Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Blanchard’

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.

Winning Late

July 8, 2013
Johnny Blanchard

Johnny Blanchard

The last post around here was about a team winning games by scoring early and shutting down the opponent for the rest of the game. I mentioned that there were other ways to win, including putting up runs late in the game. If the 1963 World Series was an example of scoring early and holding on, the 1961 World Series was an example of doing it the other way.

The New York Yankees were defending American League champs (having lost the previous Series). They were much the same team in 1961 with a major exception. Ralph Houk had replaced Casey Stengel as manager. The Yankees ownership said Stengel was too old to manage. The Ol’ Perfessor’s response was “That’s a mistake I’ll never make again.” It was a team designed to bash the opposition into submission. Roger Maris set the yearly home run record with 61 (and despite the steroid sluggers of recent vintage, still the record for some of us). Mickey Mantle had 54. Five other players, including backup catcher Johnny Blanchard, had more than 20 home runs.  The team led the AL in home runs, slugging, OPS, and total bases. The pitching staff consisted of Whitey Ford and a couple of players having career years.

The Cincinnati Reds were afterthoughts in 1961. They hadn’t won since 1940 and had finished sixth the year before. They were led by MVP Frank Robinson, center fielder Vada Pinson, and a young pitching staff (only Bob Purkey was 30). They led the National League in doubles, but finished second in slugging and OPS. The staff led the NL in shutouts and gave up fewer hits and runs than any other team.

As was usual for me back then, I would have to catch the first couple of innings on radio at school (and again I had teachers who let us listen), then miss an inning getting home. But then I could sit and listen to the rest of the Series and root for my favorites. Well, 1961 was one of those years I didn’t have a favorite. As a Dodgers fan you are never allowed to root for the Yankees, ever. I think it’s classified as a sin or something. And the Reds had no particular meaning for me, so I could just sit back and enjoy the Series without worrying too much who was going to win.

Game one started slow, as did most of the games (and if they didn’t there wouldn’t have been much reason for this entire post). The Yanks got a run in the fourth when Elston Howard homered off Jim O’Toole. In the sixth O’Toole gave up another homer, this one to Bill Skowron. It was all the Yankees needed. Ford gave up only two hits, both singles (one in the first, the other in the fifth), walked one, and struck out six. New York scored in the middle stages of the game to win it.

Game two was the lone Reds win. They put up six runs: two in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth, and two more in the eighth. The Yankees got two runs, both in the fourth (and both in typical fashion–a two-run homer by Yogi Berra).

Game three was on a Saturday, so I got the full game for a change. It may have been the best game. Cincinnati got an early run in the third on a single, a couple of outs, and a Frank Robinson single. New York stayed scoreless until the seventh when they scored their first run on something other than a homer. A single, a passed ball, and a Berra single plated the tying run. Cincy was back in the bottom of the seventh to take the lead with a double, an intentional walk, and another single. But in the eighth and ninth the Yankees reverted to form when one-run homers by Blanchard and Maris gave New York the win. Again, they, won by scoring later in the game (this time the final three innings).

The game seems to have broken the back of the Reds. On Sunday, they held New York scoreless into the fourth. Then the Yanks put up runs in each of the next four innings to put the game away, 7-0. This time they did it without benefit of the home run.

I was back to school for the fifth game on Monday. This time there would be no waiting for the middle and later innings to determine the winner. New York jumped on Cincy hurler Joey Jay for four runs (of five total) in the first inning, highlighted by a two-run home run by Blanchard and a Hector Lopez triple. They added another run in the second on a Maris double. The Reds gave it a go in the third when Robinson hit a three-run homer. But New York responded by plating five runs in the fourth. The inning was highlighted by an answering three-run homer, this one by Lopez. Again, the Reds tried to keep it close when they got two runs in the fifth on Wally Post’s two-run shot. But New York got the two runs back in the sixth to close the scoring. They won 13-5 to take both the game and the Series.

 The Series is usually seen as a Yankees beat down of the Reds. That’s true of the final two games, but the Reds win was 6-2 and the first two games were close. The Yanks won with homers and scored a lot of runs in the last half of the game. Whitey Ford was outstanding, winning the Series MVP. For Cincy the season was something of a fluke. They slipped back to third in 1962 and didn’t resurface with a pennant until the 1970s. The Yankees would go on to win both a pennant and the World Series in 1962, then pick up two more pennants in 1963 and ’64 (losing both to the pitching of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson) before they collapsed. After 1964 they would not win another pennant until 1976, when they would, ironically, face the Reds again.