Thursday, June 20, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1950s (Concluded)

Finishing up one of my favorite eras of baseball, here are a few more forgotten greats from the decade that gave birth to Rock-n-Roll.

Del Ennis
Ennis got to live the American dream. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he played well enough in high school to earn a minor league contract with the Phillies. After just one season on the farm, he aspired to the Big Show with his home town club. Before his debut, he spent 2 years in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific during WWII. The right-handed slugger made an All-Star appearance in his rookie campaign, hitting .313 with 17 homers and 73 ribbies. There was no Rookie of the Year Award in 1946, but he would have been a top contender. By the time the '50's rolled around, Ennis had become one of the premier clean-up men in the National League. From 1949-1957, he gathered at least 95 RBI's on nine occasions, leading the league in that category during the 1950 slate. Surprisingly, even with 31 long balls and 126 runs batted in, he was not selected to the All-Star team. That honor went to his left field rival, Ralph Kiner. Kiner sat out the World Series that year as Ennis and his "Whiz Kids" took on the Yankees. The Phillies were greatly over-matched and Ennis managed a miserable .143 batting average against a staff anchored by the likes of Whitey Ford and Allie Reynolds. Whenever Ennis came to bat over the course of his career in Philly, local radio announcers referred to him as "Ding Dong Del" or "Ennis the Menace." Philadelphia fans are a notoriously tough lot and Ennis was subjected to quite a bit of abuse over the years. He shrugged it off for the most part with the exception of one isolated incident in which he went up into the stands after a fan. During his career, he hit .293 with runners in scoring position and seemed to thrive in the heart of a playoff race, batting .311 during September and October. Traded to the Cardinals in '57, he reached the century mark in ribbies yet again. In '58, it was reported that his wife suffered a mental breakdown during the season. Tending to the family crisis, Ennis slumped at the plate and missed more than 40 games. He later ended his career with the White Sox, hitting just .219 at the age of 34.

Harvey Kuenn
Kuenn had a habit of hitting off his front foot and his power was limited as a result. He had great bat control and was fond of putting the ball in play. In his prime, he never drew more  55 walks in any season and never struck out more than 38 times. He had a knack for hitting the ball to all fields and spoiling good pitches. Kuenn spent just one season in the minors before getting a call-up from Detroit. He hit .325 in a September debut during the '52 slate and remained a regular with the Tigers through 1959. In his first full season, he was named Rookie of the Year. Between '52 and '59, he led the league in hits four times and doubles on three occasions. He won a batting title in '59 with a handsome .353 average. In all, he exceeded the .300 mark at the plate 9 times during his career. Kuenn was selected to the All-Star team every year from 1953 through 1960. A versatile fielder, he played every outfield position and also spent significant time at shortstop. He was known as an aggressive defensive player who was capable of making stupendous plays but vulnerable to flubbing easy ones from time to time. He led AL shortstops in errors during the '57 slate but also had the highest fielding percentage among players at his position twice--once as a right fielder and once as a shortstop. Kuenn's career numbers captured the attention of baseball writers as he peaked at 39% of the Cooperstown vote in 1988. He generated enough support to remain on the ballot for 15 years.

Roy Sievers
Sievers began his career with his hometown Browns, capturing Rookie of the Year honors in 1949 with a .306 batting average, 16 homers and 91 RBI's. His follow-up was disappointing as he hit just .238. His decline has been widely attributed to Browns' coaches, who tampered with his batting style. After that season, Sievers vowed not to let anyone alter his mechanics. He ended up in the minors for the '51 slate, separating his shoulder making a diving catch. Eager to make the big club in '52, he injured his arm during infield practice and would be forced to undergo surgery. He was back with the Browns in '53, getting into 92 games while boosting his batting average to a respectable .270. Traded to the Senators in '54, he broke the franchise record for homers despite playing half his games in spacious Griffith Stadium, where fly balls went to die. Sievers would beat his own record 3 years in a row, peaking at 42 long balls in 1957--tops in the AL. He also led the league in RBI's and total bases that year while finishing third in MVP voting. A 4-time All-Star, Sievers would collect no fewer than 91 RBI's 8 times and hit 20 or more homers during 9 seasons. One of Sievers' biggest fans was Vice President Richard Nixon, who arranged to meet with Sievers on a return trip from Moscow one season. 

Billy Pierce
Pierce was one of the most successful White Sox hurlers of all-time. Pitching for Chicago from 1949 through 1961, he collected 186 victories. In that span, he won at least 15 games 7 times while reaching the 20-win threshold twice. During the '50's, Pierce led the league in ERA, wins and strikeouts once apiece while pacing the loop in complete games for 3 straight seasons (1956-1958). The Michigan native was only five-foot-10, 160 pounds, but his fastball/ slider combination kept hitters on their heels. Among the best of his generation, he was named to 5 straight All-Star teams ('55-'59). A hip injury in '59 sidelined him for several weeks and when the ChiSox earned their first World Series berth since 1919, manager Al Lopez used Pierce exclusively in relief. After the Sox lost to the Dodgers in 6 games, that decision came under fire. During his 18-year career, Pierce threw 4 one-hitters and lost a perfect game in the ninth. Traded to the Giants in '62, he found his way back to the World Series, making 2 quality starts while posting a 1-1 record. He had a lifetime ERA of 1.89 in 5 Series games. Pierce was named to the White Sox "Team of the Century" and remains a popular figure in Chicago.

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