Building a Winner: The Promised Land

Kirby Higbe

Kirby Higbe

The arrival of the 1941 season saw the Brooklyn Dodgers on the rise. They’d come from as low as seventh place in 1938 to second place in 1940. Now a little luck, a few judicious additions and subtractions, and Brooklyn might just produce their first pennant since 1920.

By 1941 Leo Durocher settled in as the fulltime manager in Brooklyn (meaning he played no games in the field that season). His personality and his baseball knowledge fueled a team that won 100 games, led the National League in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, average, total bases, a slew of advanced stats that they didn’t know existed, and ERA. It also produced, in first baseman Dolph Camilli, the MVP for 1941. It was a team Hilda Chester could be proud of.

The Dodgers made one final change to their infield. A handful of games into the season general manager Larry McPhail traded two players to the Cubs for second sacker and future Hall of Famer Billy Herman. Herman solidified an infield that had a gap at second by hitting .291 with 156 hits and playing a solid second. Former starter Pete Coscarat hit only .129 in 43 games. MVP Camilli had 34 home runs, 120 RBIs, a 164 OPS+, and 6.8 WAR. Second year shortstop PeeWee Reese only hit .229 but led the team with 10 stolen bases and played shortstop well. Third baseman Cookie Lavagetto hit .277 with no power, but posted a 110 OPS+ and 2.7 WAR.

There was one change in the outfield. Former starter Joe Vosmik became a backup outfielder and hit .196. He was joined on the bench by Jim Wasdell who hit .298 with four homers. The change was second year player Pete Reiser taking over as a regular. He hit .343 with 14 home runs, 17 triples, 117 runs scored, 184 hits, 7.5 WAR, and on OPS+ of 164 (same as Camilli’s). He was joined by holdovers Dixie Walker and Joe Medwick, both of which hit .300 or better with Medwick adding in 18 home runs.

The third big change (behind picking up Herman and starting Reiser) was at catcher. Longtime started Babe Phelps was relegated to the bench in favor of new pickup Mickey Owen. Owen came from St. Louis and wasn’t all that great a hitter. He was, however, a very good catcher for the era and handled the staff well (at least until the World Series).

The final piece of the Dodgers puzzle was the acquisition of Kirby Higbe by trade from Philadelphia (the Phillies, not the Athletics). His 22-9 record led the NL in wins. Added to Whit Wyatt, Curt Davis, Luke Hamlin, and Fred Fitzsimmons he gave Brooklyn the best staff in the NL. Additionally Durocher had decided what to do with Hugh Casey. Casey was a good enough pitcher, but found his niche in the bullpen by chalking up 45 appearances, all but 18 in relief. He, along with Pirates retread Mace Brown, gave the Dodgers a solid relief staff.

Brooklyn ultimately lost the 1941 World Series to the Yankees, but they’d built, over five years, a team that was formidable enough to provide the basis for a contender for years to come. How? Well, they’d brought up a few of their own (Reese, Reiser), kept a few of their stalwarts (Lavagetto, Hamlin), traded for others (Camilli, Walker), found a few retreads who got new life in Dodger blue (Medwick, Davis), found a manager (Durocher) who could motivate a team to win, and had a general manager (McPhail) willing to do what was necessary to put the best team on the field. Put all that together, have several guys have their “career year” at the same time (Higbe, Wyatt) and you can win a lot.

One of the side aspects of the entire prospect, was that it got the interest of other teams and their front office personnel. When the Dodgers GM Larry McPhail left for the Yankees, Branch Rickey of St. Louis was interested. That worked well.




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5 Responses to “Building a Winner: The Promised Land”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    Excellent as usual, V! I just wish I knew what the sabermetrics meant, but I get the main gist of it.

    Speaking of Joe Medwick, do you realize that he was not only known as “Ducky” Medwick, as we all all know, but early in his baseball career, he was actually known as “Ducky Wucky” Medwick. This is no joke. I believe I read this in one of Bill James’ books, most probably “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” or “This Time Let’s Not Eat The Bones: Bill James Without The Numbers”, which showcases James’ writing ability without the sabermetrics. No, I don’t understand the sabermetrics, but I just enjoy his writing.

    At any rate, I’ve read in other sources that Joe Medwick HATED the name “Ducky Wucky” Medwick (although I don’t understand why), and finally accepted it when it was shortened to “Ducky”. I guess it was kind of a compromise. In other words, I guess, Medwick was prepared to kick the a– of anyone who called him “Ducky Wucky”, but he would just merely WINCE at being called “Ducky”. What I wonder is what the public address system and the play-by-play announcers called him. When just a kid, reading those baseball books aimed at the juvenile market (usually they were written by a guy named “Mac Davis”, and I assume it wasn’t the same “Mac Davis” who had hits with “Baby, Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me” or “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” ), the books had generally said “Ducky Medwick”. Therefore, it makes me seem that Medwick had not only accepted the nickname but had embraced it, as well.

    The Dodgers finally put it together in 1941, but they couldn’t sustain it, as more important things (such as World War II) were on the horizon.


  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    Also, it’s a damn shame that we’ll never really know if Pete Reiser would have lived up to his expectations, as he ran forever. Unfortunately, there were walls in his way. He was injured so much, and it killed his career, as we all know. I do remember Reiser as a first base coach with the Cubs under Durocher, at least as of around 1970. First base coach is a safer position than outfield, but then again, Tom Gamboa might have a word or two disputing THAT opinion! (I’m happy to say that Gamboa has survived his injuries, and is alive and well and is managing the Mets’ Brooklyn Cyclones in the New York-Penn League.

    By the way, V, I read a great book a few years ago which I highly recommend to you (although I have the feeling that you’ve read it before.) It was written by Harold Parrott, who had been the traveling secretary of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It had originally been published in 1976, I think. If you HAVEN’T read it, V, then I highly recommend it.


  3. wkkortas Says:

    So the Phils were kind enough to donate Camilli and HIgbe to the Dodgers? Sheds a little light on why the Phillies were so awful in that particular era.

  4. Gary Trujillo Says:

    At this point in time the only question is; “what are they going to receive for Puig?”

    Great write up.

  5. William Miller Says:

    Of course, having watched “42,” we all know how things later turned out for Higbe and Walker once Jackie Robinson came along. Higby walked a ton of guys, and threw his share of wild pitches, but he did a pretty good job keeping the ball in the park. The Steve Barber of his era.

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