Posts Tagged ‘Hank Aaron’

Hammerin’ Hank vs the Mick: Back to the Bronx

July 25, 2016

With New York down 3 games to 2, the 1957 World Series returned to Yankee Stadium for games six and seven. The defending champs needed to win both games to defend their title. The Braves needed to win one to claim their first title since 1914 and their first in Milwaukee.

Hank Bauer

Hank Bauer

Game 6

On 9 October 1957 the Braves sent Bob Buhl to the mound to close out the Series. Trying to stay alive, the Yanks responded with Bob Turley. Again, Buhl couldn’t get out of the early innings. In the third he walked Enos Slaughter then watched as Yogi Berra drove a ball into the right field stands to put New York up 2-0. Out went Buhl. In came reliever Ernie Johnson.

Milwaukee got one back in the top of the fifth on a Frank Torre home run and tied it up in the top of the seventh with a Hank Aaron home run. After the seventh inning stretch Johnson got Turley on a foul bunted third strike which brought up New York right fielder Hank Bauer. He parked one in left field to put the Yankees back up 3-2. Turley got out of the eighth after walking one and went into the ninth nursing the one run lead. Eddie Mathews led off the inning with a walk. Aaron struck out for the first out. That brought up Wes Covington who grounded to Turley. A flip to short to get Mathews and a relay to first ended the game.

The Series was tied three games each. For the third year in a row there would be a game seven. New York was in each.

Lew Burdette

Lew Burdette

Game 7

It was 10 October when the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves squared off in game seven of the 1957 World Series. The Yanks went back to game 3 winner Don Larsen to close out the Braves. Milwaukee countered with the winner of games two and five, Lew Burdette.

The key inning was the third. In the top of the third with one out Bob Hazle singled. An error by third sacker Tony Kubek on a Johnny Logan grounder put men on first and second and brought up Eddie Mathews. He stroked a double to plate both Hazle and Logan. A follow-up single by Hank Aaron scored Mathews. A Wes Covington single sent Aaron to third where he scored when the Yanks couldn’t complete a double play on a slow roller by Frank Torre. When the inning concluded, the Braves led 3-0.

Burdette sailed through the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings allowing only three hits, all singles. In the top of the eighth, Braves catcher Del Crandall added to Milwaukee’s lead by parking a ball in the left field stands. Needing six outs Burdette set New York down in order in the eighth. The Braves went in order in the top of the ninth. Burdette got the first out of the bottom of the ninth on a pop-up, then a single put a man on. A fly got the second out. Consecutive singles loaded the bases for Moose Skowron who’d entered the game earlier as a pinch hitter. He slapped a grounder to Mathews at third. Mathews gloved it, stepped on third and Milwaukee won its first ever World Series. Burdette was named Series MVP.

The 1957 World Series was both an upset and a good Series. The Yankees actually outhit the Braves .248 to .209. Milwaukee put up one more home run (8 to 7) than New York while the Yanks countered by scoring two more runs. Hank Aaron had a great World Series hitting .393 with five runs, seven RBIs, and three homers. Eddie Mathews was second with four RBIs and five runs scored. He had only one home run, but it won game four. Hank Bauer led New York with six RBIs and two homers. Tony Kubek matched the two home runs, but had a critical error.

By a couple of measures even the New York pitching was superior. Their ERA was lower (2.89 to 3.48) and the allowed fewer runs (23 to 25). But the difference was Burdette. He was 3-0 in three complete games, two of them shutouts. His ERA was 0.67. With that record the Braves only needed to find a pitcher who could win one game. They found him in Warren Spahn, who won the 10 inning fourth game (the one involving Nippy Jones’ shoe and Mathews’ home run).

For Milwaukee it was their peak. In 1958 they would get back to the World Series and lose a rematch with New York in seven games. In 1959 there would be a regular season tie and a loss of a three game playoff to Los Angeles. Then they would fall further back, eventually moving to Atlanta. For New York it was a blip, but a harbinger of things to come. They would win in 1958, fail to capture a pennant in 1959, lose the Series in 1960, and see Casey Stengel put out to pasture. They would, however, go on to win four more pennants in the early 1960s.

