1949 Casey at the Helm

The New York Yankees return to the top of the baseball world with the unlikely help of Casey Stengel, the animated manager whose previous, distant major league experience consisted of one losing season after another.

Casey Stengel foresaw nothing but success when he was given the New York Yankees’ managerial reins; his bosses upstairs were crossing their fingers that he would be right.

It seemed like the classic case of opposites attracting. At one end of the spectrum were the New York Yankees, the no-nonsense, cold-as-steel corporate baseball entity that considered anything less than a World Series championship to be an utter disgrace. At the other end was their new manager, Casey Stengel, a crusty-looking old man with a Vaudevillian sense of humor and a resume of big league managing that consisted of nine lower division finishes.

Disbelief ran a healthy course when news of Stengel’s hiring hit the papers. Boston sportswriter Dave Egan, who frequently targeted Stengel with a poison pen when he managed the Braves, sarcastically reflected the thoughts of many others when he wrote that Stengel’s hiring mathematically eliminated the Yankees from the 1949 American League pennant.

Yet when the season was done, the 58-year-old personification of a lovable shaggy dog who made everyone laugh would himself get the last laugh—with a whole lot more to follow.

Granted, Stengel had just won a pennant the year before—managing the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. But this was the majors, and these were the Yankees, even if they had become a collection of oft-injured, aging veterans. Yet after the Yankees placed third in 1948 under Bucky Harris—their fourth manager in three years—the proverbial Grim Reaper began to emerge from the fans and press, ready to declare death upon the Yankee dynasty. The arrival of Stengel begged reinforcement of that opinion; when The Sporting News asked over 200 sportswriters on whom they believed would win the AL pennant in 1949, only six picked the Yankees.

The list of Yankee injuries became so long and talked about, the front office decided to start an official tally as press release fodder; at season’s end, the count stood at 71.Stengel’s biggest fan in the Yankee organization was general manager George Weiss, who had to convince Yankee owners Dan Topping and Del Webb that underneath Stengel’s goofy persona lay an intense and very clear knowledge of the game. Weiss also argued that Stengel could never win at Brooklyn or Boston because they were clubs that, at the time, had limited muscle for Casey to work his magic with. The Yankees, he noted, had no such problem.

Those vast Yankee assets looked more and more like damaged goods as Stengel progressed through his first year at the wheel. No one seemed healthy. Worst off was Joe DiMaggio, whose slow recovery from offseason surgery to his right heel kept him indefinitely out of action through the spring. Only shortstop Phil Rizzuto could survive as the only everyday Yankee actually playing every dayRizzuto’s 153 games were distantly followed by second baseman Jerry Coleman, at 128. No other Yankee played more than 116.. The list of injuries became so long and talked about, the Yankee front office decided to start an official tally as press release fodder; at season’s end, the count stood at 71.

Through his years of managing, Stengel had embraced the concept of platooning, something he had learned playing for John McGraw and the New York Giants in the 1920s and that, even now, few other managers were taking very seriously. With the Yankee roster resembling the walking wounded, Stengel’s platooning was suddenly more of a necessity than a luxury. But it worked; the Yankees started in first place and stayed there into June. And then DiMaggio came back; his heel suddenly pain-free, the Yankee Clipper made for an explosively belated season debut when he clubbed four home runs and knocked in nine in a three-game sweep of the rival Red Sox at Boston.

At that point, the Red Sox—most everyone’s odds-on favorites to win the AL—appeared to have received the knockout blow, falling 12 games back of the Yankees by the Fourth of July. Yet they bounced back up and started punching away at the margin, winning 37 of their next 47 to keep the Yankees sweating. By late September, the Red Sox caught up and surpassed New York when they capped an 11-game win streak with their own three-game sweep of the Yankees—who had just lost DiMaggio againDiMaggio’s half-season of activity came with a $100,000 salary, which made him the first player ever to earn six figures in one season., this time to a stubborn bout with pneumonia.

