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The Championships: 1956

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 three 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?

Check out the previous seasons: 1923; 1951.

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.

I meant to have this ready for last week, but something came up and I got distracted.

1956 is a big year in American history: Ginsberg released "Howl", segregation of Montgomery’s bus lines was declared unconstitutional, and one of my guilty pleasures made its Broadway debut.

It was also the year that Mickey Mantle finally put it all together. 24 years-old and saddled with an underachiever reputation, he started on the right foot. In his first AB, he took the first two pitches then turned on the third. John Drebringer, the beat writer for the NYTimes, wrote "It cleared the 31-foot wall just alongside the center-field flagpole. The marker here reads 408 feet. The ball then landed on the roof of a building across an alley approximately 465 feet from home plate. It finally bounced across Fifth Street" [3].

In light of the Yanks’ stunning loss to the Dodgers in ’55, Joe DiMaggio was asked who the favorite would be this year:

"Who else but the Yankees?... They should win in a walk this year. With this fine crop of young players they look to be stronger than ever. Any of the other clubs must show an awful lot of improvement to overtake them." [2] The Mick would help prove the Clipper right. The Yankees offense was half a run per game better than the next best team while the defense was second only to the Indians in runs allowed.

By July 15th the Yanks had a 10 game lead over the Indians, and while they wouldn’t pad that lead any farther they wouldn’t give ground either.

Mantle was a force at the plate: 188 hits and a .353 average, 112 walks and a .464 OBP(!), and 52 homers and 130 RBI. He accounted for 210 runs (RBI+R-HR) out of the team’s 857 runs scored. The Yanks’ runaway with the pennant didn’t suck all the drama out of the season; there was plenty of hand-wringing over whether Mantle could beat the 37 year-old Ted Williams for the batting crown.

The Yankee pitching staff helped Mickey Mantle clinch his Triple Crown by holding the fabulous Ted Williams to a paltry 3 for 20 in the final two series they played against Boston; for the entire season the Splendid Splinter could manage only 11 hits in 56 at bats against New York. Despite the hopes of the city, Mantle couldn’t match Ruth’s 60 homers, finishing with 52 home runs- becoming only the 8th player in the history of baseball to hit that many in one season.

’56 marked a graceless exit for a Yankee legend that management didn’t want around anymore. Phil Rizzuto’s final years in pinstripes should bring back a lot of memories of Bernie Williams:

[In 1955, Rizzuto] found himself in the unfamiliar role of bench warmer through August while the Yankee manager [Stengel] sought in vain for a successor from among Billy Hunter, Jerry Coleman, Billy Martin and even Mickey Mantle.

But as the pennant drive moved into September Stengel decided the experimental period was over. He gave Phil the nod and a well-rested Rizzuto jumped in to turn in another brilliant stretch of shortstop play. [1]

Rizzuto was resigned to a starter’s salary in ’56 amid rumors that he could have been traded or released. Scooter would only play 31 games (56 ABs) before he received his walking papers in one of the most heartless ways I can imagine.
Late in the 1956 season, the Yankees re-acquired Enos Slaughter, who had been with the team in 1954-55, and asked Rizzuto to meet with the front office to discuss adjustments to the upcoming postseason roster. They then asked Rizzuto to look over the list of Yankee players and suggest which ones might be cut to make room for Slaughter. For each name Rizzuto mentioned, a reason was given as to why that player needed to be kept. Finally, Rizzuto realized that the expendable name was his own.

He called former teammate George Stirnweiss, who told him to refrain from "blasting" the Yankees because it might cost him a non-playing job later. Rizzuto said many times that following Stirnweiss' advice was probably the best move he ever made.

This was also an important year in the career of two-time reigning MVP Yogi Berra. After catching 149 and 145 (of 154!) games the previous year, the Yankees began breaking in a promising sophomore named Elston Howard at catcher. His .262/.312/.362 line wasn’t exactly Wil Nieves worthy, but since he was 27, I probably wouldn’t have wanted him on by team. Shows what I know.

Bill Skowron is exactly the type of player I’d hoped to learn more about when I started this little (little?) project. If I’ve ever heard his name before it never sank in. The papers occasionally mentioned that the Yankees were still looking for a replacement for Gehrig- Skowron’s .308/.382/.528 1956 suggests that his biggest fault was not being named Lou. A righty with the glove and the bat, Skowron would remind you of Soriano at the dish: he set his career high for walks in ’56 at 50 and would swing (and hit) anything.

Hank Bauer, hero of that ’51 World Series, would have his worst pro season, hitting .241/.316/.445 despite playing a career high 147 games.

