Forgotten upset: 1958 World Series

When you think of a major World Series upset, a particular image springs to mind. In one corner, there’s a seemingly invincible team loaded to the gills with talent. In the other corner, challenging them you have a team with a clear flaw. Perhaps they have a gaping hole in their roster. Or maybe they come from a league that’s clearly inferior. It could be they just don’t look as good as their record.

That describes the setup for almost all the game’s greatest October surprises. It also describes 1958, when the Yankees won in seven games to capture their seventh title in 10 years.

Now you might think 1958 can’t possibly be considered an upset. That year the New York Yankees bulldozed their way through the American League without a serious challenger while winning their ninth pennant in a decade under manager Casey Stengel. Underdog? They were the most dominating franchise in baseball history in the midst of their most incredible stretch of glory ever. That’s as un-upset-ish as it gets.

Yet, strange as it may sound, the 1958 Yanks had no business winning it all. When October arrived, they were not a great team. In fact, they weren’t even a good team. As good as the Yankees had been for the previous 10 years, and would be in the near future, at that moment they may have been worse than the Cubs. They certainly weren’t as good as the opposing Milwaukee Braves.

When they were great

The Yanks were great for almost all the 1950s. They had won eight of the previous nine pennants, including three in a row; that’s something you don’t fluke your way into. At first, 1958 looked like it might be their best season ever. Unlike Joe McCarthy‘s squads who won pennants by an average of almost 15 games from 1936 to 1939, Stengel’s teams never won by double digits, and most of them came by five games or fewer. They led by 10 games or more at any stretch of the season in only two seasons.

But 1958 began like it was the McCarthy era all over again. Riding early win streaks of six and 10 games, the Yanks ended the pennant race before Memorial Day. After sweeping a May 25 doubleheader in Cleveland, they had a 25-6 record and a nine-game lead.

Their secret was their pitching, which had allowed just 71 runs. Only one other team allowed fewer than 136. Unreal. They had the two best pitchers in the league. Naturally, Whitey Ford was one of them. Their ace since Allie Reynolds had retired, Ford was having his best season to date. A complete game 6-1 victory in the first game of that May 25 matchup put his ERA at 1.64. He would keep it under or near 2.00 all season. Rivaling him was former St. Louis Brown Bob Turley. He completed each of his first seven starts, four as shutouts, for an unholy 0.86 ERA.

Turley was really the key element to the team. The year before, he’d been the fourth-best pitcher on the squad, behind Ford, former MVP Bobby Shantz, and Tom Sturdivant. The former was off to a good start, but not nearly as good as he’d been the year before, while the latter was injured and ineffective. As long as Turley and Ford continued to be baseball freakin’ demigods, Stengel could cobble something together from the Art Ditmars and Don Larsens of the world to make the overall staff effective.

No team could keep winning 80% of their games. They played like a normal Stengel squad, winning 60% of their games for the next three months. Sturdivant continued to scuffle while Stengel banished Shantz to the bullpen. But with Ditmar and Larsen pitching fine behind the Terrible Twosome, the team cruised. Only July 25, the Yanks beat the Indians 6-0 (behind Ford, whose ERA dropped down to 1.68) to give Casey a 14.5-game lead, the largest he had ever enjoyed with the franchise. A week later, it was up to 17 games.

On August 8, they stood with a record of 71-36. They had scored more runs than any team in either league. They actually had 100+ runs more than five of the other AL teams. With that they had allowed the fewest runs of any team in MLB. It was all downhill from there.

The Yanks’ forgotten lousy period under Stengel

After August 8, 1958, the Yanks imploded, going 21-26 after that date, the next-to-worst record in the AL down the stretch. They had a losing 15-16 record in August (despite a hot stretch at the beginning of the month) and could only break even at 12-12 in September. This was the worst stretch they had ever had under Stengel. In his previous 48 full months on the job (baseball began halfway through April back then) his teams had only had two months (June 1950 and July 1955) that bad.

It wasn’t a fluky downturn either. Nor was it a squad cooling its jets waiting for the World Series to begin. Something had seriously gone wrong with them.

Next year, with largely the same squad, they got off to a slow start, dropping 20 of their first 32. As late as May 30 they were in last place. They were under .500 as late as Labor Day, and finished barely over, at 79-75, their worst season in 34 years. Even in 1960, they didn’t clear .500 until June.

In late ’58, and throughout ’59, they hit well, but their pitching—the strong point in early 1958—collapsed. In those final 47 games, they allowed 217 runs, only the lowly KC A’s allowed more in the AL. They next year the Yanks were fourth in runs allowed despite playing in the AL’s best pitcher’s park.

The man who best exemplified their fall was the same man who had been their key, Bob Turley. Beginning July 27 , he allowed nearly as many earned runs as he had previously. Never a particularly effective control pitcher, in his last dozen starts he walked more men than he struck out. He was especially brutal in September, posting an ERA of nearly 5.00. In his last two appearances he allowed 12 runs in 10.7 innings off of 15 hits and 10 walks. He had posted his 20th win in his last start in August, but ended the year with only 21.

