Ghosts of World Series past

In a postseason that has featured a lot of sweeps (the Phillies coincidentally went down in that manner this year), it’s interesting to note that not all sweeps are one-sided affairs. The Fall Classic of 1950 was just such an animal.

First, a little background:

It really wasn’t surprising that the Yankees made the World Series in 1950. All their question marks coming into the 1949 season—among them regarding a manager, Casey Stengel, whose reputation was that of a clown, and a National League one at that —were answered. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto had improved upon a miserable 1948 in which he had posted an OPS+ of 79 to a more decent-for-a-shortstop numbers in 1949 (88 OPS+) while tripling his stolen base output. “Scooter” was all-world in 1950, when he copped the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Rizzuto batted .324 (122 OPS+), amassed 200 hits, scored 125 runs, created 43 more runs than an average SS. Along with second baseman Jerry Coleman (another question mark), he provided superlative defense up the middle.

The Yankees’ “middle” included the incomparable Joe DiMaggio in center field and Yogi Berra behind the plate. Berra had undergone intensive tutoring under predecessor Bill Dickey and his glove had finally caught up with his considerable bat. Flanking “Joltin’ Joe” were young outfielders Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer, who had finally proven they were worthy of Yankee pinstripes. Therefore, nobody was overly surprised that the Bronx Bombers had copped their 17th AL flag since 1921.

The Philadelphia Phillies were another matter.

The Phillies were synonymous with National League ineptitude for longer than just about anyone could remember. They’d made it to the World Series once, more than 30 years before, and lost to the Boston Red Sox and a hotshot sophomore pitcher who won 18 games that year. They didn’t need him to upend the Phillies: Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore dispatched them in five games. In the ensuing years, that poor unused lefty went on to shatter all hitting standards and was considered the biggest of the Bronx Bombers—Babe Ruth.

Make no mistake, the Phillies had their moments. They enjoyed the exploits of Chuck Klein, who had used their tiny Baker Bowl home to carve a Hall of Fame career. That little stadium once had a “Lifebuoy” soap ad on the outfield wall that said proudly, “The Phillies use Lifebuoy” to which a wag graffiti artist added “and they still stink.” Such was the lot of Phillies fans. Oh sure, they’d seen a number of Fall Classics, but they were generally held at Shibe Park and involved Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

Shibe Park was later renamed after the A’s skipper and christened “Connie Mack Stadium” and it would see one last World Series, courtesy of the Phils.

The 1950 season was a pitching nightmare: The Red Sox hit over .300 as a team and scored more than 1,000 runs. The American League batted a collective .271/.356/.402. In the midst of all this, the Yankees had pitching galore:

Pitcher               W   L   IP    ERA+
RHP Vic Raschi       21   8  256.2  108
LHP Ed Lopat         18   8  236.1  124
RHP Allie Reynolds   16  12  240.2  115
LHP Tommy Byrne      15   9  203.1   91
LHP Whitey Ford       9   1  112.0  153

Although the Red Sox bats got most of the press for their run production, the Yankees finished just behind them in both OPS+ (115 to 113) and runs scored (1,027 to 914). Besides, they were sound defensively everywhere but at third base.

Philadelphia was remarkable in its own right. Almost unthinkably—although it wasn’t known at the time—the National League Most Valuable Player award would go to a relief pitcher, 33-year-old veteran Jim Konstanty, who logged almost unheard-of numbers out of the Phillies’ bullpen. Konstanty appeared in 74 games, threw 152 innings, saved 22 games and won 16 more, lost only seven and posted an ERA+ of 152.

