The virtual 1956 New York Yankees (Part 1)

The New York Yankees of the 1950s are rightfully known as one of the elite dynasties in sports history. They didn’t win the pennant every single year, but they came doggone close, grabbing the American League flag in 14 of the 16 seasons from 1949 through 1964. The Bronx Bombers in that era had it all, from an inner-circle all-time great at his peak (Mickey Mantle), flanked by two additional slam-dunk Hall of Famers (Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford), to one of the most brilliant field managers in history (Casey Stengel).

The entire operation was orchestrated by one of the most brilliant general managers in history (George Weiss), who leveraged his second-to-none farm system along with razor-sharp trading skill to tirelessly refresh the roster, ensuring that the core of superstars was more than adequately supported, and that the creative genius filling out the lineup card never ran out of good choices.

In short, the mid-’50s Yankees were nearly a flawless baseball machine, relentlessly churning out victories and championships, year after year. It seems difficult to imagine that they could have been much better than they were. But the truth is, they could have.

Excellent though he was, Weiss was human, and his stewardship of the Yankee juggernaut included a misstep here and there. We can apply the rules of the game we’ve played several times before—we can’t invent any transactions that didn’t actually take place, but we can erase some that did—and the exercise reveals how a quartet of trades Weiss executed in the early-to-mid 1950s cost the Yankees significant talent.

In particular, the 1956 edition—as it stands, perhaps the best Yankees team within the long line of classics in that decade, a lavishly-finned, whitewall-tired, V-8-powered beauty of a ballclub—could plausibly have been nearly invincible.

What might have been: Element No. 1

Aug. 29, 1951: The Yankees traded pitcher Lew Burdette and $50,000 cash to the Boston Braves for pitcher Johnny Sain.

This deal was, of course, more of a purchase than a trade. Fifty grand was a whole lot of money in those days, and Burdette, 24 years old and toiling away in his third season at the Triple-A level, didn’t project as much more than a journeyman. Then as now, to be a serious prospect a young pitcher had to throw hard, and Burdette, well, didn’t throw hard.

One presumes the Braves didn’t have particularly high expectations for the young right-hander, but considered him acceptable compensation (when accompanying the big bag of cash) for Sain, their onetime ace who was now, at 33, clearly in decline. Once arriving in New York, Sain would be adroitly deployed by Stengel in starter-reliever swingman mode, and the veteran would rebound to provide three fine years to the Yankees. All in all it was an eminently sensible transaction on Weiss’s part, that delivered exactly what he’d hoped.

However, there was one joker in the deck: Burdette, the unremarkable soft-tosser, would surprisingly blossom into a big-time control-artist star. In various seasons he would lead the National League in complete games, shutouts, innings, wins, and ERA, racking up a record of 157-95 between 1953 and 1961. As good as Sain was for the Yankees, Burdette would have been vastly better.

Let’s suppose Weiss hadn’t dealt away Lew Burdette, and he was a member of the Yankees’ pitching staff in 1956.

What might have been: Element No. 2

May 3, 1952: The Yankees traded outfielders Jackie Jensen and Archie Wilson, pitcher Spec Shea, and infielder Jerry Snyder to the Washington Senators for outfielder Irv Noren and infielder Tom Upton.

The term “Golden Boy” could hardly be applied to anyone more accurately than Jackie Jensen. Blonde, handsome, swift, graceful and powerful—born in the Golden State, in the city of the Golden Gate—he seemed beyond mundane reality, instead an implausibly-named hero of juvenile sports fiction. When the Yankees purchased Jensen from the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in October of 1949, the 22-year-old had:

{exp:list_maker}Pitched for the University of California Golden Bears team that won the 1947 College World Series
Starred as an All-American halfback as well for Cal, playing in the East-West Shrine Game and the Rose Bowl
Married his high school sweetheart, Zoe Ann Olsen, winner of 13 national diving titles and two Olympic medals {/exp:list_maker}The world was young Mr. Jensen’s oyster. Though he’d been a bigger standout in college football than baseball, when he opted to pursue a career in professional baseball, few doubted that stardom awaited him.

