Friday, March 12, 2021

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…Philadelphia. In 1930.

 From the genius intellect - and challenged computer - of HoraceClarke66...

Initially, I was going to write that the Yankees’ 2021 campaign is shaping up to be a lot like their 1965 season when, like the Deacon’s Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, the greatest dynasty in sports history suddenly fell apart.


Sure, that 1965 team featured a once-great catcher whose game completely deteriorated, a shortstop who made nearly three times as many errors as he hit home runs, and a pair of larger-than-life sluggers who spent 156 games on the DL between them, and who would never really be the same again.


Hmm…sound familiar???


But I kid, I kid! 


The catcher in question, Elston Howard, still hit .233 despite injury and age, an Everestian peak for a certain receiver who batted all of .147 last year. The shortstop also had a disabling injury, and one half of the two giants, at least, went to remain among the league leaders in most hitting categories—and still played 144 games a year.


The 1965 Yankees were just extremely snake-bit—which is not surprising, I guess, coming off what was essentially an unmatched, 45-year winning streak.


Above all, even after the ruinous, Opening Day injury to Jim Bouton—the same day, in a freezing Bloomington, Minnesota, that Ellie got hurt—those 1965 Yankees had a starting rotation of Whitey Ford, Mel Stottlemyre, Al Downing, and Bill Stafford, and a pretty solid bullpen to go with it.


They had a team ERA of 3.28, only good for 5th in the AL in those pitching-mad days—but still ranked first overall in the league, according to Baseball Reference (Don’t ask.). 


Despite all the certain injuries and meltdowns in this summer to come, give the 2021 Yankees a pitching staff that good and I would rate them even money for that elusive ring no. 28.


Not gonna happen.


What this year’s Yankees’ squad is looking fair to emulate is 1930 Philadelphia. No, not the world champion Athletics from that season, one of the greatest teams ever built, but their poor cousins, the Phillies.


The Phils finished dead last in the National League that year, with a 52-102 record—despite hitting .315 as a team, and scoring 944 runs. 


Their stars included Chuck Klein, who had 107 extra-base hits, drove in 170 runs, and batted .386; Lefty O’Doul, the irrespressible San Franciscan who came up originally as a Yankee and batted. 383; and the long forgotten Pinky Whitney (117 RBI, .342). 


You even had such names not-to-conjure with as Bernie Friberg, Monk Sherlock, and Harry McCurdy coming off the bench, and hitting .341, .324, and .331, respectively.


Being a Phillie, it seemed, meant never having to go without a hit.


So what happened? How did this team manage to end up dead last, 50 games below .500?


Partly, the statistics deceive us, as this was at the apogee of the lively ball era.  Incredibly enough, the Phillies finished only 4th in runs scored and 2nd in batting in 1930—or maybe not so incredibly, as the entire National League batted .303. 


Partly, it was the gloves that go clank in the night (or at least the afternoon). The 1930 Phillies committed 239 errors, and even though scorers handed out errors like free office popcorn in those days, they still ranked last in the NL in fielding. 


Partly, it seems to have been due to their home ballpark, the fabulous Baker Bowl, a literally decaying bandbox right next to the Reading railyards, with a 281-foot shot to the rightfield foul pole—and a 60-foot high wall there covered with a huge, tin sign for Lifebuoy soap.

 (The sign read, “The Phillies Use It: Lifebuoy”—leading to the inevitable rejoinder, “Yeah, and they still stink!”)


Klein, O’Doul, and first baseman Don Hurst (.327, .923 OPS) were all lefties, and at home the Phillies were almost a .500 team. It was a different story on the road, where they went 17-60.


But there was yet another reason having to do with why the team was so bad. What was it again…?


Oh, right! No pitching. Philly’s ERA that year was 6.71, or almost a run-and-a-half a game higher than that of the next worst staff.


Huh. Who does that remind you of? 


ranger_lp said...

When CBS bought the Yankees, that was the nail in the coffin until George bought the team.

HoraceClarke66 said...

Well, in fairness, ranger, CBS was sort of hedged in by the rules baseball had just instituted to ensure "parity."

MLB was just instituting a draft—two drafts, actually—and most of the teams joined scouting combines. The extensive networks of scouts and regular people the Yanks had relied on from all over the country dissolved, and the club reduced its farm teams to the smallest number in its history.

CBS DID hire somebody they thought was a great baseball man: Lee MacPhail, son of the "genius," Larry, and somebody who had just won the ML Executive of the Year Award from The Sporting News, for building the Orioles' 1966 champions. MacPhail did build the Yankees back into a winning team for most of his tenure—even a mild contender by the end.

But he wasn't the baseball genius they needed to transform the team through the draft. And CBS didn't really get the potential of the country's greatest sports team on the country's most-watched network.

Much of baseball was horrified by them buying the Yankees. They figured the combination would lead to a synergy (though they didn't use that word then) that would make our pinstripers overwhelming.

But CBS never made any attempt to make this happen. They even left most Yankees games on Ch. 11; they didn't want to break up their winning, primetime lineups for what was then a declining sport.

In part, this was because the liberal federal government actually enforced the anti-trust laws then. But it was also because the main goal of CBS was just to "diversify." Around the same time, CBS picked up the Fender guitar company and the road show of "Hello Dolly." They cost about the same as the Yankees.

The great break that George S. got was that, soon after he bought the Yanks, the rules changed. And while Steinbrenner didn't know much about baseball, The Last Barnum understood how to promote a team in New York. He brought in incredibly effective free agents—at least at first—and thanks to his Cleveland pick-up, Gabe Paul, the rest was history.