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Golden Age Baseball VI
Snuffy Stirnweiss, Batting champion
The New York Yankees have long been known for their batting prowess, earning such tags as Murderers Row and the Bronx Bombers. Besides more than their share of the top home run hitters of all time, those winning the batting average title have included household names like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Don Mattingly.
Undoubtedly the least remembered is George (Snuffy) Stirnweiss, the Yankee second baseman in the last World War II year of 1945 who squeaked by with a .309 average, the lowest winning average in 40 years. Snuffy, who had a medical deferment from the draft, had batted .319 the year before and led the league in stolen bases while most of the stars were serving in the armed forces. They were the only two seasons in a ten-year career in which he batted over .300, eventually finishing with a .268 lifetime average.
In 1946, with frequent All Star second sacker Joe Gordon back from the service, Stirnweiss dutifully moved to third base and did a creditable job. After Gordon was traded to the Cleveland Indians, Snuffy moved back to second base and teamed with Phil Rizzuto to form a double play combination that helped the Yanks to the 1947 world championship. But 1948 was his last season as a Yankee regular. Rookie Gerry Coleman replaced him in 1949, and in 1950 he was sent to the St. Louis Browns.
Ironically, Carl Yastrzemski, one of the top hitters in Boston Red Sox history, set the all-time low for league-leading batting average with .301 in 1968. Yastrzemski had won the Triple Crown the year before, when his average was .321. Of course, 1968 was a year in which pitchers benefited from a higher mound and wider strike zone, resulting in the last 30-game winner (Denny McLain with 31) and Bob Gibson's greatest-in-decades 1.12 earned run average. Yaz was the only American Leaguer to bat .300 that year; the National League had five.
Also notable is that Stirnweiss's 1945 National League counterpart batting champion was Phil Cavarrretta of the Chicago Cubs, who hit .355. Cavarretta was a lifetime .293 hitter.
Stats from Baseball-Reference.com
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DiMaggio for Williams? The Trade That Never Happened
A persistent rumor, never documented, had it that Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey once agreed to exchange Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. The obvious mutual appeal of such a transaction was that the right-handed Yankee Clipper and the left-handed Sox Splendid Splinter could have been aiming at much more accommodating home run targets had they moved. DiMaggio would have gotten Fenway's Green Monster not much more than 300 feet from home plate instead of Yankee Stadium's distant left field fences, while Williams could have taken shots at a right field foul pole less than 300 feet away. I've heard several versions of the rumor, all of which agree that the owners were drinking one night and canceled the deal the next morning. What varies are the timing and the exact terms of the supposed abortive deal.
One on-line source I saw recently had it taking place in 1949. That would be impossible, because MacPhail was bought out by New York co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb immediately after the Yankee triumph in the 1947 World Series. (There are various stories of how the buyout occurred, but that's another episode.)
It could have been between the 1946 and 1947 seasons or early in the '47 season. DiMaggio had had a disappointing first year back from the war in 1946, batting below .300 for the first time, and would miss the first few games in 1947 with an injury. The apparently unsentimental MacPhail had had no personal prewar history with Joltin' Joe, and might have been willing to part with him as over the hill. It's less likely but conceivable that Yawkey thought the tempestuous Williams, who suffered a very bad press in Boston, was expendable if he could get a living legend (and still potent righty slugger) in return.
Another intriguing element appearing in some versions is that Yawkey insisted on Yankee rookie Larry (Yogi) Berra as part of the package. Yogi had come up to the Yanks at the end of '46 and was slated to stay in '47, either as a catcher or outfielder. Whether that was part of the canceled deal or the deal-breaker also remains unverified.
Speculating on how many home runs Williams would have added to his 521 career total or whether the inspirational DiMaggio would have sparked some of the hard-hitting and pitching-rich Sox to a pennant during their long dry spell can be fun.
Tommy Byrne-Wild and Sometimes Wonderful
The New York Yankees have had more than their share of pitching greats and pitching flops. One of the odder cases in between was lefty Tommy Byrne, consistently wild but a key contributor to three successful pennant runs.
Byrne was up briefly between 1943 and 1948, showing a blazing fast ball and not much control. But new manager Casey Stengel liked what he saw in spring training in 1949 and put him in the rotation with the soon-to-be fabled Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat. While Byrne proceeded to lead the American League in walks for the next three seasons, he produced 15 wins each in '49 and '50 to help the Yanks to their narrow pennant wins in those years.
Off to a mediocre start in 1951, Byrne was traded in June to the lowly St. Louis Browns, compiling losing season records through 1953 with three different teams. He got a second chance with the Yankees in five games in 1954 and again paid dividends with a 16-5 record in 1955. He got two starts in the World Series, winning a five-hitter in Game 2 and losing the famous clincher, 2-0, to Johnny Podres as the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first world title.
