Although the Yankees of legendary manager Casey Stengel's tenure won the American League Pennant in 10 of his 12 seasons on the job, they never seemed to make the road to the World Series as easy as Joe McCarthy's Yankees often did. "Marse Joe" won the AL Pennant eight times, and in those eight victories, the Yankees led second place by an average of 14 games, topping out at 19.5 games ahead in '36 and bottoming out at nine games ahead in '42. In contrast, Stengel's Yankees led second place by an average of six games in his 10 AL Pennant runs, topping out at 10 games ahead in '58 and bottoming out at one game ahead in '49. Needless to say, Stengel's squads made the race interesting.
The '55 campaign was one of those highly competitive seasons. The Yankees had a better regular season in '54 than any other year in the Stengel era (103-51 with a .669 winning percentage that would equate to 108 wins on the modern 162-game slate), but they failed to win the AL Pennant for the first time in Stengel's Yankee career because the '54 Cleveland Indians were one of the greatest teams in major league history. Despite the 103-win season, the '54 Yanks finished eight games behind the incredible Indians, who set a then-AL record for wins with 111 and an AL record for winning percentage that still stands today with a .721 mark. The Yankees came back with a vengeance in '55, and by the end of play on July 2nd, they were in first place with a stellar 52-24 record. Unfortunately, the team went into a tailspin for the rest of the month, and a 12-17 July actually put them a game behind the Chicago White Sox by the end of July. There was even talk that the 64-year-old Stengel should retire, though he dismissed this with a simple, "Retire, my eye!"
Still, the July collapse combined with the loss of three of five games to begin August made the league standings on the morning of August 7th very tight. The Yankees were in a three-way tie at the top of the AL with the Indians and White Sox, with the Boston Red Sox two games behind and the Detroit Tigers 5.5 games behind. It was a five-team race as the Yankees started a home doubleheader against Detroit that day with a 4-2 loss. If the Tigers could pull off a doubleheader sweep, they would inch to within 3.5 games of the Yankees. New York needed a win, and thanks to one of their best players, they got one in a 10-inning thriller.
Young flamethrower "Bullet" Bob Turley pitched for the Yankees that day against 25-year-old rookie Frank Lary. The Tiger righthander had a fine 12-year-career with a couple All-Star appearances and a 114 ERA+ in over 2,000 innings. He was a decent pitcher, but he always seemed to step his game up against the Yankees. He gained the nickname "Yankee Killer" over the course of his career by pitching to a 28-13 record with a 3.32 ERA in 371.2 innings against the Yankees, and he defied convention by succeeding as a righthanded pitcher in Yankee Stadium with a 3.11 ERA there in 167.2 innings. Even as a rookie, in four games against them in '55, Lary pitched to a 2.16 ERA in 43 innings. Thus, the Yankees certainly had their work cut out for them.
The Yankees held a great deal of confidence with Turley on the mound though. They acquired him in one of the most preposterous deals in major league history--a 17-player trade between them and the newly-established Baltimore Orioles. Turley led the league in strikeouts in '54 with 185 as the Orioles' ace, and only the Indians' terrific rookie Herb Score exceeded Turley's total of 210 in '55. Though he often struggled with control (leading the league in walks in both '54 and '55), Turley did not have such problems in this game against Detroit. He shut out the Tigers for seven innings, retiring the side in order four times and allowing just four hits and one walk.
Meanwhile, the Yankees jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead against Lary. Star center fielder Mickey Mantle drove a Lary pitch over the wall in the bottom of the first for a solo homer, his 25th roundtripper of the season. It might have been a two-run homer, but 19-year-old second baseman Bobby Richardson was caught stealing second after a walk right before Mantle's homer. The Yankees wasted an opportunity when they put the next two men on base and first baseman Joe Collins flew out to end the threat, but Lary ran into problems again in the second. He walked the first two men he faced, and after getting the force at third base on a poor bunt by Turley, left fielder Hank Bauer lined a double down the left field line to score shortstop Jerry Coleman from second base. The Yankees again had an opportunity for increasing their meager lead, but a Richardson grounder to short forced Turley to hold at third base and after walking Mantle, Lary struck out eventual AL MVP Yogi Berra to end the inning.
After the second inning, Lary returned to "Yankee Killer" form. He allowed only two hits and a walk for the rest of his outing before Tigers manager Bucky Harris (Stengel's predecessor as Yankee manager) pinch-hit for him in the top of the eighth inning. It turned out to be a good decision, as Charlie Maxwell, Lary's replacement, beat out an infield single toward second base to begin the frame. Leadoff man Harvey Kuenn, the two-time defending AL leader in hits, followed Maxwell with a base hit to right field, putting the tying run on base. Center fielder Bob Tuttle successfully sacrificed both runners to scoring position, and 20-year-old right fielder Al Kaline, on his way to becoming the youngest-ever batting champion and runner-up for AL MVP, brought both runners home with a ground ball single to left field. Turley retired the next two hitters, but the game was now tied. Reliever Babe Birrer came into the game in relief of Lary and set the Yankees down in order in both the eighth and ninth.
Turley stayed in the game as it moved into extra innings. He seemed on his way to a 1-2-3 tenth inning until Tuttle drove a two-out double into right field. Stengel elected to intentionally walk the young Tiger star Kaline and pitch instead to first baseman Earl Torgeson. The nine-year veteran purchased from the Philadelphia Phillies in June was no pushover, having hit .267/.381/.421 in the National League before joining the Junior Circuit. Turley was able to induce a pop-up to third base however, and Tuttle was left in scoring position. Turley's final line was superb: 10 innings and just two runs despite eight hits.
In a situation eerily similar to an extra-inning game I recapped on July 27th, the opposing team's reliever, Birrer continued his perfect relief through the first two batters of the tenth inning. Just as Turk Lown would do on July 27, 1962 before giving up a walk-off homer, Birrer ran his perfect relief streak to eight men in a row before Mantle came up to bat. Still hitting lefthanded against the righty Birrer, Mantle jumped on a pitch and sent it in the air to deep right field for his second home run of the game, a "tremendous clout" that ended the game in a 3-2 Yankee victory. The team avoided a devastating doubleheader sweep and instead remained tied atop the AL standings. From that point on, the Yankees went 31-14 through the end of the season, a .689 pace that ended with a 96-win season and Stengel's sixth American League pennant.