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Hammerin’ Hank vs. the Mick: The Shoe Shine

July 21, 2016

With the World Series tied one game apiece, the 1957 championship shifted to Milwaukee for three games. A two-one split either way would send the Series back to New York for the deciding game or games. A sweep would crown a champion.

Game 3

Tony Kubek

Tony Kubek

Game 3 on 5 October became the only blowout in the Series. Interestingly enough neither starting pitcher got out of the second inning. The Yankees jumped on Milwaukee starter Bob Buhl in the first inning, racking up three runs on a Tony Kubek home run, consecutive walks to Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, a Gil McDougald sacrifice that scored Mantle and a “Suitcase” Harry Simpson single that plated Berra. The single was Buhl’s last pitch. When the Braves got one back in the bottom of the second on a walk to Bob “Hurricane” Hazle, a single, a wild pitch, and a Red Schoendienst single, Yankees manager Casey Stengel took out starter Bob Turley and brought in 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen who got out of the inning.

Larsen stayed for the rest of the game giving up two more runs in the fifth inning on a two run home run to Hank Aaron, but the Braves began a long parade of five more hurlers to the mound, none lasting more than two innings. The Yanks got to Milwaukee pitching and scored 12 runs on nine hits and 11 walks. Kubek had a second home run and ended up going three for five with four RBIs and three runs scored. Mantle added one home run. Larsen took the win by going 7.1 innings and giving up the home run to Aaron, five hits, four walks, and striking out four.

Game 4

Nippy Jones

Nippy Jones

Game four was played 6 October and featured both the most famous game of the Series and one of the most bizarre plays in World Series history.

Milwaukee began with game one loser Warren Spahn on the mound. He gave up an early run to New York on two singles, a fielders choice, and a walk that brought Mickey Mantle home with the game’s first run. That held up until the bottom of the fourth when Yankees starter Tom Sturdivant got into trouble. He walked Johnny Logan, gave up an Eddie Mathews double to move Logan to third, then made the mistake of leaving one over the plate for Hank Aaron who smashed a three run homer to give Milwaukee the lead. One out later he gave up another home run to first baseman Joe Adcock to put the Braves up 4-1.

And that held up into the top of the ninth, when New York struck for three runs. With Yogi Berra on second and Gil McDougald on first, Elston Howard answered Aaron’s three run blast with his own three run homer to tie the score at 4-4. When the Braves didn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, the game went into extra innings.

New York got a run in the top of the tenth when, with two outs, Spahn (still pitching into the 10th) gave up a double to Tony Kubek and a triple to Hank Bauer that put New York up 5-4 with three outs to go.

Milwaukee led off the bottom of the tenth with pinch hitter Nippy Jones (he was subbing for Spahn). Jones was the third string first baseman and a pinch hitter. He’d hit .266 for the season with two homers, three walks, and five runs scored. But he believed in looking spiffy on the field, so he shined his shoes. The first pitch was low for ball one and Jones complained saying he’d been hit on the foot by the ball. The umpire, Augie Donatelli, disagreed. Jones grabbed the ball, showed Donatelli a black scuff mark on the ball, and argued it was proof he’d been hit. Donatelli believed him and despite Yankee protests awarded Jones first base.

Jones heads to first (courtesy getty images)

Jones heads to first (courtesy getty images)

Milwaukee sent in Felix Mantilla to run for Jones (there is no truth to the rumor that the team gave Jones a shoe brush as part of his World Series share). A Red Schoendienst sacrifice sent Mantilla to second and a Johnny Logan double tied the game. That brought up Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews who promptly sent the ball over the fence in deep right to win the game for Milwaukee.

Jones became a big hero, almost bigger than Mathews, whose home run had actually won the game. Aaron’s three run shot and Logan’s clutch hits in two different innings, including the 10th, were forgotten. They shouldn’t be because they were also significant. And for those interested, it was Jones’ last plate appearance in the big leagues.

Over the years the Jones play took on mythic proportions. It was certainly one of the strangest of all World Series moments, not likely to be duplicated ever. Except that in 1969 the same thing happened to Cleon Jones (what is it with guys named Jones and shoe polish?) during the “Miracle Mets” run to the championship. So far there hasn’t been another case of it in the Series but I admit that every time a player named Jones (like Chipper or Andruw for instance) comes to the plate in the World Series I try to get a look at their shoes.

