Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 14, 2003
BASEBALL: Baseball's Underappreciated Great Teams, 1950-69
Originally posted on Projo.com
1950s: The 1954 Chicago White Sox
There's a bit of a shortage of interesting teams in the 1950s, with the Hated Yankees sucking all the oxygen out of the decade (if I wanted to write about Yankee teams of that era I'd probably go with the 1958 World Champs, with Mickey and Whitey in their primes, Bob Turley winning the Cy Young Award and Ryne Duren in the bullpen). One good team that has disappeared entirely from memory is the 1950 Tigers, with George Kell, Jerry Priddy, and a dynamite outfield of Vic Wertz, Hoot Evers and Johnny Groth batting a combined .312/.511/.408 with 311 RBI.
Another is the White Sox of 1951-54, of which this team was the last installment. What initially drew my attention to this team was an anomaly: this team had nine men named to the All-Star team, six of whom played in the game: starters Minnie Minoso in left field and Chico Carrasquel at short were apparently voted onto the team, second baseman Nellie Fox was used as a substitute, and three White Sox pitchers appeared - Sandy Consuegra, Virgil Trucks and Bob Keegan. The other three were catcher Sherm Lollar (Yogi played the whole game), first baseman Ferris Fain, and well-traveled third baseman George Kell.
The White Sox of the late 1940s were a weak team, losing 101 games in 1948 and 94 in 1950. But 1951, under rookie manager Paul Richards, saw the Sox vault to their first pennant contention in years; the team went 26-4 from May 4 through June 7, and stood 53-35 (.602) as late as July 19, just percentage points from a tie with the first-place Red Sox and a game and a half ahead of the Indians and the 2-time defending World Champion Yankees. Two young players blossoming overnight were key: Nellie Fox (age 23) and pitching ace Billy Pierce, age 24. The team also had 30-year-old first baseman Eddie Robinson - productive in part of the 1950 season after coming from the Senators - for a full season, and Richards managed to squeeze an ERA title out of 27-year-old journeyman Saul Rogovin, who posted a 2.48 mark after coming from the Tigers in late May. But the biggest impact of all was the arrival of the 28-year-old Minoso a few weeks into the season.
Until I read the Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, I'd never thought of Minoso as a Hall of Fame candidate, but James' argument on this score was very persuasive. Minoso's career in the majors basically starts in 1951, by which time he was already 28, and his production the rest of the way is equal to or better than many, many Hall of Famers; what kept his numbers low was the color line (Minoso played in the Negro Leagues until 1950). In his prime years, Minoso did it all: hit well over .300, draw walks, get hit by a ton of pitches (leading the league 10 times in 11 years), hit for power and rarely strike out . . . Minoso drove in 100 runs 4 times, scored 100 runs 4 times, led the league in steals his first three years in the league, led in doubles once and triples three times, and averaged 16 home runs a year from 1951 to 1961. Late in his career they started giving Gold Gloves, and he won 3 of them. He was an All-Star 7 times. In 1951, he was already in his prime, and had perhaps his best season in the majors as a rookie, batting .326/.500/.422, stealing 31 bases (Dom DiMaggio had led the league the year before with 15) and scoring 112 runs in 146 games.
Anyway, the 1951 team collapsed down the stretch - the offense cratered (dropping from 5.16 runs/game to 3.86) and, besides Pierce and Rogovin, the rest of the pitching staff went in the tank. They ended with just 81 victories. This would set a pattern for Paul Richards' teams in Chicago. Two years later, in 1953, the Sox stood 75-48 (.609) on August 23, still 8 1/2 games behind the Yankees but on their way to a very strong second-place finish. They went 14-17 down the stretch, dropping off to third place. This time the offense and defense were about equally at fault.
1954 was the best of these teams, although the outcome would be more of the same. The Yankees started the season looking for their sixth consecutive World Championship (please tell me you wouldn't call this a "sex-peat"), but staggered to a 6-7 record in April; the White Sox grabbed the early lead, which they would hold into mid-June. The pennant race would slip away from both teams as the Indians went into overdrive, eventually winning 111 games, still the record for an AL team in a non-expansion year [ed. - d'oh! forgot the 2001 Mariners!], and the Yankees' 103 wins - the best by a Casey Stengel team - would net them second place. As late as August 28, the White Sox were in the same league with those two titans, with a record of 85-46 (.648), scoring 4.77 R/G and allowing 3.22, both figures better than the Indians to that point (the Yanks were a higher-scoring team with less impressive pitching that season). Once again, though, September would bring misery: the offense went into a deep freeze (3.24 R/G), the team went 11-14, and Richards didn't even stick around for the finale, quitting in mid-September to take over the Orioles. For the fourth year in a row, the White Sox would underachieve; from 1951-54, they won 9 fewer games than they should have, given their runs scored and allowed. Richards, a brilliant manager in some ways, had never managed to build a team that could win the close ones or hold up down the stretch run.
