Everyone loves to write about all the changes of society during the 1960s. Baseball, of course, was no exception. By the end of the decade, the league would add eight teams, change the height of the mound, see the first indoor baseball stadium and see the end of the Yankees’ incredible run of dominance.
With all these changes taking place, was the game still able to produce the kind of players who could compete with the game during its more staid periods? I’ll go ahead and spoil it and say that the answer is yes, but you’ll have to read on to see just who the players are.
But then, we can’t begin to reveal them until we know the criteria under which they were selected. Thus we shall once again review the rules selecting this team: to qualify for any non-pitching position, a player must have played at least 500 games there during his career—though not necessarily during the decade in question. For starting pitchers, to appear on the team requires at least 200 starts in a given decade. Until we hit the more modern usage pattern (and we’re getting close) relief pitchers will be selected at my discretion, with no game or inning requirements.
Having dispensed with that, let’s move on to the fun stuff:
Catcher: Joe Torre
With the exception of the first baseman, it is an odd truth that everyone else in the infield is now better (or at least just as well) known for something other than his playing career. For Torre, of course, that was his tenure as a manager, specifically his runs with the Yankees and Dodgers during which he made the playoffs fourteen straight years, including 12 division titles, six pennants and four World Series titles.
Torre’s enormous success as a manager has relegated his playing career to the background. As his status on this team demonstrates, he was no slouch as a player. Though probably just below Hall of Fame quality, for his career Torre finished with better numbers than several catchers who have earned enshrinement. (Though it does have to be said that he played just more than 40 percent of his career games behind the plate.)
For the decade, Torre put up nearly a 130 OPS+, and slugged nearly 400 extra base hits.
|Back in the dugout: Joe Torre managing Team USA in the WBC (US Presswire)|
First base: Carl Yastrzemski
Just as Yankee fans were spoiled watching their center fielder transition from DiMaggio to Mantle, Red Sox fans were able to watch as Ted Williams gave way to Yaz. So why is a man most famous for patrolling the space in front of the Green Monster stationed at first base instead?
Well, it’s complicated. The short version is that Frank Robinson outplayed Yastrzemski for the decade, and thus earns the left field spot. Meanwhile, Yastrzemski outplayed the two men who might otherwise claim this spot—Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew—and since he played more than 500 games at first during his career, he is eligible for the spot. One wants to get the best talent out there, so here we are.
Yaz was never better than during his memorable 1967 campaign: in addition to being the last Triple Crown until Miguel Cabrera’s last season, Yastrzemski also led the league in runs, hits, on-base percentage and total bases. For good measure, he did it all while winning a Gold Glove in left field. In fact, by WAR—and maybe common consensus—his 1967 season is the best of the decade.
Second base: Pete Rose
Like, say, Aaron Hernandez, it’s hard to write about Pete Rose’s merits as a ballplayer without also reflecting his failures as a person. For our purposes though, we’ll leave the other stuff alone and just think of him on the field.
That Rose wins this spot is a testament to his talents on the field, given that he did not make his debut until the 1963 season. Of course, he was clearly ready, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award that season. Despite the late start, he led all second basemen in the decade in runs and doubles, and was second to players with far more plate appearances in hits, doubles, and home runs.
Rose was not really a second baseman—he wasn’t really anything, except a hitter—but he did play primarily at the keystone during the’60s and earns this spot.
Third base: Ron Santo
Santo was Inducted into the Hall of Fame last year which, as I’ve probably pointed out, would have been nice if he hadn’t died in 2010. I suppose this is a case of better late than never, since Santo is a clearly deserving Hall of Famer. He built most of that case during the 1960s, when he nearly went 250/250 on doubles and homers, falling just three short on the two-baggers.
Brooks Robinson deserves recognition for his masterful performance during the 1960s, famously for his defense as he swept the Gold Glove for the decade. Santo was no slouch with the glove, though—winning five Gold Gloves himself—and was a far superior hitter.
Shortstop: Jim Fregosi
Best known today (to the extent he is at all, I suppose) as the manager of the Phillies’ 1993 NL-pennant winning team, Fregosi’s career as a shortstop is all but forgotten. This is in part because Fregosi spent his career toiling for teams that were mediocre at best. In 1964 he had one of the two or three best seasons by a shortstop in the decade—he put up a 141 OPS+ and ranked third in the league in WAR—but the Angels won just 82 games and Fregosi finished thirteenth in the MVP voting.
For the decade, though he led shortstops only in triples, his year-to-year brilliance (he made five All-Star teams in the decade and won the 1967 AL Gold Glove) wins out.
Left field: Frank Robinson
It was before the 1966 season that Robinson—famously derided as “an old 30” by Reds’ owner Bill DeWitt—was traded to the Orioles. For the decade to that point, The Judge already had won the 1961 NL MVP (leading the Reds to the World Series that year), had nearly 1,000 hits and only his all-’60s outfield mates had more home runs in the National League.
