The End of A Dynasty: the 1963 Yankees

September 1, 2015
Elston Howard

Elston Howard

By 1963 the New York Yankees were well established as baseball’s greatest dynasty. Stretching back to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the Yanks won championships with great regularity picking up three titles in the 1920s, five in the 1930s, four in the 1940s, and six in the 1950s. By 1963, they’d won two more in the 1960s (1961 and 1962) and were back in the World Series for the fourth consecutive time.

Manager Ralph Houk was an old backup catcher for the Yanks. In his third (and final) season in the Bronx he led his team to the American League pennant in all three of his seasons skippering them. So far he’d proven a worthy successor to Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel.

His catcher was league MVP Elston Howard (the first black player to be AL MVP). He hit .287 with a team leading 28 home runs and 85 RBIs were second on the team. He had an OPS+ of 141 and a team leading 5.2 WAR (BBREF version). His backup was 38-year-old Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Berra was in his final season but still managed to hit ..293 with a 139 OPS+ (1.3 WAR) and a .497 slugging percentage.

They caught a staff the consisted of one Hall of Fame lefty and a handful of pretty good pitchers. The Hall of Fame lefty was Whitey Ford. He went 24-7 with a 2.74 ERA, a staff leading 189 strikeouts, a 1.099 WHIP, and ERA+ of 129, and 4.3 WAR (good for second on the staff). It was second to Jim Bouton whose WAR was 4.8. Bouton was 21-7 with an ERA of 2.53, a 1.115 WHIP, 148 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 140, and a team leading six shutouts. The third pitcher was Ralph Terry who went 17-15 with an ERA of 3.22 and 114 strikeouts. Al Downing (before he threw the 715th home run pitch to Hank Aaron) was a 22-year-old rookie (he pitched 10 innings over the previous two seasons) who had 13 wins, 171 strikeouts, and whose 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings led the AL. Stan Williams at 9-8 was the only other pitcher with 20 or more starts. Righty Hal Reniff led the team with 18 saves, while lefty Steve Hamilton was second with five.

Around the horn, the infield consisted of first year starter Joe Pepitone, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, and Clete Boyer. Pepitone led the group with 27 home runs (second on the team) and a team leading 89 RBIs. His .271 average was also first for the group. Boyer had 12 home runs for second among the infielders, but had the lowest batting average with .251. He more than made up for that with his glove. The entire infield suffered from a common problem. None of them got on base all that much. Pepitone’s .304 was easily the highest OBP. Both Richardson and Kubek had a .294 OBP (you suppose they compared notes out at second?), while Boyer was a point higher at .295. In order first to third they had 23, 25, 28, and 33 walks. The infield bench was thin with only Phil Linz and Harry Bright getting into more than 15 games. Bright did the backup work at first, hit .236, and had seven homers. Linz backed up the rest of the infield. He hit better (.269) but had no power. At least his OBP hit .349.

The outfield was a shambles. Tommy Tresh held down center field, hit .269 with 25 home runs, 71 RBIs, more walks than strikeouts, an OPS+ of 140, and 4.1 WAR. Injuries to regular center fielder Mickey Mantle kept him to 65 games, but they were Mantle-like games. He hit .314 with 15 home runs, 35 RBIs, and OPS of 1.063, a team leading 196 OPS+, 40 walks (good for second on the team), and 2.9 WAR. Injuries also hampered regular right fielder Roger Maris. He hit ..269 (146 OPS+), had 23 home runs, 169 total bases, and 3.5 WAR. With regular left fielder Tresh in center, Hector Lopez did the bulk of the work in left. He hit .249 with 14 home runs, an OBP of .304, 52 RBIs, and -0.2 WAR. Ex-backup catcher John Blanchard and Jake Reed provided the outfield subs, with Blanchard doing much of the pinch hit work. He hit .225, had 16 home runs in 218 at bats, had an OPS+ of 113, and -0.2 WAR. Reed’s WAR was better at 0.2, while he hit .205 without a home run and one RBI. No other player was in more than 14 games.

The Yanks won 104 games in 1963 and were favorites to repeat as World Champions. They were second in most major hitting categories and first or second in most major pitching categories. They were, however, last in the league in walks and first in the AL in strikeouts. That could prove a problem in the World Series against a pitching heavy team. As luck would have it, they were up against an old opponent, the Dodgers, now displaced from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. It would be the first confrontation between the teams since the move West. But with Mantle back healthy and a solid staff they expected to win.

The End of a Dynasty: the 1963 Dodgers

August 29, 2015
Ron Perranoski

Ron Perranoski

There are a couple of misconceptions about the 1963 Dodgers. One is that they were never supposed to make the World Series. A second is that all they could do was pitch. In 1962 the Dodgers had taken eventual champion San Francisco to a three game playoff before losing the playoff in the third game. So reality is that Los Angeles was a formidable team a year early with both the MVP (Maury Wills) and the Cy Young Award  winner (Don Drysdale). Additionally Tommy Davis won the 1962 batting title and led the National League in RBIs. Allegations that the team could pitch but not hit fail when you understand that Davis repeated the batting title in 1963, the team finished first in stolen bases, and in the middle of the pack (in a 10 team league) in hitting, OBP, runs, hits, and even home runs (seventh). It wasn’t the 1927 Yankees, but the team could hit a little.

