Friday, June 25, 2010

1956 World Series

After finally dropping a Fall Classic to Brooklyn, the Yankees didn't have to wait long to get a shot at revenge. The Yankees took the AL by nine games in 1956, their most comfortable margin of victory since 1947. The Dodgers meanwhile, entered the season's final weekend hosting lowly Pittsburgh and trailing Milwaukee by a half game. Brooklyn swept a Saturday doubleheader while the Braves lost, putting the Dodgers up a game. Brooklyn completed the sweep on Sunday, clinching their fourth pennant in five years and setting up another World Series rematch with the Yankees.


A year removed from their last meeting, both teams carried essentially the same rosters as the previous fall. Phil Rizzuto was unceremoniously released late in the season, but overall the position players for both teams were virtually the same as the year before, with the occasional variation depending upon how platoon masters Casey Stengel and Walter Alston tweaked the line up. The biggest change came on the pitching front. The respective staffs were still fronted by Whitey Ford and Don Newcombe, but Johnny Kucks had supplanted Tommy Byrne as the Yankees' number two man, while longtime Giant Sal "The Barber" Maglie joined Brooklyn early in the season and became their number two starter.

The Yankees featured their typical balanced attack, ranking at or near the top of the AL in most major batting and pitching categories. The Dodgers meanwhile, had changed the nature of their team. Long an offensive juggernaut with average pitching, the '56 club had an offense just slightly better than the NL average. Their pitching staff though, led by Newcombe, Maglie, and sophomore Roger Craig, and featuring two seldom used youngsters named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, was the class of the NL.

The Series opened at Ebbets Field on Wednesday October 3rd. It was five years to the day since the Giants won a three game playoff against the Dodgers, courtesy of Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World". Maglie started for the Giants that day, and on the five year anniversary it was him, not his 1951 opponent Don Newcombe, who took the ball for Brooklyn. For the Yankees, Ford predictably got the Game One nod.

The Yankees defeated Maglie in Game Four of the '51 Series, and Game One started out looking like much the same. They took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on the strength of a two run homer from Mickey Mantle, who had destroyed AL pitching that summer, posting a career best OPS+ of 210, winning the Triple Crown, and leading the league in runs, slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases as well. He finished second in OBP and walks, fourth in hits, and seventh in stolen bases. He would later call it his Favorite Summer, and his 12.9 WAR remains baseball's fourth best total since the Dead Ball Era.

Maglie settled in during the second inning though, retiring the side in order to make it five straight outs for him. His offense evened the score in the bottom half. Jackie Robinson led off with a home run; Gil Hodges then singled and was doubled home by Carl Furillo. Maglie worked around two singles in the third, then the Dodgers plated three more on a Hodges homer in the bottom half. Billy Martin started the top of the fourth with a solo shot to cut it to 5-4, but with Ford chased from the game in bottom of the inning, the Dodgers added a run off reliever Johnny Kucks. The teams stayed scoreless for the remainder of the day, and Maglie's complete game gave the Dodgers a 6-4 victory and one game lead in the Series.

After a rainout on Thursday, Game Two matched Don Newcombe against Don Larsen. Both turned in poor performances in their only starts in the '55 Series, and things didn't get any better for them in Game Two. Joe Collins singled Enos Slaughter home in the first to give the Yankees an early lead for the second straight day. The Yankees broke out the heavy lumber in the second. Martin led off with a single and was bunted second. Larsen, a fairly good hitting pitcher, singled him home and turned the lineup over. Gil McDougald reached on an infield single, and after Slaughter made the second out, Mantle drew a walk to load the bases. Yogi Berra then unloaded them, blasting a grand slam to right and ending Newcombe's day.

Larsen took the hill in the bottom of the second with a 6-0 lead, but he, his defense, and his relief promptly gave it all back. Hodges led off with a single and an error by Moose Skowron allowed Sandy Amoros to reach. Furillo walked to load the bases. Roy Campanella hit a sacrifice fly to put Brooklyn on the board, and then pinch hitter Dale Mitchell popped up for the second out. Larsen couldn't close the door though, walking Junior Gilliam to reload the bases and end his afternoon. Kucks replaced him and immediately surrendered a two run single to Pee Wee Reese. Stengel then lifted Kucks for Tommy Byrne, who served up a three run bomb to Duke Snider, knotting the score at six. All six Brooklyn runs were unearned, but it didn't change the fact that the Yankees had just squandered a six run lead.

The Dodgers took a one run lead in the third, with pitcher Don Bessent driving in Hodges. The Yankees answered in the top of the fourth as a sac fly from Slaughter scored Yankee pitcher Tom Morgan. In the fifth, Hodges' two run double gave the Dodgers the lead for good, as Brooklyn went on to take a 13-8 final. Both Newcombe and Larsen pitched poorly. Both would have an opportunity to redeem himself before the Series ended; only one did.

The Yankees retreated to the Bronx in an 0-2 hole, having lost three in a row and six of seven to the team they had previously dominated. In desperate need of a win, the Thursday rainout allowed Stengel to bring back Ford on two days rest for Game Three. Brooklyn countered with Roger Craig. The clubs traded runs in the second, a sacrifice fly from Campanella scoring Robinson with the game's first run, and a solo homer from Billy Martin evening things up. It remained that way into the sixth, when a sac fly from Snider scored Pee Wee Reese. Once again the Yankees responded in the bottom half, as a three run home from Enos Slaughter gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead. Both teams scored an unearned over the final innings before Ford closed it out to bring the Yankees within a game.

