The virtual 1956 New York Yankees (Part 2)

Last time, we posed the scenario that if General Manager George Weiss had thought better of pulling the trigger on four trades he executed between 1951 and 1954, then the ballclubs the New York Yankees were fielding in the mid-1950s—which actually were, of course, exquisitely good—would have been significantly better than they were. In particular, the 1956 edition would be spectacular. Now we’re ready to see just exactly how spectacular.

Burdette

The first deal we erased was the Yankees’ dispatch of the then-little-regarded right-hander Lew Burdette to the Braves, along with a large cash payment, in exchange for the veteran Johnny Sain. As we observed, this trade was sensible on Weiss’ part, and given that Sain provided New York with three-plus years of effective pitching, it delivered the Yankees exactly what they hoped. However, the cost turned out vastly greater than anticipated, as Burdette surprised everyone (most certainly including the Braves) by rapidly developing in his mid-20s from a triple-A mediocrity into a first-rate major league ace.

In our scenario, with Burdette rather than Sain on board, in 1952 and ’53 the Yankees’ staff would be just about as strong as it actually was, given that Burdette’s results almost exactly matched Sain’s. But in 1954 they would diverge, as the 36-year-old Sain retreated into bullpen-only mode while Burdette stepped forward as a genuine workhorse-starter stud. By 1956 Sain was retired, but Burdette would be standing tall alongside Whitey Ford at the forefront of the Yankees rotation.

Jensen

We also nixed Weiss’ giving up on “Golden Boy” Jackie Jensen at the age of 25. Fully developing his well-rounded game in the New York outfield instead of Washington’s and Boston’s, Jensen would prove to be a more useful component than Irv Noren, the guy for whom he was traded, in manager Casey Stengel’s ever-evolving platoon program. And as Jensen matured he would shoulder aside the veteran Hank Bauer to assume the role of primary right fielder, with the over-30 Bauer sliding over into the platoon mix in left.

A glance at Jensen’s actual stats provides a vivid lesson on the significance of park effects. In 1952-53, playing his home games in Washington’s Griffith Stadium (with its ultra-spacious 405-foot left field line), the right-handed-batting Jensen was limited to 10 home runs a year. Traded to the Red Sox, in Fenway Park Jensen immediately emerged as a 20- to 30-homer producer, clearly benefitting from the cozy presence of the Green Monster.

No doubt, playing half the time in Yankee Stadium—not as forbidding an environment as Griffith, but possessing that 457-foot-deep canyon in left-center—Jensen wouldn’t have matched the home run figures he produced for Boston. But we shouldn’t read too much into it: The fact is that in Jensen’s seven years with the Red Sox, he hit 86 homers at home, but also 84 on the road. The mature Jensen was a particularly strong athlete, and his power stats were more than just a Fenway illusion.

Moreover, he was a fine all-around hitter, delivering not just home runs, but base hits of every variety, plus lots of walks and few strikeouts, in addition to his superb qualities as a baserunner and defender. While he wasn’t the equal of a Mickey Mantle or a Yogi Berra, with the Yankees Jensen would have taken his place alongside luminaries such as Tommy Henrich and Bob Meusel as one of the damn-near-greats within franchise lore.

Power

Remember that scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when Ludwig von Beethoven gets to see what he could do with an electronic synthesizer? I’ve always kind of thought that’s what Stengel would have been like with Vic Power on his roster: If ever there was a ballplayer perfectly suited to the Old Perfesser’s creative whimsy, it was the delightfully versatile Señor Pove.

The ebullient Puerto Rican had his limitations, most prominently a marked incapacity to draw walks. But along with his extraordinary defensive utility Power was a superior line-drive hitter, and as we noted last time, that kind of right-handed line drive production was quite well-suited to Yankee Stadium.

No doubt Stengel would have made clever use of Power in revolving counterpoint to multiple platoon partners, and from season to season Power would likely find himself handling different combinations of positions as Stengel, as only he could, artfully responded to dynamic situations. As for 1956, it seems likely that Power would emerge as the Yankees’ primary third baseman, in response to Andy Carey’s continuing regression as a hitter (a circumstance that in reality caused Stengel no end of frustration).