Walter Alston was in his 10th year managing the Dodgers. His record was 99-63 (almost a duplicate of 1962’s 101-61). He’d managed the Dodgers’ two previous World Series victories (1955 and 1959) and had supervised the move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958.

John Roseboro was the catcher. He’d replaced the legendary Roy Campanella in 1958 and maintained his job into 1963. He was solid, unspectacular, a good teammate and hit all of.236 with nine home runs and an OPS+ of 91 with 1.9 WAR (BBREF version).

The infield was also solid, and occasionally spectacular. Ron Fairly was at first. He hit .271 and had 12 home runs, good for third on the team. His 77 RBIs were second, while his OPS topped out at .735 (OPS+ 120) with 2.8 WAR. Jim Gilliam, a Brooklyn holdover, was at second. He hit .282, stole 19 bases, bunted well, was third on the team with 201 total bases, had 5.2 WAR (good for second on the team), played an excellent second base and did all those things managers wanted the two hitter to do. Maury Wills was the spectacular part of the infield. He hit .302, scored a team high 83 runs, stole 40 bases, and was credited with reestablishing the stolen base as an offensive weapon. It wasn’t really true but it was believed. Third base was in flux. Ken McMullen ended up playing more games there than anyone else, but hit all of .236 with neither power nor speed. By the time the World Series came around he was out of the lineup with Gilliam replacing him at third. That left second open and Dick Tracewski took over the position. He was a good fielder but hit .226 with one home run and 10 RBIs.

The outfield had two Davis’s and a Howard. The aforementioned Tommy Davis was in left field. He hit .326 to repeat as batting champion, and his home run total was second on the team at 16. His RBIs had fallen off to 88, but it still led the team. His OPS+ was 142 with a 3.9 WAR. The other Davis was center fielder Willie. He was generally a good fielder who could run. He hit only .245, but stole 25 bases and scored 60 runs, which equaled his RBI total. The power came from Frank Howard who was a genuinely huge man for the era. He played right field, hit .273, led the team with 28 home runs, had an OPS of .848 (easily first on the team), led all everyday players with and OPS+ of 150 and had 4.1 WAR.

The bench was long, if not overly good. Six players (including Tracewski mentioned above) were in 50 or more games and three more played at least 20 games. Wally Moon, at 122, played the most games. He hit .262 with eight home runs, 48 RBIs and 41 runs scored. Former Yankee Moose Skowron got into 89 games and had 19 runs scored, 19 RBIs, and four home runs. Doug Camilli was the primary backup catcher.

But no matter how much the Dodgers hitting was overlooked, the pitching dominated the team. Don Drysdale was the reigning Cy Young Award winner and went 19-17 with an ERA of 2.63 (ERA+ 114), 315 innings pitched, 251 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.091, and 4.7 WAR. But he’d ceded the ace title to Sandy Koufax. Koufax was 25-5 with an ERA of 1.88 (ERA+ 159), 11 shutouts, 306 strikeouts, 0.875 WHIP, and 9.9 WAR. All, except ERA+(which was second) were first among NL pitchers. All that got him the NL MVP Award and a unanimous Cy Young Award in an era when only a single Cy Young Award was given. The third pitcher was 1955 World Series MVP Johnny Podres. He went 14-12 with an ERA of 3.54, 1.311 WHIP, and 0.3 WAR. Pete Reichert and Bob Miller, neither of which figured in the World Series, were the other pitchers with double figure starts.

Ron Perranoski was the ace of the bullpen with a 16-3 record and21 saves. His ERA was 1.67 (ERA+ 179) with 4.5 WAR. Larry Sherry (another World Series hero–this time in 1959), Dick Calmus, and Ed Roebuck were the other bullpen men with 20 or more appearances. Sherry had three saves.

The Los Angeles hitting was underrated in 1963, but the pitching was first rate. If the pitching did its job, and the hitting did much of anything at all, it was a team that could compete with the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Making the Switch

August 29, 2015

Recently Precious Sanders over at The Baseball Attic did an article on Roger Bresnahan that reminded me he’d originally been a pitcher. Of course he’s now a Hall of Fame catcher. She and I commented back and forth about players who’d started as pitchers and ended up as everyday players (and everyday players who’d gone the other way). So all that led me to see if I could field a complete team (one man at each position plus 2 pitchers who’d originally been fielders) of players who had moved from the mound to the field. Here’s one:

1b George Sisler (Hall of Fame)

2b Jack Dunn

SS Monte Ward (Hall of Fame)

3b Nixie Callahan

OF Babe Ruth (Hall of Fame), Lefty O’Doul, Smokey Joe Wood

C Roger Bresnahan (Hall of Fame)

DH Rick Ankiel

P Bob Lemon (Hall of Fame) and Bucky Walters

I’m sure that a bit more searching around could produce a better team.  I purposefully left out Stan Musial who made the switch in the minors. Of note is that most of them occur in very early MLB history. It isn’t so common to make the switch at the Major League level anymore. Obviously in the case of the Hall of Famers, it worked out pretty well.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting and pass it along.

