Blast From The Past: The Empire Strikes Back

Well it’s September. This can mean only one thing:pennant races! The Jays aren’t in one. Since you’re probably preoccupied with this year’s edition, I thought we’d look backwards 45 years and check in on the 1960 American League’s battle for league supremacy and a berth in the Fall Classic.

As always, during this era, the 800-pound gorilla in the room called the American League was the New York Yankees … and the Yankees weren’t happy. They were supposed to be invincible. The Yankees had a legacy: The 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were the standard by which every subsequent team’s greatness was measured against. The so-called “corporate Yankees” from 1936-39—another dynasty. The Yankees of 1949-53—five straight World Series, and some of that team was still on the roster.

However since then, they were struggling.

Not by league standards mind you, but by New York Yankees standards. Since they rejoiced following their triumph of 1953, the Yankees had gone into a funk. They won 103 games in 1954, which was good for second place, eight games back of the Cleveland Indians. General manager George Weiss had set the tenor for those who wore the fabled pinstripes—interestingly, in a comment he once made to his wife— when he said that “There is no such thing as second place. Either you’re first or you’re nothing.” Of course by that lofty reasoning, the Yankees were nothing in 1954, 1955 (lost World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers), 1957 (loss in World Series to the Milwaukee Braves) and the worst indignity of all, finishing 15 games in arrears of the Chicago White Sox, in 1959 —in third place. Two World Series in six years just wasn’t the “Yankee way”—at least in the Prussian mind of Weiss.

A lot had gone wrong in 1959: Murphy Law’s secret addition to the roster worked a little too well: Don Larsen and Tom Sturdivant opened the season with sore pitching arms, while Bob Turley and Whitey Ford had also suffered various arm maladies. Oft-injured centerfielder Mickey Mantle added another notch to his throwing shoulder. Supersub Gil McDougald took a nasty pitch off the hands and saw some down time, first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron—never healthy in the best of times—tore a hamstring in early May. Adding to the chaos was a small flu epidemic that struck the Yankee clubhouse as Mantle and Sturdivant—who were already battling nagging injuries—were joined by flame throwing, yet frighteningly erratic (and somewhat blind), reliever Ryne Duren. Skowron’s backup “Marvellous” Marv Throneberry, who’d make his mark on baseball history later with the Mets and across the diamond at third. Young defensive whiz Clete Boyer was also stricken.

Weiss had tried to shake up the club by doing what he always did: Screw ove … um, trade with the Kansas City Athletics, dispatching Sturdivant and one-year wonder, Johnny Kucks westward and reacquired Ralph Terry and hard hitting hot cornerman Hector Lopez. The injury bug kept right on nipping Yankee starters throughout the summer, as Mantle badly injured his right ankle, Skowron injured his back and McDougald and Tony Kubek suffered a collision that sidelined them both. The Yankees’ subs—both pitchers or position players—were ineffective and the Bronx Bombers never got on track.

However, that was 1959 and this was 1960.

Further changes were implemented in the off season, including yet another screwing of th… um, deal with the Kansas City Athletics. Gone to Missouri were hot prospects Norm Siebern, Marv Throneberry and veterans Hank Bauer—with whom age was catching up with—and 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen, who carved out a piece of baseball lore all for himself by twirling a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Yankees bolstered their bench by receiving backup infielders Joe DeMaestri, who could back up at short, and Ken Hadley, who returned for another tour of duty in the Bronx and would replace Throneberry as Skowron’s backup.

However the key player in the deal, as far as the Yankees were concerned, was a young right fielder that the Yankees had craved for a long time. He was originally an Indian, but the Cleveland club adamantly refused to deal with the Yankees. However the Tribe had no objections with to dealing him to Kansas City, especially when his grumbling about playing time had begun to agitate the front office. The Athletics then obligingly shipped the talented young man to the Yankees. His name? Roger Maris.

This wasn’t the first time the Athletics had served as a go-between to help the Yankees acquire the services of a player they couldn’t otherwise obtain. In the 1950’s, teams signing players to their first professional contracts had to keep that player on the major league roster for two years if the contract was worth more than a certain amount. These players were known as “bonus babies.” In 1955, the Yankees coveted a young high school infielder named Clete Boyer. However they already had two “bonus babies” on the roster in Frank Leja and Tommy Carroll—both, like Boyer, were infielders. So Weiss instructed his Kansas City counterpart Parke Carroll—who’d worked for Weiss for about 20 years—to draft Boyer, who was later obligingly dealt to the Yankees after his “bonus baby” eligibility was over.

Despite the moves, the team was rife with unanswered questions. Catcher Yogi Berra was 37—how much did he have left in his tank? Who would play third base? Casey Stengel had four players to choose from: Andy Carey, who was sidelined most of 1959 with hepatitis, Hector Lopez, acquired in 1959 from Kansas City, Boyer, another Missouri expatriate and supersub Gil McDougald. Was Mickey Mantle healthy and if so, how long would he stay that way? More importantly, how was the health of the pitching corps, especially ace southpaw Whitey Ford? Was there any pitching behind Ford and Bob Turley?

Another concern rode the bench. Skipper Casey Stengel was 70. Physically he was struggling—however of greater concern was his mindset. Known earlier in his managerial career as a patient teacher of young talent, he had since lost that patience, preferring to deal with veteran players than helping youngsters unlock their gifts.

