October 25, 2014

The Glory Days: Dramatic Homers Usher in the 1960s

May 13, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

A pair of monumental home runs ushered in the 1960s, and both blasts have been talked and written about ever since.

Bill Mazeroski’s seventh-game homer was the first to end a World Series, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the New York Yankees. Various polls of fans and writers have ranked it the most dramatic finish ever to a championship in any sport.

The second momentous home run was hit by Ted Williams in his last major league at-bat. Like Maz’s smash, it was the kind of thing dreams are made of, but with the Splendid Splinter, it was the kind of thing folks expected.

Mazeroski’s Series-winning home run, on the other hand, was surprising when considering he had hit only eleven homers during the 1960 regular season. He was a .260 lifetime hitter who is in the Hall of Fame because of his dazzling defensive ability, punctuated by his unparalleled skill at turning the double play. For the ’60 season, Maz batted .273, an average bettered by five of the eight position-playing Pirates in the lineup at the time he cleared the Forbes Field wall in left field on October 13.

In truth, Mazeroski’s heroics were not all that surprising in view of his hitting success throughout the World Series. When he came to the plate in the ninth inning of Game Seven to face Ralph Terry, he already had seven hits in twenty-four at-bats, with a home run and four runs batted in.

Ted Williams was the first of 15 eventual Hall of Fame members to leave baseball during the decade, and he bowed out in typically Splendid fashion. It was a damp day on September 28, 1960, in Fenway Park, when he belted a pitch from Baltimore’s Jack Fisher through heavy air and into the Red Sox’s bullpen in right-center field. It was career home run number 521 for the man known at different times as The Kid, Teddy Ballgame, and the Thumper (in addition to the Splendid Splinter). Twenty others have homered in their final major league trip to the plate, but none of them has a plaque in Cooperstown.

Williams may have been born 30 years too soon. Imagine him as a designated hitter. He would have been perfect! In the infant years of the DH, some men given that job complained that it was difficult to keep their minds on the game when not playing defense and being totally involved.

Williams would never have seen that as a problem. He was always thinking about hitting, anyway, always mentally critiquing his last at-bat and planning for his next one. He may have batted .400 multiple times if he could have played solely his favorite position: Hitter.

It was 71 years ago that Williams batted .406, and no one has hit .400 since. He was 23 years old when his amazing 1941 season ended. What may be more amazing is that he batted .388 when he was 39. Just five more hits would have put him at .400 in 1957. Had he been able to run even a little bit, he probably would have scratched out five more singles.

To come so close so late in his career is testament to what a great hitter Williams was and how determined he was to succeed. He won the American League batting title that year and repeated in 1958. His career numbers include a .344 batting average, a .634 slugging percentage, and a .432 on-base percentage.

Branch Rickey, in a lengthy and professorial 1954 article in Life magazine, explained why on-base percentage is more important than batting average. Williams stacked 11 seasons with the best AL on-base percentage on top of six hitting championships.

Williams was 42 years old when he trotted around the bases for the last time in his trademark manner, head down and moving as if in a hurry to escape the crowd’s adoration. In his farewell season, he batted .316, with 29 home runs, 72 runs batted in, and a .645 on-base percentage.

That .316 average was the second-worst in Williams’ 19 major league seasons. The lowest, .254, had come in 1959 and was a big reason he came back to play in 1960. He departed as he started.

While Williams knew the ideal time to quit, Warren Spahn did not. At least, that is what we surmise when using the standard formula on when to retire from a sport. The idea, most would agree, is for an athlete to leave before his skills do – before he embarrasses himself and replaces memories of greatness with visions of mediocrity or worse.

Based on that, Spahn hung around baseball too long.

He had a 6-13 record in 1964, pitching less than 245 innings (173.7) for the first time in 18 years and managing just four complete games after averaging 21 over a period of 17 seasons. But even with those numbers, and perhaps a more telling 44 (birthdays), Spahn pitched on.

Milwaukee sold him to the New York Mets following the season, and the Mets released the old left-hander in July after he had gone 4-12. San Francisco signed him, and although Spahn pitched creditably (3-4, 3.39 ERA), the Giants released him after the season.

Even then, he did not quit. Spahn pitched in the Mexican League in 1966 and in the Pacific Coast League in ’67. Criticized for sticking around too long, he said, “I don’t care what the public thinks. I’m pitching because I enjoy pitching.” When there was nowhere else he could continue doing that, he retired at the age of 46. And it was not his idea. “I didn’t quit,” Spahn said. “Baseball retired me.” There has to be something admirable about a man playing baseball because he loves it, with no fear or care of tarnishing his image.