BTW if you get a chance, make sure you take a look at The Baseball Attic. Certainly worth a look.

“If I’d Only Gotten to be a Doctor for Five Minutes”

August 27, 2015
Cover of "Chasing Moonlight"

Cover of “Chasing Moonlight”

Alright, admit it, you’ve all seen the movie Field of Dreams and you’ve fallen in love with an utterly obscure ballplayer named Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham. It’s OK to admit it, team. All of us have taken the plunge. All of us have taken the plunge into the frankly maudlin scene where Burt Lancaster delivers the line above. Maybe the best plunge was taken by two writers who, in 2009, wrote a biography of the now legendary player.

Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of “Field of Dreams” Doc Graham is a fairly short biography of Graham by authors Brett Friedlander and Robert Reisling. They admit to having never heard of Graham before the movie and being curious when they discovered he was a real ballplayer. So they set out to do research on him and the book is the happy result of their efforts.

The book follows Graham’s life from his birth in North Carolina to a fairly substantial family. His father was the first superintendent of schools in Fayetteville, North Carolina and the son was well-educated. He also played ball well and was one of a number of men of the era who used sports as a way to make money to finance his career dreams. In Graham’s case that was to become a doctor.

The baseball stuff is toward the beginning of the book and details the life of a career minor leaguer (and that one special day in 1905 when he played right field for the Giants) who was intelligent and working toward a medical degree in the off-season. His “moonlighting” as an intern and student led, the authors believe, to the famous nickname.

But the bulk of the book and to me the best part concerns Graham’s life after he left baseball. He migrated to Chisholm, Minnesota, settled down, got married, became the town’s doctor, and spent years as the school district’s physician. He became briefly famous in the 1940s for a paper he wrote about children and high blood pressure, but essentially settled into the quite, normal, perhaps tedious life of a small town doctor.

The book is a fascinating study of small town American life in the first half of the Twentieth Century and is worth reading for that alone. Throw in the baseball aspects and you’ve got a book most ball fans will like. The book is available in paperback for under $10 at Amazon.com and can be purchased at a number of other online sites. Worth checking out, team.

And by the way, Dwier Brown, who played Daddy Kinsella in Field of Dreams has written a book about his life and how his experiences with the movie changed it. Haven’t read it, but when/if I do, I’ll drop a short review here.

The Councilman

August 25, 2015
Billy Rogell

Billy Rogell

I’ve typed this before, but it bears repeating. My grandfather once told me there were three things you never discussed in public: politics, religion, and sports. Eventually you’d quit discussing and start arguing. The only thing worse was to combine two of them in the same discussion. I’ve discovered there’s a lot of truth to that, but I’m going to break that rule (as I’ve done before with Billy Sunday and Count Sensenderfer) and do a little bit on a man who combined two. In his case it was sport and politics, and he did both well. His name was Billy Rogell.

Rogell came out of Springfield, Illinois to play shortstop in the big leagues in 1925. He’d done well in the minors and the Red Sox tried him at second base. They also tried to make him give up switch hitting and concentrate on hitting right-handed. Needless to say the change in batting stance and playing out of position made him ineffective (he hit a buck ninety-five with no power) and got him sent back to the minors. He resurfaced in 1927, did better. Played in 1928, and was let go by Boston. After another year in the minors, Detroit picked him up for the 1930 season.

Again, he didn’t do particularly well, but by late 1931 he’d become the Tigers regular shortstop. He hit .303 in 48 games and played a solid short. He remained the Tigers primary shortstop through the 1930s. Teaming with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, he helped form one of the best keystone combinations of the era. He hit well (generally in the .270s) with little power (the nine home runs he hit in 1932 was his peak), a good eye (he tended to walk about twice as often as he struck out), and his WAR (BBREF version) floated between 2.0 and a high of 5.1 in 1935. He led the American League in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, and double plays a few times, but almost always was in the top three or four in the AL in most fielding categories.

He helped Detroit to consecutive AL pennants in 1934 and 1935. In the former year the Tigers lost a seven game World Series to the St. Louis “Gas House Gang.” He hit .276 for the Series with four RBIs and eight hits. In the famous incident involving the beaning of Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, Rogell was the man who threw the ball.  He was such a competitor that when told he’d hit Dean in the head, he responded, “If I’d known his head was there, I’d have thrown the ball harder.” In 1935 Detroit won the Championship with Rogell hitting .292 with seven hits, including a pair of doubles.

By 1938 he was 33 and fading, although he set a Major League record by walking in seven consecutive plate appearances in August (three games were involved). He had a bad year in 1939 and was traded to the Cubs. He was through. He hit all of .136 in 33 games. He retired at the end of the season, but returned to baseball as a minor leaguer in 1941.

Hugely popular in Detroit, Rogell ran for public office in 1941 and was elected to the City Council. Except for a two-year break, he remained in City Government into 1980. Much of his emphasis was on public works and he chaired the committee that built the modern Detroit airport (the road leading into the airport is named for him). In retirement he was chosen to throw out the first pitch in the final game at Tiger Stadium. Returning to retirement, he died in 2003 at age 98.