The Red Sox thrived through a small cluster of star performers who packed enormous firepower, offsetting an otherwise inconsistent roster. Not surprisingly, Ted Williams led this short list by batting .342 while setting career highs with 43 home runs and 159 runs batted in. Shortstop Vern Stephens, in his second year removed from the woebegone St. Louis Browns, matched Williams RBI for RBI while smashing 39 homers of his own. On the mound, the Red Sox relied heavily down the stretch on a pair of pitchers who perhaps were the two most productive in the AL: Left-hander Mel Parnell, the league leader in wins (25) and earned run average (2.77); and right-hander Ellis Kinder, another refugee from the Browns, who won 23 while losing only six.

Boston held onto a one-game lead going into the season’s final contests—at New York. Things looked promising for the Red Sox in the first encounter when they quickly put four runs on the board and knocked Yankee starter Allie Reynolds into the showers. But reliever Joe Page shut the Red Sox down the rest of the way while the Yankees scratched and clawed their way back, eventually winning 5-4 with a pinch-hit solo home run by Johnny Lindell in the bottom of the eighth. In the winner-take-all finale the next day, the Yankees pulled away late and held off a ninth-inning rally to win, 5-3, and grab the AL pennant for Casey Stengel. It was an unbearable moment for the Red Sox; for the second straight year, their chance to snatch the pennant was rebuffed on the season’s final day.

As Stengel jigged for joy in triumph, he could save his biggest thanks for the one group of players that managed to stay healthy all year long: His starting rotation. Led by Vic Raschi (21 wins, ten losses) and Allie Reynolds (17-6), Stengel’s four main hurlers stayed resilient and effective all year long; when they did slip, Joe Page was often there to bail them out, recording a then-record 27 saves while winning 13 more.

Left eight games back in the dust from one of baseball’s most celebrated pennant races would be the defending champion Cleveland Indians, who fell back to Earth after their explosive success of the year before. But Bill Veeck made the most of it; in a memorable promotional stunt, the Indian owner held a pregame ceremony in which the team’s pennant hopes were “buried” in a mock funeral service.

Less remembered than the AL race—yet just as stunning—would be a battle for the National League every bit as intense, featuring two clubs that had developed a habit of fighting one another down to the wire: The Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Regrouping after a rocky 1948, the Dodgers were strengthened by a group of young players molding itself together as the famed “Boys of Summer” that would create the purest of Brooklyn baseball memories. Getting their first swing at everyday play would be center fielder Duke Snider, batting .292 with 23 home runs; Roy Campanella (.287, 22 homers), a short yet powerfully built catcher who followed Jackie Robinson as the Dodgers’ second big-time black star; and 22-year-old rookie pitcher Don Newcombe, another African-American who joined the clubNewcombe threw the first shutout by a NL pitcher making his debut since 1938. in late May and led the Dodgers with 17 wins.

Now the veteran guidance of the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson no longer sensed being the outsider he was two years earlier when he endured his harrowing baptism into the majors. The hunted now became the hunter, and Robinson let opposing teams know about it. His numbers on the year certainly spoke for themselves. Batting .342 with 16 homers, 124 RBIs and 37 stolen bases, Robinson’s impressive statistical package easily won him NL Most Valuable Player honors.

Jackie Robinson’s MVP performance in 1949 certainly gave legitimacy to advocates of baseball’s racial integration, but it was just the beginning of an impressive trend; starting with Robinson, 16 of the next 21 National League MVPs would be presented to African-Americans. In stark contrast, the American League—notoriously slow to integrate—gave only three of its MVP awards to blacks during this same time, the first of which wasn’t given out until the Yankees’ Elston Howard was rewarded in 1963.

