The 1952 American League

When thinking of memorable historical league-seasons, the 1952 American League really isn’t one that typically springs to mind. In terms of milestone individual achievements or personalities, this wasn’t exactly the 1947 National League, nor the 1961 A.L. Nor did 1952 scoring levels approach such benchmarks as 1930 or 1968.

In fact, without looking it up, I suspect few fans can name many particular things that happened in the 1952 American League. Of course, you know the Yankees won the pennant – duh. (The few times in that period that the Yankees didn’t win the pennant are consequently the more notable seasons.) But did you know that Bobby Shantz was the MVP? Or that Larry Doby led the league in homers, with the modest total of 32? Or that Ferris Fain was the batting champ, at .327?

I didn’t think so. And there’s certainly no shame in not knowing this kind of geeky trivia (indeed, there’s a more proper honor: it means you probably have a life!). The 1952 American League season is one of those many episodes that have long been far adrift on the vast Sea of the Little-Remembered.

But the ’52 A.L. might not belong out there. For such an obscure league, an awful lot of interesting things were happening …

Wartime

The Korean War raged through its second terrible year in 1952. Consequently, quite a few players who might otherwise have spent significant time in the American League in ’52 were away in military service instead. Many were youngsters, but several were already-established regulars: Whitey Ford, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, Tom Morgan, Bob Kennedy, Leo Kiely, Owen Friend, and Dick Kokos. The absence of significant talent from nearly every team stimulated an extraordinary rate of mid-season roster shuffling – a dynamic we’ll relate in more detail in a moment.

The most prominent absence, by far, began on May 1st, when Ted Williams was re-inducted into the Marine Air Corps. The Red Sox were in first place when he left, but soon dropped back, and would finish in fifth (though they did hang in the pennant race until late August). The lack of Teddy Ballgame was (unsurprisingly) a major blow to the Boston offense: they had led the A.L. in runs scored every season for the previous four, and had been either first or second in the league in scoring every single one of Williams’ years with the team, dating back to 1939. In ’52, they dropped to a distant third in runs (59 behind the second place offense, and 4 ahead of the fourth-best).

Integration

There were still only three of the eight A.L. teams employing players of color in 1952. But the prominence of the roles filled by the few black players that season was the most significant the league had yet seen.

The 1952 St. Louis Browns deployed 45-year-old Satchel Paige in his most productive major league season, in which he earned a career-high 13 Win Shares. Paige appeared in 46 games (the league leader, Bill Kennedy, had 47). Six of Paige’s appearances were starts, in which he was 4-2 (for the 64-90 Browns), with three complete games including two shutouts. In his 40 relief outings, Paige was 8-8 (leading the league in relief wins) with 10 saves (the league leader, Harry Dorish, had 11). If there had been a Fireman of the Year Award in the American League in 1952, Satchel Paige would have deserved it.

The Chicago White Sox had integrated on April 30, 1951, when they traded for Minnie Minoso, who proceeded to have a spectacular rookie season. In 1952, the White Sox added a second black Cuban, 32-year-old Hector Rodriguez, to their regular lineup. Rodriguez presented an old-fashioned skill profile: he was a contact-hitting, defense-oriented third baseman. In 1952, he hit a punchless .265 for the White Sox (his OPS+ was 82), but his fielding allowed him to keep the regular third base job all season. It would prove to be Rodriguez’s only major league gig.

The Cleveland Indians had been the first American League team to integrate, back in 1947, and in ’52 they made their most liberal use of black talent yet. Center fielder Larry Doby and first baseman Luke Easter were both established stars, and in 1952, 26-year-old Harry Simpson, who had been a disappointment in ’51, won the regular right field job and contributed a 109 OPS+. Twenty-six-year-old pitcher Sam Jones, coming off an outstanding Triple-A performance in 1951, was given a shot by the Indians at a bullpen/spot-starting role in 1952, but he flopped badly with a 7.25 ERA in 36 innings, was sent back to the minors, and wouldn’t re-emerge until 1955 in the National League – where he would develop into a star. The ’52 Indians also made brief early-season use of 39-year-old Negro League veteran catcher Quincy Trouppe (father of the renowned poet Quincy Troupe), and brief midsummer use of 31-year-old outfielder Dave Pope, a good hitter who would never get much of a major league shot.

The Athletics

The unfailingly interesting Philadelphia Athletics franchise gave its last competitive gasp in 1952. The long-struggling A’s had enjoyed a mini-renaissance amid Connie Mack’s last few seasons at the helm – in 1947-49, they were a decent ball club – before thudding to a dreadfully disappointing 52-102 last-place disaster in Mr. Mack’s Golden Anniversary farewell tour of 1950. The ’51 edition, with Jimmy Dykes now officially acknowledged as manager, wallowed in or near the cellar most of the season, until suddenly coming up with a 25-11 stretch run to wind up at 70-84, sixth place.

