Monday, October 20, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1950s)

Jim Konstanty (1950 NL MVP)
Though Konstanty had only one brilliant season, he has been widely credited with legitimizing the role of the closer. Konstanty was a multi-sport star at Syracuse University, graduating with a degree in Phys Ed. While pitching in the minors, he doubled as a high school coach. He had a slider and a curve in his arsenal, but didn't gain success until he mastered the palmball. After appearing in 53 games for the Phillies in '49, he became the club's official closer. 1950 was Konstanty's biggest year. He led the league in appearances (74) and saves (22) while gathering 16 wins. No National League reliever had ever appeared in as many games or registered as many victories. From July 23 through August 29 of that year, he yielded just 1 run in 17 assignments, bringing his ERA to a season-low 2.14. The 1950 Phillies were dubbed "The Whiz Kids" on account of their youth and hustle. They won the pennant by a slender margin over the Dodgers then met the Yankees in the World Series. Philly manager Eddie Sawyer tried to ride Konstanty's arm to a championship, designating him the starter in Game 1. Konstanty pitched brilliantly in the unfamiliar role, scattering four hits over eight innings against the likes of Johnny Mize, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. But New York's starter, Vic Raschi, was even better that day, spinning a complete game shutout. Konstanty made two more appearances in the Series, but was not as effective as the Yankees completed a sweep. The bespectacled right-hander hung around the majors for several more seasons, but never matched the success of his MVP campaign. He later served as athletic director at Hartwick College for several years.

Bobby Shantz (1952 AL MVP)
At five-foot-six, 138 pounds, Shantz was one of the smallest pitchers in major league history. He weighed even less when he joined the Army out of high school in 1944. After serving in the Philippines for sixteen months, he returned to the states, where he began a brief and successful minor league career. He led the Western League in wins and strikeouts during the 1948 campaign and was called to Philadelphia the following year. The A's weren't very good in those days and neither was Shantz initially. In his first two seasons, he went 14-22 with a 4.16 ERA. Then in 1951, he suddenly found his groove, winning 18 games. In his MVP season of '52, the diminutive southpaw posted a 24-7 record and 2.48 earned run average (third best in the league). Even more impressive is that he finished 27 of his 33 starts. In a shortened All Star Game, he struck out all three batters he faced, including Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial. There would be no more extracurricular activity for Shantz that year as the A's finished in fourth place. After several rocky seasons, it became evident that Shantz lacked the durability to be a long term starter. He hung around the majors as a swingman until 1964, winning eight Gold Glove Awards. He had several successful seasons with the Yankees, accruing a 30-18 record between 1957 and 1960. His 2.45 ERA was tops in the American League in '57. In six World Series appearances with the Yankees, he met with mixed success. The Bombers lost both of the Series he appeared in.

Hank Sauer (1952 NL MVP)
Sauer did not become a full time player until he was thirty-one years old. Painfully slow afoot, he lacked range in the outfield and was somewhat of a liability on the base paths. For several seasons, he made up for those shortcomings with his bat, cracking 30 or more homers six times and reaching the 100 RBI plateau on three occasions. He had a pair of three-homer games during his career. When Sauer was named MVP in '52, it set off a storm of controversy since he was a one-dimensional player for the fifth place Cubs. No one was more surprised than Sauer himself, who commented: "I thought maybe the other guy, Roberts, would win it." The Roberts he was referring to was none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who won 28 games for the Phillies that year. Sauer had a handful of good offensive seasons after '52. In all, he spent portions of fifteen seasons in the majors with four different clubs. He later scouted for the Giants.

Al Rosen (1953 AL MVP)
Rosen was of Jewish ancestry. A stint as an amateur boxer taught him not to back down from a fight. He stood up to several opponents who directed anti-Semitic slurs at him and sacrificed three full seasons during World War II while serving in the U.S. Navy. In a 2010 documentary, he commented: "There's a time when you let it be known that enough is enough...You flatten [them]." Carrying the nickname of the "The Hebrew Hammer," Rosen languished in the Indians' farm system for several years waiting for an opening at third base. He was twenty-six years old when he attained full time playing status. A right-handed hitter with power, he enjoyed his peak seasons between 1950 and 1954, leading the league in homers and RBIs twice apiece. He was named to four straight All-Star teams. In his MVP season of '53, he paced the circuit in runs scored (115), homers (43) and RBIs (145). He narrowly missed a Triple Crown, finishing one percentage point behind Mickey Vernon of the Senators with a .336 batting average. Rosen had a good follow-up season though he missed a significant amount of playing time with a broken finger. The Indians won 111 games that year and were heavily favored to win the World Series over the Giants. Rosen was limited to 3 games and couldn't prevent his club from being swept as Cleveland hitters managed an anemic .190 collective batting average. Rosen's career ended rather abruptly after that as injuries began to take their toll. He suffered from back trouble and reportedly broke his nose more than a dozen times. After retiring as a player, he worked as a stockbroker. He later served as President of the Yankees for two seasons. He was General Manager of the Astros for six years and the Giants for eight more.

Don Newcombe (1956 NL MVP)
Newcombe was solidly built at six-foot-four, 225 pounds. Before joining the Dodgers, he played for the Newark Eagles and was named in a newspaper poll as one of the greatest Negro Leaguers of all time. He was certainly no flash in the pan at the major league level, dominating the NL for three straight seasons before losing two full campaigns to military duty. He struggled in his '54 return, but bounced back with a stellar 20-5 record the following year. 1956 was Newcombe's signature season as he jumped out to a 15-1 start before the All-Star break. He finished the season at 27-7, leading the league in winning percentage for the second consecutive year. He was the first player to receive Cy Young and MVP honors in the same season. After that, he began a downward spiral, exiting the majors after the 1960 slate. In 1962, he played for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan, serving as a first baseman and outfielder. He had always hit well for a pitcher with a .271 lifetime batting average to prove it. After his playing days, he worked in the Dodgers front office. He struggled with alcoholism but later cleaned himself up and turned his life around.  

Jackie Jensen (1958 AL MVP)
Jensen became infamous for his debilitating fear of flying--an affliction that ended his major league career. Long before then, he was the University of California's "Golden Boy," setting a record for rushing yards as the school's starting running back. He was equally skilled at baseball and ended up being signed by the Yankees in 1949. Though he struggled for playing time in New York, he eventually became a regular in Washington and Boston. Between 1954 and '59, Jensen finished among the top ten in homers, RBIs and total bases every year. He reached a career zenith in '58 with 122 ribbies and 66 extra-base hits. The MVP vote was close, but Jensen beat out pitcher Bob Turley of the Yankees by a handful of votes. As Jensen began to suffer panic attacks on airplanes, he ended up traveling to numerous games in his own car. The pressure was too much and he retired in 1960. He made a comeback attempt the following year, but was not the same player. He coached baseball at the Universities of Nevada and California during the 1970s. He suffered fatal heart attack in 1982.     

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