Game 5

Eddie Mathews

Eddie Mathews

If games three and four were dominated by hitters, game five became a pitcher’s duel. The Yanks sent ace Whitey Ford to the mound while the Brave responded with game two winner Lew Burdette. Four five and a half innings they matched zeroes. Ford gave up three hits and a walk, while striking out one. No Milwaukee hitter got beyond second base. Burdette was every bit as good. He gave up five hits an no walks with no runner getting beyond second.

In the bottom of the sixth, Ford got the first two men out then gave up a single to Eddie Mathews, whose homer the day before won the game for the Braves. Hank Aaron followed with another single sending Mathews to third. A final single by Joe Adcock brought Mathews home with the first run of the game. Then a grounder ended the inning leaving the score 1-0.

It was all Burdette needed. He set the Yankees down in order in the seventh. In the eighth he gave up a single, but a caught stealing got him out of the inning. In the ninth it was two quick outs before a single by Gil McDougald brought up Yogi Berra. He popped to third to end the inning and the game. Burdette had a seven hit shutout without giving up a walk. It put Milwaukee on the cusp of a championship going to New York to finish the Series.

Hammerin’ Hank vs. The Mick: Games at the Stadium

July 18, 2016

The 1957 World Series saw the New York Yankees, winners of multiple World Series championships take on, for the first time, the Milwaukee Braves, winners of exactly one World Series championship (1914).

Whitey Ford

Whitey Ford

Game 1

Played 2 October 1957 in Yankee Stadium, game one featured the two team aces, Whitey Ford for New York and Warren Spahn for Milwaukee, square off. Four and a half innings into the game it was still scoreless. The Yanks had two men reach third, but no one scored. That changed in the bottom of the fifth with a Jerry Coleman single and a Hank Bauer double sandwiched around consecutive groundouts producing the Series’ first run. They tacked on two more in the sixth by way of an Elston Howard single, a walk to Yogi Berra, an Andy Carey single that scored Howard and sent Berra to third, and a Coleman squeeze bunt that scored Berra. Milwaukee got on the scoreboard in the seventh with a Wes Covington double and a Red Schoendienst single that brought Covington home. That was it for the Braves as Ford set them down in order to end the game.

It was a well pitched game with Ford giving up only the one run on five hits, only Covington’s double going for extra bases, and four walks to go with five strikeouts. Spahn was good for five innings, but was lifted during the sixth inning Yankees uprising. The three Braves pitchers gave up a combined nine hits and only two walks. They struck out four, none by Spahn. So far the battle of the aces belonged to Ford.

Johnny Logan

Johnny Logan

Game 2

Game two was 3 October. Aiming to get even for the Series, Milwaukee sent Lew Burdette, who’d begun his career with the Yanks, to the mound. Aiming equally hard to go ahead two games to none, New York responded with Bobby Shantz, a former Rookie of the Year with the Athletics.

Neither pitcher was as effective as the previous starters. Milwaukee got a run in the second on a Hank Aaron triple and a Joe Adcock single. New York countered in the bottom of the second with a walk to Enos Slaughter, a Tony Kubek single that sent Slaughter to third, and a Jerry Coleman single that plated Slaughter. So in the top of the third, the Braves kept the scoring going with a Johnny Logan home run. Not to be outdone, Hank Bauer tied the game at 2-2 with his own home run in the bottom of the third.

It looked like each team was going to score every inning for a while when the Braves struck again in the top of the fourth. Three straight singles by Adcock, Andy Pakfo, and Wes Covington scored both Adcock and Pakfo. The latter scored on an error by Yanks third baseman Kubek.

Getting the second run in an inning seems to have broken the spell, because that ended the scoring for the game. Burdette was masterful from that point on. He allowed two more singles and gave up two more walks, but the Yanks never scored. Shantz left the game in the two run fourth and relievers Art Ditmar and Bob Grim each allowed only one hit (and no walks).

There was an off day for travel before the Series resumed in Milwaukee. It was now a best of five with the Braves having home field advantage.