On April 29, 1952, Cleveland demolished the Athletics, 21-9, dropping them to a 1-8 record on the new season. The A’s had surrendered 68 runs in their eight losses; it looked as though yet another debacle was in the making. The Athletics’ only win had taken place on April 17th, when 26-year-old 5-foot-6-inch, 140-pound left-hander Bobby Shantz had bested Eddie Lopat and the Yankees, 3-1.

But on April 30th, Shantz got the better of Early Wynn and the Indians, again by the score of 3-1. Shantz would reel off wins in every one of his next eleven starts. The team would follow his lead, and prove to be surprisingly, doggedly competitive in 1952, winding up in fourth place, at 79-75. Shantz would wind up a stunning 24-7, 2.48 (160 ERA+), with 27 complete games in his 33 starts, and for his efforts he would win the 1952 American League Most Valuable Player Award in something of a landslide, gaining 16 of the 24 first-place votes.

The 1952 Athletics were a fairly old, and generally old-fashioned ball club. Their offense was centered around the same three hitters who had anchored them since 1947: 31-year-old first baseman Ferris Fain, 36-year-old shortstop Eddie Joost, and 31-year-old right fielder Elmer Valo. All three were extraordinarily patient hitters who specialized in drawing walks at astounding rates; they painstakingly worked their way on base in hopes of being driven in by the team’s lone exemplar of cutting-edge modernity: 29-year-old free-swinging, low-average, high-strikeout, slugging left fielder Gus Zernial.

The A’s pitching staff was modern in no way whatsoever. They had no bullpen at all; their top reliever (Bob Hooper) made just 29 appearances out of the pen, and that was in between his 14 starts. In addition to Shantz, the team’s only decent pitchers were a pair of 27-year-old workhorses: Alex Kellner, 12-14, 4.36 in 231 innings, and Harry Byrd, 15-15, 3.31 in 228 innings. Both would succumb to chronic arm trouble in subsequent years – as would Shantz.

Their success in 1952, moderate though it was, would be the last success the Philadelphia Athletics would ever know. With Shantz sore-armed in 1953, they slogged in at 59-95, seventh place. Attendance had rallied to 627,000 in ’52 – not great, only seventh-best in the league, but dramatically better than 1950 or 1951. But in 1953, it drooped back to 362,000. In 1954, things only got worse: 51-103, last place, attended by a sad 305,000, the team’s worst gate since the depression year of 1936. The Mack family would sell the franchise, and the new ownership would move it to Kansas City for 1955.

The Tigers

In 1950, the Detroit Tigers had presented a young, well-balanced, and abundantly talented ball club that led the American League for much of the summer, before winding up with a 95-59 second place finish. The Tigers appeared to be poised for a strong run as serious contenders to the Yankees.

But in 1951, stalwart young pitcher Art Houtteman was lost to military service, and a generalized slump overtook the ball club. They skidded to 73-81, and fifth place.

Houtteman was back for 1952, but any hopes that the team would bounce back quickly vaporized: the ’52 Tigers scored a total of 14 runs in their first 8 games, losing them all. The misery would last all year long. Manager Red Rolfe was fired on the Fourth of July, with the team’s record at a ghastly 23-49; he was replaced by 32-year-old pitcher Fred Hutchinson, but this shock therapy yielded no lasting improvement. The Tigers didn’t manage to win as many as three games in a row until the last week in July; that month their record was 13-19, which was by far their season’s best. They ended the year at 50-104: it was far and away the worst performance by any team in franchise history, and would remain so until a certain 2003 bunch managed to outdo them.

The 1950-1952 Tigers represent one of the great puzzles in baseball history: how could such a bunch of good young players all go so bad, so fast, together? Three of the most notable flops in baseball history were in that lineup, occurring simultaneously: left fielder Hoot Evers, shortstop Johnny Lipon, and center fielder Johnny Groth. Even the team’s two best players – third baseman George Kell and right fielder Vic Wertz – despite being at ages 29 and 27 respectively in 1952, failed to match their 1950 performances, and both would be traded away in mid-1952 as the team desperately tried to stop the bleeding.

Perhaps the 1952 season of Virgil “Fire” Trucks, long one of the Tigers’ top pitchers, symbolizes the mystifying disaster. (Trucks was profiled by John Brattain on THT last week.) Trucks didn’t have his best year in ’52, but it was hardly a bad one: his 3.97 ERA was 96% of league average, and his 129 strikeouts in 197 innings tied him for second best in the league in K/IP. He pitched not one, but two no-hitters that season.

And his won-lost record was 5-19.

