz for the size of his nose in an era marked by nicknames like Leo the Lip (Durocher), Goose (Goslin), King Kong (Keller), and Slats (Marion).
Schnozz began his career in 1931 with the Brooklyn dodgers, but had his most productive years with the Cincinnati Reds, winning his MVP in 1938 with a league-leading .342 batting average, and playing a major role in two pennant-winners the following two years. He spent one year with the Boston Braves in 1942, capturing his second batting title at .330, and concluded his tenure with five years on the New York Giants.
Besides a lifetime .306 batting average, Lombardi was admired for an accurate sidearm throw from a crouching position and he was considered a fine handler of pitchers. Ironically, one of the few memories of his playing days is from vintage filmed highlights. The abovementioned Yankee outfielder Keller knocked him over in a home plate collision that enabled two runs to score in the climactic Game 4 of the 1939 World Series. The episode became known as "Schnozz's Snooze" and unfairly diminished his fielding reputation.
The Hall of fame Veterans Committee, with a fuller appreciation of Lombardi's career, elected him to the Hall in 1986.
"Opening Day"-Jackie Robinson Book Review
Just finished reading "Opening Day-The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season." Written by Jonathan Eig and published in 2007, the book is a fast-moving review of the trials and responses of the man who broke baseball's color barrier.
Although Eig is primarily a financial reporter, he vividly captures the atmosphere on the field and in the clubhouse of a big league baseball team. He movingly recreates the post-war social setting that led some to challenge racial discrimination and others to cling to traditional separation. Refusing to portray one-dimensional good guys and bad guys, he records bigotry, selfishness, greed, and cowardice alongside courage, generosity, and vision, sometimes in the same people.
When you have read Eig's account, well documented in notes of conversations, articles, and memoirs, you will feel a deep appreciation of the obstacles that Robinson and his chief sponsor, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, faced and overcame in that historic and tumultuous first season for a black man in the major leagues. Jackie's widow, Mrs. Rachel Robinson, is clearly a major source for what her late husband was thinking and saying away from the glare of the ballfield, and she comes through clearly, if unintentionally, as a heroine of the struggle herself.
The book briefly reviews Robinson's life before baseball and spends somewhat more time on the sentiments and motivations of the American public in 1947 as the Rickey-Robinson experiment unfolded. But it's the almost week-by-week accounting of the life of the Robinsons and his steadily rising value to the Dodgers in the pennant race of that year that makes this a compelling read.
Jonathan Eig wrote one other baseball book before this one: "Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig." Any baseball book by this financial writer is probably a good investment.
Podres Stops the Yankees
Between 1941 and 1953, the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers met five times in the World Series. The Yanks won all five of what were dubbed Subway Series because of the access of both Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field to underground rapid transit.
Without the playoffs that were introduced in 1969, it was a lot less complicated to get into the Series in those days. All you had to do was beat out the other seven teams in your league over 154 games. So it wasn't surprising that in 1955, the star-studded Bronx Bombers of Mantle, Berra, and Ford and the fabled Brooklyn Boys of Summer featuring Campanella, Snider, and Jackie Robinson were back at each other in the Fall Classic.
Nor was it surprising that the Yankees won the first two games, leading many to expect a repetition of past results. But 1955 was to be different, largely because of the towering performance of a young and unheralded lefthanded pitcher. Johnny Podres was 22 and in his third year with the Dodgers. He had shown early promise with records of 9-4 and 11-7 in his first two seasons, but he had fallen to 9-10 in '55. With 20-game winner Don Newcombe and Billy Loes having taken losses, more hope than confidence was placed in Podres.
But the youngster, who had been beaten by the Yanks once in 1953, coolly responded with a complete-game seven-hit 8-3 taming of the Bronx club, inspiring two more victories by the revived Dodgers. The Yanks battled back in Game 6 to tie the Series, and Brooklyn manager Walter Alston handed the ball again to Podres for the deciding game, to be played at Yankee Stadium.
