Monday, October 26, 2015

Underdog Stories: The 1954 Giants

The Cleveland Indians dominated the American League in 1954, posting a 111-43 record--best ever for a junior circuit team. Their pitching staff featured four eventual Hall of Famers-- Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Hal Newhouser. The offense was propelled by batting champion Bobby Avila and Cooperstown-bound outfielder Larry Doby, who had his most productive major league season with 32 homers and 126 RBIs. Collectively, the Indians belted more home runs than any team in the AL--even more than the powerful Yankees, who ended a string of five consecutive World Series championships when they finished eight gamed behind Cleveland in the standings. 

Over in the National League, the Dodgers were expected to claim their third straight pennant, but an unfortunate injury to superstar Roy Campanella left them scrambling for a competent replacement behind the plate. "Campy" sat out more than 40 games as the Dodgers finished second behind their oldest rivals. Managed by the fiery Leo Durocher, the Giants welcomed back All-Star center fielder Willie Mays, who had missed the previous two seasons to Army duty. The layoff didn't effect his abilities a bit as he hit .345 with 41 homers and 110 ribbies. Third baseman Hank Thompson chipped in with 26 homers of his own and corner outfielder Don Mueller, known as "Mandrake the Magician" on account of his knack for finding holes in the defense, posted a stellar .342 batting average. The New York bullpen was anchored by Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who baffled opponents with his elusive knuckleball all season. Southpaw Johnny Antonelli, acquired from the Braves in the offseason, became the ace of the starting rotation with 21 victories.

The Giants entered the Series as 8-5 underdogs. While many sportswriters predicted that the New Yorkers would lose in six games, other sources believed that the Indians would sweep. In the end, it was the Giants who made quick work of their AL opponents. The Indians squandered leads in Games 1 and 2 then played catch-up for the rest of the Series as the Giants outscored them by a 21-9 margin. It was the first sweep by an NL club in forty years. A Chicago Sun Times correspondent remarked cheekily that "Custer has been avenged. The Indians could not have done a more thorough job on the unfortunate general and his minions than the Giants did on the Tribesmen of this trading post."

The Series is best remembered for one of the greatest defensive plays in history. With the score knotted at 2 in the eighth inning of Game 1, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz smashed a 450 foot drive to deep center field. Infinitely familiar with the recesses of the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays sprinted after Wertz's drive with his back to the plate and made an over the shoulder catch. Completing one of the most astonishing sequences ever, he wheeled around and threw accurately to second, preventing the runners from scoring. The play would forever after be known as "The Catch." The Giants won on a tenth inning walk-off homer by seldom used outfielder Dusty Rhodes, who had compiled a healthy .341 average in 82 regular season games. Rhodes was the hero again in Game 2, tying it with a pinch-hit single then winning it with a 2-run homer in the seventh. In the third contest, Rhodes was at it again, delivering a bases loaded pinch-hit single. In all, he went 4-for-6 with a pair of homers and 7 RBIs. Rhodes never matched the success of his '54 season. A one-dimensional player, manager Leo Durocher once joked: "Any time you see a fielder get under the ball and pound his glove--even in Little League--you know he's going to catch it. I have seen Rhodes pound his glove and have the ball land twenty feet behind him."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Underdog Stories: The 1914 Braves

Long before the "Miracle Mets" of 1969, there were the "Miracle Braves" of 1914. Hailing from Boston in those days, the Braves had few notable stars on their roster aside from second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who would both be enshrined at Cooperstown on the strength of their defensive skills. Having finished in fifth place or lower for eleven straight seasons, the Braves weren't expected to seriously contend for the pennant in 1914 and no one was terribly surprised when they sank to last place by April 25. Owing much to an innovative platoon system implemented by manager George Stallings, Boston compiled an incredible 61-16 record in the second half, climbing into first place for good on September 5.

On an interesting side note, Stallings was among the most peculiar men ever to occupy a dugout. Described by a Chicago Tribune writer as "a pitiless and abusive critic," the volatile Boston skipper frequently subjected his men to profanity-laden tirades while games were in progress. In the clubhouse, he was a completely different person, offering encouraging words and joking around with players. His superstitious behaviors became legendary. If something positive happened on the field, he would remain frozen in place for long periods of time, believing that the practice would prolong his team's good fortune. He had an almost pathological distaste for scraps of paper, peanut shells and other assorted bits of garbage, which made him extremely anxious. 