For all of their rejuvenation, the Dodgers still spent much of the late summer trying to keep pace with the Cardinals, a veteran squad with an undeniable superstar of their own in Stan Musial. With marquee statistics—a .338 batting average, 36 homers and 123 RBIs—every bit the equal of Robinson’s, Musial helped fuel the tight Cardinal edge on Brooklyn all the way to the season’s final week, which they entered with a game and a half lead. Then they crashed. The Cardinals went to lowly Pittsburgh for two games. They lost both. Then they went to lowly Chicago for two more games. They lost those two as well. The Dodgers snagged the lead and had to sweat out an extra-inning triumph on the season’s last day at Philadelphia to avoid a second tie-breaking playoff against the Cardinals in four years.

As a team, St. Louis may have hit better (.277) and pitched better (3.44 ERA) than anyone else in the NL, but the numbers couldn’t translate into a pennant.

Dropping like a rock, the Boston Braves fell from first to under .500. The defending NL champs suffered from internal tension as players badly wanted manager Billy Southworth to be shown the exit door. In August, Brave management made good on their request.

Casey Stengel had been in the thick of the World Series thrice before as a player—most memorably with his home run theatrics for the Giants in 1923. Now he was ready to prove his championship mettle as a manager for the Yankees, an organization hoping to quiet the preseason critics into early hibernation.

The Yankees and Dodgers traded 1-0 results to begin the Series. A great pitching duel between Allie Reynolds and Don Newcombe in Game One went scoreless into the ninth, but Tommy Henrich—the Yankees’ most revered clutch hitter—resolved matters when he hit a walk-off solo shot. The Dodgers got even in Game Two on an early run scored by Jackie Robinson after he had doubled his way on.

In Game Three at Brooklyn, the Yankees again used late-inning heroics to break open the contest—and the Series—with three runs in the ninth to unlock a 1-1 tie. The Yankees breezed from there, scoring early and often enough at Ebbets Field to repel desperate comebacks by the Dodgers to win Games Four and Five, 6-4 and 10-6.

Off the bench, Johnny Mize ropes a two-run, ninth-inning single to right field at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to unlock a 1-1 tie in Game Three and give the Yankees control of a World Series they would win in five.

Stengel’s method of platooning overcame an anemic offense that batted .226. Joe DiMaggio’s .118 performance reflected his weakened condition as he continued to recover from his late-season illness. Yet the Dodgers hit only .210, and their pitching allowed too many Yankee rallies that made most of New York’s hits count.

Whether he was too old, too unqualified or too much of a buffoon, Casey Stengel weathered the storm of challenges from his critics and his team’s spotlighted injury list. Not only had he commandeered respect for himself, he helped restore a mighty franchise.

The doubters clung to the theory that Casey got lucky. Maybe the bias was starting to show; if so, they were likely to be more infuriated to learn that the New York Yankees’ most dominant era had just begun.

1950 baseball historyForward to 1950: Gee Whiz! The Philadelphia Phillies overcome decades of futility and embarrassment with a rare National League pennant.

1948 baseball historyBack to 1948: The Greatest Show in Cleveland Bill Veeck, the maverick owner of the Cleveland Indians, brings 'em through the gates with memorable attractions on and off the field.

1940s baseball historyThe 1940s Page: Of Rations and Spoils The return to a healthy economy and the breaking of the color barrier helps baseball reach an explosive new level of popularity—but not before enduring with America the hardship and sacrifice of World War II.

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They Were There: Charlie Silvera
Charlie SilveraCharlie Silvera discusses what it was like to be a career back-up to Yogi Berra, and on being a New York Yankee during the reign of Casey Stengel.

1949 Standings

National League
Brooklyn Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
Philadelphia Phillies
Boston Braves
New York Giants
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cincinnati Reds
Chicago Cubs
American League
New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Philadelphia Athletics
Chicago White Sox
St. Louis Browns
Washington Senators

1949 Postseason Results
World Series New York (AL) defeated Brooklyn (NL), 4-1.

It Happened in 1949

Hola Again, Amigos!
Three years after expelling 18 major leaguers for life because they jumped to the Mexican League, Commissioner Happy Chandler grants a pardon after a number of those players filed lawsuits that threatened to open the door to a revoking of both baseball’s antitrust exemption and the reserve clause.