To the delight of Dodger fans, the young southpaw exceeded his Game 3 job with a 2-0, five-hit shutout to give the franchise its first World Series triumph after seven failed tries. His only scare came when Sandy Amoros had to race into the left field corner to snare a fly ball by Yogi Berra with a man on base. (The footage of that catch has become an icon of the 1955 Series and of the Dodger-Yankee rivalry.) Podres was naturally voted Series Most Valuable Player.
Unlike some surprise World Series heroes, Johnny Podres continued to excel in October. He beat the Chicago White Sox for the transplanted LA Dodgers in 1959 and the Yankees again in 1963 for a 4-1 Series record and a 2.11 earned run average. Overall, he was 148-116 with a 3.68 ERA. Pretty good, but he will always be remembered for 1955.
Harry the Hero: Brecheen Gets 3 Series Wins
The first postwar World Series in 1946 was supposed to be a clash of superstar sluggers between Boston's Ted Williams and St. Louis' Stan Musial. Instead, the hero's laurels went to lefty Harry (The Cat) Brecheen, only a 15-15 pitcher that season, who tied a Series record with three wins.
Brecheen had been brilliant in the last two wartime years, going 16-5 in 1944 and 15-4 in 1945, with a complete-game Series win in 1944 against the St. Louis Browns.. But a good number of pitchers saw their stats decline against the returned veterans, and Harry the Cat's .500 won-loss percentage seemed to place him in this category. Nevertheless, his superb earned run average of 2.49 was slightly better than the ERA's of his two clearly triumphant seasons.
When Cardinals 21-game winner Howie Pollet was beaten at home by a ninth inning home run in Game 1, Brecheen got the crucial comeback assignment the next day. He responded with a complete-game, three-hit shutout, 3-0, to even the Series. By the time he was called on again, the Red Sox had taken a three games to two lead. Once again, Brecheen came through, this time yielding seven hits in a complete-game, 4-1 win in Game 6.
Murry Dickson pitched seven brilliant innings for the Cards in the finale, taking a 3-1 lead into the eighth. but when he allowed a single and a double to the first two Sox batters, manager Eddie Dyer called for some more deliverance from Brecheen, his hot hand. Harry the Cat retired the first two batters he faced, but Dominic DiMaggio drove in the tying runs with a single before Williams made the final out.
Enos Slaughter's long-fabled run from first with the winning run in the bottom of the inning gave Brecheen a chance to redeem himself. Despite allowing singles to the two lead hitters, he retired the side without allowing a run, notching his third victory and making the Cardinals world champions again. Completely overshadowed by Brecheen's heroics were Williams and Musial, who hit .200 and .222, respectively. Neither these immortals nor Brecheen ever appeared in a World Series again.
Spring Training 1945
Baseball fans are treated today with live and delayed coverage of their favorites prepping for the season in sunny Florida and Arizona. I'm reminded, however, that in 1945, my first year as a fan, Spring training was very different.
The war was still on and rail transportation, the way teams got around in those days, was heavily devoted to troop movements and supplies. While Major League Baseball had kept going with the blessing and urging of President Roosevelt as a necessary national morale booster, the owners certainly didn't want to be interfering with the war effort.
So an agreement was reached with the government that for 1945, the clubs would do their preseason training close to home. Since the 16 franchises at that time were located no further south than Washington in the east and no further west than St. Louis, the understanding was that the spring sites would be north of the Potomac River and east of the Mississippi.
TodayinBaseball.com for March 15, 1945, shows training sites in Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland. The Yankees are listed at Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Boston Red Sox at Pleasantville, NJ. Curiously, the web site SpringTrainingonline.com shows the Yankees at Asbury Park, NJ, and the Sox at neighboring Tufts College, Medford, Massachusetts. Maybe plans were changed or they moved from one place to the other.
Whatever the case, besides lending the armed forces Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and a couple of hundred lesser players, northern spring training was another contribution to the war effort. By 1946, the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues were back in business.