Mr. Aaron, 8 April 1974

April 8, 2014
Henry Aaron and company, 8 April 1974

Henry Aaron and company, 8 April 1974

Forty years ago this evening Hank Aaron stepped to the plate in Atlanta. He hit an Al Downing pitch into the Braves bullpen for his 715th home run. As he rounded the bases a couple of fans joined him producing one of baseball’s more iconic moments.

They showed the game on TV that night. Back then there weren’t nightly baseball games. You had three networks and regular season games were only shown on the weekends. Some genius at one of the networks (NBC, I think, but am not sure) decided to take a chance and so a nation got to watch a black man establish one of the most hallowed records in American sport.

My wife and I watched the game. I had mixed feelings. It was my Dodgers and I didn’t want them to be remembered as the team that gave up “the home run.” On the other hand I didn’t mind Aaron breaking the record. I knew who Babe Ruth was and respected the legend, but I liked Aaron and if someone was going to break the record he was a good pick.

There was a lot of opposition to Aaron surpassing Ruth. Much of it was racial. The idea of a black man holding the greatest of all Ruth’s records was horrifying to many. To others, the idea of anyone, black, white, or purple, racing passed the Babe was terrible. Ruth was, after all, the greatest of all American sports figures, towering over not only baseball, but sports in general. And suddenly here was this little man (Aaron wasn’t a huge slugger like Frank Howard) about to relegate the Babe to second place in home runs.

Well, Henry Aaron did it and the world didn’t stop on its axis. We moved on, the Ruth legend still grips us, just not as strongly. And Aaron now has his place in our pantheon. Good for him. Congratulations, Henry. I think you’re great.

Thanks, Hank

March 14, 2013
Roger Connor

Roger Connor

Way back in 1974, Hank Aaron did the impossible, he overtook Babe Ruth for the all-time Major League home run title. There were mixed feelings about it, but it led to one interesting question. “If Hammerin’ Hank just passed the Babe, who the heck did Ruth pass?” The answer, after some research, turned out to be Roger Connor.

Connor was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1857. His parents were Irish immigrants and did not understand the American fascination with baseball. Connor, on the other hand, loved the game. It led to his leaving home at age 14 to pursue his baseball interests in New York. His dad died in 1874, bringing Connor back to Waterbury. He took a job in a local factory to help support his family and played semipro baseball to supplement his income. He was good enough to get a tryout with the International League. He did poorly. Although left-handed, he hit from the right side and didn’t do it very well. A switch to hitting from the left side got him back to the International League (I wonder how common it is for a player to switch sides of the plate and go from mediocrity to stardom?) in the late 1870s. To be clear, Connor was never a switch hitter. He merely gave up hitting right handed in favor of hitting left handed.

He was also big. He stood 6′ 3″ and weighed 220 pounds. That made him a huge man for the era. It also made him relatively immobile. He started his career as a left-handed third baseman, but his lack of speed, combined with a good pair of hands, put him at first base. Once he moved to first (and started hitting lefty) he became a  star.

In 1880 he was picked up by Troy of the National League. In 83 games he hit .332, drove in 47 runs and had an OPS+ of 169. He remained at Troy through 1882 hitting .317 with 120 RBIs. In 1883 the team in Troy was in trouble. It had a small fan base, wasn’t doing well in the standings, and there was no current team in New York. So the league moved the franchise (and most of its players, including Connor) to New York as the Gothams (eventually becoming the Giants and ultimately relocating to San Francisco). With a quality team combining the Troy refugees and newly acquired talent they started winning. New York won pennants (and the 19th Century version of the World Series) in both 1888 and 1889. Connor was a major reason why. He led the National League in hits, triples, RBIs, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, OPS+, and total bases at various times during the period. He did not lead the NL in home runs during the 1880s but did establish his career high at 17.

He 1890 he joined teammate Monty Ward’s Player’s League. There he won his only home run title (he hit 14) and picked up another slugging and OPS title. With the failure of the Player’s League he moved back to the Giants. He spent 1892 in Philadelphia (where he won the doubles crown), then came back to New York in 1893. Traded to St. Louis during the 1894 season he remained there until his retirement at age 39 in 1897. His stay in St. Louis included a short managing stint in 1896. The team was terrible and he was uncomfortable as manager. He resigned the managerial position after an 8-37 record.