For his baseball career he hit .267 with an OBP of .351, slugged .370, and had an OPS of .722 (OPS+ 85 and 23.7 WAR–again BBREF version). His WAR peaked in 1933 at 5.3 (he was also above 4.0 in 1934 and 1935). He had 1375 hits, 256 doubles, 75 triples, and 42 home runs for 1907 total bases. He scored 757 runs and had 610 RBIs to go with 82 stolen bases and 649 walks.

Teaming with Gehringer he made the Tigers a formidable defensive team up the middle. Although he didn’t hit nearly as well as Gehringer, Rogell was still a good enough hitter. He’s never gotten much push for the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t.

Billy Rogell was an example of something that was missing in baseball for a long while, the civic-minded sportsman. We’re seeing it begin to return at least a little as teams realize the good PR that can be gained by having their team at least appear civic-minded. It seems that in Rogell’s case it was, as 38 years on the Detroit City Council would prove, much more than appearance.

The Schedule Man

August 20, 2015
Nat Strong

Nat Strong

From its beginnings, Negro League baseball was always dependent on at least toleration from the majority white society around it. The teams needed white permission to use the best parks, they needed an OK from the local political leadership to obtain the requisite paperwork to hold a game. Additionally in New York they needed Nat Strong.

Born in 1874, Nathaniel “Nat” Strong, in the first decade of the 20th Century, became the primary booking agent for black teams wanting to play games in New York City. He attended City College in New York, moved into the Sporting Goods business (he worked for Spaulding), and gained control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the premier black professional team in Brooklyn. He moved in 1906, along with other entrepreneurs, to form the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs. As secretary of the Association, he was in charge of scheduling games for the Association and for determining which teams would be allowed to play games against Association members. That gave him a lot of clout in black baseball and he used it to set himself up as the man in charge of scheduling games for black teams wanting to play in the New York market. He was apparently pretty good at it because he quickly became the “go to” guy for scheduling in the Greater New York area. To some, Strong became known as “The Schedule Man.” He made a lot of money off the scheduling (he charged 10% of the team gate cut on top of a normal scheduling fee) and was able to purchase interest in the New York Black Yankees. That, with ownership of the Brooklyn club plus ownership of some of the best white semi-pro teams like the Bushwicks, gave him almost total control over scheduling Negro League games in New York. Not only could he control the scheduling of games between two black teams, he could now control scheduling of games that pitted a black team against a white team in the New York area. His power was such that when the Lincoln Giants tried to schedule games without going through him, he was able to have them thrown out of the Association.

Needless to say, he didn’t have a lot of friends in the Negro Leagues leadership. Rube Foster hated having to go through Strong to schedule games in New York. Part of Foster’s reasoning for forming the Negro National League was to get around Strong’s stranglehold on New York games (but I should emphasize it wasn’t the major factor in Foster’s decision to form the NNL). Foster’s determination to have his NNL schedule its own games, gave rise to a sort of compromise between the two men. Foster’s NNL was based mostly in the Upper Midwest, while Strong’s base of power was in the East. Although no formal agreement was made (at least not one I can find), the two men each controlled their scheduling in their part of the country without significant interference from the other. It cut into Strong’s power, but certainly didn’t curtail it.

Strong maintained a major position in the Negro League world until his death in 1935. His position was so strong that the balls used by teams he scheduled were stamped “Made Especially for Nat C. Strong.” That’s clout, people.

It’s tough to evaluate Strong. He’s one of the most important people in early black baseball, but he wasn’t well liked by the black baseball community. He made money, lots of it. That seems to have been his major motivation, not the improvement of the lot of black baseball players or owners. In short, he was a mercenary in many ways. He did make black baseball available to people who might not have otherwise seen the teams play, but he got awfully rich doing it. The old political columnist Drew Pearson used to say “In this country all the right things get done for all the wrong reasons.” Nat Strong is a good example of that.

Deadball Losses

August 18, 2015

By way of something of a sneak peek at my next My Little Hall of Fame class, here’s a line of stats on three different Deadball Era pitchers. The stats in order are Wins/Losses/ERA/Strikeouts/ERA+/WHIP/WAR (BBREF version)

373/188/2.13/79/2507/135/1.058/95.3

249/205/2.63/50/1651/118/1.209/67.1

239/130/2.06/55/1375/139/1.066/55.1

Take a second and look over all three lines. Good pitchers all, right? All are in the Hall of Fame. All of them pitched at least part of their careers at the same time in the same league. One of them took a lot longer to get into the Hall than the other two.

The guy on top is Christy Mathewson. By anyone’s reckoning a Hall of Famer. In fact he got in on the very first election ever. The Third guy is Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, the ace of those Chicago Cubs teams that won a slew of games in the 1906-1910 era. His last game was 1916 and he made Cooperstown in 1949 (a year after he died). The middle guy is Vic Willis. His last game was 1910 and he finally made the Hall of Fame via the Veteran’s Committee in 1995.

You really don’t have to look too closely to see that Matty is better than the other two, although Brown won an inordinate number of their head-to-head confrontations including their most famous matchup, the replay of the “Merkle Boner.” But in ERA Brown is better, his WHIP is almost equal. Willis is the weakest of the three, especially if you use the newer SABR style statistics. But he’s not significantly weaker. Well, except for one big number, he’s the only one with 200 losses.