Jensen believers clearly included the Oaks, who’d won the pennant in the highly competitive and largely independent PCL in 1948 (managed by The Old Perfesser himself), and yet not only signed Jensen, but despite his inexperience installed him as their primary right fielder for 1949. (PCL clubs often farmed out green prospects to lower minor leagues, as the Oaks had in that period with a young infielder named Billy Martin.) And Jensen’s believers clearly included Weiss, who purchased Jensen from the Oaks at the conclusion of the ’49 season even though the rookie had produced just a .261 average (in a league that hit .269) and nine home runs in 125 games for Oakland, while leading PCL outfielders with 16 errors.

Weiss’s faith in Jensen was further demonstrated by the fact that instead of assigning the raw youngster to the vast Yankees farm system for seasoning, Weiss promoted him directly to the major league roster for 1950. And Weiss kept Jensen in the majors for the full ’50 season, despite the fact that Stengel obviously didn’t see him as ready to be of much use, giving Jensen just 78 plate appearances in 45 games, often as a pinch-runner and/or defensive replacement, while the Golden Boy struggled to hit .171.

Yet even this was evidence of just how impressive a prospect Jensen was: though he hadn’t yet developed professional proficiency with the bat, his all-around athleticsm was such that he could contribute in the field and on the bases. Think about this: appearing as a baserunner perhaps 20-something times for the Yankees in 1950, Jensen stole four bases in four attempts—bear in mind that in the entire American League season of 1950, involving more than 15,000 baserunners, only 278 bags were swiped; just four players stole as many as 10, and 15 steals led the league.

In 1951, Weiss finally opted to give Jensen some more minor league seasoning, but not a lot: he was sent to the Yankees’ Triple-A Kansas City Blues affiliate in the American Association for 42 games. There Jensen still didn’t display much capacity to hit for average, producing a so-so .263 mark, but power emerged with nine homers in 160 at-bats.

This prompted a recall to the big leagues, and Jensen began to show that he was more than just a set of shiny tools: over 58 games and 168 at-bats for the bats for the Yankees in 1951, deployed in signature Stengel fashion as a rotating center fielder/left fielder, the 24-year-old Jensen hit a robust .298 with 8 home runs, on top of eight-for-10 base stealing. Moreover, for the first time in his professional career Jensen’s defensive results included more assists (six) than errors (three). His improvement was dramatic, and the projected arc suggested that the Yankees were set to enjoy the glittering stardom of the best Bay Area outfielder since that DiMaggio fellow.

But Weiss had other ideas. Scarcely a couple of weeks into the 1952 season, he swung the deal we see above. Most of it was various degrees of fluff; the gist was simply Jensen for Irv Noren. For his part, Noren was a fine ballplayer, a good defensive outfielder and a solid line-drive hitter. He would deliver several useful seasons to the Yankees in a fourth outfielder/platoon regular role.

But Noren was two-and-a-half years older than Jensen, and more importantly, good as Noren was, his talent didn’t approach Jensen’s. Once away from the Yankees Jensen got his first chance to play every day in the majors, and in that very first season he made the All-Star team. Over the course of the decade, year after year he proved one of the better all-around performers in the game, even capturing an MVP award. It isn’t clear what Weiss’s reasoning was in swapping Jensen for Noren, but in any case the Yankees would have been far better off holding on to the Golden Boy.

Let’s assume Weiss had thought better of it, and Jackie Jensen was still in pinstripes in 1956.

What might have been: Element No. 3

Dec. 16, 1953: The Yankees traded first basemen Vic Power and Don Bollweg, outfielder Bill Renna, infielder Jim Finigan, catcher Jim Robertson, and pitcher Johnny Gray to the Philadelphia Athletics for first basemen Eddie Robinson and Tom Hamilton, pitcher Harry Byrd, infielder Loren Babe, and outfielder Carmen Mauro.

A curious detail pertains to the run of sensational Yankee ballclubs that swept to five straight pennant-and-World-Series championships from 1949 through 1953: after Weiss sold Jack Phillips to Pittsburgh in August of 1949, the GM virtually never included a right-handed-batting first baseman on the roster.

Stengel, in his signature fashion, never went with a full-time regular at the position in those years; he weaved Tommy Henrich, Dick Kryhoski, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Johnny Hopp, Don Bollweg, and even Irv Noren into the mix, yet all of them were left-handed batters.

