Posts Tagged ‘Vern Stephens’

The Best Team Never to Win (1948 playoff)

January 31, 2017
Vern Stephens (Boston) and Lou Boudreau (Cleveland) at Fenway Park 1948

Vern Stephens (Boston) and Lou Boudreau (Cleveland) at Fenway Park 1948

If the 1948-50 Boston Red Sox were the best team to never win a pennant, the 1948 team came close. At the end of the regular season, they emerged tied for first with the Cleveland Indians. At the time, each league had its own rules about breaking end of season ties. The National League ran a best of three series to determine a pennant winner. The American League had a one game winner-take-all playoff to determine their pennant winner. The AL was founded in 1901. Prior to 1948 there had never been a tie, so the 1948 game was a first in league history. The game was played 4 October in Fenway Park, Boston.

The pennant race came down to the final day so neither team was able to start their ace. Boston manager Joe Mc Carthy sent 8-7 Denny Galehouse to the mound, while Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau countered with 19 game winner Gene Bearden. Bearden in particular was working on short rest. Here’s a look at the starting lineups:

Cleveland: Dale Mitchell (lf), Allie Clark (1b), Lou Boudreau (SS and Hall of Fame), Joe Gordon (2b, and Hall of Fame), Ken Keltner (3b), Larry Doby (cf and Hall of Fame), Bob Kennedy (rf), Jim Hegan (c), Bearden.

Boston: Dom DiMaggio (cf), Johnny Pesky (3b), Ted Williams (lf and Hall of Fame), Vern Stephens (SS), Bobby Doerr (2b and Hall of Fame), Stan Spence (rf), Billy Goodman (1b), Birdie Tebbetts (c), Galehouse.

Things began with a bang. With two outs, Boudreau caught up with a Galehouse pitch and drove it over the fences for a 1-0 Cleveland lead. That lasted exactly two outs. With an out, Pesky doubled, then, following another out, came home on a Stephens single to left. Then the pitchers settled down. Over the next two innings, Galehouse walked one and gave up a single while striking out one. Bearden walked two, one of which was erased on a double play, while giving up no hits.

Then came the top of the fourth. Consecutive singles by Boudreau and Gordon brought up Keltner. He blasted a three run homer that sent Galehouse to the showers and brought in reliever Ellis Kinder who managed to get out of the inning without further damage. Bearden sailed through the fourth, then Boudreau hit his second homer, this one off Kinder, to make the score 6-1 half way through the game.

After an uneventful bottom of the fifth and top of the sixth, Boston struck, again with two outs. With a single out, Williams reached base on an error by Gordon and scored ahead of Doerr when the latter connected with a home run. A Spence strikeout ended the inning with the score 6-3.

It stayed that way into the eighth when Cleveland picked up an unearned run on an error. They tacked on another when a double play with the bases loaded allowed an eighth run. With the score 8-3, Bearden returned to the mound for the bottom of the ninth. A grounder back to the pitcher made Doer the first out. Bearden then walked pinch hitter Billy Hitchcock. Goodman struck out for the second out of the inning. Then Tebbetts grounded to third baseman Keltner, who tossed to first for the final out and Cleveland was champ 8-3.

Boudreau was great (he won the MVP that year), going four for four with three runs scored, two RBIs and two homers. Keltner had provided another homer, this one worth three runs. Doby also managed a couple of hits, both doubles. Bearden threw a complete game giving up one earned run (the first one) while striking out six. He gave up five hits and five walks, but only three men scored.

For the Red Sox, Doerr had a homer and two of the RBIs (Stephens got the other). No one had more than one hit and Pesky had the only extra base hit (a double) other than Doerr’s home run. Galehouse gave up five hits and four runs over three-plus innings, while walking one and striking out another one. Kinder also gave up four runs (three earned) over six innings while giving up eight hits, striking out two and walking three.

Cleveland would go on to win the World Series that year; their last to date. Boston would have two more tries at the ring. As this series of posts has pointed out, they never grasped it. Next time some thoughts on why they failed.