We’ve decided over the last couple of dozen years that wins and losses for pitchers aren’t really that important a statistic. And that’s probably true, especially in an era of five or six inning starters and lefty-specialist relievers and closers who can’t throw more than a dozen or so pitches without needing a week and a half off. But I think it’s less true of Deadball Era pitchers.

It’s an era when pitchers were expected to go nine innings (or more in case of ties) and bullpens were the place they put the washed up has-beens, or the new guys, or some guy just coming off an injury. So the starter in 1915 had a lot more influence on the entirety of the game than does the starter in 2015. So maybe a “win” or a “loss” isn’t the best way to measure a pitcher in any era, but in the Deadball Era it had a lot more resonance.

All of which brings me to Willis’ loss total. It’s bigger than the others by quite a lot. More significantly he leads the National League in losses twice: 1904 and 1905. His win-loss totals for those two seasons are 18-25 and 12-29. Just looking at those numbers tells us that Willis is a bum, right? But that’s the problem with looking at wins and losses. His ERA’s are 2.85 and 3.21 (in order). Those aren’t great ERA numbers for the Deadball Era, but they’re not terrible either (the 3.21 is the third worst of Willis’ career). His WHIP is 1.331 and then 1.307. Again, neither are the worst of his career. In both years his strikeouts are greater than his walks (you noticed the WHIP and figured that out, right?) and his innings pitched are more than his hits allowed (also reflected in the WHIP) in 1904, but that’s reversed in 1905. His BBREF WAR for the two years are 3.0 and 3.2 (again in order). Those are greatly inferior to the years around them (8.8, 8.4, 6.1 in the three years prior and 8.2 the year after–Willis’ last big year).

My point here is that Willis has a good career with two weak years, one with a bad Boston (Braves, not Red Sox) team and a rebuilding Pirates team, and those two years give him 54 losses (151 in all other years combined). I think those loss numbers made it much harder for Willis to get into the Hall of Fame than they should. Although I believe that win-loss records are more significant for Deadball Era pitchers than for modern pitchers, the overemphasis on them created a problem that hurt Willis is the long run. I guess all that means that in general I agree that too much time is spent looking at win-loss records and not enough time looking at other things when evaluating a pitcher.

Rattle the Pitcher

August 13, 2015

 

Jackie did it a lot better than me

Jackie did it a lot better than me

Unfortunately I have to admit to being something of an obnoxious jerk when I was playing youth baseball (And I hear those “Something? Did he say Something, just something of an…?”). I wanted to win, I wanted my team to win (and unfortunately that order is probably right for that time in my life), I wanted to excel. Well, I had limited talent, but I did have a good eye and could run. Of course that got me the leadoff spot on my team and made the stolen base a major part of my arsenal.

Did you ever notice how many youth league baseball pitchers can throw the ball, but don’t really know much else about pitching (It’s also true of a lot of big leaguers too.)? Most of them can’t figure out how not to balk or how to speed up a throw to the catcher to pick off a runner. Well, this is the story of one of them and of me and how I scored four runs without ever hitting the ball (and, as usual, all conversations approximated after 50 years).

We were well into a season (I think I was 12) when we had a late game (that’s 8 o’clock) against one of the middle-of-the-pack teams in our league. We’d faced their “ace” a time or maybe two already and I always made a point to study a pitcher. If you couldn’t hit for power and had to rely on walks and speed you studied the pitcher. This one had a couple of quirks, the most important of which is that he rattled easily with men on base. Well, that being the case, I was just obnoxious jerk enough to take advantage of it.

I led off the game and took four straight pitches for a walk. So down to first I went and while the pitcher was fuming about walking the first man, I took off for second. No one called time, the pitcher was standing like an idiot on the mound paying no attention to me, so why not? I was safe without a throw. Next, I took a giant lead off second. I was so far off the bag that I could just barely make it out on the horizon (It’s that little white thing off in the distance, right?). The shortstop was yelling at the pitcher to watch the runner. So he did. He turned and instead of running toward me, threw the ball to the bag. No one was on the bag (the shortstop was dogging me and the second baseman was playing his position) so the ball sailed into center where the fielder was staring at some girl in the stands (or something) and I managed to come all the way home standing up. One run for the good guys.

A couple of innings later I came up again and again took four for a walk (I think there was a strike or two thrown in this time). Down at first, I took my lead and the kid looked over his shoulder at me. He spun, tossed the ball to first, and I was safe by a mile. OK, pitcher, you want to play, fine.

“Hey, dimwit,” I yelled. “I’m not going until the second pitch.” I don’t know whether he believed me or not, but he threw the ball home. Of course now I’m committed to going on the second pitch or looking like a liar (Would I lie about something like that? Seriously, would I?). I know he didn’t believe me about the second pitch because he threw home without even looking at me. I was safe easily. So I took another lead and yelled “Second pitch again, dimwit.” He spun, flipped the ball to the shortstop. Of course I hadn’t moved so nothing happened. He threw home, I didn’t move. He took his stretch, I led off. He threw, I broke for third and was safe again. “OK, dimwit, second pitch again.” By now my coach (who was the third base coach) was telling me to “put a sock in it.” You know I didn’t listen, don’t you. So I took my lead and the pitcher stared at me. I led off a little more. He brought up his arm and out fell the ball. “Balk, ” called the ump and I had my second run.

