On October 4th, 1955, the baseball season ended with the Yankees losing 2-0 in Game 7 of the World Series to an absolutely loaded Brooklyn Dodgers team that featured five future Hall of Famers in their regular lineup. That year ended a seven-season stretch for the Yankees in which they captured five World Series, six AL pennants, and won 103 games in the lone season they failed to reach the Fall Classic. They had several beloved stars and future Hall of Famers in their prime and there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t continue to be a force in baseball both in the win column and in ticket sales for the foreseeable future.
Under normal circumstances, that would be a rather enviable situation for a baseball franchise to be in. Unfortunately for the Yankees, many things can be said about the circumstances in baseball in New York City in the 1950s and “normal” is certainly not one of them. After watching the Giants win the World Series led by 23-year-old phenom Willie Mays in 1954, the Dodgers were champs in 1955 led by Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. At the end of the 1955 season, the storied Yankees and their fans were confronted with a harsh reality: Despite their accomplishments, they might not be the best team and they may not have the brightest stars — in their own city. It was that reality that the Yankees faced heading into the 1956 season.
Regular-season record: 97-57
Manager: Casey Stengel
Top hitter by rWAR: Mickey Mantle (11.2)
Top pitcher by rWAR: Whitey Ford (5.2)
World Series result: Yankees defeat Brooklyn Dodgers, 4-3
The Yankees quickly set the tone for the 1956 season by winning seven of their first eight games and 29 of their first 42. Despite having formidable competition in the American League in Cleveland and Chicago, the torrid start gave the Yankees a lead of 6.5 games by the end of May over both teams.
One of the great things about baseball, and as you’ve likely noticed if you’ve been following our champions series here at PSA, is that the season is such a marathon that even great teams typically face adversity at some point. For the 1956 Yankees, that came in June when due to a middling stretch to start the month, their lead had been cut to five games by Chicago as they headed into Comiskey Park for a four-game series starting on June 22nd.
Over the four-game series on Friday, Saturday, and then a Sunday doubleheader, led by seven hits, three home runs, and seven RBI from Larry Doby, the White Sox outscored New York 27-9 and took all four games. When the carnage was over, the White Sox were within one game of the Yankees in the AL standings.
As you’d likely expect despite the setback, the Yankees righted the ship pretty quickly —winning 18 of their next 20 games, including five in a row against Chicago and Cleveland. By July 19th, the Yankees lead had stretched to 10.5 games and any drama about the AL pennant chase was effectively ended.
By season’s end, the Yankees had won the AL by nine games over Cleveland. Their offense led the league in runs per game by almost a half run, and they did it by being the Bronx Bombers, leading the league in home runs, SLG, and total bases. Their run prevention was almost as good as they had four starting pitchers (Whitey Ford, Johnny Kucks, Don Larsen, and Tom Sturdivant) throw more than 158 innings with a better than league average ERA+ and the fielders turned batted balls into outs at a higher rate than all but one team.
As one would imagine that came with some impressive individual performances. Whitey Ford led the league in ERA, posted the third-best FIP in the league, finished third in the Cy Young award voting, and 12th in the MVP voting. Catcher and fan favorite Yogi Berra posted career bests in OPS+ and WAR and finished second in the MVP race.
Yet those phenomenal seasons from future Hall of Famers paled in comparison to what 24-year-old Mickey Mantle did in 1956. Most fans likely recall that he won the elusive Triple Crown, but not only did he lead the AL in BA, HR, and RBI, but he also led all of MLB in those categories. He also led all of MLB in runs, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and total bases, and his .464 OBP was second only to Ted Williams’ .479. Mantle won the first of his three MVPs in 1956, receiving all 24 first-place votes, and his 11.2 WAR was remarkably 3.6 more than any other player in baseball (amusingly, fellow New York center fielders Mays and Snider came in tied for second with 7.6 WAR).
Yet one of the more overlooked displays of dominance from Mantle in the 1956 season was his performance on the base paths. Mantle reached base safely 309 times during the 1956 season and was thrown out on the bases a grand total of four times. If you’re thinking he was excessively conservative, think again: He took an extra-base 60 percent of the time the opportunity presented itself when the league average was 47 percent. Baseball Reference’s baserunning runs stat had Mantle ranked only behind Mays and Nellie Fox among all MLB players in 1956.
Of course, all of the great individual performances would have lost some luster had the Yankees lost in the World Series to the Dodgers for the second year in a row. Again, the Dodgers were a powerhouse themselves so it certainly wouldn’t be easy.
After losing the first two games in Brooklyn, the Yankees responded with back-to-back wins in Games 3 and 4, led by solid starts from Ford and Sturdivant. Then with the series tied at two games apiece, Larsen took the Yankees starting pitching to the next level throwing a perfect game at Yankee Stadium — the first in team history and still the only in World Series play — to give the Yankees a 3-2 series lead.
The Yankees got another great performance from a starting pitcher in Game 6, as Bob Turley allowed only three hits over nine shutout innings. Unfortunately, the Yankees couldn’t score on Brooklyn’s Clem Labine and the game was lost on a Jackie Robinson RBI single off Turley with two outs in the bottom of the 10th.
As tense as parts of the series were, fortunately for the Yankees, Game 7 was drama-free. The turning point came when Brooklyn’s Newcombe walked Hank Bauer to lead off the game. Two Berra home runs and another from Elston Howard sent Newcombe (who would win both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1956) to the showers early, and a Moose Skowron grand slam in the seventh inning off of Roger Craig sealed the deal.
When it was over, the Yankees had won the game 9-0, the series four games to three, and in the process, re-established themselves as the team in New York.
Although understandably Larsen would win the World Series MVP award, Berra was the Yankee who did the most damage to the Dodgers over the seven games. In 29 plate appearances, Berra posted a .448/.800 OBP/SLG line with three home runs and 10 RBI. His 36.87-percent cWPA was the highest on the team and his two long balls off Newcombe in Game 7 were the two biggest plays of the series by cWPA.
Even though 1956 was well before my time, I feel like I have a personal attachment to the season. I had the 1956 season in Strat-O-Matic baseball when I was a kid and played endless games with every team in the league. It was legitimately exciting for me to see that great players of that era were in fact, as great as their reputations suggested (and I learned of a few great ones who I wasn’t previously familiar with).
It was also the era that provided my father with his first baseball memories, so we had countless conversations about the players of 1956, even though my perspective of every player was only statistical probabilities on a card. My parents grew up in the Bronx, so even though my father is no longer with us, I still to this day have conversations with my mother, uncles, and cousins about baseball in New York City in that era, and not once has it ever bored me. So even though I didn’t live through that 1956 season personally, I have a pretty good sense of what it meant to the Yankees and their fans. As much fun as the Giants and Dodgers may have been to watch, the Yankees were back on top in New York, in MLB, and (spoiler alert) would be on top for a while — long after both the Giants and Dodgers left New York.