 

 

 

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The Best Team Never to Win

January 24, 2017
Marse Joe while with the Yanks

Marse Joe while with the Yanks

The Cubs have, over the last 60 years, been historically bad. Most years they weren’t in contention by the end of the first couple of days and went downhill from there. But there are a lot of other teams that didn’t win much, so I decided to look for what I considered the best team that never won.

Let me take a minute to define my terms. I’m looking for the team that was good, really good, but never won a pennant. As we move toward the modern era we get more teams making the postseason, so I decided that teams making a playoff could count, but they weren’t allowed to win even one round during the postseason. I did not sit down and laboriously go through stat after stat trying to find the team with the most runs, or the highest team WAR, or WHIP. I looked primarily at overall record and I decided that teams that were good, but unsuccessful, over a period of years were more what I was looking for than some one year wonder of a team. A team like the 1988 Mets didn’t win, but with essentially the same team, they’d won the World Series in 1986, so they weren’t eligible for this project. Several teams made the initial couple of cuts, but I found myself coming back over and over to a team that was very, very good, had an MVP performance, a Hall of Fame manager and a couple of Hall of Famers and still just couldn’t quite get over the top: the 1948-1950 Boston Red Sox.

Before getting into the specifics of the team, let me give you a brief look at the people involved. The primary manager was Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy. He’d won a pennant with the Cubs in 1928 then led the Yankees through most of the 1930s and into the 1940s, when he resigned in 1946. He remained out of the dugout until 1948 when he took over Boston. He remained at the helm until June 1950 when he left managing for good. His replacement was Steve O’Neill. O’Neill managed the Detroit Tigers to the 1945 World Series championship (over McCarthy’s old team, the Cubs), then was let go after falling off by 1948. He remained with Boston through 1951.

In what’s about to follow, I want to point out the statistics I quote will not be yearly, but will note the best number in the three year run. For example if Joe Klutz has his best batting average in 1948, his best OBP in 1949, and his highest slugging percentage and OPS in 1950 then his triple slash line will look something like this (year substituted for actual number): 1948/1949/1950/1950. His home run number might be 1950 and his RBI number from 1948. I’m doing this to give you some flavor of how good the players were over a period of years rather than going through each individual yearly. On the other hand cumulative stats will be for the three-year span. Hopefully, I’ll do this well enough to make sure I distinguish which stat type is which (confused?). I think it’s more in line with the length of time involved with this team.

The infield was essentially five guys. Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr held down second for the entire period. His triple slash line (again, the best number in the three years, not necessarily from the same year) was .309/.393/.519/.891. He hit 72 total home runs, his highest RBI number was 120 (1950), and he led the American League in triples with 11 in 1950. His highest hit total was 172 and he totaled 14.1 WAR over the period. He was also generally first or second in most of the major fielding statistics. Johnny Pesky and Vern Stephens held down the left side of the infield. Pesky spent ’48 and ’49 as the primary third baseman and moved to short in ’50. Stephens obviously went the other way. His triple slash line reads .312/.437/.388/.825 (all from 1950 in this case). He totaled six home runs, his highest RBI total was 69 and he managed a high of eight stolen bases over the period. He scored 347 total runs, had 185 hits in 1949, and totaled 10.7 WAR in the three-year stretch. Although his fielding numbers aren’t as good as Doerr’s, Pesky still shows up as a very good defensive player. Stephens wasn’t exactly a bad fielder, but his primary job was to wield the lumber. His triple slash line for the period peaks at .295/.391/.539/.930 with 98 home runs. He led the AL in RBIs in both 1949 and 1950 with his 159 in 1949 being the highest number. In 1948 he also managed to lead the AL in grounding into double plays. His WAR for the period was 15.1.