The Trades

Bill Veeck had purchased the St. Louis Browns in July of 1951. The Browns were financially moribund. Just how financially moribund, you ask?

Well, how about this as an illustration: the Browns’ attendance had been dead last in the American League every year since 1926, with just two exceptions, both being during World War II, when they were sixth in the league in attendance in 1944 (while winning the pennant), and seventh in the league in attendance in 1945 (while coming in third). Other than that, no team in the league ever drew fewer fans than the Browns, for more than a quarter century.

That financially moribund.

Veeck figured he had nothing to lose by doing whatever he could think of to get the newspapers to report something, anything, about the Browns. In August of 1951, he staged his (in)famous Eddie Gaedel stunt. In 1952, now forbidden by the league to deploy any more dwarves, Veeck figured that if the Browns made a trade, the papers would at least make mention of them. So he resolved that scarcely a month would go by during the 1952 season (or sometimes a week) in which the Browns wouldn’t engage in some kind of a player transaction.

Fortunately for Veeck, perhaps at least partly as a result of the wartime player absences, several other American League teams were also in the mood to wheel and deal. Frank Lane, the General Manager of the White Sox, would earn the nicknames “Frantic Frankie” and “Trader Lane” for his roster-juggling proclivities. GM Charlie Gehringer of the free-falling Tigers was desperate to do something. Even the generally conservative Griffith family’s Washington Senators were, for some reason, eager to shake things up. Perfect storm conditions were in place, and the 1952 American League would set every record for mid-season transactions.

Between Opening Day and the in-season trading deadline of June 15th, a total of nine significant trades occurred. Jackie Jensen, Irv Noren, Sam Mele, Jim Busby, Cass Michaels, Walt Dropo, Johnny Pesky, George Kell, and Dizzy Trout were among the prominent names changing uniforms.

Following June 15th, waivers were required to move any players between teams, but that impediment scarcely slowed the flow of deals. On July 28th, Veeck and Lane hooked up for their fourth exchange since mid-June, somehow managing to maneuver some substantial talent through waivers. The White Sox sent speedy left-handed-hitting outfielder Ray Coleman (whom they had acquired from the Browns in July of 1951), plus highly-regarded young hitting prospect J W Porter (how he passed through waivers is puzzling), to the Browns for speedy left-handed-hitting outfielder Jim Rivera (whom they had acquired from the White Sox in November of 1951), plus young catcher Darrell Johnson.

Johnson would be traded back to the Browns the following June. Rivera would have a “morals charge” brought against him by a Chicago woman on the last day of the 1952 season. On October 16th a grand jury exonerated him, but nevertheless, Commissioner Ford Frick gave Rivera a warning and placed him in a probationary status in which the White Sox would be held responsible for his actions. Frick ordered that the White Sox couldn’t trade, transfer, or release Rivera for a period of one year — which may be the only reason he didn’t find his way back to the Browns.

On August 14th, the Browns were in seventh place, and the Tigers still deep in last. This meant that any player placed on waivers by either club could be claimed by the other, and no other team could interfere with the transaction. So the Browns and Tigers decided to pull off a real blockbuster. The Browns packaged their gallant young ace pitcher Ned Garver, who had won 20 games for a 52-102 team in 1951, along with three others to the Tigers. In exchange they got slugging right fielder Vic Wertz and three others.

A few days later, the Indians, looking for help in their pennant fight with the Yankees, sent two players and $50,000 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Ted Wilks and George Strickland. Not to be outdone, the Yankees then sent four players and $35,000 to the Cincinnati Reds for Ewell Blackwell.

By season’s end, a total of 41 players had played for two different American League ball clubs. Four players (Don Lenhardt, Cass Michaels, Archie Wilson, and Al Zarilla) played for three. And utility infielder Freddie Marsh started the season with the Browns, went to the Senators, and then back to the Browns, while utility infielder Willie Miranda started the season with the White Sox, and then went to the Browns, and then back to the White Sox.

And of course, in the ’52-’53 off-season, Miranda was traded back to the Browns, and Marsh was traded to — who else? — the White Sox.

With regard to St. Louis Browns’ attendance: the good news was that Veeck’s machinations spurred a box office jump in 1952, to the franchise’s best since 1946. The bad news was that it was still last in the league, and it would dwindle again in ’53. Veeck wanted to move the team to Baltimore; the league approved the transfer, but only if Veeck sold out. He was infuriated, but financially he had no choice, and after 1953, the St. Louis Browns were history, and Veeck was out of MLB until he was able to purchase the Chicago White Sox in 1959.

References & Resources
The account of the charge brought against Jim Rivera, and Commissioner Frick’s response to the situation, was taken from the 1953 Sporting News Baseball Guide.

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