The Walking Papers
Hitters are showing to be as patient as ever, walking over 10,000 times in 1949 for an average of eight per game—the highest in major league history. The Boston Red Sox, led by Ted Williams’ league-leading 162 passes, sets the all-time team mark with 835, while the New York Yankees draw a record 11 walks in one inning on September 11 against the Washington Senators—resulting in 12 runs on four hits in a half-inning that lasts nearly an hour. Though he’s not pitching for the Senators on that day, 21-year-old Dick Weik brings more shame upon the game’s pitching elite by allowing 103 bases on balls in just 95.1 innings.

Somebody Dust Off the Hit-and-Run Manual
Because so many people are getting on first base any which way they can, the opportunities for double plays are greater than ever. Sure enough, the frequency for doubling up runners is at its highest in history, and the Philadelphia A’s set a major league record by turning 217 double plays during the season.

Those Un-Trodden Base Paths
In a time when power is in and speed is out, the St. Louis Cardinals set an all-time National League low when they steal 17 bases on the year. Infielder Red Schoendienst collects nearly half of the team’s thefts with eight; Enos Slaughter, known for his aggressive brand of hustle on the bases, snares only three. Stats for caught stealing are not officially kept by the NL until 1951, so it’s unknown as to how often Cardinal runners were erased attempting to steal (though retrosheet.org, possibly working from partial information, counts up to 11).

Gimme Five!
The Phillies tie an all-time mark by bashing out five home runs in one inning, June 2 against the Cincinnati Reds at Philadelphia. The power surge occurs in the eighth inning and is contributed to by Del Ennis, Willie Jones, pitcher Schoolboy Rowe and Andy Seminick—who hits two of his three homers on the day in the record-setting frame. The Phillies beat the Reds, 12-3.

Golden Age of the Lessers
In terms of numbers, baseball’s minor leagues reach their peak with 59 leagues and 448 teams in operation; total attendance is at 26 million, compared to 20 million in the majors. Minor league activity will be sharply reduced over the next 15 years, thanks to several factors—including increased agreements with the majors, and nationwide/regional television exposure of major league teams that reduces interest in the local minor league clubs.

I Love You to Death
Eddie Waitkus, a dependable everyday starter at first base for the Philadelphia Phillies, is summoned on June 15 to the Chicago hotel room of a 19-year-old woman named Ruth Steinhagen, who he has never met—and she shoots him. Though shot almost point blank with a bullet that ends up lodged near his spine, Waitkus’ wound is not life-threatening—and he’s back in uniform within a month. Meanwhile, Steinhagen—who was obsessed over the 29-year-old Waitkus—is sent to a mental hospital after she initially tells investigators that tension within her had been building up, and shooting Waitkus would be one way to relieve it.

The shooting is eerily similar to a 1932 incident involving the Cubs’ Billy Jurges; both incidents provide inspiration for the novel (and, later, the movie) The Natural.

Dom It, Joe!
Dom DiMaggio steals a page out of his older brother’s book and hits safely in 34 straight games for the Red Sox from July into early August. But Dom has Joe DiMaggio to thank for helping snap the streak on August 9; with the Yankees visiting Boston, Dom comes to the plate hitless for his final at-bat and punches out a sinking liner—which is snared on a running, ankle-high catch by Joe. Still, Dom’s streak is the longest in the AL since Joe’s fabled 1941 ride—and the longest until Paul Molitor reaches 37 in 1987.

At first, it seems like an equal trade of two young, common players: The A’s get free-swinging catcher Joe Tipton from the Chicago White Sox for a nondescript infielder named Nellie Fox. In retrospect, the deal is clearly one of the biggest steals ever perpetrated by the White Sox. While Tipton will continually languish as a backup catcher with a poor average, Fox will become a rock at second base in Chicago through 1963, leading the AL in hits four times and earning roster spots in 12 All-Star Games before being selected for the Hall of Fame in 1997.

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