A league divided: Part 3 (1953-1968)

In previous articles, we’ve looked at baseball history as viewed through a construct of leagues that had East and West divisions instead of eight team races, unbalancing their schedules in a way similar to early division history to help flesh out the idea. The name of the game is the same in this article, but some of the mechanics will be slightly different.

For one, the season gets eight games added to it starting in 1961-1962 (AL and NL respectively). We’ll put all eight of those games as intradivisional; this is the best option in large part to make sure intradivisional rivalries aren’t diluted by including an extra team in the division. The intra-/interdivisional split for games has been 84/70 so far; it will be 92/70 starting in 1961, which works out to 23 games against each division rival and 14 games each against the others. Secondly, almost all the franchise relocations since 1901 occur in this period (there were two in 1901-02 and three since 1969, but eight in
this article). Consequently, there’s a lot of team realignment to deal with and a lot more explanation to this article than the last two.

I reference the important moves in the chart below. They make general geographical sense, other than not moving Baltimore to the East until the A’s move west (you can’t bump the Senators to the West for just a year) and not moving the Braves east when they move to Atlanta (it would be too disruptive to move any other team back west when they had only been in the East for a few years). The expansion teams are added one per division, but it’s not like their presence is a big deal for these pennant races anyway.

In short, by 1962, here’s how it looks:

AL East         AL West        NL East       NL West
Baltimore       Chicago        Chicago       Houston
Boston          Detroit        Cincinnati    Los Angeles 
Cleveland       Kansas City    New York      Milwaukee
New York        Los Angeles    Philadelphia  St. Louis
Washington      Minnesota      Pittsburgh    San Francisco

And from that and the other configurations, here are the results:

       AL East       AL West       NL East       NL West
[NL: Braves go West; Pirates go East]
1953   Yankees       Indians       Dodgers       Braves
1954   Yankees       Indians       Giants        Braves

[AL: Orioles go East; A's go West]
1955   Yankees       Indians       Dodgers       Braves
1956   Yankees       White Sox     Dodgers       Braves
1957   Yankees       White Sox     Dodgers       Braves

[NL: Dodgers and Giants go West; Cubs and Reds go East]
1958   Yankees       White Sox     Pirates       Braves
1959   Yankees       White Sox     Pirates       Dodgers
1960   Yankees       White Sox     Pirates       Braves

[AL: Senators become Twins and go West; Indians go East]
1961   Yankees       White Sox     Reds          Dodgers
1962   Yankees       Twins         Reds          Giants
1963   Yankees       White Sox     Phillies      Dodgers
1964   Yankees       White Sox     Phillies      Cardinals
1965   Orioles       Twins         Pirates       Dodgers
1966   Orioles       Twins         Pirates       Dodg./Gia.
1967   Red Sox       Twins         Cubs          Cardinals
1968   Orioles       Tigers        Reds          Cardinals

The early years that this article covers are among the last few where one team truly dominates another (1954 saw the Indians going 20-2 against not the 100-loss Orioles or A’s, but the Red Sox); after that, head-to-head records start flattening out, making the divisional skewing a less prominent feature of this exercise than it has been. I can’t recall reading anything about this phenomenon one way or the other, aside from Bill James’ assertion that it’s harder to dominate a larger league than a smaller one.

At first blush, the transition from train travel to air (longer trips, but much shorter travel time overall from which to adjust) might have something to do with this. The most likely candidates, however, are all about streamlining different facets of the game. By the 1960s, the amount of farm teams for each franchise was roughly the same across franchises (this would streamline even more by 1969); thus, most teams were pulling from the same-sized bag of talent. The ill-fated “bonus baby” rule and the eventual amateur draft attempted to even the playing field (or is it the playing field before the playing field?) in constructive ways.