Other notables on the roster of the “Whiz Kids” were two young future Hall of Famers. One was Robin Roberts, who won 20 games (beginning a streak of six consecutive 20 win seasons), throwing more than 300 innings and finishing 20-11 with a solid ERA+ of 135, impressive numbers for somebody who had just turned 24 at the end of September. The other was Richie Ashburn, center fielder par excellence. Although often lost in the shadows of center fielders Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider in later years, Ashburn, a fresh-faced 23-year-old, had a knack for getting on base and nabbing any flyball in the area code. Another youngster, southpaw Curt Simmons who was all of 21, finished the 1950 season at 17-8 (120 ERA+). Del Ennis was a slugging outfielder (141 OPS+ in 1950), who despite being just 25 was a five-year veteran and had averaged 29 home runs and 110 RBI over his last three seasons.

Also of interest on this young squad was veteran slick-fielding first baseman Eddie Waitkus, who was semi-immortalized in the movie “The Natural” after being shot by a deranged female fan.

Both squads had to struggle to make it to the Series. The Yankees, who had acquired future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize from the New York Giants for the stretch run, had to contend with both the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox. In late September, they had a two-game set against the BoSox in Yankee Stadium. In the first game, wily southpaw Lopat twirled a shutout and in the following contest a gritty Raschi, aided by his defense and the hitting heroics of Berra and Rizzuto, shut down the their arch rivals 9-5. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians took three straight off the Tigers that all but sealed the 1950 American League pennant for the Bronx Bombers.

The young Phillies had it in tough against the defending National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers, but finally prevailed, copping the National League flag by two games.

The 1950 World Series opened at Shibe Park. In a bit of an oddity, the soon-to-be-crowned National League Most Valuable Player Konstanty, who had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in 1950, was given the start for the Phillies. The Yankees countered with the “Springfield Rifle,” Raschi.

For a pitcher making his season starting debut, Konstanty acquitted himself well. (In fact, he hadn’t started a game since 1946, with the Boston Braves.) He threw eight sparkling innings, surrendering a single run on Coleman’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning. Raschi, however, gave a powerful testimonial to his reputation of being a “big game pitcher.” Raschi mowed down the Phillies’ lineup, allowing just three base runners and no runs in a complete game whitewash.

Game two was another thriller as Reynolds faced Roberts. Much like the first game, it was a pitching clinic. For nine innings, both hurlers were masterful. Roberts surrendered a run in the second and Reynolds, shooting for Ruth’s record of consecutive shutout innings in World Series play, gave up one in the fifth, halting his streak at 27, three shy of Ruth’s mark. There the score remained as both pitchers put goose eggs on the scoreboard in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth frames. In the top of the 10th, Reynolds sneaked back into the visitors’ clubhouse for a quick smoke to help him relax and focus. Roberts was locked in every bit as well, and there was no telling how long the game might go.

Reynolds didn’t even get to the end of his cigarette before he found out. A loud groan brought him back from his reverie and he headed up the hallway to the Yankees dugout to see what was causing the commotion.

DiMaggio had homered.

Roberts, who was known for gopher-itis throughout his career (mostly solo shots), had succumbed to just that. His fastball had lost an inch or two since the early innings, and when he tried to get one past the “Yankee Clipper” in the 10th, he paid the price. Apprised of this, Reynolds went back to the clubhouse, finished his cigarette and readied himself to pitch the bottom of the inning.

Things quickly became tense as Reynolds walked the leadoff hitter—his fourth freebie of the game. “Superchief” composed himself and quickly got the final three outs. The Yankees would be heading home with two games in their back pocket.

More than 64,000 turned up at Yankee Stadium to see if the Yankees could put a stranglehold on the series. Stengel, aware that he had just force-fed the Phillies’ lineup two righthanded fireballers, decided to throw a changeup of his own. Now the National Leaguers would be facing junkballing southpaw Lopat.

Phillies skipper Ed Sawyer had a surprise, too. Hoping to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s generous dimensions, Sawyer trotted out a 35-year-old southpaw, Ken Heintzelman, who had pitched the year out of both the bullpen and the rotation. He had enjoyed little success in either role, finishing the season at 3-9 (99 ERA+), an abysmal total for a league average hurler on a pennant winning club. However, Sawyer’s hunch appeared to work. Despite Heintzelman’s control problems (he had walked 15 more than he whiffed in 1950), he managed to pitch well into the eighth surrendering a single run even though he walked six. With two out in the eighth and his team leading 2-1, Sawyer brought in game one starter Konstanty.