Connor returned to Waterbury after his retirement. He played minor league ball, managed, and ultimately owned the Waterbury team. He sold the team in 1901, bought another, and maintained his ties to baseball until 1903 when he retired from playing and sold the team. In retirement he invested his money in land, made a fortune, lost most of it, and died in 1931. To Major League baseball he slipped into total obscurity. But Hank Aaron’s run to glory brought Connor back into the spotlight and in 1976 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.

For his career, Connor’s triple slash line is .316/.397/486/.883 for an OPS+ of 153. He had 2467 hits in 7797 at bats. That yielded 1620 runs, 1323 RBIs, and 3788 total bases. He had 441 doubles, 233 triples (still fifth ever), and the record 138 home runs (although it wasn’t until the push to find who Ruth replaced that his home run total was firmly established at 138). He was also considered an excellent, for the era, fielding first baseman.

In some ways the modern player Connor most reminds me of is Hank Aaron. Like Aaron, he seldom won many league titles, but was consistently among the best in the NL for most of his career. Remember, Aaron only won two batting titles and three home run titles (and like Connor did not win a home run title with his most prolific home run year). For much of their career, the two men were overlooked in favor of flashier, but not better, players. Both men were quiet and spoke more with their bat than their mouths. Aaron did a lot of good things when he made his run at Babe Ruth. One of the better, if more obscure, was the resurrection of Roger Connor’s memory.

And before anyone asks, the man Connor replaced as the all-time home run king was Harry Stovey.

The Greatest Cardinal of them All

August 27, 2012

a montage showing Musial’s batting stroke

If it were up to my grandfather, there would be no debate about the greatest player ever. He was absolutely certain that Stan Musial was the greatest ballplayer ever. He’d heard Ruth on the radio, seen Walter Johnson pitch in some exhibition game somewhere, had listened over and over to DiMaggio and could quote you some of Ted Williams’ stats. But it didn’t matter, the Cardinals were his team, Musial was his man, and there simply was no reason to even start an argument when you were faced with such absolute certainty.

So my grandfather was off a little on the greatest to ever play the game (although not by much), but he had a superior case for the greatest player to ever come through St. Louis and put on a Cardinals uniform. I once wondered if Albert Pujols was going to run past Stan “the Man” as the greatest Cardinals player ever but it didn’t happen.

Take a quick look at Musial’s first numbers. He played all of 12 games in 1941. He hit .426, had an OPS of 1.023 (OPS+ 179), and had 27 total bases in 47 at bats. Sure it was 12 games and you never decide a man’s career worth on 12 games (unless they occur in the World Series or something), but it was a great portent of things to come. For my grandfather, trying to eke though a living, who had to go visit a neighbor just to hear a ball game on the radio, it was the beginning of something he longed for. He remembered the awful Cardinals teams of the Deadball Era, had listened to the Hornsby Cardinals of the 1920s, loved the Gas House Gang, but he always said he knew from the beginning there was something special about Musial. Maybe it was the magical air of Donora, Pennsylvania, hometown of Musial and Ken Griffey Sr and Ken Griffey Jr (top that outfield in a reasonably small town). But from the beginning my grandfather swore Musial was special.

There was no rookie of the year award in 1942, Musial might have won it if there were. The Cardinals won the World Series, lost in 1943, won again in 1944 and for my grandfather it was the best of times (my wife’s grandfather was a Browns fan and I wonder how they would have dealt with 1944). Musial went to war in 1945, then was back in 1946. St. Louis won the World Series again. It was their last in Musial’s career, but he kept on having great seasons, winning the MVP in 1946 and in 1948 (and already had one from 1943) He finished second in MVP voting in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1957. Each time my grandfather was sure Musial had been robbed. The only one he half way accepted was Aaron’s in 1957. He was particularly upset with Jim Konstanty’s 1950 win.