My favorite thought on this, however, is on stadia and roster construction. As the 1950s came to a close, major league stadia were becoming increasingly similar. The Los Angeles Coliseum was a bit weird, but it was no weirder than the Polo Grounds and even a shade more normal. Overall, the trend was toward more “typical” stadium design, and with this came a disincentive (at least by my hypothesis) to leverage players by team faced. In the 1940s, it was common wisdom to save your left-handed starters for Yankee Stadium and keep them away from Fenway Park. If you just happened to have a lefty-heavy pitching staff, therefore, you’d stand to have a better-than-expected record against the Yanks but a rough time against the Red Sox. With fewer and fewer parks where that issue is relevant, however, why bother doing weird things with your roster when your advantage for doing becomes less every year, and you can give everyone consistent playing time? The more streamlined the stadia became, the more streamlined the rosters and playing time became, and so spikes in head-to-head results got a double whammy in terms of frequency.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. On to the teams of interest.

1956 White Sox

This one’s not really much of a big deal. The Indians had been winning for forever, and soon the White Sox would; in this setup it just happens a year earlier, as the White Sox in real life had their best record against the Indians (of course, it’s rare that one contending team will do its best against another contending team). This was Marty Marion‘s last manager job in the majors and Al Lopez‘s last year in his long Indians tenure before replacing Marion.

The Pale Hose’s offensive core was the ubiquitous Minnie Minoso (148 OPS+), Sherm Lollar (115), and first year White Sock Larry Doby (125) in what would be his last season with over 120 games played. As usual, though, it would be the pitching that carried the day in Chitown. Billy Pierce (124 ERA+) had his first of two 20-win seasons, with Jack Harshman (133, 15-11) and Dick Donovan (113, 12-10) providing just about what you’d expect of a second and third starter.

And then there’s the fun part: the bullpen. 36-year-old Dixie Howell (89) had pitched three games for the 1940 Indians and five for the 1949 Reds before landing a relief role for the Sox in 1955; to have a nine-year and six-year gap in one’s major league career is pretty unique. The cogs of the pen, curiously enough, were brought together all on midseason waiver claims: oldster Jerry Staley (141) on May 28; journeyman Paul LaPalme (174) on June 22; and 41-year-old Ellis Kinder (151) on July 11. Only Staley would be pitching after 1957, but to ride a bullpen made almost entirely of waiver parts to contention even for one season is remarkable. There might be comparable successes in history, but I can’t think of them. Major credit goes to co-GMs Johnny Rigney and Chuck Comiskey here.

1962 Reds

The NL West for 1962 goes to the Giants alone instead of a tie with the Dodgers, but beating both of them for best record is the Reds. The Reds are one of the great forgotten teams of the 1960s; their 1961 pennant is obscured by the Dodgers, Giants, and expansion, and the 1970s are generally thought of as their era (the reverse of the White Sox, whose ’06s teams are overshadowed by their ’50s successes), but they fielded competitive squads all through the era (only one losing season from 1961 to 1970) and had some compelling players and stories. In 1962, the defending NL champions improved their Pythagorean record but to no avail. They didn’t quite deserve the pennant in 1961 but were a lot closer here.

With a team OPS+ of 105 and ERA+ of 107, the team was well-balanced. Frank Robinson (174) had probably his best season in Cincinnati. The extra games let him hit 51 doubles, 13 more than he would hit in any other season (and the only 50-double performance in either league between Stan Musial in 1953 and Hal McRae in 1977), but he also hit 39 homers, the most he ever hit except in his Triple Crown season. The rest of the lineup was more depth than anything (lowest OPS+ was 81, highest non-Robinson was 119), but it made for a solid attack.

On the mound, Joey Jay (107) won 20 games for the second straight season (he would win 33 more lifetime), and ever-solid Bob Purkey (143, 23-5) dialed it up several notches; he would win 27 more games lifetime. All told, this was the 1961 team but better…and more forgotten.