Virdon

The key youngster who Weiss surrendered in order to acquire Enos Slaughter from the Cardinals became primarily noted for his defensive excellence. But in his first couple of years in the majors—quite possibly, before his eyesight slightly deteriorated—Bill Virdon delivered some fine production with the bat as well. Given that Slaughter turned out to be of very little use to the Yankees in 1954 through ’56, in his place Virdon would have been a distinct improvement, stepping forward with his capacity to provide value in both halves of the inning.

There were any number of ways Stengel could weave Virdon into his intricate tapestry of a lineup: as a left-handed platoon bat, as a defensive replacement and as the center fielder on Mantle’s rare days off. Given the vast left-center expanse of Yankee Stadium, Virdon in left field would be particularly helpful, serving effectively as a second center fielder. In 1956, Virdon’s red-hot high-average hitting would propel him to the front of Stengel’s outfield platoon array.

The results

The most common starting lineup for our 1956 Yankees would likely be this one:

1. McDougald, ss
2. Virdon, lf
3. Jensen, rf
4. Mantle, cf
5. Berra, c
6. Skowron, 1b
7. Power, 3b
8. Martin, 2b
9. pitcher

And their stat sheet would probably look something like this:

  Pos                 Age   G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS OPS+
   1B   B. Skowron     25  134 464  82  143  21   6  23   98  50  60 .308 .382 .528  .910  142
 2B-SS  B. Martin      28  121 458  61  121  24   5   9   64  30  56 .264 .310 .397  .707   89
 SS-2B  G. McDougald   28  120 438  89  136  13   3  13   56  68  59 .311 .405 .443  .848  128
 3-1-2  V. Power       28  127 477  67  150  19   5  11   77  23  14 .314 .346 .444  .790  111
   RF   J. Jensen      29  148 549 114  164  20  11  16   90  86  39 .299 .394 .463  .856  129
   CF   M. Mantle#     24  150 533 139  188  22   5  52  146 112  99 .353 .464 .705 1.169  210
 LF-CF  B. Virdon*     25  126 387  77  128  16   7   9   51  30  47 .331 .379 .478  .857  129
   C    Y. Berra*      31  140 521  98  155  29   2  30  116  65  29 .298 .378 .534  .912  142

 LF-RF  H. Bauer       33   91 216  36   55   8   3  11   31  26  28 .255 .335 .472  .807  114
   3B   A. Carey       24   79 167  19   38   7   1   2   19  17  23 .228 .299 .317  .616   66
   1B   J. Collins*    33   71 131  20   28   2   2   3   18  16  18 .214 .299 .328  .628   68
   LF   B. Cerv        30   54 115  18   35   5   6   3   28  18  13 .304 .398 .530  .929  147
 2-S-3  J. Coleman     31   60 122  12   31   3   1   0   14   8  22 .254 .300 .295  .595   60
  C-LF  E. Howard      27   54 116  13   28   3   1   2   12   7  13 .241 .285 .336  .621   66
   SS   B. Hunter      28   39  75   9   21   3   4   0   11   2   4 .280 .299 .427  .726   93
   LF   N. Siebern*    22   18  32   5    7   0   1   1    4   4   8 .219 .306 .375  .681   82
   SS   T. Carroll     19   36  17  12    6   0   0   0    0   1   3 .353 .389 .353  .742  101

        Others                  44   7   10   2   0   0    4   3   9 .227 .277 .273  .549   48

        Pitchers               507  60  105  13   2   5   48  32 125 .207 .254 .270  .524   41

        Total                 5369 938 1549 210  65 190  887 598 669 .289 .360 .458  .818  111

        # Bats both
        * Bats left


        Pitcher
                      Age    G  GS  CG   IP   W   L  SV    H  HR  BB   SO   ERA ERA+
        L. Burdette    29   39  35  16  256  22   7   1  239  19  62  117  2.84  136
        W. Ford*       27   31  30  18  226  21   4   1  187  13  84  141  2.47  156
        D. Larsen      26   38  20   6  180  12   4   1  133  19  96  107  3.26  119
        B. Turley      25   27  19   4  119   7   3   1  123  12  91   83  4.92   79
        J. Kucks       22   34  16   5  112  10   4   0  107   9  31   38  3.62  107

        T. Sturdivant  26   32   9   3  118  13   5   5   96  10  37   85  3.13  123
        T. Byrne*      36   37   8   1  110   7   3   6  108   9  72   52  3.36  115
        M. McDermott*  27   23   9   0   87   3   5   0   85  10  47   38  4.24   91
        T. Morgan      26   41   0   0   71   7   6  11   74   2  27   20  4.16   93
        B. Grim        26   30   4   1   68   6   1   5   58   3  28   45  2.65  146

        Others              17   4   0   36   1   3   0   47   6  25   19  7.82   49

        Total                  154  54 1382 109  45  31 1257 112 600  745  3.42  113

        * Throws left

In a word: wow. While this isn’t quite a perfect team, it’s awfully close.

