Posts Tagged ‘Kirby Higbe’

The Beginnings of a Rivalry: Wrapping it up at Ebbets

March 28, 2017

With New York up two games to one in the 1941 World Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers needed a win to square the Series and give themselves a real chance of winning it all. What they and all fans got, was one of the most well known moments in World Series history.

Game 4, 5 October 1941

The play

With game four the Dodgers brought Kirby Higbe to the mound. Facing him was Atley Donald.  Higbe allowed a first inning run on a Charlie Keller single to give the Yanks an early 1-0 lead. Then in the fourth he allowed a Keller double, walked Bill Dickey, and saw a Joe Gordon single load the bases. He got two outs, one of them a cut down of Keller trying to score from third, then gave up a two out single to Johnny Sturm that put New York up 3-0. It also sent him to the showers, as Larry French took over and recorded the final out.

Then Donald got into trouble. In the bottom of the fourth, with two outs (a lot of stuff happens in this World Series with two outs) he walked both catcher Mickey Owen and pinch hitter Pete Coscarart to bring up Jimmy Wasdell. A Wasdell double plated both runners to make the score 3-2.

It got worse for Donald in the fifth. He walked Dixie Walker, then watched as Pete Reiser sent one over the Ebbets Field fence to put Brooklyn ahead 4-3.  With relief ace Hugh Casey now on the mound, the Dodgers rolled through the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. The Yanks managed all of two hits off Casey going into the ninth. Consecutive groundouts by Sturm and Red Rolfe brought Tommy Henrich to the plate with two outs. Casey got two strikes on him. In the mind’s eye of all Brooklyn fans the next pitch went like this: Casey threw a low one, Henrich swung for the third strike, Owen caught the ball and the Dodgers had tied the Series. In reality it went like this: Casey threw a low one, Henrich swung for the third strike, and the ball skipped away from Owen all the way to the backstop. An alert Henrich raced to first and was safe. For years in Brooklyn some fans called it simply “the play” (which is one of the more family friendly things it was called). Years later Casey admitted he crossed up Owen and threw a pitch the catcher wasn’t expecting.

With new life, New York capitalized on a rattled Dodgers team (especially Casey). Joe DiMaggio singled sending Henrich to second. A double by Keller scored both runners, putting New York ahead. Dickey walked. A Joe Gordon double scored both Keller and Dickey. Phil Rizzuto walked. That brought up reliever Johnny Murphy who, acting as the designated rally killer, grounded out to end the inning. Instead of winning 4-3, Brooklyn now trailed 7-4 with three outs to go.

Murphy was the Yankees relief ace for a reason. He got the three necessary outs on a fly and two grounders to give New York a 3-1 lead in the Series. For Owen the play was to define the rest of his career (he’d had two passed balls all season). He went on to a successful career running a youth baseball camp and serving as a county sheriff in Missouri; but it always came back to “the play.”

Game 5, 6 October 1941

Joe Gordon

Now down three games to one the Dodgers faced elimination on 6 October. They sent their ace, Whit Wyatt back to the mound to stave off defeat. He’d so far been the only Brooklyn pitcher to pick up a win. The Yankees replied with Ernie “Tiny” Bonham.

Wyatt caused much of his own problem early. To start the second inning he walked Charlie Keller, then gave up a single to Bill Dickey that sent Keller all the way to third. Then, shades of game 4, Wyatt uncorked a wild pitch (this one not close enough to Owen to blame him) that allowed Keller to score the first run and send Dickey to second. A Joe Gordon single plated Dickey before Wyatt regained control of the situation and set down the next three Yanks in order.

The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the third on a Wyatt double, a Lew Riggs single, and a Pete Reiser sacrifice fly that scored Wyatt, but Bonham got a strikeout to end any further threat that inning.

After a scoreless fourth, Tommy Henrich got hold of a Wyatt pitch that sailed out of the field of play to give New York a 3-1 lead. And that was all Bonham needed. He coasted through the rest of the game giving up only one single (of four total hits allowed) and a walk (of two total) to give the Yankees a win and the Series 4 games to 1.

Despite being something of a blowout four games to one, it was a terrific World Series. Three games were one run affairs and the finale was 3-1. Even the 7-4 fourth game was 4-3 going into the ninth. The Yanks hit .247, the Dodgers .182. Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller were both terrific having five RBIs each with Gordon contributing a homer. Tommy Henrich had the other team home run and, of course, had shown great heads up play by taking first on the game four dropped third strike. For Brooklyn, Joe Medwick led the team with a .235 average and Peter Reiser had three RBIs.