The other two guys were at first. Billy Goodman did more work at first than anyone else, but he wasn’t really a first baseman. He also spent a lot of time at second, third, and in the outfield (ultimately he played more games at second than at any other position). He hit well, winning the 1950 AL batting title. His best triple slash numbers were .354/.427/.455/.882 (all from 1950, a year he played no games at first). He hit five total homers in the period, had 68 RBIs in 1950, scored 91 runs (also in 1950–obviously his career year), and managed 5.2 total WAR. His replacement at first was Walt Dropo. He didn’t play at all in 1948 and had a cup of coffee in ’49. In 1950 he took over as the everyday first baseman. He led the AL in RBIs with 144, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, had a triple slash line of .322/.378/.583/.961, led the league in total bases with 326, and posted 2.6 WAR. He also hit 34 home runs, had 180 hits, and scored 101 runs. All those were to be career highs. For his career he would put up 3.2 WAR, 2.6 of that in 1950.

The outfield belonged to four men: Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Al Zarilla, and Stan Spence. If you’re reading this you probably have a sense of Williams. He’s one of the dozen or so greatest players ever and he was excellent in the three years around 1950. His best triple slash line for the three years reads .369/,497/.650/1,141. He hit 96 home runs in the period, won the RBI title in 1949 with a career high 159, led the AL in runs, doubles, total bases at various times during the three year run. His WAR totals 21.5. He was injured for much of 1950, or his number might have been higher. He won the MVP Award in 1949. Stan Spence, on the other hand, is fairly obscure. He played both right field and first base in 1948, then was traded seven games into 1949. In 1948 he hit .235/,368/.391/.759 with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs. Zarilla was his replacement. He was with Boston in both ’49 and 1950 and had a better year in ’50. His triple slash line for 1950 is .325/.423/.493/.915. He had nine home runs both years, 145 total RBIs, had 32 doubles each year, and 4.6 total WAR. He was a decent outfielder, but is today probably most famous as the principal in the famous Dizzy Dean line “Zarilla slud into third.” Which leaves Dom DiMaggio, the center fielder. His triple slash numbers read .328/.4.14/.452/.866 (all are from 1950). He led the AL in stolen bases (15), triples (11), and runs 131) in 1950 (his best year) and put up 24 home runs, 384 runs, and 11.1 WAR over the period. His fielding stats show him as one of the best center fielders of the era.

Next time I want to look at the battery (both catchers and pitchers) as well as the bench. It’s a fine team. So I also want to look at what went wrong causing them to never reach the World Series.

 

 

 

 

 

Missouri Waltz: the 1944 World Series

June 24, 2013
MissHarry Truman in one of the most famous of all political pictures

Missouri’s favorite son, Harry Truman in one of the most famous of all political pictures

It was a heck of a year for Missouri. U.S. Senator Harry Truman from Independence was leading a major committee that was instrumental in helping the war effort. In baseball with both St. Louis teams winning Major League Baseball pennants, the World Series would be an all-St. Louis affair in 1944. All games would be played in town with the Cardinals being the home team in games one, two, six, and seven. The Browns got games three, four, and five. All games were played in Sportsman’s Park, a stadium the two teams shared. The Cards were big favorites.

With the Browns having needed the last day of the season to clinch the pennant, they sent Denny Galehouse to the mound. Galehouse was 9-10 over 24 games (19 starts) over the season. With Chet Laabs back from war work, they were also able to start the man who was supposed to be their regular left fielder. The Cards countered with their regular lineup and ace Mort Cooper (22-7 over 34 games). After three scoreless innings, the Browns got to Cooper when, with two outs, Gene Moore singled and George McQuinn hit a two-run home run. They were the only two hits Cooper gave up. The scored held into the bottom of the ninth when Marty Marion doubled, went to third on a ground out then came home on Ken O’Dea’s sacrifice fly. Galehouse then got Johnny Hopp to fly to center to end the game. The underdog Browns were up 1-0.