During the 1950s as Musial’s career wore down and the Cardinals began floundering, my grandfather was sure they only needed one, or at most two, more players to make it back to the Series, but of course they never got them. Bob Gibson came along in 1959, absolutely unimpressing him (and 1959 wasn’t much for Gibson), but he still had faith. Musial retired after the 1963 season and my grandfather actually wept. The next year St. Louis won the World Series, beating the hated Yankees (who’d never been forgiven for beating the Cardinals in 1943). My grandfather was at a loss. His team had won, but they’d done it without Stan “the Man”. There was obviously something seriously wrong with that scenario.  They won again in 1967, the lost in 1968. There was a part of my grandfather that was almost happy they’d lost. It proved to him just how much Musial meant to the team.

  He died in the 1970s (and, no, we didn’t bury him in a Cardinals uniform) convinced he’d seen the greatest to ever play the game. He wasn’t off by much.

The Core of the Hall: Notes

July 6, 2012

The post just below this one touches on the 50 people who I think most belong in the Hall of Fame (of those already enshrined). The public comments have been positive, but I’ve also received a handful of private comments (and emails) with questions about the list. This is an attempt to answer those.

1. SportsPhD in his comment below notes a paucity of 19th Century players and speculates that I’m purposefully leaving off players who were active primarily before the advent of the mound. He is correct. I think the change in pitching distance and motion have so effected the game that players before and after those changes must be viewed in entirely different categories. And, yes, there is a certain amount of justice in placing Campanella above Anson.

2. A number of comments have asked why so many Negro Leaguers, especially Turkey Stearnes and Martin DiHigo. I am entirely comfortable in believing that five Negro League players are among the 50 finest players ever. Look at the National League in the 1950s and you’ll note that guys like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Frank Robinson are on my list. I don’t think it unreasonable to believe that five players from the period 1920-1950 who were Negro League stars should be included. If you can find four in ten years, surely you can find five in thirty. As to DiHigo I placed him here because of his playing ability, his versatility, and his impact on the game among Latin players. He is instrumental on growing the game in Latin America (as is Clemente) and when coupled with his skills that puts him on my list. Stearnes is a little harder to justify and frankly was one of the last people I included. Most sources claim he is the leader in home runs among Negro Leaguers. That probably is worth adding him, even at the expense of guys like Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd.

3. Most people, including those who made public comment on the first Core post, indicate they might have changed a half dozen or so. Actually I think that’s really good. It means that, at least among those people who read this blog, there is a fairly solid consensus as to the top 40 or so players.

4. Someone asked if I was sorry to have to leave off current players or Hall eligible (or in the case of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose ineligible) players. Yes, I was. I’d love to put Albert Pujols on the list as well as Greg Maddux and possibly Rose although I’d have to think long and hard about Charlie Hustle. I’m not sure I see him as a top 50 without reference to the gambling issue. Maybe, maybe not.

5. I was asked “If Campanella was the last man on, who was the last man off?” The answer is Eddie Murray. I really miss putting Murray on the list and I have to admit that a personal prejudice may have gotten in the way here. I always liked Murray, but I loved Campy. I guess in the end that made a difference.

6. Someone asked “If you could cut it down to 10 who would you pick?” Pass.

All this typed for the information of those who asked. This way I don’t have to write up a dozen different responses to a dozen different emails.

Playoff Baseball Comes to the West Coast

June 11, 2012

Felix Mantilla

Prior to divisional play beginning in 1969, the Major Leagues had a playoff system to determine pennant winners in case the regular season ended in a tie. It wasn’t used all that often. The American League used it all of once (1948) and the National League a bit more frequently (1946, 1951, 1959, 1962). The most famous occurred in 1951. Arguably the best occurred in 1959.

In 1959 the Milwaukee Braves were two-time defending NL champions. They featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter and Warren Spahn. They went into the last weekend of the regular season tied for first, then went 2-1 against Philadelphia to finish the year with a 86-68 record.

Their opponents were the Dodgers, the team they had replaced atop the NL in 1957. But it was a vastly different Dodgers team. First, it was no longer in Brooklyn, having relocated to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. Second, most of the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers were gone. Hall of Famer Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Carl Furillo were still around; but the new team featured Don Drysdale, Wally Moon, Johnny Roseboro, and a wild lefty named Sandy Koufax. Drysdale and Koufax were on the 1956 pennant winning team, but neither was considered a major player on that team. Gone were Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine, a stalwart of the Brooklyn mound who began the year in LA, but retired before the season ended.