The Yankees completed an offseason trade with the Washington Senators for Mickey McDermott. The lefty never lived up to his billing, failed to win the trust of Casey Stengel, and pitched only 87 innings (after averaging 170 IP the previous six seasons). His pitching elbow wouldn’t hold up and after his single season in pinstripes he’d only collect another 130 innings over three seasons with four teams.

Don Larsen had a David Wells reputation: "a typical underpeformer, aplayer with all the stuff in the world who never quite seemed able, or willing, to put it all together." Larson was the 4th man on the staff and skipped as often as possible. During the season Larsen made what seems a simple adjustment: he started pitching from the stretch.

There aren’t many pitchers left who throw with an old-fashioned windup, swinging their arms and rocking back on their heels to generate more speed. But many pitcher, Larson especially, found this windup tiring. By pitching from the stretch he increased his stamina, and just as importantly, he improved his control. Larson had walked 96 men in 180 innings, or 4.8 BB/9IP- those are Daniel Cabrera numbers.

Another new player (to me) was starter John Kucks. How many organizations can forget a 22 year-old All-Star with an 18-9 record in 224.1IP? Well, the Yankees can. Kucks and Ford were the leaders of a solid pitching staff, but it would be Kucks’ only exceptional season. He’d be a lesser player on the Yankees until a midseason trade to the Kansas City A's in 1959. Arm trouble would end his career at only 26.

This research project has me laughing at the notion that the win-at-all-cost model is a Steinbrenner creation. Check out this gem from John Drebinger in a ‘Sport of the Times’ column from July 18th:

Even at a time when most everyone knew this general cave-in of the rest of the American League was just around the corner, Casey "wasn’t satisfied." There simply is no such things as a let-up, or let-down, in the Yankee organization. Truly, baseball is a ‘round-the-clock business with the Bombers. [4] He goes on to suggest that the Yankees’ dominance (no end in sight with eight AAA prospects just elected to the minor league All-Star team, including shortstop/centerfielder Tony Kubek) could be the death of baseball. AL Attendance was dropping across the board. Perhaps Drebinger was on to something; when the dynasty finally collapsed at the end of the ‘60s the Yankees couldn’t bring fans into the park anymore.

Certainly, the Yankee season wasn’t expected to begin until October. And for the fourth time in five years that meant Yankees vs Dodgers.

Dem Bums picked up right where they’d left off in 1956. They tagged Whitey Ford for the loss in Game 1, driving him from the game after 5 runs in only 3 innings. Kucks wouldn’t fair much better, pitching two while allowing one. Tom Morgan and Bob Turley would stop the bleeding, but Brooklyn’s Sal Maglie threw a complete game, allowing 3R.

In Game 2, Don Larsen’s corrected mechanics would desert him. After going 4-0 in September, Larson would only last an inning and two-thirds. Casey Stengel would do his best Joe Torre impression, wearing out the grass between the dugout and the mound. Larsen, Kucks, Byrne, Sturdivant, Morgan, Turley, McDermott. Just like that, the Yankees were going back to the Bronx down 2-0.

But the pitchers turned the tides. Yankee pitchers threw complete games in the next five games.

Whitey Ford righted the ship in Game 3. Enos Slaughter- the extra outfielder who took Scooter’s roster spot- hit the decisive 3-run homer in the 5-3 victory.
Sturdivant took the ball in Game 4, miraculously allowing only 2 runs on 6 hits and 6 walks. The Yankees got just enough offense from the team: no one had more than one hit, and only Joe Collins (playing first for the slumping Skowron) and Mantle reached base twice. The Yanks scored 6 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks.

So with the Series tied at 2-2, Don Larsen showed up at the Stadium to find that Casey Stengel had left the starter’s ball in Larsen’s shoe. Maybe you know how that turned out:

What do we know about momentum? It’s only as good as your next day’s pitcher.

If not for the perfect game, Game 6 is would be the memorable game of the 1956 Series.

Back in Brooklyn, Clem Labine squared off with Bob Turley. In the top of the first, Labine allowed a leadoff single to Hank Bauer, but Collins ground into a 4-6-3 double play. Mantle ground out.
Turley got a pair of quick outs before allowing a single to Duke Snider, bringing up the still dangerous Jackie Robinson. Jackie smoked a line drive that Gil McDougald (at short) snared to end the inning.

The second inning was like the first: Yogi singled, but never got off first base. In the bottom half, Turley pitched around Gil Hodges then recorded a groundout and a pair of strikeouts.

The Yanks would finally get a runner in scoring position with two out in the third, but Mantle grounded out weakly to the first baseman. Turley sat down the side in order in the bottom of the inning.