That lasted exactly one day. The second game saw the Browns send Nels Potter to the mound to oppose Max Lanier. The Cards scored first in the bottom of the third on an Emil Verban single, a Lanier bunt that Potter threw away, sending Verban to third. Augie Bergamo then grounded out to second scoring Verban. The Cards added another run in the fourth when Ray Sanders singled, went to second on another single, took third on an error by the third baseman (Mark Christman), then scored on a sacrifice fly by Verban. The Browns tied the game in the seventh when Moore singled, scored on a double by Red Hayworth, and Frank Mancuso (pinch-hitting for Potter) singled to score Hayworth. That completed the scoring through the ninth. The game went eleven innings and ended when Sanders singled, went to second on a bunt, and came home on O’Dea’s single.  Reliever Blix Donnelly got the win and fellow reliever Bob Muncrief took the loss.

Game three saw the Browns take over as home team. With no need to travel, the game was played the next day. The Cards started Ted Wilks while the Browns answered with ace Jack Kramer. The Cardinals got an early run in the first when, with one out, Hopp reached second on an error by shortstop Vern Stephens, then after another out, scored on a single by Walker Cooper. The run held up into the third when the Browns exploded for the Series’ first big inning. Moore and Stephens both singled, then consecutive singles by McQuinn, Al Zarilla, and Christman plated three runs. After an intentional walk and a wild pitch to hurler Kramer, Zarilla scored the fourth run. After the Cards tacked on an unearned run in the top of the seventh, the Browns responded with two more runs to win 6-2. Kramer got the win with a complete game and Wilks the loss pitching only 2.2 innings. After three games, the underdog Browns were actually ahead 2 games to 1.

Game four was played on Saturday 7 October. The Cards sent Harry Breechen to the mound to oppose Sig Jakucki. With one out in the top of the first, Stan Musial popped a home run scoring himself and Hopp to put the Cardinals ahead. It was all Breechen needed. He gave up nine hits, walked four, struck out the same number, but only allowed a single run (in the eighth on a double play ball), while his teammates tacked on three more runs, two in the third on a couple of singles and an error, and one more in the sixth on a Marion double. The game tied the Series at 2 each, turning the playoff into a best of three.

Game five on Sunday saw a repeat of the game one matchup. This time the results were different. Galehouse gave up single runs in the sixth (a Sanders home run) and eighth (a Danny Litwhiler home run), while Mort Cooper threw a complete game shutout on seven hits and two walks while striking out 12.

That brought the World Series to game six, a Lanier, Potter rematch. It also sent the Cardinals to the home dugout. The Browns broke on top in the second with a Laabs triple followed by a McQuinn single. The run held up into the bottom of the fourth. With one out, Walker Cooper walked, went to third on a Sanders single, and scored to tie the game when Stephens threw away a grounder from Whitey Kurowski. After a second out, Verban and Lanier both singled to drive in two more runs and put the Cards up 3-1 with five innings left. Lanier got through the fifth, ran into trouble in the sixth, and was lifted for Wilks, who got out of a base runners at second and third situation without a run scoring. Wilks set the Browns down in order in both the seventh and eighth. In the ninth, McQuinn fouled out, pinch hitter Milt Byrnes struck out, and a second pinch hitter, Mike Chartak also struck out to end the game, the Series, and the Browns postseason experience. The Cardinals had won in six games.

It was a good, but not great Series. For the Browns there were lots of reasons they lost. They had 10 errors, at least one in every game but game one (by contrast, the Cards had one total error). They led to seven unearned runs (the Cards scored 16 total runs). Among starting hitters only McQuinn hit above .250 (he hit .438 and had the only Browns home run). As a team they hit a buck eighty-three. The pitchers (other than Jakucki who was  shelled) did well. The team ERA was 1.49 and the staff struck out 43 while walking only 19 and giving up 49 hits.

But the Cardinals staff was as good. Their ERA was higher at 1.96, and they walked 23, but they struck out 49 and allowed only 36 hits. There was no real hitting star for the Cards. Five men had two RBIs, no one had more. Verban hit .412, but both Musial and Walker Cooper were over .300 and Sanders hit in the .280s. There were three home runs, all by different players (Musial, Litwhiler, and Sanders), and Verban, Walker Cooper, and Musial all led the team with seven hits. It was a true team effort.

