50 Years On: The Falling Team

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.

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10 Responses to “50 Years On: The Falling Team”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Being slow to integrate didn’t help matters much, either (despite the presence of Elston Howard.) The Yanks didn’t begin to integrate until fully eight years after Jackie Robinson broke in. That’s a lot of talent that passed them by.
    Nice work,
    Bill

    • verdun2 Says:

      Excellent point that I hadn’t thought about, Bill. Appreciate the insight.
      v

    • wkkortas Says:

      That’s an interesting point, Bill–I can think of two other clubs that were a bit slow on the draw: The Red Sox were the last club in either league to integrate, and they went from being the Yanks closest competition in the late 40’s to being mediocre in the 50’s and pretty damn awful until the Impossible Dream team of ’67. Likewise, the Cards were the last NL team to integrate, and the 50’s and first couple years of the 60’s were their longest period of mediocrity since pre- Gashouse Gang days. I’m sure there were other factors at work, but it seems to be more than coincidence.

      • William Miller Says:

        And, as you know, the well-integrated Cardinals then went on to defeat those barely integrated Yanks in seven games in the ’64 Classic. It is doubtful that the Cardinals would have enjoyed that level of success without those black and Latino players.

  2. keithosaunders Says:

    Any day that starts with an article accounting the fall of the Crankees is a good day. Great job!

  3. Gary Trujillo Says:

    I saw a documentary the other day on Roberto Clemente and apparently the whole A.L. was behind on the integration train.

  4. keithosaunders Says:

    Any day that begins with a post accounting the decline of the decline of the Crankees is a great day indeed!

  5. Precious Sanders Says:

    It does seem weird to associate the Yankees with a state of decline, but that’s pretty much what we’re seeing today too.

  6. wkkortas Says:

    I remeber Bouton saying in Ball Four that the Yankee veterans all but actively sabotaged Keane–he was the first manager who had been a Yankee outsdier since Casey took over in ’49.

    As an aside, when Keane was hired, he was just the sixth Yankee manager since 1931. Imagine that–the Yankees a relative bastion of managerial stability.

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