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The Champions: 1951

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I wanted to do a season review, but as I tried to figure out a way to analyze the season I realized you don't need me to tell you about it month by month or series by series because you just lived through it.

I'm always surprised how little history we know, even in a fanbase as steeped in tradition as the New York Yankees. Maybe it's worse for us: most fans have a few legendary years that they can look back on, while we have decades of glory all vying for attention.

This is part one of twenty-two on the championship seasons before 1996. My goal was to learn a little about the role players on these teams- we all know Babe Ruth played right field, but who played third? We know Red Ruffing and Superchief Allie Reynolds, but what about the guy who had a career year and put the Yanks over the top?

I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had researching and writing it. If I write about a year that you remember or a player you know a lot about I want to hear the story, so share in the comments. As in great works of literature, we begin in medias res with the 1951 Yankees.

Update [2007-10-13 10:37:42 by jscape2000]: H/t to Amanda for finding the picture of that famous bunt for me.

So why start a review of the Yankees with the 1951 championship team? Frankly, I picked them because of the great baseball story their season presents. DiMaggio passes the torch to Mantle. In the NL, the Giants' Bobby Thompson launches the Shot Heard `Round the World in a playoff game against the Dodgers, and "the Giants win the pennant!" And then the Yankees beat them in the World Series for their third straight pennant in what will become an unparalleled five year run of dominance.

But as I began to read old NYTimes articles (my alma mater has access to alumni through the library database, made possible by the class of '05 [that's me!]) and review stats from that year, I noticed a striking parallel with the 2006 team: this is a team in transition. The '51 team is rolling over its lineup while the '07 team is rolling over the rotation, but I found it interesting to read the way the media covered the situation.

Joe DiMaggio was the team's aging star- at 36 his feet often hurt him too badly to play, and his $100,000 salary often seemed ludicrous. He played only 116 of the 154 games that season, and nine other players had starts in centerfield, including rookies Billy Martin (1) and Mickey Mantle (3).

Yogi Berra was actually the heart of the team. Having appeared in 151 games the previous season, he played 141 in '51, all as the catcher and would have played more had he not missed several games after getting hurt on a collision at home plate. The Yankees had convinced Billy Dickey to hold off retirement to teach this awkward goof how to be a catcher and in 1951 Berra put it all together: an MVP award, his 4th straight All-Star selection, 27 homers, 88 RBI, and 92 runs scored (all team highs).

Hank Bauer (an early season holdout) used a fancy innovation to hone his swing: "a specially designed camera" capable of taking a rapid sequence of pictures to detect flaws and inconsistencies in hitting and pitching motions [1]. Bauer's platoon partner was former Cleveland Indian Gene Woodling. They put up nearly identical numberes, Woodling as a lefty, Bauer as a righty: .281/.373.462 (420 ABs) and .296/.373/.454 (348 ABs).

Some felt the Yankees were still searching for a superstar to replace Lou Gehrig, who had retired twelve years earlier. Arthur Daley actually opined that the Law of Averages suggested that the Yankees "can't expect to have a super-star of Mr. Gehrig's caliber always on hand" [2]. An attempt was made in 1950 to move DiMaggio to firstbase to save his heels, but after one game there DiMaggio declared he'd rather retire than play the infield. He wouldn't play first at all in '51. Instead Johnny Mize and Joe Collins platooned. While Mize and Collins played well (102 and 128 OPS+, respectively), neither of the him for much batting average- a bad sign for your career in those pre-OBP days.

While Billy Martin and right fielder Mickey Mantle would go on to have far more celebrated careers, it was Gil McDougald who was the Rookie of the Year (and 9th in MVP voting). Splitting time between second and thirdbase, McDougald put up a .306/.396/.488 line in 131 games. But throughout the season it was Mantle who was recognized as the greater talent and hounded by the press and advertising companies to an unprecedented extent. "[Mantle is] the most promising rookie since the ascension of Joe DiMaggio, who thinks, without any editorial equivocation at all, that Mantle is the greatest rookie he has every seen. `Greatest' is a word used sparingly by DiMaggio and then only in it's veritable non-show business sense" [3]

Veterans like Phil Rizzuto, "Doc" Bobby Brown (injured again) and Jerry Coleman (soon to become a bench player thanks to injury and Billy Martin) rounded out the lineup.