For the Cardinals it was the third in a series of four pennants in five years. So there was one more opportunity (1946) for the Redbirds, but for the Browns it was the high point of their existence. It was the only time they would win a pennant (until after they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles). For St. Louis it was the city’s greatest baseball season. And for Missouri it was also a good year. That Senator from Independence named Truman went on to be elected Vice President of the United States and became President the next year.

Missouri Waltz: the 1944 Browns

June 20, 2013
Don Gutteridge, Browns second baseman

Don Gutteridge, Browns second baseman

If the National League race was predictable with the Cardinals triumphant, the American League race was absolutely wild. To start with the St. Louis Browns won it. They’d never won anything, ever. The 1944 pennant was their first.

All-time underachievers, the Browns won 89 games, besting Detroit by one game. Manager Luke Sewell’s team was next to last in batting average, but was second (to Boston) in runs per game. They were second in RBIs, doubles, and home runs. The staff was second (to Detroit) in runs given up per game and led the AL in strikeouts.

The catchers were Gus Mancuso and Red Hayworth. Hayworth played in two more games than Mancuso, but both were right-handed hitters. Apparently it wasn’t a platoon situation, but I can’t determine the exact rationale for using each player. Manager Sewell was an ex-catcher so perhaps he was merely keeping his catcher fresh. Both hit under .225 and had a homer apiece.

The infield was the same as in 1943 with George McQuinn at first, Don Gutteridge at second, Vern Stephens holding down short, and Mark Christman at third. Christman had replace long time third sacker Harland Clift midway through 1943, but the other had been Browns starters for both seasons. McQuinn and Stephens were the only Browns with double figure home runs (McQuinn had 11, Stephens 20). Stephens also led the team with 109 RBIs and was the only infielder to hit over .275. Gutteridge led the team with 20 stolen bases.

The outfield was unsettled. Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes did most of the outfield work, but that was because longtime left fielder Chet Laabs lost part of the season to the war (he was back by the World Series). Kreevich was the only starter to hit .300 (.301). He was also 36 years old. He replaced Mike Chartak as the primary center fielder prior to opening day. So only Byrnes had been a starter in 1943.

The bench was a strong point for the Browns, which helped propel them to the title. Laabs, in 66 games had five home runs and scored 28 times. Al Zarilla, a backup outfielder (and primarily known today for Dizzy Dean’s call of “Zarilla slud into third.”) hit .299, had six homers, six triples, and an OPS of .823. The rest of the bench was made up of decent fielders who didn’t hit a lot.

It was the pitching staff that changed the fortunes of the Browns. Gone were Steve Sundra, Steve Niggeling, and Al Hollingsworth as starters (Hollingsworth was a reliever, Sundra pitched three games). In their place were new ace Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, and Nels Potter. Both Potter and Kramer had better ERAs than any of the three departed starters. Returning starters were Bob Muncrief and Denny Galehouse. Their ERA+ ran from Kramer’s 146 to Jakucki’s 103. The starters faced one problem, all were right-handed. All the southpaws were in the bullpen. The bullpen had George Caster with 12 saves in 34 appearances, all in relief.

My wife’s grandfather was a diehard Browns fan. He told me stories, on more than one occasion, about the 1944 Browns. They won the pennant on the final day of the season and according to my wife’s grandfather, the entire town of St. Louis celebrated, even Cardinals fans. They knew they were seeing something they’d never seen before and , considering the Browns historical record, were likely never to see again, an all St. Louis World Series.