As frustrating as two out hits are when your team allows them, I find it more frustrating to get them- it feels like a wasted hit (even though I know there’s no such thing). Billy Martin had one in the top of the fourth. The Dodgers would return the favor by stranding Jackie on first in their half.

Labine retired the Yankees on three fly balls in the fifth. The Yankees would have been completely sunk if Turley didn’t seem to be gaining steam as the game wore on- he struck out the side in the bottom of the fifth.

The Yankees continued to get two-out hits in the 6th: Berra doubled and Slaughter walked before Billy Martin fouled out. Turley seemed off his rhythme in the bottom of the inning.
First, Jim Gilliam worked a walk. After Pee Wee Reese popped up a bunt to Yogi, Duke Snider walked. Back against the wall, Turley got infield flies from Robinson and Hodges. Still scoreless, the game stretched into the seventh inning, where both sides went down in order.

The Yankees had their first runner in scoring position with less than two outs in the 8th inning. Joe Collins doubles, and after an intentional walk to Mantle, Yogi Berra strode to the plate with a chance to capture the championship. He got into one, but Snider tracked it down. Enos Slaughter looked all of his 40 years when he ground out to second.

In the bottom of the 8th, Labine tried to finish the game himself by smoking a ground rule double to deep left field to lead off the inning. But Turley regrouped, getting Gilliam with a K, and Reese on a flyball to center. With two out, they opted to walk the lefty Snider to face the righty, Jackie Robinson. Given a chance to be a hero, Jackie popped out to the third baseman. The game went to the ninth tied at zero.

The Yankees couldn’t get a ball out of the infield off of Labine in the 9th, but the Dodgers were no more successful. A grounder, a walk, and flies to left and center sent the game to extra innings. It had been 18 innings since the Dodgers had scored a run- and the Yankees would send the pitcher’s spot and the top of the order to the plate.

In the top of the 10th, Casey Stengel would have a Jeff Weaver moment, allowing Bob Turley to lead off the inning with Elston Howard and Jerry Coleman on the bench and Whitey Ford and Johnny Kucks ready in the bullpen.
The Yankees went down in order.

They didn’t keep pitch counts in 1956, and I’d love to know how many pitches Turley threw in his 9 shutout innings. No matter, Stengel sent him back out for the 10th. Charlie Dressen matched Stengel’s mistake, allowing his pitcher to lead off the inning. After Turley retired Labine, he walked Gilliam. Reese sacrificed Gilliam to second (gag!); two out. Once again, Turley opted to walk Duke Snider to face Jackie Robinson.

They say that we rarely receive second chances. Jackie was given another chance to be a hero, and this time he would not disappoint. He laced a line drive single into left field, where Enos Slaughter butchered the play. He took a few steps in before he realized that the ball was over his head. Although Jackie would later demur that Enos could never have caught the ball, the consensus remains that it should have been and out and the game should have stretched into an 11th inning.

We know what Casey thought: Elston Howard played left field in Game 7, and it was a good thing, too, because Howard belted a homer. Johnny Kucks threw a three hit shutout, and Yogi Berra backed him with a pair of homers- including a two run shot in the first inning off of Cy Young winner Don Newcombe. The Yankees won 9-0, and had the last laugh in what would be Brooklyn’s final World Series. New York would wait 44 years for another Subway Series.

[1] By JOHN DREBINGERThe New York Times (1956, January 11). Yankees Sign Rizzuto for Next Season, Ending Rumors of Trade :SHORTSTOP FIRST IN BOMBERS' FOLD Rizzuto, 37, Agrees to Slight Salary Cut--Dodgers Will Meet Indians in Jersey Successor Sought in Vain Trade Rumors Persist Night Game Is Listed. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 40. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 121569504).

[2] By JOHN DREBINGER Special to The New York Times. (1956, March 10). BOMBERS OPPOSE CARDINALS TODAY :Yankees to Start Kubek and Siebern--DiMaggio Visits With Former Mates No Doubt About Winner Two Rookies Named. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 11. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 86543375).

[3] By JOHN DREBINGER Special to The New York Times. (1956, April 18). Mantle Hits Two Out of Washington Park as Yanks Drub Senators :LARSEN IS VICTOR IN 6-HITTER, 10-4 Hurler Yields Three Homers as Mantle and Berra Clouts Help Yanks Top Senators Olson Connects for Pair Berra Hits Double in Eighth Army Band Parades Replicas of 1876 Ball . New York Times (1857-Current file),36. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 84884648).

[4] By JOHN DREBINGER (1956, July 18). Sports of The Times :Strictly Business Flag Race in Shreds Late Clinching Helpful Catastrophe No Excuse. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 33. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 86650302).