As luck would have it there was no one on when I came up for the third time. By now the pitcher hated me. So the first pitch almost clipped my head. The next almost got my elbow. OK, now that’s ball one and ball two. “Two more and I’m on first, dimwit.” Of course that did it. The next one knocked me down. Ball three. “Try again, dimwit.” Now the ball soared a foot over my head and I was on first again. “Hey, dimwit, second pitch again.” After the first pitch to our two hitter the catcher came out to talk to the pitcher. I waited. The stretch, the pitch. Oops, it’s a pitch out. You know they were thinking “we got that obnoxious jackass.” Except that the rattled pitcher now threw the ball eight feet over the catcher’s head and by the time it bounced halfway back to first I was safe on third. Now to get home. So I took a giant lead and the pitcher threw to third. This one didn’t go eight feet over the third baseman’s head, it went eight feet to his left and I scampered home with my third run.

I had one more at bat and this time the pitcher wasted no time. He plunked me solid in the ribs with the first pitch. OK, you got your revenge, but did you notice that I’m on base again? So down the line I went. About halfway I stopped and told him “First pitch this time, dimwit.” He apparently believed me. He toed the rubber. I led off. He spun (he was right handed) and faked a throw. That’s a balk and I’m free to second. And that was all for the pitcher. Out came his coach. In came the third baseman to pitch while the ex-pitcher went to third. While the new guy was warming up the ex-pitcher glared at me I waved at him and held up two fingers. The catcher must have seen the motion because he went out to the mound and talked with the new pitcher. The first pitch was a ball (I think) then came the second pitch. I took off and the pitcher threw to the plate. Or he threw at the plate. The ball bounced a couple of feet in front of the plate and went over the catcher’s head. I was about two feet from third when the ex-pitcher threw a great body block into me (the football coach would have been proud). He went down. I went down. It was interference. But I didn’t know that, so I reached over to grab the bag. Apparently the catcher saw me do so and heaved the ball to third. I don’t know who he was throwing to because the third baseman was on the ground with me but the ball sailed high and out into left. I got up, dashed for home, and scored my fourth run. I’m not sure what the ruling was on it (I don’t know if the ump should have stopped the play or not, but he didn’t) but I was home with four runs and not one time had I touched the bat to a ball (not even a foul).

It was a big day for me. I’d scored four runs and we’d won the game (I don’t recall the score, only that we won). Then came the postgame commentary from the coach. Something about being a good sport on the diamond and not showing up the other guys. At least I think that was what it was about. I was way too pleased to notice. Besides, I knew he couldn’t be talking to me.

50 Years On: The Falling Team

August 11, 2015
Mel Stottlemyre

Mel Stottlemyre

It was simply assumed that the New York Yankees would win. After all, they always did. Between 1936, Joe DiMaggio’s rookie campaign, and 1964, Yogi Berra’s last year with the club, they’d won more than 20 pennants. So it came as something of a shock when the 1965 version of the Yanks fell into the second division of the American League by finishing sixth. Fifty years ago the Yankees began a tumble that lasted a decade.

The manager was Johnny Keane. He seemed a worthwhile choice. In 1964 he managed the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards defeated the Yanks in seven games to win the World Series. The result saw New York manager Yogi Berra fired and Keane move over from St. Louis to replace him. It didn’t work. Keane suffered through a terrible season, saw the Yankees start 4-16 in 1965 and was fired. He died the next year.

In a pitching rich environment, the Yankees staff was only acceptable. They finished in the middle of the pack in most categories. Although they were a league third best in strikeouts, they were sixth (of 10) in walks and seventh in hits. The aces were right hander Mel Stottlemyre and lefty Whitey Ford. Ford was 36 and not aging particularly well (although 1965 wasn’t a bad year for him). He was 16-13 with a3.24 ERA (ERA+ of 105 and a BBREF WAR of 3.8 that was second on the team–pitchers or hitters). He was still a good strikeout pitcher but his hits allowed were getting dangerously close to being worse than his innings pitched (244 to 241). Stottlemyre, on the other hand, was 23 and had a great year. He was 20-9, had an ERA of 2.63 with an ERA+ of 129 and a team high WAR of 6.8. Al Downing (who is most famous for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th homer), Jim Bouton (of Ball Four fame), and Bill Stafford were the only other pitchers to start double figure games. You know you’re in trouble when two of your pitchers are more famous for doing something other than pitching for your team. They were a combined 19-37 with Downing’s 3.40 being the low ERA (he also had the highest ERA+ with 100). Bouton also gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. Pedro Ramos, a converted starter, with his 2.92 ERA had the closer role. He picked up 18 saves (the rest of the bullpen had 10 total), but his hits and innings pitched were a wash and he had only four more strikeouts than walks. Hal Reniff, Pete Mikkelsen, and Steve Hamilton were the only other men to pitch at least 20 games (although Jack Cullen got in 59 innings in nine starts). Hamilton’s 1.39 ERA led the team and his 2.5 WAR was third on the staff.