The pitching staff would be wonderfully co-achored by Burdette and Ford, but that’s just the beginning. Splendid depth would be provided by swingmen Don Larsen, Johnny Kucks, Tom Sturdivant, and Tommy Byrne, with right-handers Tom Morgan and Bob Grim providing solid bullpen work. There were only two downers: fireballer Bob Turley, who’d been a top-flight Yankees ace in 1955, suffered a severe off-year in ’56, and Mickey McDermott, who’d once been among the most exciting young southpaws in the game, had been backsliding for a while, and was a distinct disappointment upon his 1956 arrival in New York.

As for the hitting, it would be nothing less than world-class. This was Mantle at his stupendous Triple Crown-winning best, of course, and his supporting cast could hardly be better: not just the power bats of Berra, Jensen and Bill Skowron, but high-average hitting from top to bottom, with only one regular with a BA lower than .298. In more than half a century of baseball between 1939 and 1994, just a single major league club—the 1950 Red Sox—produced a better team average than the .289 we see here.

The actual ’56 Yankees set an American League record by clobbering 190 home runs—and this outfit matches that mark. No Yankees team since the 1930s scored as many runs as the major-league-leading-by-a-mile total of 938 we see here.

Shortstop Gil McDougald was among the all-around best in baseball at his position. The only member of the regular lineup who was less than a standout would be second baseman Billy Martin, and he was solid, particularly defensively. The exceptionally deep bench would provide Stengel ample secondary choices with both bat and glove, as everyone except rookie Norm Siebern and bonus baby Tommy Carroll would be quite fine if needed as a regular.

So …

One of the interesting aspects of the actual Yankees dynasty of the Stengel years was that within their amazing 10-pennants-in-12-seasons run, none of the individual ballclubs was especially dominant during the regular season. None of those pennant winners reached the 100-victory mark—indeed the irony was that the only Bronx Bomber team in that period that did, the 103-game-winning 1954 Yankees, finished a distant second to the league-record 111 triumphs of the ’54 Cleveland Indians. The Stengel-skippered Yanks always seemed to be the team that could readily find enough wins to capture the pennant, but precious few more than that.

Not so with these Bombers: They would have gone full nuclear on regular season opponents, with the megatonnage set at “overkill.” This win-loss record of 109-45 would be the second-best achieved by any Yankees team in the franchise’s storied history, coming oh-so-near the 110-44 mark of the legendary “Murderers’ Row” 1927 Yankees, generally considered the single greatest team in major league history. This 1956 Yankees edition would closely rank among the very most highly regarded ballclubs ever assembled.

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    “The Vic Power section needs an explanation of why he was traded. They were an all-white team and didn’t want a black player, especially because he was known to date white women.”

    Yes, that explanation was included in Part 1.

  2. John Fox said...

    yes, a truly awesome lineup, I would probably bat Mantle 3rd, with Yogi cleanup against righthanders and Jensen cleanup against lefties.  The 1956 lineup was pretty awesome the way it was in reality, scored 857 runs, 30 more than the ‘61 Yanks

  3. Steve Treder said...

    “I would probably bat Mantle 3rd, with Yogi cleanup against righthanders and Jensen cleanup against lefties.”

    Yeah, that would be sensible for sure.  The countervailing logic is that a high-walking hitter like Mantle—and even with all his HRs, he was walking more than twice as often as he homered in ‘56—would have the value of his walks diminished by batting with two outs and the bases empty, as a #3 hitter often does.  Of course, with as high-OBP guys as McDougald and Virdon ahead of him, the Yankees #3 hitter wouldn’t be batting with two outs and the bases empty, so what the heck.

    The most salient point is that a lineup like this would score a gazillion runs no matter what the order.  grin

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