1964 White Sox

Speaking of the White Sox … they would have won the West anyway, as they finished only a game behind the Yankees in the no-division AL, but here they’d tie for the best record with New York. Like the 1956 squad, this isn’t significant other than the Yankees’ demise starting a year earlier (remember that the Yanks hadn’t lost a close pennant race in over 15 years; I’m sure there would be some heartbreak if the Sox had beaten them out that year). The OPS+ of this squad was 95, but the ERA+ an insane 126 (for perspective, their entire staff was as good on average as James Shields or Ervin Santana this year).

Their top hitters were actually pretty decent; it was their midfield that dragged them down offensively, with Al Weis (70), Jim Landis (65), and J.C. Martin (47) nearly taking away more hits on defense than they gave on offense. Not that the pitchers minded the glovework; Joe Horlen (183), Gary Peters (138), and Juan Pizarro (134) were three of the top five in the AL for ERA. And in the off chance they’d give up a run, Hoyt Wilhelm (173, 12 wins, 27 saves, 131.1 innings) could bail them out.

Just for being a non-Yankees fan, I would love to have seen manager Al Lopez get one last chance at greatness. Sadly, it was not to be.

1964 Phillies

Instead of losing the pennant by a game, they would win the East by three games; more games against the Mets always helped stuff like that. Without unbalancing the schedule, they would have tied with the Reds (who rallied after the in-season death of manager Fred Hutchinson and were a fine story themselves). This team is too well-known in its story to belabor here, but it provides another great reminder of how different something so simple as a division can make some memories. It’s usually forgotten that the Phils won the last two games of the season against the Reds; with divisions, the Mauchmen would have been seen as survivors after such a hard losing streak, coming through when they needed to.

Fate does not prefabricate perceptions.

1967 Twins

This pennant race is too well written about for me to add anything, but the unbalancing results are great. The Tigers were 15-3 against the Orioles in real life; take some of that record out of the equation and all sorts of funny things happen. The Red Sox would have had no race, beating the second-place Orioles by 14 games (94 wins to 80). The Twins would have taken the West with 91 wins, with the Angels two back, the White Sox four, the Tigers six, and the A’s at usual squinting distance. In other words, a team that nearly won the pennant in real-life would finish fourth here, and justifiably so. That’s the stuff fun hypotheticals are made of.

1968 Reds

By real life records, the Cubs would have won a weak NL East in 1967 and 1968 (perhaps making 1969 not quite so disappointing). The Cubs’ worst record, however, was against the Reds, which unbalances its way into a Cincinnati flag. Dave Bristol, a rather forgotten manager (for good reason, although he was usually given pathetic teams), had several of the Big Red Parts but almost none of them pitching; their OPS+ was 114 (their offensive numbers are the only ones that look normal from a run-starved 1968 … really, check it out sometime) but their ERA+ 89, making them this year’s Rangers with slightly better pitching.

Pete Rose (152) was so good this year that in a historical offensive nadir, he set a career high for batting average (.335); he would only top that mark twice more. Without giving any more numbers on the offense, I’ll just list them and note that none of them were 30 yet: Johnny Bench, Lee May, Tommy Helms, Tony Perez, Leo Cardenas, Alex Johnson, Vada Pinson, and Rose. I think you’ve heard of those guys.

The pitching you’ve heard of too, but their successes were in other years aside from Gary Nolan (132) and relievers Clay Carroll (138) and Ted Abernathy (128). Milt Pappas (56) was so awful that he was shipped to Atlanta midseason — where he promptly turned his season around (127) and would never be close to that bad again (although they did get Carroll in that trade, who was a relief ace for them through 1975, so it wasn’t too bad). As a lopsided team with a freakishly frightening offense, it would take some creativity and/or quick hooks to prop up the pitching well enough for the offense to mash to victory…but we all know how that turned out.

Next time

Since real life expanded to two divisions; we’ll go to three. Part 4 will take 1969 to 1981 and give it Central divisions and a wild card to see what happens.

References & Resources
B-ref for the win.

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