The season opened with the offense helping gloss over any deficiencies in the rotation. The middle of the Yankee lineup was downright fierce. Mantle, Maris, Skowron and Berra gave opposing pitchers absolutely no leeway for any miscues. The first bump on the road was—oddly enough—the manager. Stengel took ill in late May and had to be hospitalized, handing the reins to a one-time Berra understudy and former United States Marine major: Ralph Houk. Houk immediately shook up the lineup handing the third base job to one time “bonus baby” Clete Boyer and relocating Lopez to left field. He gave slugging utility man Johnny Blanchard some catching assignments and inserted veteran 13-game winner (in 1959) and one time Kansas City Athletics right hander Art Ditmar into the rotation. Still, the Yankees struggled, and after being swept in a three game set by the league leading Baltimore Orioles, the Bronx Bombers were but a distant speck in the Orioles’ rear view mirror, residing a full six games back.

Generally a series in June doesn’t become a must-win situation; however the defending American League champion Chicago White Sox came into Yankee Stadium for a four-game series that June—a big test. Things looked bleak from the outset as the White Sox took the first game off Ford, whose efforts were sabotaged by sloppy play in the Yankees infield. However, the rest of the pitching staff suddenly caught fire, as Jim Coates pitched a four-hitter, Turley followed that up with a tidy three-hitter and two more former Athletics, Ralph Terry and Bobby Shantz, combined with Johnny James to win the finale. The Yankees then reclaimed first place, winning 14 of 15 games, including a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park.

The series against Chicago was remarkable for another reason as well. White Sox owner Bill Veeck had recently introduced his “exploding scoreboard” to baseball, which would go off whenever a White Sox hitter knocked one out of the park. Conversely, the scoreboard would be silent when the opposition went downtown. The Yankees responded to this “slight” by lighting and waving sparklers in both the dugout and the bullpen when the Yankees parked one.

Despite the Yankees hot streak, the Orioles hung tough, nipping at the heels of the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees offense was still white hot, but the pitching was inconsistent throughout the summer. Ford was hot and cold depending on how his left arm felt; Coates started the season on fire going 9-0, but would only win four more games the rest of the year; Terry was driving Stengel to distraction by putting hitters into 0-2, 1-2 holes and then letting them wriggle off the hook. At one point Stengel grew so incensed at Terry that he banished him to the bullpen and stated that: “I’ve never seen such horrible pitching , especially from the bullpen.” His words would be prophetic, as Terry would surrender the first ever series-ending home run in World Series play in Game Seven of the 1960 Fall Classic to Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The only starter that was enjoying any consistency was the man Houk had taken from the bullpen in late May to take regular turns in the rotation—Art Ditmar, who won seven straight, becoming the staff’s savior.

The Yankees, clinging desperately to the top rung of the American League ladder, were beginning to feel the pressure. Not only were they playing through an erratic season, but they had also only won a pair of world championships over the last half-dozen years. In mid-August, while in the process of dropping a doubleheader in New York against the almost perpetually moribund Washington Senators, Stengel blew up at the equally frustrated Mickey Mantle. Maris was on first base when Mantle hit a sharp groundball in the infield. Maris barreled into second, injuring himself trying to break up the double play, while an upset Mantle jogged down to first base, conceding the twin killing. Maris—in the midst of an MVP season—would be gone for over two weeks. Stengel then humiliated Mantle by taking the center fielder out of the game in front of the Yankee Stadium faithful, who booed him lustily. After the game he unloaded on Mantle again … this time in the press, telling the media that Mantle often didn’t run hard down to first, a cardinal sin; one for which Yogi Berra years ago felt the wrath of Joe DiMaggio when the young backstop failed to hustle on a pop fly that was dropped. Those two losses dropped the Yanks behind both Baltimore and Chicago.

Next up against the Yankees were the red hot Orioles, fresh off an eight-game winning streak. Mantle broke out of his slump in the first game, powering a pair of home runs, putting the Yankees in first place. Weiss had bolstered the enigmatic pitching staff by calling up a pair of arms, journeyman reliever Luis Arroyo and young phenom, Bill Stafford, a young 20-year-old righthander with a live arm and experience beyond his tender years. With a trio of doubleheaders looming in late August—six games in three days—the Yankees’ pitching corps needed all the help they could get. Doubleheaders wreak havoc on pitching staffs. A rough outing and early exit by the starter in the first game of a twin bill can throw the entire pitching staff into the tank as it drains the bullpen and puts extra pressure on the other starters to go deep into games. Three straight doubleheaders, especially late in the season, can be lethal to a team with pennant aspirations. The Yankees survived that stretch, winning five of the six, but still were jockeying for position atop the standings with Baltimore. The Yankees opened September with a 2.5 game lead, which they quickly frittered away. A few days later they gained the lead back, but only by percentage points. The Yankees had fifteen games left to try and cop the pennant.

Then, the Yankees’ pitching finally got hot. Ford won his last three starts. Terry pitched his way out of Casey Stengel’s doghouse, posting an ERA of 0.79 over his last 22.1 innings of the season. Rookie Bill Stafford posted an ERA of 1.40 over his last three starts ,keeping the game close until the Yankees offense got it in gear, while the bullpen posted a miniscule ERA of 0.34 over the final 11 games winning seven. The infield defense clicked with Boyer at third, Skowron at first with Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek anchoring the keystone, turning the great majority of ground balls into outs and many times two.

The Yankees didn’t lose another game.

Fifteen games, fifteen wins.

Terry took the hill on September 25 against the Boston Red Sox; after the game Stengel was effusive in his praise, stating that Terry had pitched like Walter Johnson down the stretch. Mickey Mantle, despite aches and pains and slumps, finished the 1960 campaign with 40 home runs. New right fielder Roger Maris clouted 39 and was named American League Most Valuable Player for the first time for his efforts. As a team, the Yankees had set a new league record for home runs with 193. The Orioles, who had been shadowing the Yankees all season long finished a distant eight games back.

Of course, on October 13, 1960, the Yankees had to pay the “Bill.”

But that’s another story for another day.

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