The other weakness of this team was an ill-timed off-year from Pierce, one of the top starting pitchers of the Fifties. Excluding the 1954 season, Pierce's average record from 1951 to 1962 was 16-11, but he picked 1954 to go 9-10 with a 3.48 ERA. In a year when 111 wins were needed to take the pennant, that was bad timing (ironically, Pierce would go 14-15 when the Sox finally won the pennant in 1959). Ferris Fain also appears to have been injured, although veteran Phil Cavarretta filled his place nicely.
Still, this was a powerful team. Minoso batted .320, cracked 66 extra base hits, scored 119 runs and drove in 116. Fox batted .319, struck out only 12 times all year and formed a top double play combination with Carrasquel. Sandy Consuegra, another journeyman who'd had little success before arriving in Chicago in 1953 and would have less after leaving town following 1955, went 16-3 and finished second in the ERA race. 37-year-old Virgil Trucks headed a staff of little-known pitchers (including a deep bullpen) on the way to a 3.05 team ERA.
Neither Richards nor Minoso would ever win a pennant; both were gone when the White Sox took advantage of the Yankees' off-year to win the 1959 AL flag.
The 1960s: 1964 Chicago White Sox
The obvious candidate from the 1960s would be the 1961 Tigers, who won 101 games and scored more runs than the Maris-Mantle Yankees, when Norm Cash turned into Lou Gehrig for a year. But others have written about those Tigers. There's also the 1962 Reds, a team that won 98 games behind Frank Robinson's best season (he hit .342). One of the great pennant races of the 1960s was the 1964 AL race, which unfortunately was won by the Hated Yankees behind spectacular performances by Mickey and Whitey and rookie manager Yogi, thus burying the season in the long march of Yankee pennants that would come to an abrupt halt after this one, to say nothing of the spectacular and more notorious end to the NL race that season. Indeed, the Yankees got the glory then, too -- five Yankees were selected to the All-Star Game in 1964, as many as the Orioles and White Sox sent put together.
It was a race of spurts. Few games were played in April in 1964; the season didn't open until April 13. I'm not sure why, but this may have had something to do with the availability of the new ballparks in Houston and Flushing (the World's Fair opened on April 22). Anyway, the Indians, of all teams, battered their way to the early lead, scoring 4.8 runs/game to start off 11-5, while everyone else but the White Sox languished around .500 or worse. Cleveland's hitters were mostly good players about to reach a premature end to their productive years (Leon Wagner, Dick Howser, Tito Francona), and the Indians would wind up with a losing record for the season, but that team was memorable for another reason: young (or at least unproven) pitching. 21-year-old "Sudden Sam" McDowell, ineffective in a limited role for 2 years, went 11-6 with a 2.70 ERA, and rookies Luis Tiant, Tommy John and Sonny Seibert all established themselves. Few, if any, teams have come up with four new pitchers that good in one year.
Anyway, the White Sox had some youngsters of their own, notably third baseman Pete Ward (.282, 23 HR, 94 RBI in a run-starved environment -- a better year with the bat, under the circumstances, than your average Derek Jeter season) and 27-year-old rookie second baseman Don Buford, who would go on to be the left fielder for the Orioles juggernaut of the early 1970s. And they got hot, and then hotter, with the bats in May, scoring 4.7 runs/game through May 31, at which point the Sox were 24-11 (.685), a 111-win pace but just a half game ahead of the Orioles, who had played 7 more games already.