“The Greatest Day of My Life”

March 21, 2012

Chet Laabs, a Browns stalwart

I actually knew a St. Louis Browns fan. My wife’s grandfather was born in the 1890s in the St. Louis area. He was just reaching an age when sports becomes important to a kid when the American League dropped a team in St. Louis to rival the Cardinals. He told me he became a Browns fan because they were new, and because he knew the Cardinals were terrible at the time. Unfortunately for him, the Cards got better and the Browns were traditionally awful. But in 1944 they won a pennant. The day they clinched the title he call “the greatest day of my life.” Then he looked around sheepishly to make sure no one else, especially his wife, had heard that claim. I made a promise that I would never tell either his wife or his daughter (my mother-in-law) he said that.

From the beginning the Browns were bad. They finished second in 1902 (OK, they weren’t bad the first season, but just wait), which is apparently what caught the attention of my wife’s grandfather. It was downhill from there. In 1908 they got back to the first division (4th), then stayed in the second division until 1920. They had decent runs in the 1920s, finishing as high as second (1922), third in 1921, 25, and 28. They finally found a handful of quality players. George Sisler was at first, hit .400, stole some bases, had no power. Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson (they don’t make nicknames like that anymore, do they?), and Jack Tobin patrolled the outfield, and Urban Shocker was a better than average pitcher who went on to play for the 1927 Yankees.

It didn’t last. The 1930s were dismal. They finished as high as fifth once and the best they could do for an All Star was Harland Clift, a good ballplayer, but not a true star. Things got better in the 1940s. They finished third in 1942, the first war year, then won their first (and only) American League pennant in 1944. That year produced the above mentioned “greatest day of my life” moment for my wife’s grandfather. So in his honor, let’s take a moment and celebrate the stars of the only Browns pennant winner. The catcher was Red Hayworth, who hit .222 with an OPS just barely over .500. The infield consisted of  (from first around to third) George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Vern Stephens, and Mark Christman. If you’re lucky, you’ve probably heard of Stephens; and if so, it’s probably in conjunction with his stint with the Red Sox. The outfield had Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes. Chet Laabs was supposed to be the regular left fielder, but was off at war work for much of the season. He got back in time to play in the Series. The staff consisted of such household names as Denny Galehouse, Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, Bob Muncrief, and Nels Potter. All were right-handed and none went on to greatness. The main man off the bench was Al Zarilla, of “Zarilla slud into third” fame.  They lost to the Cardinals in six games.

“Zarilla slud into third” is a good way to look at the problem of the Browns. Their most famous member was up in the broadcast booth. Dizzy Dean became the Browns radio announcer and his mangling of the English language, but obvious baseball knowledge, made him a national figure. It’s tough to take the team seriously when the announcer is their most famous member. And for those interested, Dean pitched his last game, a four inning affair in 1947, with the Browns. It gave him 10 years in the Majors and a ticket to Cooperstown.

The 1944 season was the highlight for the Browns. By 1945 they slid back to third, despite getting 77 games out of Pete Gray (whose story is worthy of telling sometime). By 1946 they were seventh, moved to sixth in ’47, then never finished above seventh the rest of their time in St. Louis. Meanwhile the Cardinals were becoming among the best teams in baseball, and attendance, never very good, was falling at Browns games. In 1947 they brought Hank Thompson to the big leagues, becoming the third team to integrate. Thompson was a poor choice, the first ex-Negro Leaguer to be a failure, and the Browns were unable to profit from their foray into black baseball.

By the end of the 1953 season the Browns were in terrible shape. But in 1953 the Boston Braves had taken a flier and moved to Milwaukee. It worked. Their attendance was up, they went from seventh to second in the National League. Browns ownership decided to move. They picked Baltimore, jettisoned the Browns name and became the Orioles. Although they did well in attendance, the team was still miserable. By 1960 they were climbing up the standings, culminating in an initial World Series victory in 1966, giving them something that St. Louis never saw, a Browns winner.

And my wife’s grandfather? Well, he continued to follow the Browns after they moved to Baltimore. He told me he liked a number of the players and stayed with the team until those retired or were traded. By 1966, although gratified that the Orioles won, he’d switched his allegiance to the Cardinals, a team he remained loyal to until his death. And I kept my promise and never told either his wife or his daughter about his “greatest day.”