It was hard for Spahn to accept that he was finished. And looking at his 1963 season, it is easy to understand why he felt that way. Forty-two at the time, he threw 22 complete games and 259.7 innings, had a 23-7 record, pitched seven shutouts and posted a 2.60 earned run average. No wonder he thought he could keep going.

Sandy Koufax knew he could not, but his retirement had nothing to do with diminishing skills. In fact, Koufax was in his prime when he called it quits at the age of 30. His final season was 1966, when he went 27-9, with 27 complete games, five shutouts, 317 strikeouts in 323 innings and a 1.73 ERA.

Those numbers earned him his third Cy Young Award – all by unanimous votes – in four years. (In those days, there was only one Cy Young Award for all of major league baseball.)

The only pitcher to retire the year after winning the Cy, Koufax announced in November of 1966 – a month before his 31st birthday – that his severely arthritic left elbow was forcing him to stop playing. He had been in terrible pain for three seasons, and his arm was said by one doctor to resemble the arm of a 90-year-old man.

Over his last 10 seasons, hitters batted just .203 against Koufax. For his final four seasons, he won 97 games, lost just 27, never had an earned run average higher than 2.04 and struck out 1,228 in 1,192.7 innings. His career stats include a 167-87 record, a 2.76 ERA and 2,396 strikeouts in 2,324.3 innings.

Spahn’s 363 wins are the most by any left-hander in baseball history and were accumulated in 21 seasons. Koufax played 12, and he was overpowering most of the last five. No wonder he became the youngest player (at 36 years and 21 days) ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While Spahn was the winningest lefty and Koufax was arguably the greatest, Whitey Ford was the most efficient southpaw. His winning percentage of .690 is fourth on the all-time list (behind right-handers Spud Chandler, Pedro Martinez, and Dave Foutz, in that order). Ford, Casey Stengel’s “money pitcher” for many years, compiled a 236-106 record over 16 seasons, with a 2.75 career earned run average.

Ford retired following the 1967 season after winning two games each of his last two years. Mickey Mantle would quit the next year. Yogi Berra, who appeared in four games as a player-coach with the New York Mets in 1965, had been released by the Yankees after the 1963 season. Moose Skowron was gone by then, and so was Hank Bauer, both traded away before ending their careers in the 1960s.

The Yankees and their long-time World Series rivals, the Dodgers, had grown old together. By the end of the 1960s, the playing days were over for all of the key members of those teams that met in six Fall Classics during a 10-year period (1947-56).

The Dodgers, who moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, traded Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider in the twilight of their careers. Newcombe’s final season was 1960, Hodges’ was 1962 and Snider’s was 1964

Big Newk pitched for Cincinnati and finished with the Cleveland Indians in the American League. Hodges and Snider spent a year together with the Mets, Hodges quitting in 1963 and Snider the following year, in which he played for the San Francisco Giants. Don Drysdale retired after the 1969 season, having pitched his entire 14-year career with the Dodgers.

Mantle’s last time at bat came on September 28, 1968 – eight years to the day and in the same place that Williams had homered in his final at-bat – in Fenway Park. The Mick was listed as the Yankees’ first baseman that day, but he never took the field. His right knee and ankle were sore, and it was manager Ralph Houk’s plan to let Mantle bat and then remove him from the game. He popped out to Boston shortstop Rico Petrocelli in short left in the first inning and then was replaced by Andy Kosco.

Mantle finished with a .298 lifetime batting average, what had looked like a sure .300 career mark pulled down by three miserable seasons over his last four. He averaged .254 for his final four years, dipping to .237 in 1968. Although he was just 36 when he quit, he probably stuck around too long.

That Mantle, whose good looks and raw talent made him baseball’s grand marshal for fans both young and old, did not end at .300 is a shame. When he broke in with the Yankees, he was extremely fast and powerful, but knee problems and other injuries would reduce both his speed and his numbers. And, of course, as Mantle noted late in his life, he did not take very good care of himself.

Still, he was a three-time MVP, a triple-crown winner and he smacked 536 home runs. But it is disappointing that The Real-Life Natural was unable to realize more of his potential and sad that he died with so many regrets.

Comments

One Response to “The Glory Days: Dramatic Homers Usher in the 1960s”
  1. Vinnie says:

    It had nothing to do with Ted being unable to run that kept him from hitting .400 in 57. In 41 when you subtract out his career low strike outs, he hit .432 on balls in play. In 57, he had a strike out rate that was above his career average and actually batted .433 on balls in play. Had he struck out at his career rate, he likely would have had his second .400 season.

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