The 1959 playoff format was a best of three series with LA getting two home games. The Milwaukee home game was 28 September in County Stadium. The next game was the following day in the LA Coliseum, the first playoff game ever on the West Coast. Game three, an if necessary game, would be in LA the 30th.

With both teams having to win late in the season, the first game saw Danny McDevitt start for the visitors with Carl Willey on the mound for the Braves. With two out and second baseman Charlie Neal on  second, Dodgers right fielder Norm Larker singled to drive in a run in the first inning. Milwaukee struck back in the second with two runs on a bunch of singles and an error. The two runs took McDevitt out of the game and brought in bullpen man Larry Sherry.  LA got the run back in the next inning on three singles and a force out. In the sixth, Roseboro led off the inning with a home run putting the Dodgers up 3-2. Sherry pitched masterfully shutting out Milwaukee on four hits (and two walks) making Roseboro’s homer the deciding run.

The next day the teams played one of the great playoff games ever. The Dodgers started Drysdale and the Braves countered with Lew Burdette. In the opening frame with an out Mathews walked, Aaron doubled, then Frank Torre doubled to plate both runs. The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the first with a  Neal triple followed by a single by Wally Moon. The Braves got the run right back on a single and error by Snider in the second. In the bottom of the fourth Neal homered to bring the Dodgers within a run. Again Milwaukee got the run right back with a Mathews home run in the fifth. It drove Drysdale from the game. The score remained 4-2 until the top of the eighth when catcher Del Crandall tripled and came home on a Felix Mantilla sacrifice fly. The score remained 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. With three outs to go, Burdette stumbled. Moon, Snider, and Hodges all singled to load the bases. Out went Burdette, in came bullpen ace Don MaMahon. He proceeded to give up a two-run single to Larker. Out went McMahon, in came Warren Spahn. A sacrifice fly by Furillo tied the game.

It stayed tied through the tenth and eleventh, the Dodgers managing one hit in the eleventh. By the twelfth, Stan Williams was on the mound for LA and Bob Rush for Milwaukee. Williams got through the twelfth without giving up a hit, but with two out Rush walked Hodges. Joe Pignatano singled moving Hodges to second. Furillo then singled to shortstop Mantilla who was playing short instead of his normal second because of a defensive substitution in the seventh. Mantilla managed an error letting Hodges in with the winning run and putting the Dodgers into the World Series. They would win it over Chicago in six games.

In the years since, playoff games prior to the World Series became a staple of baseball. Now we don’t consider it unusual to see a round of games between the end of the regular season and the Series. Back in 1959 it wasn’t at all normal. It happened three times previously in all of NL history. So there was a level of anticipation that was different from today’s playoffs. And it was the first postseason play (although technically the games counted as regular season games, they were considered by most a playoff) on the West Coast. With game two, the West Coast got a great introduction to playoff baseball.

The Outsiders of 1957

March 15, 2012

1957 Milwaukee Braves

In baseball, the 1950s is primarily famous for the dominance of the city of New York. In that decade teams from New York won every World Series championship except two: 1957 and 1959. And to be fair about it, the 1959 winner was only two years transplanted from New York (actually Brooklyn), so only one team without New York connections won a World Series in the decade. That team played in Milwaukee. 

The 1957 Milwaukee Braves are one of a handful of teams that are in the running for best team of the 1950s. They could hit, the were good in the field, their pitching was excellent, and they even had a decent bench. Most teams in the 1950s didn’t have all four of those things, certainly not in the same season. So, in the words of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie “Who are those guys?”

The catcher was Del Crandall. He’d been around since 1949, lost two years to Korea, then become the primary backstop in 1953. He was a good catcher, leading the league year after year in caught stealings. It was an era of few steals, but Crandall was the best at stopping the running game. He wasn’t a great hitter, but by 1957 his numbers were trending up (although ’57 was a down year for him) in most categories (his home runs and RBIs were dropping).

The left side of the infield was solid. Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews held down the hot corner. He hit .292, had 32 home runs, 94 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .540. Johnny Logan was at short. He made a lot of errors, but was always near the top in range factor, assists, and put outs. He tended to hit around .270 with 10-15 home runs.

