50 Years On: the Team on the Rise

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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17 Responses to “50 Years On: the Team on the Rise”

  1. William Miller Says:

    From ’64-;71, an argument could be made that Oliva was the best hitter in the A.L. Certainly has a case for the HOF, though he always fell short.
    Nice summary of the era,
    Bill

    • wkkortas Says:

      I think if his pins would have held up, Oliva would be in Cooperstown. When he was young, he had 30-dinger power and ran as well as anybody.

  2. Bruce Thiesen Says:

    I remember the 1969 Twins and teams of the early 1970s. I enjoyed reading your rundown here.

  3. The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Love this post! And, your son is a Twins fan! And, I think you meant to type the Twins went 102-60 in 1965. I sort of did a double take and before I realized it was a typo, I thought, “Wow, those players in the 1960s sure were lazy!” 🙂

    • verdun2 Says:

      Thanks for the catch. Tough to win a lot of pennants going 12-60, isn’t it? And this was well before my son was born. We’ve yet to have to deal with the Dodgers and Twins squaring off in October. Appreciate the notification.
      v

      • The Baseball Bloggess Says:

        Rob Manfred already says he’s open to making the season shorter … we don’t want him thinking a 72-game season is acceptable. 🙂

        Twins-Dodgers? Not out of the realm this season, right?

  4. glenrussellslater Says:

    It must have been a pretty exciting time in the Twin Cities.

    I remember most of these guys. Of course, Killebrew, and Oliva played for the Twins into the 70s, so I did see them play. I have read all about Billy Martin’s fight with Boswell. Jim Merritt had a GREAT year in 1970 for the Reds; that’s what I remember him from. Mudcat Grant I remember well as one of my favorite pitchers, when he was a reliever (along with Dave Giusti) for the Pirates. Danny Murtaugh called on him a lot.

    One of the mysteries of baseball was Jimmie Hall. What happened to him? He was great for one year, and that was about it. A mystery.

    Glen

    • verdun2 Says:

      A couple of things on Hall. I see he was 27 in 1965, so it was right in the peak of his career (and he didn’t make it to the big leagues until he was 25) and a falloff was probable. His Wikipedia page says he couldn’t hit left-handers (which against Koufax and Osteen in the ’65 Series is a problem) and it cost him playing time. I’ll take their word for it, because I don’t remember.
      v

      • glenrussellslater Says:

        V, I always thought that the lefty/righty switch thing had to do with breaking pitches, that, say, a lefty had trouble hitting hitting a breaking pitch because it’s curving away from him, and a righty batter would have an advantage because it’s breaking TOWARDS him. I missed Koufax’s entire career and I don’t recall much about Osteen. Did Koufax throw ONLY heat, or did he also have a breaking pitch of some kind. What about Osteen?

        Glen

      • verdun2 Says:

        Koufax was famous for his curve. It was one of those that they call a “twelve-six” curve today. Instead of breaking right-left (or left-right) it broke straight down (like the hand on a clock with one hand at 12 and the other at 6). Willie Stargell referred to trying to hit it as “sipping soup with a fork.” So hitting right or left against his curve was equally problematic.
        Osteen was more a control pitcher with (I think) a slider and change up.
        v

  5. wkkortas Says:

    I remeber Bill James saying that if you just changed Kat’s luck a bit, he would be a lock Hall of Famer; Kaat had three 20-win seasons, including 25 in ’66 and 21 in ’74; he also had two 18-win seasons. If you move three wins from ’66 and one from ’74 around, his record is the same, but now he’s won 20 five times, and that probably gets him in easily. Whether that says more about Kaat or the HOF, I don’t know.

  6. Gary Trujillo Says:

    I’m too young too have seen Kaat play, but he is easily one of the worst announcers I have ever heard.

    • glenrussellslater Says:

      I liked Kaat when he was announcing the Yankee games.

      Glen

      • glenrussellslater Says:

        But, Gary, I’ll tell you THIS much! (Speaking of participants in this World Series). Koufax was one of the deadliest dull announcers that I ever heard. I never got the chance to see him pitch, unfortunately, but he was DREADFUL, talked in a monotone, and was downright boring during his short stint with NBC television in the late 60s to early 70s. I don’t recall Koufax announcing for NBC past the 1970 season. Koufax is an intelligent man, for sure, but announcing is not the easiest thing in the world. That’s for sure.

        Glen

  7. glenrussellslater Says:

    Well, V, I looked it up, and you’re evidently on the money about Hall not being able to hit lefties, because Mele strictly went by the book in the Series. Hall didn’t bat AT ALL in the games that Osteen and Koufax pitched. Mele platooned Hall and Nossek despite the fact that Nossek was not a good hitter at all, the ’65 season being no exception. Nossek batted .218 in the regular season. The lack of umph from the centerfield position must have really hurt the Twins.

    Glen

  8. keithosaunders Says:

    I’m surprised that I remembered the rest of the pitching staff after Kaat and Grant. I must have had the baseball cards since I was only 5 in 1965. I believe the baseball card pictured in the blog is from 1968.

    Jim Kaat became a very good announcer — he was with the Yankees in the 90s and 2000s. Not sure where he was before then. That 7th game which pitted Kaat v Koufax on 2 days rest is one of the all time classics.

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