Game Four was a match up of serviceable back of the rotation options. Carl Erskine had been one of the better pitchers for Brooklyn earlier in the decade, but now nearly thirty, he had slipped down the Dodger pecking order. For the Yankees, sophomore Tom Sturdivant was a valuable swingman on the club, logging the fourth most innings on the team while splitting his appearances between starts and the bullpen. Yogi Berra singled Joe Collins home in the first to spot the Yankees a lead. Hodges drove home Snider in the fourth to tie the score, but in the bottom half Martin singled Mantle in, then McDougald plated Slaughter with a sac fly to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead. Home runs from Mantle in the sixth and Hank Bauer in the eighth made it 6-1. The Dodgers loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, but Stengel stuck with Sturdivant. He surrendered and RBI single to Campanella, then retired the next two men to earn a complete game victory and pull the Series even at two apiece.

When Don Larsen entered the Yankee clubhouse on the morning of Monday October 8th, he found a baseball tucked in his spikes, Stengel's way of informing he was starting that afternoon. Six feet four inches tall, Larsen was nicknamed the Gooney Bird, not only for his height, but also for his sometimes aloof demeanor. He was known to have a drink from time to time, like many of his teammates. The Yankees had acquired Larsen following the '54 season, as part of a massive 17 player trade. He pitched rather well for the club over the two intervening seasons, but his two World Series starts had been disastrous to the tune of nine runs (five of them earned) over five and two thirds innings. As we've seen over recent years, small doses of post-season performance aren't always indicative of true talent level. Larsen wasn't nearly as bad as those two starts suggested. He was an above average pitcher at that point in his career, and while no one would ever confuse him with the best pitcher in the game, for one afternoon he managed to turn in a reasonable impersonation.

Nine years and five days earlier, Yankee starter Bill Bevens came within one out of no-hitting the Dodgers for the first World Series no-no in history. Larsen finished what Bevens couldn't, doing him one better by not issuing a single walk, nor hitting a batter, nor having his defense make an error behind him. Mickey Mantle staked the Yankees to a one run lead with a solo homer in the fourth, then made a running, lunging catch to track down a Gil Hodges liner in the left field gap during the fifth. Bauer added an RBI single in the sixth, but it was more offense than Larsen needed. Home plate umpire Babe Pinelli rang up pinch hitter Dale Mitchell on a called third strike to end the ninth. It was a borderline call at best, but nonetheless, marked Larsen's seventh K on the day and the twenty seventh consecutive batter he retired. Berra leapt into his arms along the first base line, the two having just completed just the fourth perfect game in the modern era, and what remains the only no-hitter in post-season history.

Not only had they just made history, but the Yankees took their third game in a row to push he Dodgers to the brink of elimination. The Series shifted back to Ebbets Field the next day, and while Game Six didn't quite match the drama of Game Five, it came awfully close. Clem Labine, usually the Dodgers relief ace, got the start. For the Yankees, Bob Turley, who had been knocked around in a Game Three start the previous year, took the ball. Since that start, Turley had made four World Series relief appearances, covering five and a third innings, ten strikeouts, and just a single run. He would pitch even better than that in Game Six, but the end result didn't improve at all.

Turley and Labine matched zeros through nine innings. Only five men made it as far as second base, three for the Yankees and two for the Dodgers, and no one advanced as far as third. In the tenth, Labine retired the Yankees in order for the fourth time on the day. In the bottom half, Turley got Labine to pop up for the first out, then issued a walk to Junior Gilliam. Pee Wee Reese bunted Gilliam to second, and with two outs, the Yankees elected to walk Duke Snider and go after Jackie Robinson. The veteran was now 37 years old and in his tenth season. He wasn't the same player he had been in his prime, but had rebounded from a subpar 1955 to have a good '56. Facing the Yankees in the Fall Classic for the sixth time, he stepped in the box for his 156th World Series plate appearance, all of them against the Yankees. He singled Gilliam in to give the Dodgers the win and force a Game Seven. It would be the last of hit of Robinson's career.

For the second straight year, the third time in their last four meetings, and the fifth time overall, the Yankees and Dodgers faced a Game Seven. Stengel surprisingly chose Johnny Kucks over Whitey Ford. Alston, to the surprise of no one, went with Don Newcombe. It was the fifth start of Newk's World Series career. After taking a tough luck loss in Game One of the '49 Series, Newcombe got bounced early in Game Four. He missed the '52 and '53 Series while serving in the military, and was then torched in Game One in '55 and in Game Two in '56. Given a shot at redemption, Newcombe couldn't break the trend of poor peformances against the Yankees.

Yogi Berra hit a two run homer in the first to put the Yankees on the board, and he added a second two run shot in the third to double the lead. Elston Howard led off the fourth with a solo shot, making it 5-0 and chasing Newcombe from the mound. Moose Skowron added a grand slam in the seventh, but Berra's first inning blast was all the offense Kucks needed. The 23 year old Hoboken native was in his second Major League season, just four years removed from signing with the Yankees. The tall, lanky right hander absolutely baffled the Dodger batters, scattering three singles and three walks on the afternoon. He retired the side in order four different times, allowed multiple baserunners in just one inning, and just one runner made it as far as second base. Despite recording just one strikeout, Kucks tossed a brilliant complete game shutout, returning the Yankees to the top of the baseball world. It was their sixth championship in eight years under Stengel, their seventh over the last ten seasons, and their seventeenth overall.

No one knew it at the time, but the end of the 1956 World Series also marked the conclusion of the Golden Age of New York baseball.

1 comment:

  1. HOFer Roy Campanella batted 8th...8th on that Dodger team,so Larsen's no-hitter was truly specacular.Plushe was a decent hitter.Bob Turley,sadly, remains a forgotten Yankee stalwart.