Stengel was platooning at first base, for sure, but he wasn’t doing it on the lefty-righty basis. Surely the Yankees were vulnerable to a tough southpaw, and with the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium, surely they faced a lot of them. One has to presume that Stengel could have made use of a good right-handed-hitting first baseman in those years, yet Weiss provided him with none.

And, at least in the latter years of this period, it certainly wasn’t the case that no good right-handed-batting first basemen were available to the Yankees. In both 1952 and 1953, the organization featured not one, but two dazzling young right-handed batting first base candidates performing at the Triple-A level: Bill Skowron hit .341 and .318 for Kansas City in those seasons (including 31 league-leading homers in ’52), and Vic Power was also in the Blues lineup, hitting .331 and a league-leading .349, leading the league as well in doubles and triples in ’52, and in hits in ’53.

Obviously, both Skowron and Power were potential stars. Skowron clearly had more home run power, and looked as though he might become one of the game’s great sluggers, but Power was superior in several other aspects, most especially his vastly better defensive aptitude, including versatility—it was Power’s extraordinary adaptibility that allowed Kansas City to get both of those bats in the lineup on a regular basis.

Power wasn’t limited to first base (where he was brilliant), but performed quite well at third base, the outfield, and even second base. Indeed, this unique aspect of Power’s game would seem to make him a natural fit for Stengel’s tinkering managerial style. Moreover, the odd dimensions of Yankee Stadium, with its vast open space in left-center field, would favor a right-handed line drive hitter such as Power more than a flyball hitter such as Skowron.

Yet neither Power nor Skowron was promoted to the majors for as much as a single inning in either 1952 or 1953. And in August of ’53, Weiss made perhaps his strangest move of all: at last he decided that Stengel could use a right-handed-hitting first baseman after all, but instead of giving the call to Power or Skowron, he reached all the way down to Double-A and called up Gus Triandos, a 22-year-old slow-footed, power-hitting catcher. Stengel deployed Triandos in 12 games at first base down the stretch in ’53, but the big catcher wasn’t yet ready to help, as he put up just a .157 average in 51 at-bats.

The following off-season, Weiss packed Power off to the A’s as the key ingredient in the big trade we see above, and Skowron was finally promoted to the Yankees’ big league roster for 1954. “Moose” would, of course, prove to be an outstanding big league hitter—though his output was indeed significantly inhibited by Yankee Stadium, as in his nine-season tenure with New York, Skowron hit 60 home runs at home and 105 on the road.

Power would deliver a dozen-year major league career, providing high-average, moderate-power hitting along with splendid defense at first base and almost every other position, but none of it would be in a Yankees uniform. Thus we were never able to find out just how Stengel, in his elaborate platooning schemes, might have made creative use of Power’s multiplicity of skills.

The reason for this is, of course, all too sadly clear: as noted by many commentators at the time and since, there was an odious racial dimension to the Yankee organization’s refusal to promote and keep Power. The late Jules Tygiel’s masterpiece on the sport’s integration period, Baseball’s Great Experiment, vividly details the manner in which Power’s combination of black skin and brash personality (including his rumored dating of white women) prompted the Yankees to decide that he wouldn’t be the player to break their color line.

Let’s assume the Yankees had overcome their fear of Vic Power’s race, appreciated him for the very good ballplayer he was, and included him on their 1956 roster.

What might have been: Element No. 4

Apr. 11, 1954: The Yankees traded outfielders Bill Virdon and Emil Tellinger and pitcher Mel Wright to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Enos Slaughter.

By this point, reaching into the National League and grabbing a fading star had become pretty much an annual rite for Weiss. In 1949 he’d purchased Johnny Mize from the Giants, and in 1950 it was Johnny Hopp from the Pirates. The following season brought the acquisition of Johnny Sain from the Braves (see above), then in ’52 Weiss sent a package of players and cash to the Reds in exchange for Ewell Blackwell (at last, someone not named “Johnny”).

The results hadn’t been uniformly positive: Mize and Sain had delivered useful service, but Hopp and Blackwell both proved to be just about washed up. Nevertheless, after somehow not pulling off such a deal through all of 1953, on the eve of Opening Day in ’54 Weiss executed this one.

