Saturday, April 21, 2018

Epic Yankees Flameout Seasons of the Past, Chapter Four!

You didn't ask for it, but you got it!

Season number four: 1959.

Yankees 79-75, 3rd in an 8-team league

After winning 9 of the previous 10 pennants, the defending world champion Yankees were a clear favorite. But nobody told the White Sox. Or they did tell them, but they refused to listen. Or something.

Background:

During their amazing, 1947-1964 run, the greatest in North American sports history,* the Yanks lost out on the last weekend of the year to a terrific, world champion Indians team in 1948, and were outpaced again in 1954—despite winning 103 games—by a Cleveland squad that did some all-time champion bottom-feeding, going 89-21 against the last five teams in the AL to set what was then the American League record with 111 wins.

In other words, they were just beaten out by great teams. But then came 1959...

*No, we don't count the Celtics, who were playing in a primitive, tiny NBA with franchises in places like Rochester and Syracuse, where you didn't even have to finish first to win it all, which was the case with the last 3 of the Celts' 11 championships in 13 years, and when nobody was sure if the league champion was as good as the Harlem Globetrotters. So there!

What happened:

Ennui? A pause to reload?

Hard to say, exactly. This Yankees team really tanked, finishing 15 games behind what was a middling Pale Hose assemblage, and never contending. They had dropped all the way to last by the end of May, and only moved back over .500 in mid-September.

Sure, veterans such as Gil McDougald, Hank Bauer, and even Yogi Berra were finally starting to show their age, while such potential replacements as Norm Siebern, Johnny Blanchard, and Clete Boyer were not quite there yet, and highly touted young players such as Andy Carey and Jerry Lumpe gave indisputable proof that they were never going to be what was hoped for them.

Moose Skowron missed over half of what was shaping up to be a terrific season with injuries. And Mickey Mantle, by nearly all statistical measures, showed that he was once again the best, all-around player in the American League—as he would be for an astounding 10 straight years, 1955-1964. But he had already scaled such amazing heights at age 27 that his 31-homer, .904 OPS, 21-steals-in-24 attempts season was viewed as a huge disappointment, and Yankees fans booed him relentlessly.

The pitching was all right, with crazy, alcoholic Ryne Duren wasting his best season out of the pen, Art Ditmar throwing well, and Whitey Ford still winning 16 games in what was (a little bit) of an off-year for him.

But as was his wont with the Yankees, Bullet Bob Turley suffered through arm miseries after a superb season the year before, going only 8-11. Other young heroes of year just past—Johnny Kucks and Tom Sturdivant—demonstrated that their arms were blown out for good (hmm, could there be something to that pitch limit stuff??).

And once again, Don Larsen—still just 28—failed to emerge despite a good season and excellent World Series in 1958.

"You look at him out there, and he always looks like he's gonna be great," Casey Stengel caustically told the writers, "but he ain't."

Casey's own behavior had become a matter of concern, as he had started to nod off in the dugout late in doubleheaders, and become cranky and impatient with young players. Del Webb and Dan Topping, the Yankees owners, started to plot his demise, desperate not to lose out on that great, up-and-coming talent on the bench beside him...Ralph Houk.

Bright spots:

A number of the young guys—Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Siebern, and Ralph Terry—showed that they were clearly ready to step up and start producing. Elton Howard showed that he was ready to take over Yogi's position as Best Catcher in Baseball.

Beloved vet Bobby Shantz had another good year out of the bullpen and spot starting, as did almost universally hated young guy, Jim Coates.

And a new guy acquired from KC to fill in at third showed that maybe that wasn't his best position, but Hector Lopez, picked up for Lumpe, Sturdivant, and Kucks, hit 22 homers and drove in 93 runs on the year, and showed that he was ready, willing, and able to fill in just about anywhere. He would be the Yanks' consummate utility man for years to come.

Oh, and filling in for the Glass Moose on Opening Day was another player who had lingered in the Yankees' farm system for six years, belting 185 homers there, showing some power but not quite making it in two previous, brief stints with the club.

In the Yanks' opening win in Fenway, though, he was one for three with an RBI single, and fielded 11 balls cleanly at first. Yes, clearly Marv Throneberry looked like the Yankees' first baseman of the future.

What happened next:

The collapse in 1959 convinced many experts that the Yankees were a spent force.

The Go-Go White Sox team lost the Series to a very mediocre Dodgers squad that had somehow beat out more talented Giants and Braves teams, in one of the tawdriest World Series ever played. But Chicago had a host of good-looking players already on the roster: Johnny Callison, Norm Cash, Earl Battey.

All would be traded for various piles of magic beans. While the Yankees used their own kids and their "farm team" in KC to reload.

GM George Weiss brought in a young man named Roger Maris from the Athletics, in exchange for Throneberry, Bauer, Larsen, and Siebern (not as one-sided a trade as it now appears; Siebern was a terrific young outfielder for several years), and bought a nifty little reliever named Luis Arroyo from Cincinnati.

A revived Casey Stengel booted the team home with a great stretch run in 1960—the first of five straight pennants, which would give the Yankees 15 in 18 years. They would average 101 wins during those five years, looking more dominant than ever.

But after a flukey, Game 7 loss to the Pirates, both Casey and Weiss got the boot, one of the most foolish and callous moves the team ever made.