If the staff was mediocre, it was the hitting that really hurt New York. Although the team finished fifth in home runs and slugging, their ninth place finish in average, OBP, walks, and stolen bases was much more in line with their general run of statistics (in a 10 team league). It was an aging team with six of eight starters at 29 or older with three at 33 or older.

Catcher Elston Howard was the oldest man on the team (eight months older than Ford). A former MVP, he was aging terribly. He hit .233 with an OBP of .278 and an OPS+ of 77. There were nine home runs, 45 RBIs, and a terrible walk to strikeout ratio (24 to 65). Doc Edwards, Jake Gibbs, and holdover from 1961 Johnny Blanchard all backed him up. Howard’s .233 was easily the top average among the four, with neither Blanchard nor Edwards reaching the Mendoza Line. they combined for four home runs and 19 RBIs. Gibbs’ 0.3 WAR was the only WAR in positive numbers (Howard’s was 1.0).

The infield of Joe Pepitone, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, and Clete Boyer weren’t much better. Only Boyer, the third baseman, managed to hit over .250 (he had .251). He and first sacker Pepitone both had 18 home runs (tied for third on the team). Second baseman Richardson’s OBP was all of .287 while Kubek’s .258 was lowest of all the starters. Only Richardson had a decent walk to strikeout ratio. Partially in compensation, the infield was pretty good defensively, with Boyer being the standout. His 2.9 WAR led all hitters. Pepitone’s was 1.0 and the other two were in negative WAR.

It’s not like the bench was better. Horace Clark, Ray Barker, and Phil Linz were the main backups, but none hit above .254. Barker (who was already 29) did tag seven home runs, but he was the backup first baseman. There was a little hope deep down the roster. Bobby Murcer was 19 and listed as a shortstop. He’d later move to the outfield and become a Yankees stalwart.

Mickey Mantle, Tom Tresh, Hector Lopez, Roger Repoz, and Roger Maris did almost all the outfield work. It had been a formidable outfield a few years back, but had fallen on hard times by 1965. Mantle was 33 and ailing (he played in 122 games). He’d moved to left field and hit .255 with 19 home runs. The latter was good for second on the team. Tresh was the team leader with 26. He hit .279 and led the team with 74 RBIs. Maris was out much of the season and got into only 46 games. He hit .239 with eight home runs and his 126 OPS+ was third among people playing in more than 14 games. Lopez, his replacement, had seven home runs, hit .261 and ended up with a WAR of 0.5 (Mantle was at 1.8 and Maris at 0.7). Repoz hit .220 with a WAR of 0.2, but he did manage 12 home runs, fifth on the team. Again, there was hope deep down the roster. Twenty-one year old Roy White got into 14 games and hit .333. He would take over in the outfield later and help lead a resurgent team in the 1970s.

So what went wrong? Apparently a lot of things (some of which I’m sure I’m going to miss). First, Keane seems to have been a lousy fit for the Yanks. I found a couple of stories very critical of his managing skills. Now it may be that it’s simply a case of trying to find a scapegoat without blaming the players or it may be that he had the bad timing to replace New York legend Yogi Berra (who’d just won an American League pennant in his one year as manager) and simply couldn’t be forgiven for that sin, but it does seem that there’s too much criticism to not have some bit of truth in it. Secondly, the hitting got old, seemingly all at once. In 1963 Howard is MVP. In 1964 he’s still good. In 1965 he puts up the numbers quoted above. In 1964 Mantle hits .303 with 35 home runs and 111 RBIs. In 1965 he puts up the number listed above. Pepitone and Richardson also had numbers much below the previous season. Third, Maris was hurt and Hector Lopez wasn’t Roger Maris. As importantly as all that, the pitching wasn’t good enough to compensate for what happened to the offense. Stottlemyre had a good year. Ford’s year wasn’t Ford-like, but it wasn’t awful either. The rest of the staff was competent, but not spectacular (the spectacular pitchers  were in the National League). But competent simply wasn’t good enough to overcome the hitting woes. There also wasn’t much of a bench either. Go to Baseball Reference.com and look it over. Tell me who you like (other than the really new guys Murcer and White).

For the Yanks it began a long fall that bottomed out the next year when they finished last in a ten team league. It took until 1970 for them to show a spark of the old Yankees teams. From there it was a gradual rise until they made the 1976 World Series and then won the Series in both 1977 and 1978.

50 Years On: the Team on the Rise

August 6, 2015
Al Worthington baseball card

Al Worthington baseball card

Between 1936 and 1964 the New York Yankees absolutely dominated the American League. They won every pennant but a handful. Detroit won two (1940 and 1945), Cleveland had two (1948 and 1954), St. Louis (1944), Boston (1946), and Chicago all got one (1959). All the others belonged to New York. That streak came to an end fifty years ago at the hands of a very unlikely franchise; a franchise that seldom won much of anything, the Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins.