Then, it was Baltimore's turn. The O's had the race by the horns after a 37-16 surge from May 8 to June 29 that put them 4.5 games ahead of the surging Yankees and 6 ahead of Chicago. Seven Baltimore pitchers had won between 4 and 7 games to this point, including 9 wins from two relievers, Dick Hall and Stu Miller; the team was playing at a 104-win pace. Then, the Yankees: a 42-20 run from June 3 to August 2. Jim Bouton won 7 games between June 30 and August 2, three of them shutouts; opposing teams scored just 16 runs in his 8 starts in that stretch. After Bouton's second victory in four games (both shutouts) on August 2, the Yankees had the lead by percentage points:
Yankees (63-38) .623
Unfortunately for the Yanks, they then dropped 2 of 3 to the lowly Kansas City A's going into a stretch of 15 games with Baltimore and Chicago in 14 days. It went badly, a 5-10 record, followed by consecutive losses to the Red Sox. The Yankees lost 6 of 7 games started by veterans Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry during this 20-game swoon, and 3 of 4 started by Bouton. Plus, the back end of the rotation was in dire shape: through August 14, they'd lost their last 5 games started by Rollie Sheldon and Stan Williams. At the close of play on August 22 (the Yanks won the nightcap against the Red Sox in the 13th of 14 doubleheaders between June 10 and August 29), the standings looked like this:
Orioles (76-47) .617
Each of the three teams had now played 124 games (Baltimore tied one). Check out their runs scored and allowed through August 22:
Orioles: 4.20 R/G--3.48 RA/G
And the rest of the way:
Orioles: 4.05 R/G--3.46 RA/G
All three teams' pitchers stepped up down the stretch run, the Yankees most of all, thanks to the gutsy decision to throw 22-year-old rookie Mel Stottlemyre out to face the White Sox on August 12; Stottlemyre went 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA the rest of the way. But the real story was that the Yankee hitters went to town in September, while the regulars on the other two teams ran out of gas. Why? Well, they had 7 games head-to-head in late August (Baltimore won 5), and Baltimore's best hitter, Boog Powell, fractured his wrist August 20 and missed 14 games. I'm also guessing here that Mantle and Maris were finally healthy in September; Mantle had been injured at the All-Star break. Mantle and Powell were by far the two most productive hitters in the AL that season. Otherwise, there's no obvious explanation other than the fact that the Yankees had more pennant race experience; none of the three teams had an unusual number of guys who didn't take any days off. The Yankees put the race away by going 22-6 in September, holding a 4-game lead on the White Sox in the loss column (and five on Baltimore) with 4 to play at the end of September. The final standings narrowed after that, but it was over.
Books aplenty have been written about those Yankee teams; let's look at their worthy adversaries. The 1964-65 White Sox (the Sox won 95 games the following year) were the pinnacle of another generation of "Hitless Wonder" Chisox, although they may have been a better offensive team than they looked; Comiskey was fairly pitcher-friendly in those years. I asked in my latest Hall of Fame column who the best American League pitcher of the 1960s was, and I thought I'd check what Bill James' Win Shares system said. The answer: Hoyt Wilhelm, who by the mid-60s was past 40 and regularly pitching over 100 innings a year with an ERA in the ones. In 1964, the 40-year-old Wilhelm threw 131.1 innings (while allowing just 94 hits) over 73 games, posting a 1.99 ERA; he finished 12-9 with 27 saves, and was clearly the team's most valuable player.
The rest of the staff was impressive as well: Gary Peters and Joe Horlen, both of whom emerged in 1963, would anchor the White Sox staff throughout the Sixties. In 1964, Peters, age 27, went 20-8 with a 2.50 ERA, while Horlen, age 26, was 13-9 with a 1.88 ERA. 27-year-old Juan Pizarro was also effective, 19-9 with a 2.56 ERA, although this would be Pizarro's last full, healthy year as a rotation starter. The bullpen was deep, with Eddie Fisher and veteran Don Mossi; Fisher would be pressed into the rotation the following year.
The offense is less memorable, and some of the starters -- like JC Martin, Al Weis and Don Buford -- are better known for their roles on other teams (Martin and Weis were among the unlikeliest heroes of the 1969 Miracle Mets). The batting stars, as I mentioned above, were Ward, 26-year-old shortstop Ron Hansen (.261/.419/.347; Hansen would later win renown for turning an unassisted triple play), 28-year-old outfielder Floyd Robinson (.301/.408/.388 and two years removed from a 109-RBI fluke season), and midseason acquisition Moose Skowron (.293/.399/.337), who took over at first base. Al Lopez, the team's manager from 1957 to 1965, was retooling on the fly; Robinson had to be moved to left field when Dave Nicholson, who had swatted 22 homers the prior year while setting what was then the single season strikeout record (175 whiffs) proved completely incapable of making contact, striking out a staggering 126 times in 294 at bats. 41-year-old Minnie Minoso was also back for a return trip, but was basically out of gas; Minoso hit .226 as a pinch hitter, albeit with a .351 on base percentage. This was also a staggeringly effective defensive team. By my rough calculation -- (H-HR)/((IP)*3)+H-HR-K) -- the average of balls in play that became hits in the AL in 1964 was .263. The Yankees and Orioles were both very good defensive teams, with averages of .251 and .253, respectively. The White Sox? .241. Hoyt Wilhelm had something to do with that; traditionally, knuckleballers are the one group that has a pronounced tendency to buck the usual trend by which most pitchers allow a similar percentage of balls in play to become hits (the average against Wilhelm was .225). But the defense was solid and deep; center fielder Jim Landis won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove, keeping defensive wiz Ken Berry on the bench.