Then disaster struck. The Phillies booted it away, producing an unearned run and tying the score at two. Sawyer brought in Russ “The Mad Monk” Meyer (9-11, 77 ERA+) for his second ninth-inning appearance of the series (he had relieved Konstanty in the opener). Despite allowing two infield hits, Meyer got two out and appeared to have escaped. With the runners going on contact, Coleman blooped a single over the infield and the Yankees had the Phillies in a crisis, down 0-3.

Now it was time for Stengel to pull yet another surprise.

Stengel bypassed his No. 4 starter, lefty wildman Byrne. Although he had won 15 games and started the season on an 8-1 hot streak, he was decidedly mediocre in the second half, finishing 7-8. Like Sawyer, Stengel wanted to maximize his “home field advantage” by starting a southpaw. He gave the ball to rookie Ford.

Through eight innings, the Phillies couldn’t touch the kid. The “fresh young busher” allowed five hits and struck out seven. The Yankees had provided a nice five-run cushion for Ford, highlighted by a moonshot off the bat of battery mate Berra. In the ninth, Ford allowed a hit and a hit batsman. With two out, Ford got the final hitter to loft a high, lazy flyball to left field, signed, sealed and delivered for Woodling. Ford turned to left, pounding his glove in satisfaction, watching the ball’s descent, knowing he had just pitched a shutout in the deciding game of his first World Series.

As the ball drifted from the late afternoon shadows of Yankee Stadium to the bright fall sunshine, Woodling lost it and it bounced off his leg, plating a run and making it 5-1. Rattled, Ford allowed a second hit, and it was 5-2 with the tying run coming to the plate. Stengel quickly waved in Reynolds. Taking advantage of throwing from the bright sunlight into the shadows, Reynolds threw three fastballs, all for called strikes, and the sweep was complete.

Did you know?

  • The win against the Phillies was the second of five consecutive World Championships for the Yankees (1949-1953).
  • Pitching wins championships. New York’s top three starters over that span (1949-1953) were Raschi, Reynolds and Lopat. Over that championship stretch, Raschi was 92-40, 3.36 ERA. Reynolds was 83-41, 3.18 ERA. Lopat was 80-36, 2.97 ERA.
  • Raschi, Reynolds and Lopat were all top-notch Fall Classic performers. From 1949-1953 in World Series play, Raschi was 5-3, 2.14 ERA, Reynolds went 6-2, 2.45 ERA and Lopat’s record was 4-1, 2.58 ERA.
  • Konstanty found World Series glory elusive. After he joined the Yankees in 1954 to bolster the bullpen, they fell short, losing the American League flag to the Cleveland Indians. He pitched all of 1955 for the Bronx Bombers and they lost the Fall Classic to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Yankees won the World Series in 1956, but Konstanty had been released midseason.
  • Although Reynolds’ bid to beat Ruth’s consecutive shutout innings record in World Series play fell short, Ford would break it in 1961.
  • Ford’s game four victory in the 1950 World Series was his last win until 1953. He missed two years in military service.
  • Eight Hall of Famers appeared in the 1950 World Series: Stengel, Rizzuto, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Mize, Roberts and Ashburn.
  • The first at-bat of the 1950 World Series involved both MVPs: Konstanty pitched to Rizzuto.
  • Prior to 1950, the Phillies hadn’t made a World Series appearance in 35 years. It took them another 30 to reach it again (1980). They would reach two more (both losses) in 1983 (Baltimore) and 1993 (Toronto). Over that same stretch (1950-1980), the Yankees appeared in 15 World Series (1951-53, 1955-58, 1960-64, 1976-78) winning nine (1951-53, ’56, ’58, 1960-61, 1977, ’78.)
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