The pitching staff was a question mark. The Big Four of Vic Raschi (32), lefty Eddie Lopat (33), "Superchief" Allie Reynolds (34), and Tommy Byrne had been whittled down to a Big Three when Byrne was traded to the St. Louis Browns after only three starts. Who would pick up that 200 IP slack? Even worse, 22 year-old wonderkind Edward Ford had been drafted for the Korean War and wouldn't be back in pinstripes until 1953.
Raschi would be the same slightly better than average workhorse he had been the previous year: another 250IP, 34 stars (up from 32), 15 CG (down from 17), another 1.3 WHIP. It would be Lopat's last big year. In pitching 234.2 innings, he would top 215 for the 6th consecutive season. Lopat pitched complete games in 20 of his 31 starts while sporting a career best 1.19 WHIP. Unfortunately, Lopat would never again top 180 IP.

The Superchief did a little bit of everything to help the '51 Yankees. He started 26 games (including 7 shutouts!) and finished 11 more. His 17-8 mark earned him third place in the MVP voting (there is no Cy Young at this point). Four other pitchers would throw more than 80 innings for Casey Stengel's squad.
Tom Morgan was a 21 year old rookie who would become the number four starter. He would remind you of Gil Meche- occasionally league average, usually worse.
Joe Ostrowski and Spec Shea handled most of the relief duties most of the season. Ostrowski was effective, but at 34 years old he was in the fourth year of his five year career. Shea carried an 89 ERA+ in 95.2IP.
The Yankees would have an Aaron Small moment when Bob Kuzava (great Scrabble name- 29 points) suddenly forgot he was Bob Kuzava when he was acquired from the Washinton Senators. Instead of the Kuzavian 57 hits and 28BB (against only 22 Ks) he put up in 52.1 IP as a Senator, the 28 year-old decided to be Mariano Rivera for a season and pitch 82.3 innings, 76 hits and 27 BB against 50 Ks. (*Spoiler alert* In 1952, Kuzava decides to go back to being Kuzava, walking 63 while striking out 67).

This Yankee team went down to the wire to win the pennant from Bob Feller's Cleveland Indians. The Yanks were 4.5 back of the White Sox on June 7th, took the lead on July 2nd but immediately stumbled. They played below .500 for the next two weeks. To add injury to insult, DiMaggio tore a muscle in his leg (would they call in a hammy strain or a pulled groin today?) and missed more than a week. As the Yankees struggle to shore up their pitching staff they sent that Mantle kid back down to AAA to make room for lefthanded Art Schallock- a Sean Henn kind of scrub who never got and never deserved more than a cup of coffee.

Manager Casey Stengel's rationale for sending down Mantle? "He has one weakness in that he struck out too often, but I'm certain he'll overcome that and he'll be back" [4] Casey would be right about one of those things: with 1710Ks in 9909 PAs Mantle is the all-time Yankee leader in strikeouts (when he retired he had nearly a 600K lead on second place Babe Ruth, fortunately Derek Jeter is closing the gap and should pass Mantle some time around 2012).

What was developing as a four team race (Yanks, BoSox, Indians, and ChiSox) took a turn when the Yankees swept three games from Cleveland at the Stadium at the end of July. By August 1st the Yanks had a one game lead, but then Yogi Berra decided he wanted to be finished with the four team playoff race. Having hit 17 homers through August 15, Berra went on a binge clubbing 10 homers in the season's final month and a half.