The logic of the transaction was clear enough: Weiss expected that the multi-talented 38-year-old Slaughter still had enough in the tank to be an effective element in Stengel’s complex outfield platoon. As it turned out, Slaughter would suffer a broken wrist in ’54 and make only a modest contribution, and then be traded away in early 1955 (though he’d eventually be reacquired by Weiss, and perform well off the Yankee bench in 1957-58). And the other half of the wager was that none among the package of prospects shipped to the Cardinals would prove a diamond in the rough, along the lines of Lew Burdette.

Alas, another gem would indeed emerge. Virdon, 22 years old and a brilliant defensive center fielder, had been so-so with the bat in the Yankees’ organization, but suddenly broke through at the plate for the Cardinals’ Triple-A Rochester farm club in 1954. The next year he was the NL Rookie of the Year, and followed it up with an even better season in ’56. Subsequently Virdon’s hitting would recede, though his first-rate glovework kept him a big league regular for a decade.

Let’s assume Weiss had been a bit more patient with him, and Bill Virdon was patrolling the Yankee outfield in 1956.

Next time

Just what manner of bombing would be going on in the Bronx in 1956?

References & Resources
Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 294-298.

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Comments

  1. Bob Evans said...

    Fine article as always, Steve.

    WRT Jensen, it seems quite possible that he was rushed not so much because he was seen by all and sundry as can’t-miss as to keep him from trying his luck at football.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    Very good point regarding the football issue.  Although it’s just another way of saying it:  he was such a prized prospect that both the Oaks and Yankees chose to rush him rather than risk losing him.

  3. John Fox said...

    excellent article, with Jackie Jensen and Lew Burdette especially the ‘56 Yanks would have been unstoppable.  I myself had thrown around the idea of submitting an article with a similar theme, an all-star team of Yankee castoffs from the Stengel-Weiss era, players who never had a season as starters with the Yankees and the above 4 would all have made it as well as Gus Triandos, Jerry Lumpe, Woody Held, Deron johnson and Bob Cerv

  4. Gerry said...

    I don’t know about 1956, but the Yankees sure would have been happier if they’d had Burdette in October, 1957.

    Burdette regularly shows up on lists of the luckiest pitchers in baseball history, pitchers whose won-lost records are better than you’d expect on the basis of ERA+. It helped more than a little having Aaron and Mathews as teammates.

  5. Thomas matteucci said...

    Very interesting article but the Yankees of Mickey, hitey and Yogi were my favorite team odf al time. A lot of these trades were made just to make room for another of the enormous talent pool the Yankees had. I just wonder how good they would have been if Mantle had good knees, If the boys of summer didn’t party all night long etc. When the money was on the line no team was better except maybe the 1920’s Yankees.

  6. Steve Treder said...

    “an all-star team of Yankee castoffs from the Stengel-Weiss era, players who never had a season as starters with the Yankees and the above 4 would all have made it as well as Gus Triandos, Jerry Lumpe, Woody Held, Deron johnson and Bob Cerv”

    As well as Hal Smith, Clint Courtney, Lou Berberet, Lou Skizas, Jim Finigan, Jerry Lynch, Bob Keegan, Russ Snyder, Herb Plews, Jim Greengrass, Duane Pillette, and Bob Porterfield.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    That’s right.  Not just the Yankees, but for every big league team, airplane travel was still quite rare in the early ‘50s.  Remember that all of the cities were still within pretty close distance, and air travel was still very expensive and not especially reliable.  It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1950s, when jet aircraft became more widely used by airlines (and of course in the National League, when teams had to take trips all the way out to California and back), that air travel began to be the typical mode for MLB teams.

  8. Ian said...

    Bruce – I read a book by Mickey Mantle years ago (“My Favorite Summer: 1956”) and I seem to recall Mantle saying that the team’s travel secretary in those days was an older guy who preferred to book them on trains rather than planes. He would only have them fly if it was absolutely necessary. If that’s true, then I doubt Jensen’s fear of flying was much of a factor in the Yankees’ decision.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    Steve, well done.

    How much of a factor do you think was Jensen’s fear of flying in curtailing his career? Did the Yankees consider that at all in making their decision?

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