The right side of the infield is a good place to look at both the bench and the importance of a trade. The trade was at second. The Braves were struggling at second base early in the season Danny O’Connell wasn’t doing much, so Milwaukee turned a three-for-one trade (later World Series winning manager Chuck Tanner was one of the others). They got Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst in the deal. Schoendienst solidified the infield, gave the team a good hitter. He hit .310, had an OPS+ of 116, and was a good, if not spectacular infielder. He was third in putouts; second in assists, range, and fielding percentage. He and Logan weren’t Fox and Aparicio turning a double play, but they were more than serviceable. First base saw the bench come to the fore. Joe Adcock was the main first baseman. He was a pretty standard 1950s first baseman. He was a slugger who could put up 30 home runs, hit about .270, and get a lot of RBIs. He also was only a mediocre first baseman. Enter Frank Torre (Joe’s older brother). Torre was a good first baseman, had little power, hit in the .270s, and in 1957 had an OPS+ of 103. He also carried an enormous glove. The gag was that Schoendienst had to cover a third of the distance from second to first and Torre’s glove would cover the rest of the area. Adcock went down early (he only played 65 games) and Torre was a more than adequate replacement.

The arrangements in the outfield are fascinating. In left the Braves went through a ton of trouble to find their man. Bobby Thomson (six years removed from “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) started out there. He was pretty much through. They tried Chuck Tanner, but if you’re relying on Chuck Tanner (other than as a manager), you’re in trouble. They finally decided on Wes Covington, who had a  breakout year. His triple slash numbers were .284/.339/.547. His OPS was .876 (OPS+ of 138).

The bench also came into play in center field. The starter and lead off man was Bill Bruton. He stole a team high 11 bases, hit .278, and got hurt. He played in only 79 games. In came a totally obscure minor leaguer and bench player named Bob Hazle. “Hurricane” Hazle proceeded to hit .403, slug .649, have an OPS of 1.126 and an OPS+ of 209. He was, in other words, one of the great “ninety day wonders” ever. His career floundered after 1957, but he was exactly what Milwaukee needed in 1957. And here’s a good enough place to mention Andy Pafko who, in his last good year, was the fourth outfielder.

Right field was solid. Henry Aaron was out there and he had an MVP year (his only MVP). He hit .322, slugged .600, had an OPS of .978, and an OPS+ of 166 (OK, it wasn’t Hurricane Hazle, but it was close). He hit 44 home runs, 22 doubles, had 198 hits, 132 RBIs, and 369 total bases. He also played right superbly (especially for a converted second baseman).

The starting pitching was above average for the era. Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl were the primary starters. Spahn won his usual 21 games (and the Cy Young Award), Buhl had 18, and Burdette 17. both Spahn and Buhl had ERA’s under three and only Burdette had an ERA+ under 100 (94). The fourth pitcher (four starters in that era) rotated between Gene Conley (who had a solid NBA career), Juan Pizarro, and Bob Trowbridge. Put their numbers together and you got a 21-20 record with more innings pitched than hits and more strikeouts than walks.

The bullpen in the 1950s wasn’t the same as today. There was no “closer” who pitched only the ninth while waiting for a series of set-up men to get the team to the ninth. But Don McMahon was pretty close. He pitched in 32 games going 46.2 innings (about 1.3 innings per appearance). He had nine saves in a time when no one knew what a save was or how it was figured (it hadn’t been invented yet). He had an ERA of 1.54 and an ERA+ of 228. The rest of the bullpen produced 10 saves and was fairly typical for the age in that it was basically older guys who weren’t true starter material. And having more saves than the “closer”, McMahon, shows how little the closer role was a part of the game in 1957.

The Braves won the World Series in 1957 (becoming the last National League team to play New York in a Series), lost to the Yankees in the 1958 World Series (allowing the Yanks to beat every National League team then in existence), then lost a two (of three) game playoff to the Dodgers in 1959. That was it. The team faded fast, finishing fourth in 1960, then fifth or sixth in 1961 through 1965. In 1966 they moved to Atlanta. The run was short, but the team was good. Obviously the team of the 1950s was the Yankees, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick the 1957 Braves as the best one year team of the decade.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy