June 16, 2019

60 Years Ago, When the Wait for “Next Year” Finally Ended: 1955 Pre-Season Pennant Race Handicaps

March 28, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

“Wait Till Next Year.” Sixty years ago, that was the mantra at Ebbets Field because the Dodgers had lost every World Series they had been in1916, 1920, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953not to mention having lost the first two playoffs ever for the National League pennant, in 1946 and 1951, and not being counted down and out for good until the final game of the 1950 season. Wait till Next Year. Well, sixty years ago, “next year” finally came when the Dodgers won their firstand, it turned out, onlyWorld Series championship in Brooklyn. This is the first in a series throughout this season on the National League and American League pennant races sixty years ago, beginning with the first ever preseason forecasts by a new publication whose first issue was just the previous August, Sports Illustrated.

The baseball world must have felt a bit off by what transpired in 1954. Surely it was strange that the New York Yankees did not play in the World Series. After all, they had won each of the five previous American League pennants, and each of the five previous World Seriesan unprecedented achievement. Not only that, the 1954 Yankees won more games than any of the five-and-five-in-five championship teams between 1949 and 1953. Their 103 victories, however, were good for only second place, and not even a close second. The Cleveland Indians won 111 games, wound up eight games in front of the Yankees, and were the favorites to win the World Series until Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes hit home runs coming off the bench to win Games 1 and 2, and the New York Giants swept the Indians four straight.

And surely it was equally strange in 1954 that for the first time since 1948 the Brooklyn Dodgers were not either the National League pennant-winner or still competing for the honor down to the very last game they played. Indeed, two dramatic, heart-rending losses were all that stood between the Dodgers and their matching the Yankees with five straight World Series appearances between 1949 and 1953. In 1950, the Dodgers had a chance to make history with a stirring comeback from 9 games down with only 16 left to play to force a playoff with the Phillies, whom the scheduling gods set them up to meet at home in the final game of the season, only to see the would-be game-winning run thrown out at the plate in the last of the ninth and the Phillies win the game and secure the pennant on a three-run home run in the tenth. And in 1951, well, you know… Ralph Branca… Bobby Thomson… enough said.

The Dodgers had finished second in 1954. They were last in first place, tied with the Giants, on June 13. Thereafter, although they stayed in second and were never far behind the Giants, the Dodgers never really made a serious play for first place either. They pulled to within half-a-game after sweeping the Giants at Ebbets Field in mid-August, but six days later were four games behind. The Dodgers basically spent all summer treading water. They ended up five games out.

Robert Creamer, previewing the 1955 season for Sports Illustrated, summed up the Dodgers as smooth and seasoned, but aging and with “notoriously undependable” pitching. He wrote that “young replacements” had yet to prove themselves, although this was an uncharitable assessment with regard to one young ‘un he namedJim Gilliam, entering his third year as the Dodgers’ second baseman with a .280 batting average and .372 on base percentage in 297 big league games. Creamer did not count Brooklyn out, however. Noting that Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe all played below their established standards for excellence in 1954, Creamer predicted that if they returned to their past level of performance, “these three could bring the championship back to Flatbush.”

One thing was obvious, wrote Creamer, and that was that the defending-champion Giants and the up-and-coming Milwaukee Braves were the “best-balanced” teams in the National League. “They are beautifully matched, these two teams,” he wrote, concluding that “the Giants should win the pennant.” “The difference between the clubs is spelled W-i-l-l-i-e- M-a-y-s-.”

Creamer’s assessment of the American League ultimately came down to “how close the Indians come to winning 111 games again,” indicating a slight nod to the Yankees, without coming out and saying so explicitly. The Yankees had depth, the best catcher in baseball (Yogi Berra), Mickey Mantle (“who threatens to grow from good to great”), and good pitching led by Whitey Ford. Their big question marks were how much “the once-great Yankee shortstop” Phil Rizzuto had left and who would replace Allie Reynolds, who had just retired. He did mention that the Yankees now had Bob Turley, who in 1954 was 14-15 for the seventh-place, 100-loss Orioles.

The Indians, on the other hand, had probably “the worst-fielding infield to ever win a major league pennant,” were slow and unimaginative on the bases, and despite “one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history,” also an aging pitching staff. In fact, advanced fielding metrics that did not exist at the time indicate that Cleveland’s infield defense was the second-best in the league (after the White Sox) up the middle, but quite problematic at the corners, including the worst in the league at third base, Al Rosen’s position. As for the pitching, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who both won 23 for the ’54 Indians, were in their mid-30s, Bob Feller was 36 (although he had made only 19 starts in 1954), and Creamer might also have mentioned that Mike Garcia, who was 19-8 with a league-leading 2.64 ERA in 1954, was 31. Joining the Cleveland staff, however, would be Herb Score, said to be “so good you can’t believe it.”

With the Yankees and Indians having split their season series in 1954, the difference in outcome for 1955 could well be the same as it was the previous yearwhichever team had the better record against the rest of the American League.

Opening day would be April 11, 1955. More to come.


One Response to “60 Years Ago, When the Wait for “Next Year” Finally Ended: 1955 Pre-Season Pennant Race Handicaps”
  1. Bryan, Want to do our podcast again. This is a great topic to my mind and a discussion of race and Clark Griffith/Calvin Griffith may spark some interest. Email me at tedandonna@rcn.com Thanks.

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