Even these heroics were barely enough. As the Yanks pulled away from the pack so did the Indians. The Yanks were half a game back on August 21st when they recalled Mickey Mantle, but he couldn't come play baseball right away. Instead he flew to Washington to have his draft physical- where an old football injury to his left leg kept him ineligible for the draft [5]. Meanwhile, the Yankees dropped three straight and fell three behind Cleveland on August 24th. The Big Three stepped it up in the final month, and finally it was the Indians' turn to stumble. The Yanks won four in a row while the Indians lost four and by September first the Yankees had regained their one game lead.

The pendulum continued to swing. The Yanks dropped a double header while the Indians won two on September 4th, but by the 9th the two teams were right back where they'd started: tied.

And when the Yanks lost again to give Cleveland a one game edge, Arthur Daley (the Murray Chass of his day) once again lamented the lack of fighting spirit in the two time defending champion New York Yankees using a laborious boxing metaphor throughout his piece. "No longer do they have the knockout wallop they once possessed. It has to be done by guile and they have a most clever handler in their corner, the artful Casey Stengel." As a bonus, Daley actually writes that the Dodgers "are destined to win this [pennant race with the Giants] on points. ... Even a blind man could see that the Brooks are miles ahead" [6].

Both the Indians and the Yankees skidded into their final head to head match-up of the season at Yankee Stadium (and a doubleheader at that!).

The Yanks made it look easy in game one. Bob Feller didn't have his `A' game, or his `B' game either, and was gone by the end of the fifth inning. Superchief pitched as advertised and the Yanks won 5-1. The headline read "World Champions Beat Cleveland." On the one hand, it shows you how important the game was that the NYTimes used 15 characters when `Yanks' would have served. It's also the first time I noticed the phrase World Champions in a headline: I think there were so many questions about the quality of the team that the editors didn't want to throw that title around for a team that might not have stayed in contention.
Game two was a tense affair. Eddie Lopat pitched a three-hitter against Bob Lemon that was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Richard Sandomir described the bottom of the ninth in Rizzuto's obituary earlier this year:

Rizzuto was at bat (he was righthanded) against Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, in the middle of a pennant chase. The score was tied at 1. DiMaggio was on third base. Rizzuto took Lemon's first pitch, a called strike, and argued the call with the umpire. That gave him time to grab his bat from both ends, the sign to DiMaggio that a squeeze play was on for the next pitch. But DiMaggio broke early, surprising Rizzuto. Lemon, seeing what was happening, threw high, to avoid a bunt, aiming behind Rizzuto. But with Joltin' Joe bearing down on him, Rizzuto got his bat up in time to lay down a bunt.

Rizzuto even got it down the firstbase line, and Lemon was left holding the ball while DiMaggio scored. Rizzuto said in an interview once that 27 years later, when Lemon was brought in to run the Yankees, Rizzuto mentioned the play and Lemon was still upset about it.



Isn't it beautiful?

Of course, just like the modern Red Sox hangover, the Yankees lost to the White Sox the next day. The Indians won to tie for first, but that would be as close as Cleveland could get.
As the final two weeks played out the Yankees never let go of first place, finally cliching on September 29th behind a 3-run DiMaggio homer and a no-hitter from Allie Reynolds (his second of the year!).

Reyonds couldn't turn that success into any momentum for Game One of the World Series, however. The great Yankee lineup made sinkerball pitcher Dave Koslo (a mediocre pitcher on the downside of his career who only pitched because the real pitchers had been needed to win the 3 game playoff with the Dodgers) look like a champion, scoring only one run.

The Yankees won game two, but they suffered a loss that would effect the next decade of Yankee baseball: this is the famous game when Mantle catches his spikes on a rubber drain cover while playing center and blows out his knee on a fly by Giants' rookie Willie Mays. Interestingly, the team doctor calls the injury "a sprained muscle on the inside of the right knee" [7].