The 1965 Twins were new to Minnesota, having moved from Washington in 1961. They finished seventh in 1961, moved to second in 1962, dropped back to third the next season, then slid all the way to sixth in 1964. In 1965 they finally broke through, winning the AL pennant by seven games over the White Sox with the Yanks collapsing all the way to sixth, 25 games out of first. That was fifty years ago and that makes it as good a time as any to look at both teams.

The Twins went 102-60 in 1965. It was a pitching era dominated by great hurlers, especially in the National League. That being said, Minnesota won with their hitting. The team led the AL in runs, hits, doubles, and average. It came in second in triples, total bases, OBP, slugging and OPS. They were fourth in home runs and stolen bases. By contrast, the pitchers ranked in the middle of the pack in most stats. Their high was third in ERA (and in earned runs allowed) and the low was seventh in strikeouts. They did manage to finish second in saves, which was still a new stat and not viewed the same way we view it today.

The manager was Sam Mele. He was Minnesota’s first manager, taking up the reigns in 1961. He lasted through 50 games in 1967. His overall record was 524-436 and the Twins were his only managerial stint. After being fired, he ended up working for the Red Sox until his retirement.

The pitching staff was, as mentioned above, not the heart of the team, but it was sufficient to put a pennant on the flag pole in Minnesota. Four men started more than 12 games. Jim Kaat started 42 of them. He went 18-11 with an ERA of 2.83 (126 ERA+ and a BBREF WAR of 0.4). His WHIP was 1.248. He led the team with 154 strikeouts, but gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. He could also hit a little, racking up a home run, nine RBIs and a .247 average (an OPS+ of 63). The ace was another Jim, Jim “Mudcat” Grant. He was 21-7 with an ERA of 3.30 (ERA+ of 108 and a 2.7 WAR). Another Jim, this time Perry, started 19 games. He went 12-7 with a 2.63 ERA (136 ERA+ and 2.5 WAR). Veteran Camilo Pascual was 9-3 in 27 games, all starts, had an ERA of 3.35 (107 ERA+ and 0.7 WAR) and struck out 96. Dave Boswell was 20 and Jim Merritt was 21. Both started a few games and ended up with ERA+ numbers over 100.

The bullpen, which was set up differently in 1965 than today, was led by Al Worthington. He had 21 saves, a2.13 ERA, and a team leading ERA+ of 168. He got to the big leagues in 1953, didn’t do much as a starter, and by 1959 was in the bullpen. In 1965 he was 36 with three more good seasons still ahead of him (including an AL leading 18 saves in 1968).

Earl Battey did the bulk of the catching with Jerry Zimmerman as his primary backup. Battey was a decent catcher (his caught stealing rate was a league leading 48%) who hit reasonably well. In 1965 he hit .297, walked more than he struck out, had six home runs, and 60 RBIs. His 3.2 WAR was sixth on the team. Zimmerman hit .214.

The normal infield consisted of Don Mincher, Jerry Kindall, Zoilo Versalles, and Rich Rollins from first around the horn to third. Shortstop Versalles had a career year hitting .273 with a 115 OPS+ and 7.2 WAR. It got him the AL MVP award. He led off for Minnesota and stole 27 bases while being caught only five times. Hidden in an OBP of .319 are 122 strikeouts, about three for every walk he took. Mincher was a bopper who hit .251 with 22 home runs (fourth on the team). Both Kindall and Rollins were mediocre hitters, who by World Series time were spending a lot of time on the bench. Kindall hit all of .196 and was replaced by Frank Quilici, who at least hit .200 (actually .208). Rollins’ problem was simple; he had to make room for Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew was hurt during the year and Rollins replaced him. When “Killer” returned, Rollins was bench material. Killebrew was problematic at best at third. Never much of a fielder (to call the arm “scatter arm” is to do a grave injustice to “scatter armed” infielders everywhere), Killebrew played third like he should have been a first baseman (or an outfielder, or a designated hitter, or…), but the Twins needed the bat and Mincher was at first. Killebrew hit .269 with 25 home runs in 400 at bats. He had 75 RBIs and 72 walks (to go with 69 strikeouts) and put up an OPS+ of 145 to go with 4.3 WAR (third on the team). In other words, it was your normal Harmon Killebrew year.

The outfield was the domain of five men: Bobby Allison, Jimmie Hall, Tony Oliva, Joe Nossek, and Sandy Valdespino. Both Allison and Hall had power. Each hit at least 20 home runs (23 for Allison, 20 for Hall) while Valdespino was a superior fielder. The star was Oliva. He hit a league leading .321 to win his second consecutive batting title. His 185 hits also led the AL. He had 16 home runs and 98 RBIs to go 107 runs scored and 283 total bases. His OPS+ was 141 and his WAR 5.4. Other than the players listed above, no player appeared in more than 25 games.

The Twins made a run at the World Series title, ultimately losing in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In both 1966 and 1967 they finished second, then slid to seventh in 1968. They rebounded in 1969 to win the first ever American League West title. They would lose a playoff to Baltimore three games to none. They would repeat in 1970, again losing the playoff to Baltimore, then fall back to third and ultimately fail to make another playoff until the 1985 season when they finally won a World Series, the first since the team was in Washington all the way back in 1924.


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