While the Braves completed an improbable pennant run, the A's captured their fourth AL title in a five year span. Third baseman Frank Baker led the league in homers for the fourth straight season while second baseman Eddie Collins hit .344 and stole 58 bags. Chief Bender, Eddie Plank and Herb Pennock--the A's Hall of Fame pitching arsenal--combined for a 43-14 record and 2.63 ERA. Entering the Series as heavy underdogs, the Braves remained supremely confident. Johnny Evers boasted that the A's were about to receive one of the biggest surprises of their lives while Stallings maintained that his team would "knock [Connie] Mack's head off." 

Both statements proved prophetic as the Braves executed one of the most astonishing sweeps in Series history. Game 3 was a 12-inning nail-biter that ended with an unfortunate throwing error by right-hander Bullet Joe Bush, who had pitched relatively well to that point. The stirring 5-4 Braves victory was followed by a series-clinching 3-1 win the following afternoon at Boston. Though the Braves had played their regular season games at the Southside Grounds, Fenway Park had a larger seating capacity and the postseason games were held there. 

The Braves followed their unlikely championship effort with a second place showing. The following year, they slid back into the second division, where they would remain for three decades. Between 1917 and 1946, the club finished in seventh place eleven times and last place on four occasions.              

Monday, October 5, 2015

Underdog Stories: The 1906 White Sox

With the 2015 regular season officially concluded, it seems like a good time to share a few stories about unlikely World Series victors. Let's begin in the Deadball Era.

The only all-Chicago World Series took place in 1906.The White Sox had been in contention the previous year, ultimately finishing 2 games behind Connie Mack's Athletics. In August of '06, the Sox found themselves sitting in fourth place more than 8 games out of the running. Under the dynamic leadership of player/manager Fielder Jones, they assembled an incredible nineteen game winning streak that catapulted them to the top. The A's faded, but the Cleveland Naps and New York Highlanders refused to go away as the ChiSox waited until the final week of the season to clinch the pennant.

Meanwhile in the National League, the Cubs won a remarkable total of 116 games--still a major league record for a 154-game season and a mark that would not be matched until the 21st century. The Cubs infield, consisting of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, would become the subject of a famous poem, entitled "Baseball's Sad Lexicon." All three men ended up in the Hall of Fame along with their staff ace, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

When the 1906 World Series opened on October 9, the Cubs were heavily favored to beat their crosstown rivals, who had compiled a feeble .230 team batting average--second lowest in the majors. Journalists had dubbed the Southside squad "The Hitless Wonders." The White Sox pinned their hopes on a stellar pitching rotation that included right-hander Frank Owen and southpaw Nick Altrock, both of whom were in the midst of their last great seasons on the mound. Hall of Fame spitballer Ed Walsh, who would retire with the lowest career ERA in major league history, had a breakthrough season for the Sox in '06, winning 17 games--ten of them by shutout.

As anticipated, the Series featured strong pitching. Neither club collectively broke the .200 mark at the plate. The turning point came in Game 5. With the affair even at 2 games apiece, the Cubs took advantage of several White Sox errors, putting up 6 runs (only 1 of which was earned) against Ed Walsh. But the White Sox bats suddenly came to life, answering with 8 runs of their own. Before the finale, Cubs player/manager Frank Chance made a fateful decision to send "Three Finger" Brown to the mound on short rest. Brown had turned in a shutout two days earlier, but had nothing left to offer as he gave up 5 runs before being lifted for right-hander Orval Overall in the bottom of the second inning. The result was a Series-clinching 8-3 victory for the White Sox. 

Beer had been banned from the grandstand before Game 6, but a throng of jubilant (and presumably sober) Sox supporters lit fires in the streets and assembled outside the home of Fielder Jones, singing songs late into the night. Jones later said of his Cinderella squad: "It's true that their batting was light, but they hit at the right time...They won games because they were good ballplayers and a good ballplayer can't be manufactured out of batting averages." Rival manager Connie Mack gave Jones a large share of the credit for the improbably Series win, commenting: "He was a fiery competitor and imparted tremendous enthusiasm to his men...He was the highly strung type but as cool as a lime rickey in a tight spot."