Monday, September 28, 2009

Remembering Old Reliable

Good morning Fackers. And of course, this particular morning is an especially good one, as yesterday the Yanks clinched the AL East and did so against the arch-rival Red Sox. Sixty years ago the Yankees also clinched against the Red Sox, but under circumstances that were far more dire.

On Saturday October 1, 1949, the Red Sox came into the Bronx for a season-ending two game series. They held a one game lead in the race for the AL flag, meaning the Yankees needed to sweep to take the pennant.

Saturday, the Yanks fell behind 4-0 in the third inning, then clawed back into it, pushing the go ahead run across in the bottom of the eighth to stay alive and make Sunday's contest the American League Championship Game.

The Yankees jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first, and the score remained that way until they tacked on four more in the bottom of the eighth. Those runs would be needed, as the Sox plated three in the ninth. With Birdie Tebbets at the plate as the tying run, Yankee ace Vic Raschi got him to foul out to end the game and give the Yankees the pennant.

The final out was caught by veteran Tommy Henrich, "Old Reliable" as Mel Allen had dubbed him due to his knack for big hits in big spots. Henrich was mentioned by Peter Abraham last weekend, as the death of former Yankee Lonny Frey left the 96 year-old Henrich as the oldest living Yankee.

Before Catfish Hunter, before Reggie Jackson, Henrich was the Yankees' first big free agent acquisition. Born in Ohio, Henrich signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1934. After being buried in the Cleveland system for three years without being advanced appropriately, Commissioner Kennesaw Landis declared Henrich's contract void, freeing him to sign with whichever club he chose. He signed with the Yankees in April 1937, and after a brief stint with the Newark Bears, he moved up to the big club.

Two weeks ago the New York Times ran an article mentioning how the Yankees - like many slow to integrate clubs -passed on an opportunity to sign Willie Mays after that 1949 season. After the article ran, River Ave Blues, Bronx Banter, The Yankees Universe and others salivated at the possibility of a Mantle-Mays-Maris outfield in the 1960s. While that assuredly would have been the greatest outfield in Yankee history, the greatest that did exist consisted of Henrich, Joe DiMaggio, and last Monday morning's topic, Charlie Keller.

DiMaggio debuted in 1936, a year before Henrich, and was an instant star. Henrich spent his rookie year as a bench player - albeit a productive one - before becoming the regular right fielder in 1938. Despite posting an OPS+ of 119, it wasn't enough to establish Henrich as a permanent starter. The arrival of Keller in 1939 pushed Henrich back to the bench, as the Yankee outfield consisted of DiMaggio, Keller, and George Selkirk, all of whom posted an OPS+ of at least 143.

Selkirk had another fine season in 1940, and still received the majority of the time, but Henrich posted better numbers in his part time duty and missed a large portion of the year due to knee surgery. In 1941, he finally became the regular right fielder, joining DiMaggio and Keller. The trio combined for 94 home runs, with the right handed DiMaggio's 30 trailing the two lefties. Henrich's 31 longballs was third in the league, while his OPS+ of 136 was good for tenth in the league, but last in his own outfield.

That fall, Henrich was at the plate for one of the more notorious moments in World Series history. He was at bat in the ninth inning of Game 4 with Dodgers about to even the Series at two games apiece. Henrich struck out for what would have been the game's final out, but Dodgers catcher Mickey Owens allowed the ball to get by him. Henrich ran to first, the Yankees rallied, with Keller driving in Henrich and DiMaggio to give the Yankees the lead. Rather than being tied at two games apiece, the Yankees took a commanding 3-1 lead en route to their fifth championship in six seasons.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor two months and one day after that Series ended, bringing the U.S. into World War II and altering the landscape of Major League Baseball for the next four seasons. The trio managed to stay in tact a year longer, winning the club's sixth pennant in seven seasons, but falling to the Cardinals in the World Series. DiMaggio and Henrich missed the entirety of 1943-45 while Keller missed the 1944 season and most of 1945, all due to military service.

1946 saw the end of the War in both theaters, with most Major Leaguers returning to their chosen profession. The trio reunited for one final season before Keller's back relegated him to part time duty.

Henrich remained with the club through 1950, winning three more World Series rings to run his career total to seven. He led the AL in triples in 1947 and 48, and in runs in '48 while posting a career best OPS+ of 151. He hit the first walkoff HR in World Series during Game 1 of the 1949 Series. He made the All-Star team five times, including each of his last four seasons. After taking four seasons to establish himself as a starter early in his career, Henrich turned in what were perhaps his best seasons after WWII, in what should have been the decline phase of his career.

As we said about Keller last week and as we said of their teammate Joe Gordon earlier this summer, Henrich is something of a forgotten Yankee superstar. Given the rich history of the franchise, it's easy for such players to get lost in the shuffle behind Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle, particularly when it's been nearly 60 years since these men last played for the Yanks. But that shouldn't diminish the contributions that these less legendary greats made during their time in pinstripes.

No comments:

Post a Comment