Friday, June 14, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1950s

The 1950's are considered to be one of the most colorful decades in baseball history. For fans of the old school, it was the swan song for the 8-team format in both leagues. The Junior Circuit was dominated by the Yankees, who won 8 pennants and 4 consecutive World Series from 1950 through 1953. Rising above their long-running status as "Bums," the Brooklyn Dodgers met Casey Stengel's invincible crew in four October showdowns, claiming a long awaited world championship in 1955. With the game fully integrated, iconic players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson embarked on long, storied careers that would land them in the Hall of Fame. It was easy for lesser stars to get lost in the mix with so many Cooperstown greats in uniform. Over my next several blogs, I'd like to profile some of the '50's forgotten stars.

Vic Wertz
At the very least, Wertz became the subject of an interesting baseball trivia question. It was Wertz who hit the towering drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series that forced Willie Mays to turn his back to the plate, sprint toward the centerfield wall at the Polo Grounds and make a game-saving basket catch that has been included in World Series highlight reels ever since. "If it had been a homer or a triple, would people have remembered it? Not likely." Wertz commented years later. In addition to making Willie Mays more famous than he already was, Wertz had a highly successful career in his own right. Making his debut with the Tigers in '47, he stuck around for 17 seasons, becoming a major producer for four different clubs. He hit .500 with 4 extra-base hits in Cleveland's 4-game World Series loss to the Giants in '54. It was his only taste of the postseason. During the 1950's, he averaged 20 homers and 88 ribbies per year. Those numbers would almost certainly been higher had he not suffered a bout of polio in '55 and a leg injury in '58 that limited him to a combined total of 99 games in those two campaigns. A sign of respect, Wertz led the league with 11 intentional walks in 1957. A four time All-Star, he finished among the top 10 in MVP voting four times while splitting time defensively in the outfield and at first base. He was competent though not exceptional at both positions. He led the league in putouts as a right fielder three times and a first baseman once. He gathered no fewer than 94 RBI's on six occasions.  

Gus Zernial
When they encounter the name, most casual fans say 'Gus who?' But Zernial was one of the most feared sluggers of the 1950's. In the American League, only Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby matched Zernial's home run output during the decade. Zernial was nicknamed "Ozark Ike" after a popular comic strip character. He played hard in the outfield and broke his collarbone twice making diving catches. His playing time was severely limited both times. The handsome Zernial caught the eye of Marilyn Monroe in 1949 when the starlet came to the ballpark to do a pictorial. Though they never dated, the two remained friendly afterward. The ultra-jealous Joe DiMaggio held a grudge against Zernial to his dying day, commenting irritably that Monroe would "never date a bush-leaguer like Zernial." But in his prime, Zernial was no bush-leaguer. His professional career would have begun sooner had he not spent three years in the military during WWII. He tore up the Pacific Coast League in the late-'40's, launching 41 homers in 1946 and 40 more in '48. With the White Sox in 1950, he set a franchise record for long balls with 29. Zernial was a free swinger who never hid the fact that he was trying to crush the ball every time he came to the plate. As a result, he led the league in strikeouts twice and placed among the top 5 six times. When he made contact, there wasn't a stadium that could contain him. He paced the circuit in homers during the '51 slate and collected at least 27 dingers in 6 of his 11 seasons. (A remarkable accomplishment in the pre-steroid era) Hampered by the previously mentioned injuries, he still averaged 23 homers and 74 RBI's per year during his relatively brief big league career. Overshadowed by the big names of the era, Zernial made his only All-Star appearance in 1953, going 1-for-2 at the plate and making a putout in the outfield.    

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