Already trailing 1-0 in the fifth, Vic Raschi pulled a Moose. Scooter dropped the ball trying to apply a tag at second for an error- a controversy erupted over whether Eddie Stansky kicked the ball out of Scooter's grip. As Justin Upton is learning, there's a fine line between a hard slide and interference . A couple plays later Yogi dropped the ball on a play at the plate. Rashci promptly served up a three run homer, and the Yankees never recovered. The 6-2 win gave the Giants the lead in the series and a favorable pitching alignment.

In recent Octobers rain delays have always hurt the Yanks. Well, in 1951 a rain delay pushed Game 4 back a day, allowing Allie Reynolds to take the hill. Reynolds redeemed himself in the Yankees' 6-2 win. The closest the Giants came to challenging him was in the 9th inning when they got two men on with no one out (no Enter Sandman back then). Luckily, Reynolds got the batter to chase a 3-2 pitch that was in his eyes, and work his way out of further trouble. Game 5 was referred to as a "shellacking" in the Times, but I couldn't find a score. Baseball-almanac reassures me that it was a 13-1 affair that included a grand slam by eventual Rookie of the Year Gil McDougald (only the third in WS history at that point). Koslo came back to pitch Game 6, but Hank Bauer used the opportunity to shake off some Arodian demons.

With the bases loaded and two out in the sixth, Yankees outfielder Hank Bauer stepped up to the plate against Dave Koslo attempting to break through the 1-1 tie. For Bauer, it was the perfect opportunity to shake off his World Series despair. In thirty-eight previous at-bats in the Fall Classic, Bauer had collected only five hits (all singles), a .132 Series batting average and only one RBI in postseason play. This time the former United States Marine came through with "flying colors" with a bases-clearing triple.

Bauer would have a Paul O'Neill moment, making a running catch to end the game with the tying run on second.

After the season, Joe D. retired. Mickey rehabbed. And rumors that the Red Sox wanted to trade their left fielder to the Yankees or White Sox eventually came to nothing.







[1] By JOHN DREBINGER. "Bauer, Seeking Increase, Puts Off Signing Yankee Contract :STAR OUTFIELDER TALKS WITH WEISS Bauer Demurs on 1951 Offer but Is Not a Holdout, Yank Officials Say RECOVERING FROM INJURY Ankle to Be Sound as Ever, Physician Reports--Irvin Accepts Giant Terms. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 5 Jan. 1951,32-32. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD.. 11 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[2] By ARTHUR DALEY. "Sports of The Times :In Search for an Iron Horse Endurance Record Bronx Boys The Law of Averages . " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 7 Jan. 1951,134-134. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD. 11 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[3] "Young Mickey Mantle finds baseball is more than ball-swatting :By GILBERT MILLSTEIN Case History of a Rookie . " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 3 Jun 1951,176-178. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD. . 11 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[4] Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. "Mantle, Yankees' Prize Rookie, Shipped Back To Kansas City to Make Way for Schallock. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 16 Jul 1951,28-28. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD.. 11 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[5] "MANTLE REJECTED BY ARMY DOCTORS :Again Rated 4-F, He Will Fly to Rejoin Yankees Today for Cleveland Series. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 24 Aug. 1951,26-26. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD.. 11 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[6] By ARTHUR DALEY. "Sports of The Times :Also For the Championship Hidden Asset Advice From the Chief The Yankee Spirit. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 11 Sep. 1951,37. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD. 12 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/

[7] By JAMES P. DAWSON. "Yank's Joy Over Triumph Is Tempered by Loss of Mantle for Remaining Games :NEW LEAD-OFF MAN STENGEL PROBLEM Pilot Considering Rizzuto and Woodling for Top Spot to Replace Injured Mantle EXPLAINS BUNTING ATTACK Says Yankee Players Acted on Their Own--Lopat Praises Irvin's Hitting Prowess. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 6 Oct. 1951,24-24. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. Miller Library, Washington College, Chestertown, MD.. 12 Oct. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/