January 20, 2019

60 Years Ago–No Spahn Sighting in Brooklyn

The Milwaukee Braves pulled into Brooklyn on July 22 in second place for what would be a make-or-break-the-season four-game date with the Dodgers. Having played 92 games to a less-than-impressive 50-42 record for a second-place team, the Braves had only 62 to go and trailed by 13½. Anything less than winning three of four would likely be the kiss of death to their season, but the Braves did not have Warren Spahn, their ace, slated to start any of those games. With good reason.

Even if the Dodgers’ 22-2 start to the season was a crippling blow to what was expected to be the breakthrough season for Milwaukee, 1955 had been monumentally disappointing for the Braves. The Braves had finished second (by 13 games to the Dodgers) in 1953 and third (8 games behind the Giants and 3 behind the Dodgers) in 1954—their first two years in Milwaukee after leaving the Red Sox to their lonesome in Boston—and were considered by some to be the favorite to win the National League in 1955.
By all accounts, they were expected to be in this thing till the end, win or lose. But the Brooklyn Dodgers, aging Boys of Summer though they might have been in 1955, had a 9½-game advantage after just 24 games and, refusing to relent, had widened their lead. The Braves were mostly a disappointing .500 team until mid-June when 10 wins in 12 games, including two of three from the visiting Dodgers, created some separation from the break-even mark, but notwithstanding a six-game winning streak right before the All-Star break, Milwaukee had returned to playing mostly .500 ball since then.
Ebbets Field was the last stop of a four-city eastern swing the Braves began after their home city, Milwaukee, hosted major league baseball’s annual All-Star showcase. They began the break having reduced their deficit to the Dodgers from 14½ to 11½ games on the back of their aforementioned six-game winning streak. Unfortunately, it appears that the three days off broke their momentum. They split two games in Philadelphia, split four games at the Polo Grounds, and then lost two of three in Pittsburgh.
Both the Braves losses in Steel City were Pirate walk-offs, the first one in especially gut-wrenching fashion. It was with 19th inning. The Braves had scored in the top half of the inning to break a 2-2 tie on a single by Chuck Tanner—remembered, if remembered at all these days, for having managed the “We Are Fam-i-ly” Willie Stargell-led Pirates to the World Championship in 1979—only to lose the game in the bottom of the 19th on a double by Dale Long that tied the score and an error by Braves’ catcher Del Crandall, who failed to hold onto the ball on a play at the plate as Long barreled home on a subsequent hit.
For what it’s worth, Pirates starter Vern Law pitched the first 18 innings, facing 64 batters. There is no record of his pitch count. Braves starter Lew Burdette went eight and Ernie Johnson threw seven innings in relief, but all eight of Milwaukee’s starting position players—including the surely exhausted Crandall—played the entire game. All four hours and forty-four minutes of it. It was a long day, not made any better the next day—July 20—when the Pirates won on a bases-loaded pinch-hit single that ended a 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth. Crandall again caught the whole game.
The Braves had now lost for the fifth time in the first eight games of the road trip. Warren Spahn salvaged the final game in Pittsburgh with a 5-3 complete-game victory, but the Brooklyn-bound Milwaukee-ans had lost two games in the standings to the Dodgers, who began their post-break schedule with six wins in nine games.
Going into their most important series of the season, manager Charlie Grimm’s rotation against the Dodgers called for Gene Conley, whose 11-6 record at the time was the best on the staff, to pitch on Friday; Bob Buhl, 7-7 with a 3.18 ERA, on Saturday; and in the Sunday doubleheader, Lew Burdette, disappointing so far in 1955 with a 7-5 record and 4.25 ERA (down from 6.65 at the end of May), and Ray Crone (4-4 / 3.54 mostly in relief). Having just pitched in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Spahn was not in line to pitch in this all-important series.Say what? The Braves best pitcher and a historically-great pitcher in the middle of his best years in the 1950s not pitching in a series that meant . . . everything to Milwaukee? Seriously?

Perhaps the great Warren Spahn was not having the kind of season expected of a pitcher who was a 20-game winner in five of the past six seasons, including the Braves’ first two in Milwaukee. His record was only 8-10 following his victory in Pittsburgh, and his ERA at 3.76. He had yet to win more than two consecutive starts and had done so only twice, and just once since starting the season 2-0. He had twice lost three starts in a row. But still, Spahn was the staff ace and a money pitcher.
Perhaps more remarkably—for those of us looking back 60 years with the knowledge that Warren Spahn won 363 games in his career, won 20 games 13 times, including six in a row from 1956 to 1961, and led the league in wins eight times—Spahn had not pitched in any of the Braves’  nine games against the Dodgers so far in 1955. And for good reason. The Brooklyn Dodgers owned Warren Spahn. And had for many years.
Spahn had not had a winning record against the Brooklyn Boys since the Braves’ pennant-winning season of 1948, back when they were still in Boston and “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain” was the prevailing mantra. He was 4-2 against them that year. Since then, he was only 6-17 in 26 starts against the the Dodgers. The Boys had so much his number that Spahn made only three starts against them in 1953, going 0-2, and did not start any games against Brooklyn in 1954 and pitched against them just once in relief. That was after losing all five of his decisions to the Dodgers in 1952. He had not beaten Brooklyn since 1951.More specifically, since 1949 the Dodgers had a collective .276 batting average against Spahn. All the other teams were batting only .235 against the Braves’ stellar southpaw. Brooklyn, of course, had formidable right-handed hitters—including Jackie Robinson (.351 with 7 home runs off Spahn since 1949), Pee Wee Reese (.347 against Spahn), Gil Hodges (.329 against Spahn with 4 home runs), and Roy Campanella (perhaps only .274 against Warren since 1949, but with 3 home runs and 13 RBIs).

But it was even worse for Spahn at Ebbets Field. The last time he won a game before the Brooklyn faithful was way back in 1948. Since then he had made only 11 starts at Ebbets, had lost 9 games without a win at Ebbets, and had 47 earned runs in 85 innings in the Dodgers’ lair. Just so there’s no confusion on the point, that’s an 0-9 / 4.98 record for Spahn at Ebbets Field since 1949, and he had made only two starts in Brooklyn’s lion’s den (for him) since 1952.
It turned out, in fact, that Warren Spahn would make only one more start against the Dodgers before they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, and never again took the mound at Ebbets Field. He surely felt no nostalgia for the place when it finally met the wrecking ball in 1960.
As for that four-game series at Ebbets Field, the Braves won two, the Dodgers won two, and Milwaukee failed to make a dent on Brooklyn’s 13½-game lead. With 96 down, the Braves now had just 58 games remaining on the schedule. Although their deficit was the same as the Giants famously faced with many fewer games left to play in 1951, the Braves certainly could not count on history repeating itself. The Dodgers weren’t going to let that happen. Not again.

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