Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Best Postseason Win: New York Giants

This post is not really about the Yankees. It's just hard to tell a story about baseball in the 1950's that doesn't start with them.

From 1949-53, the Yankees won five consecutive World Series; it was a record then, it's a record now, and given that the baseball playoffs seem to be growing at a rate approaching that of the expanding universe and short baseball series are little more than an exhilarating coinflip, it's probably going to be a record for the foreseeable future. The remarkable thing about the team was not just that they won all the time, but that they did it while constantly turning over their roster. Only one position player had at least 120 games played for both the 1949 and 1953 teams. (Yes, there were three others who were over 100 in both years, but still.)

In 1954, the Yankees won 103 games - more than they had won in any of the five preceding seasons. And the Indians still beat them out for the AL pennant - easily. The Indians had one of the best regular seasons ever, setting an AL record with 111 wins. As a result, the team that had finally dethroned the Yankees was a substantial favorite in the World Series against the Giants, who had won a mere 97 games.

Which brings us to the Giants' best postseason win. 1954 World Series Game 1: Giants 5, Indians 2 (10). The Giants sent Sal Maglie to the mound; he didn't have the best 1954 of any of their starters (that was Johnny Antonelli), but he probably did end up with the best career of the group. He would have had, at best, the fourth-best résumé on Cleveland's staff (you can argue either way between Maglie and Mike Garcia). He was opposed by Bob Lemon, one of the Indians' three future Hall of Fame starters.

The Indians got the World Series off to exactly the start that would have been expected; Al Smith was hit by a pitch to start the game, Bobby Avila singled him to third (with the help of a Don Mueller error in right), and two outs later, Vic Wertz tripled both runners home. (It's worth pointing out that Maglie may have been picked for the Game 1 start over Antonelli because Maglie was right-handed, while Antonelli was a southpaw; the Indians only had two left-handed hitters in their regular lineup. Wertz was one of them. This will play a role.)

The Giants threatened a response in the bottom of the inning, as Alvin Dark walked with one out and Mueller singled him to third. But Willie Mays popped up and Hank Thompson grounded out, leaving the runners on the corners. Each team put a runner on with two outs in the second (Lemon walked, Wes Westrum singled), and each left him on first.

New York struck in the bottom of the third. Whitey Lockman led off with a single, and Dark singled him to third. Mueller grounded into a force, scoring Lockman, Mays walked, and Thompson singled to bring Mueller home with the tying run. Lemon recovered to get the next two hitters and leave runners on the corners, and the game settled into a runners-left-on rhythm for a while.

Wertz led off the fourth with a single and moved to second on a groundout, then stayed there. Westrum and Dark singled in the bottom of the fourth and were left on the corners; the same happened with Smith and Larry Doby in the top of the fifth. Lemon was spotless in the home fifth, and in the sixth, Wertz again led off with a single, this time taking second on a Mueller throwing error. A groundout advanced him to third, but a popup and a groundout were insufficient to bring him home, and the go-ahead run was left in scoring position for the fifth time in six half-innings.

From that point, nobody reached until Mueller's two-out single in the bottom of the seventh. But the brief respite ended abruptly in the top of the eighth. Doby led off with a walk, and Al Rosen singled. Up next was Wertz, who had gone 3 for 3 to this point in the game, and drove in both of Cleveland's runs. Since Maglie had no luck whatsoever in retiring him, the Giants relieved with left-hander Don Liddle.

Wertz was apparently unperturbed by the switch, since he tagged the ball over 400 feet. However, he hit it to straightaway center field, and since the game was being played in the Polo Grounds, home of the longest straightaway center field distance in the history of enclosed MLB stadia, the ball stayed in the park.

Moreover, Willie Mays, who was playing his traditional shallow center field, ran the ball down and made one of the most famous catches in baseball history over his shoulder, then threw back to the infield in time to hold Doby to a one-base advance and send Rosen back to first.

Wertz was Liddle's only batter; it would be fun to say that Leo Durocher yanked him as soon as he saw what Wertz did to his pitch, but what actually happened was that the Indians pinch hit for switch hitter Dave Philley with the right-handed Hank Majeski; Marv Grissom was called in from the bullpen, and lefty-swinging Dale Mitchell then hit for Majeski. Mitchell walked, loading the bases with one out, but Grissom rallied to strike out pinch hitter Dave Pope and coax a flyout from Jim Hegan to strand all three runners.

Thompson led off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, was bunted to second, and took third on a two-out wild pitch before being left on. Avila reached second on a two-out error by Monte Irvin in the ninth, but after Doby was intentionally walked, Rosen flied out to leave both men on. Lemon then worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Wertz stepped to the plate leading off the tenth, and naturally doubled. Pinch runner Rudy Regalado was bunted to third, and Dave Pope was intentionally walked. Bill Glynn hit for Hegan and struck out, and Lemon hit for himself and lined out, leaving runners at the corners.

With one out in the bottom of the tenth, Mays walked and stole second. Thompson was intentionally walked, and Dusty Rhodes was summoned to hit for Irvin. Rhodes was a benchwarmer extraordinaire who would never in his seven-year career amass as many as 300 plate appearances in a season, but who in 1954 had hit a startling .354 with 15 homers in under 200 plate appearances (good for a .695 slugging average). And in his first at bat of the World Series, he walloped a three-run walkoff homer into the right field stands. Given the dimensions of the stadium, it likely traveled at least 100 feet fewer than Wertz's drive two innings earlier.

While the Giants had the biggest moments, the things that jump out at me from the boxscore came from the Indians. First, despite hitting into one of baseball's best-known outs, Wertz still went 4 for 5 and drove in all of his team's runs; had his rocket to center in the eighth landed safely, he would have had one of the best individual World Series games ever recorded by a hitter (especially one who didn't hit a home run). His teammates, however, fared less well. Before Rhodes's pinch heroics for the home team, the Indians used four pinch hitters of their own (all for position players, as Lemon went the distance on the mound), and they combined to go 0 for 2 with a walk and a (removed before batting). And their efforts were quite representative of the team as a whole in key situations; they were 1 for 16 with runners in scoring position, which is particularly painful in an extra-inning loss.

But enough about that. Memory tends to gravitate toward the highlights, and this game covered both of the iconic-moment archetypes. First, there was a supremely brilliant play from a supremely brilliant player - the kind of legendary event that we spend our sports-watching lives hoping to see. And second, there was the underdog hero stepping off of the bench and into history, coming through at exactly the right moment and spurring his team toward the title. (Which they won in a stunning sweep.)

Great as it was, this game is only the fourth-best postseason win by the New York Giants according to WPL. The three better ones, in order, were: 1924 World Series Game 1, in which the Giants bested Walter Johnson and the Senators in 12 innings (the Giants scored 2 in the top of the twelfth, but the Senators got one back and had the tying run at third when the last out was made), 1933 World Series Game 4, in which Carl Hubbell won an 11-inning 2-1 pitcher's duel despite his teammates going 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, and 1936 World Series Game 5, in which the Giants won a squeaker to keep the series alive, then got pounded by the Yankees the next day to end it. And since I'm considering regular-season playoffs eligible for selection here, I can't end the honorable mention section without mentioning the final game of the 1951 playoff against the Dodgers, in which THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT!

As mentioned, the Giants went on to win the 1954 World Series, putting them on top of the baseball world. It was only three years later that they left New York, moving to San Francisco in the 1957 offseason. Next time, we'll follow them there.

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