The 1964 Orioles, skippered by another ex-Yankee (Hank Bauer, in his first year on the job after two seasons "managing" the Kansas City A's) must have been a fun team to watch. The team featured an acrobatic left side of the infield, with Brooks Robinson at third base and Luis Aparicio at short. Aparicio, age 30, had a fairly typical season, combining league-average hitting with 57 stolen bases and spectacular defense, while Robinson, at 27, had the best year of his career with the bat and won the MVP award. Robinson hit .317/.521/.368 and drove in 118 runs, which would be about the equivalent, in 2002 terms, of batting .343/.578/.386, with 140 RBI while being Brooks Robinson with the glove. First baseman Norm Siebern -- yet another ex-Yankee -- arrived from Kansas City with his ex-teammate Bauer, and while he came down fairly far from his outstanding 1962 season, Siebern's league-leading 106 walks gave him a .379 OBP, good for sixth in the league. In right field was a promising youngster, 25-year-old rookie Sam Bowens, who hit .263 with 22 homers and slugged .453 (unfortunately, Bowens would crash to .163 the next year and hit above .200 only once again in his career).
The team's real hitting sensation was Boog Powell. Boog, only 22, was already in his third season, although by 1965 he would already have to be moved from left field to first base. You think Robinson's offensive numbers were impressive? Powell's .290/.606/.399, very big numbers even today, would translate into .310/.673/.418 -- Jim Thome numbers. Powell's injury may have cost the Orioles the pennant. And more young talent debuted for this team as well - a pair of 20-year-olds named Paul Blair and Lou Piniella each got a cup of coffee in 1964. Also on the bench was a future hitting guru, Charlie Lau.
The pitching staff was a study in contrasts. Robin Roberts, at 37, was the resident veteran in the rotation; Roberts had been baseball's dominant pitcher from 1950-55, with an average season of 23-13 with a 2.93 ERA in 323 innings. While those numbers sound impressive enough, remember that he was pitching in a fairly good hitter's era, for teams that finished higher than fourth only once in that span, and that only three other major league pitchers -- Vern Bickford in 1950, Warren Spahn in 1951, and Bob Lemon in 1952 -- threw as many as 300 innings in a season over the six-year span when Roberts did it every year from age 23 to 28. From 1952-55 he led the league in innings, usually over Spahn, by 40, 81 (!), 53.1 and 48 innings, one of the most dominating workhorse performances in the game's history. And by baseball-reference.com's league/park adjusted "ERA+" measure, his ERAs, if translated into, say, the conditions Catfish Hunter pitched in at his peak, would be 2.12, 2.25, 2.02, 1.87, 2.10, and 2.36.
But even Roberts, unsurprisingly, crashed and burned after 1955, posting an ERA below 4.00 only once between 1956 and 1961, culminating in a humiliating 1-10, 5.85 performance in 1961 that finally persuaded the Phillies to cut him (Roberts quipped at the time that NL hitters wept when they heard the news). The Orioles took a chance on him, though, and he returned to form, with ERAs of 2.78, 3.33 and 2.91 from '62-'64, by featuring his legendary control while cutting back on his penchant for the longball. There were other veterans in the bullpen: 38-year-old Harvey Haddix had been rescued from the Pirates after breaking down as a starting pitcher; relief ace Stu Miller, 36, was coming off a great 1963 season; and 33-year-old Dick Hall, a failed starter in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, had found his calling in the Baltimore bullpen in 1962 (Hall would also feature in Earl Weaver's pens in later years). All three had good years in 1964.
Alongside Roberts, the rotation was young and younger: Steve Barber and Milt Pappas were veterans at 25; Barber had a poor year in 1964 and would be effectively finished after 1966, while Pappas, 16-7 with a 2.97 ERA, was the rotation's anchor. Dave McNally, in his second season at age 21, was a year away from stardom. But stardom was at hand -- fleetingly -- for 19-year-old Wally Bunker, who finished 19-5 with a 2.69 ERA. Of course, Bunker, like Barber, burned out swiftly; McNally, a major star until age 28, would do little thereafter; Jim Palmer would throw a shutout in the World Series at 20, hurt his arm and go unclaimed in the expansion draft three years later. It took the Orioles a while to learn not to overwork very young pitchers.
The moment of glory arrived for Hank Bauer's Orioles in 1966, when Frank Robinson and Palmer would join the team and go all the way.
COMING UP IN PART 3: THE 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.