Byrne never came close to that peak again, and after lackluster sesons in 1956 and 1957, he retired. Yankee fans of a certain age will also remember Hall of Fame broadcaster Mel Allen regularly referring to him as "that good-hittin' pitcher." Tommy batted .238 for his career with 14 home runs and 98 runs batted in.
Johnny Pesky, Teammate
Johnny Pesky's death at 92 on August 13 reminded oldtimers as well as current Red Sox fans what a rarity he was, a universally beloved and admired man. Ironically, Pesky, who spent over 60 years with the Boston club, passed away in the season in which he helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city's famed Fenway Park. The Pesky Pole, known as the right field foul pole in all other parks, is the visible manifestation of the Red Sox Nation's devotion to their former All Star shortstop, coach, manager, and special adviser.
A .307 lifetime hitter, Johnny was an on-base leader as well as a far-ranging, sure-handed fielder. Uncharacteristically tagged as the "goat" of the 1946 World Series in the pre-video era for an alleged hesitation in a late relay as Enos Slaughter famously scored the winning run, he has been widely exonerated more recently by multiple replays of old film.
Pesky spent only seven full seasons as a Sox player, so it's obvious that it was his human qualities in the ensuing decades that uniquely won the hearts of Boston fans. My article below, first published at Suite101.com, tells the story of a remarkably enduring friendship and illustrates some of those qualities:
Ted Williams and Friends for Life
Winning teams are often credited with a "chemistry" or spirit that produces success above the sum of their parts, or the individual talents of the players. But four stars of the often disappointing Boston Red Sox of the 1940's and 1950's sustained their unique team spirit beyond the 20th century.
The Red Sox, winners of five of the first fifteen World Series, had not won even an American League pennant for almost twenty years when Bobby Doerr became their second baseman in 1937. Two years later, Ted Williams began a Hall of Fame career that marked him as one of the two or three greatest hitters in the history of the game. Dominic DiMaggio, younger brother of an already established Yankees superstar, took over the Fenway Park centerfield in 1940, and Johnny Pesky won the shortstop position in 1942. Except for military service, the four played side by side until the early 50's. Although each became a repeat All Star and a leader in some hitting or fielding department, the ball club won only one pennant, in 1946, and even that achievement was marred by a bitter seven-game World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
But it was after their playing days were over that the four demonstrated what team meant to them. While Doerr returned to the West Coast and Williams gravititated to the fishing grounds of southern Florida, DiMaggio and Pesky stayed in the Boston area. (Pesky in fact stayed with the Red Sox as a long-time coach.) And in that almost unimaginable pre-e-mail era, they managed to stay in close touch by phone, letter, and occasional visits. They shared each other's joys and setbacks, recreated treasured experiences, and even provided a sounding board for Terrible Ted, who could no longer rant at the Boston press.
Mortality encroached on the once-godlike Williams first. By 2001, at 83, he was in failing health, and it was clear that his periodic trips to Boston for charity events were over. DiMaggio, who spoke with him most often, became convinced that it would be necessary to visit Williams--and soon--if they wanted to see him again. At that time, Doerr was unable to leave his ailing wife, so DiMaggio, Pesky, and a Boston sportswriter they had become acquainted with drove to Florida to see their friend once more. (They drove because it was shortly after 9/11 and air transportation was somewhat uncertain.)
Their trip and their warm and nostalgic final visit with their most celebrated colleague were brilliantly chronicled by the late prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam in "The Teammates," published by Hyperion Books in 2002, shortly after Williams's death. Halberstam, best known for "The Best and the Brightest," a devastating analysis of our slide into VietNam, has also written a number of books on baseball. In fact, he came to admire the four Red Sox while researching "The Summer of '49," the story of one of the epic New York-Boston pennant battles.
Halberstam's flashbacks give a good account of the ballpark exploits of the four as well as their after-playing careers and family lives. But it is the decades-long friendship of the teammates that is the centerpiece of this classic of humanity in a baseball setting.
Five World Series in a Row
From 1949 through 1953, the New York Yankees won a record five consecutive world championships. While the feat was hailed as a remarkable achievement, it was hardly astounding, because the Yanks had won four in a row from 1936 through 1939. In fact, Joe DiMaggio, a rookie in 1936, was still playing, and hitting a home run, in the '51 Series.
Today, however, five in a row would be astounding. The New York team merely had to finish first in an eight-team league in the regular season and then prevail in a best-of-seven World Series. Not easy to do five times in a row, but considerably more doable than the additional chore today of winning two playoff series just to get to the World Series. The Yankees themselves manged it three consecutive times from 1998 through 2000 and came within an inning of a fourth in 2001, but otherwise, only the Toronto Blue Jays have managed two in a row since playoffs were introduced.
As for those Yankees of old, that five-year run was anything but easy. They nosed out the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the '49 season, had close races with the Cleveland Indians for the next three years, and had to come from behind in a bruising seven-game battle with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '52 World Series. Their streak ended when the Indians won a then-record 111 games to take the 1954 American League pennant.