The Dodgers pitching had a 2.66 ERA, but walked 23 (while striking out only 18) and gave up crucial hits (41 of them) as well as a critical wild pitch and the infamous crossing-up-the-catcher pitch. New York pitchers posted a 1.80 ERA, struck out 21 (while walking 14) and only gave up 29 hits. There was no Series MVP in 1941 but it might have been a tough call among Keller, Gordon, and Henrich.

For Brooklyn, 1941 was a losing Series. There would be more. For New York it was a winner, and there would also be more. But it began one of the truly great rivalries in American sport and should be remembered for more than one play.

 

Building a Winner: The Promised Land

December 1, 2015
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.

 

 

Building a Winner: Bad

November 18, 2015
Leo Durocher while with Brooklyn

Leo Durocher while with Brooklyn

There are a lot of ways to construct a winning team. You can create it internally through a farm system. You can trade for the right players. You can out right buy players from another team. In the last 50 or so years you can go through the free agent market. And of course you can use any combination of these to build your team. I want to take something of an extended look at how one team did it.

As a Dodgers fan I’m much more familiar with their doings than with other teams, so it’s reasonable for me to look at how the Dodgers built a winning team. In this case I’m going to single out the 1941 Brooklyn team that got to a World Series, then faltered, but laid the foundation for the team that was generally in contention through the remainder of the team’s time in Brooklyn (1957).

To start, here’s the main part of the roster of the pennant winning 1941 team. Infield (first around to third): Dolf Camilli, Billy Herman, PeeWee Reese, Cookie Lavagetto. Outfield: Pete Reiser, Joe Medwick, Dixie Walker. The catcher was Mickey Owen. Starting pitchers (guys with double figure starts): Kirby Higbe, Whit Wyatt, Curt Davis, Fred Fitzsimmons, Luke Hamlin. The bullpen (guys with 20 or more appearances from the pen): Hugh Casey and Mace Brown (and Casey also had double figure starts). And the bench (guys with 50 or more games played): Lew Riggs (primarily a 3rd baseman), Pete Coscarart (primarily a 2nd baseman), Herman Franks (a catcher), and Jim Wasdell (and outfielder). The manager is Leo Durocher. Keep all those names in mind as we go through the process of putting this team together. These are the guys we’re ultimately looking for in order to create a winning team.

Now here’s a look at the same team in 1937. The order is the same (infield, outfield, catcher, starters, bullpen, bench, manager): Bud Haslett, Lavagetto, Woody English, Joe Stripp, Heinie Manush, Tom Winsett, John Cooney, Babe Phelps, Max Butcher, Hamlin, Fred Frankhouse, Waite Hoyt, Van Mungo, Fitzsimmons, Roy Henshaw, George Jeffcoat, Jim Lindsey, Gibby Black (outfield), Jim Butcher (2nd, 3rd, and outfield), Roy Spencer (catcher), Lindsay Brown (Short). Burleigh Grimes is the manager.

The ’37 Dodgers finished sixth of eight teams in the National League. They were 62-91, 33.5 games out of first and 17.5 out of fifth place. They finished sixth in batting average, OBP, OPS, runs, and hits; seventh in slugging; dead last in home runs. At least they were third in stolen bases (all of 69) and second in doubles. The pitching was worse. They were seventh in ERA, runs, earned runs, complete games (which meant a lot more in 1937 than it does today, and last in shutouts. At fourth in strikeouts, they managed to get into the top half of the National League. And to top it off they were dead last in fielding percentage. In short, the Daffiness Boys stunk up the place.

Five years later they won the NL pennant. A lot of things changed. But a few things remained. Off the 1937 squad, Cookie Lavagetto remained. He’d moved from second to third. Although many of his traditional stats had regressed, he maintained an OPS+ of 110 (down one point from 1937) and his WAR (BBREF version) moved from 2.5 to 2.7. Luke Hamlin was still around also. His ERA was up, his wins down, his ERA+ was down 25 points, and his WAR had gone from 3.4 to a negative. Fitzsimmons was also there. By 1941 his ERA and ERA+ were much better although his WAR was unchanged. So even the holdovers from 1937, especially Hamlin, weren’t doing much to help the team make its five-year rise. To do well, an entire overhaul needed to occur. In the next few posts I want to look at that overhaul.