As we all know, though, Robinson was, if anything, a young 30. He promptly won the 1966 AL MVP and was, arguably, the best American Leaguer not named Yastrzemski the rest of the decade.
Center field: Willie Mays
You might remember that I said that WAR ranks Yastrzemski’s 1967 as the best of the decade. Well, the next four seaons are all owned by Willie Mays. In fact, they are consecutive: 1962-1965. During those years—in which Mays somehow not only won one MVP but also managed to finish as low as sixth in the balloting—he averaged more than 45 home runs and a .998 OPS, doing it while playing in Candlestick Park.
|As I’ve said, great hitters–like Robinson–get statues (US Presswire)|
Overall, Mays is in the top five for the decade in home runs, runs, RBI, and OPS. MVP voters might not have recognized his greatness, but there’s no question he belongs in center field on this team.
Right field: Hank Aaron
There are a lot of ways to define how consistently excellent Hank Aaron was in the 1960s. You can point to the similarities of his 1960, 1965 and 1969 seasons (7.9, 7.8 and 8.0 WAR, respectively) or you can note that he fell under 30 home runs in a season just twice in the decade, one of which came during the pitchers’ paradise season of 1968.
Perhaps the clearest measure is this, though: among all players during the 1960s, Aaron is second in home runs, first in runs, second in hits, third in doubles, first in RBI and even fifth in stolen bases. Mays’ peak is just ahead of Aaron’s—as is overall value for the decade—but no one was year-in, year-out excellent like Bad Henry.
Starting pitchers: Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning
I don’t suppose people often think of Juan Marichal as the best pitcher of the 1960s. His performance was, for lack of a better term, less sexy than that of guys like Gibson or Koufax. But the simple truth is that no one had more wins—no one is even close, really—or more shutouts. Only Koufax had a better ERA+, and Marichal pitched nearly 750 more innings. No one may think of Marichal as the defining ace of the decade, but there is definitely a case to be made.
Of course, the next two men in the rotation have a pretty good case of their own. One could argue that no pitcher has had a better season since Gibson’s 1968, and the list of contenders—which includes names like Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez—is pretty brief. Gibby was no one-year wonder though, his 41 shutouts is just behind Marichal’s total and no one had more strikeouts in the decade.
Speaking of strikeouts, we come to Sandy Koufax, who put away more than nine and a half hitters per nine innings that way, the best number for the decade. I spent some time trying to decide how to explain how great Koufax was during his mid-’60s prime, and eventually came to the simplest way: for the decade only two pitchers had more WAR than Koufax. And this is despite Koufax retiring after the 1966 season. In other words, seven years of Sandy Koufax was, by at least one measure, better than a full decade of not only two of his all-decade rotation mates but also pitchers like Sam McDowell and Jim Kaat. And that’s not even getting into that Koufax earned a huge percentage of his value during his 1963-66 peak.
Slotting in behind Koufax—per usual—is Don Drysdale. Actually the innings leader for the decade, and winner of more games than anyone save Marichal and Gibson, Drysdale may have spent most of his career overshadowed by his left-handed rotation mate but he was an ace in his own right.
Similarly, Jim Bunning’s political career, especially its end (when his own party did everything short of locking him in a closet so he could not run for reelection) has overshadowed his career as a major leaguer. Bunning is also hurt by his somewhat pedestrian career numbers—he has fewer wins than names like Dennis Martinez and David Wells—and his status as a below-average Hall of Famer. Nonetheless, in the 1960s Bunning got the job done like few others, and whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame or no, he belongs in this spot.
Relief pitcher: Hoyt Wilhelm
In 1960, Hoyt Wilhelm was 37 years old. He had already pitched nearly a decade in the majors, doing so well enough to earn, of course, the reliever spot on the 1950s All-Decade team. Even throwing the knuckleball, it seemed reasonable to believe that Wilhelm’s best days were behind him.
Instead, “Old Sarge”—the nickname came from his World War II rank, of course—rattled off a series of brilliant performances. For the decade Wilhelm’s ERA was just 2.16 and he pitched to an ERA under one six times. His performance in the decade is also notable for reflecting his differing usage as relievers became more common. Though partly based on his age, for the 1960s Wilhelm had 152 saves; the decade prior he had just 59.
Manager: Walter Alston
For maybe the first time ever, picking a manager was the hardest part of this team. The Yankees won five pennants in the decade, but did it with three different managers. The Cardinals won two titles and three pennants but had two skippers themselves. The title then falls to Walter Alston.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean Alston earned the title merely by being the best of bad choices. The winner of more than 2,000 career games, four World Series—including two in the ’60s—and three other pennants, Alston guided the Dodgers for almost a quarter century. Under his stewardship in the ‘60s, the team posted four seasons of 90 or more wins in addition to their two titles. Some managers never achieve so much in their whole career, so Alston’s spot is well-deserved.