Proving that his arm was in fact shot to hell, the next year he posted the third-worst ERA+ of the 33 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Only 27 years old in 1958 and with 73 wins from 1954-8, he would never again score double-digit victories in a season. It looks pretty clear that he blew his arm out and never really recovered.

New York’s dismal pitching had turned the club mediocre. From August 8, 1958 to the same date one year later, they went 74-80. Between those same dates the Reds went 76-80, and the Cubs 72-81. In some ways, that overstates how good they were. Due to the integration, the American League was the weaker circuit. The NL integrated faster and had dark-skinned superstars like Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. The best the AL could do was Minnie Minoso, Elston Howard, and the nearly retired Larry Doby. There’s a reason why the NL began dominating All-Star Games in the 1950s.

Forgotten upset: the 1958 World Series

Yet in the midst of this stretch when the depleted Yanks were an even match for losers like the Cubs, they played in and won the World Series.

Their opponent, the Milwaukee Braves, was hardly a pushover. They had rolled over the National League for their second consecutive pennant (actually, they came achingly close to winning four consecutive league titles) behind an historically great core of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Lew Burdette bolstered by fine players like Del Crandall, Johnny Logan, an aging Joe Adcock, Bob Buhl, and Joey Jay. They’d peaked late, winning 40 of their final 60 games. While the Yankee staff was in tatters, the Braves led the majors in ERA, and over the last two months allowed barely three runs per game. In plain English, they were the better team.

Perhaps the Yankees could count on intangibles to help them out. They had plenty of October experience after all, having played in more World Series games in the previous five seasons than the Braves had ever participated in. Perhaps mystique and aura could provide them an extra boost. While I think there’s something to that idea, one little fact undermines it in this scenario. The year before that very same Braves squad faced off against the Yankees. And all the mystique and aura in the world wasn’t enough to save the Bronx Bombers, as the Braves had defeated them in seven games.

To briefly sum up: the Yankees pitching had fallen apart, that collapse wasn’t some random event, they weren’t as good as their opponent, and that rival had no reason to be intimidated by the Yanks in October. Yet, that’s still not all the problems the Yanks had to contend with.

Making their eventual victory even more improbable, the Braves won three of the first four games, and they made the Yanks look bad in the process, too. Just as he’d symbolized their early-season greatness and subsequent demise, Bob Turley embodied what was wrong with the Yanks in the early going. Stengel penciled in that pitcher’s tattered remains to start game two. He didn’t get out of the first inning, recording only one out as the Braves demolished the Yanks 13-5. It was Turley’s third-consecutive horrible performance. The man appeared done. Two games later, Warren Spahn made them look like amateurs, twirling a two-hit shutout where only one batter made it past first base.

Only one team in history had ever come back from a three-games-to-one deficit, and that squad—the 1925 Pirates—had looked a bit more competitive in the early going than these Yankees had.

Just when things looked their darkest, the team received help from the most unlikely spot of their entire roster—one man who played a key role in each of their victories in the next three games, all but carrying them to their seemingly impossible World Series title. That man was Bob Turley.

Folks, if I was trying to make stuff up to explain why the Yanks had no business winning that Series, I don’t think I could concoct a better storyline that what actually happened. The individual whose arm fell off in late 1958 and never grew back, the person who had pitched like a drowned rat for the last month, the one who symbolized everything that wrong with the squad—yeah, he’s the guy who came through.

He got the start in Game 5. All he did was throw a complete-game shutout while striking out 10. The rest of his life, he’d strike out double digits only two more times, both against terrible offenses (the A’s and Senators). This was the Aaron-Mathews Braves.

In Game 6, Stengel pressed him for an emergency relief appearance. In the bottom of the 10th inning, the Yanks clinged to a one-run lead when the tying run was on third and the winning run on second. Turley put out the rally, forcing Game 7.

In the finale, starter Don Larsen didn’t have his stuff. While he’d only allowed one run, Stengel didn’t think he could deliver them the title. In the third inning, Stengel called on the ragged arm Turley for the third time in four days. Sore and tired arm be damned—Turley went the rest of the way, allowing only two hits, giving the Yanks the crown.

Turley’s return to form had been as perfectly timed as it was unlikely. As a general rule of thumb, if your team’s hopes for victory depend on riding a man who had just blown his arm out that hard in such crucial moments, you’re in deep trouble.

Though young pups like Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford would soon blossom, joining Ford at the helm of a rejuvenated Yankees staff that won five straight pennants from 1960-4, the squad that faced the defending world champion Milwaukee Braves in October 1958 was not nearly as good as their record indicated. By all rights the Braves should have repeated. But that’s what makes baseball a great game—all the shouldas and oughtas can’t make the ball bounce a particular direction. The Yanks comeback victory over the Braves was one of the most remarkable, if overlooked, upsets in the history of October-dom.

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