Monday, December 28, 2015

Best Postseason Win: St. Louis Browns

I'm still on a curtailed posting schedule this week, thanks to the upcoming New Years holiday, so it makes sense that our topic in this post is a team whose postseason history is pretty curtailed in its own right.

The St. Louis Browns, as an American League franchise, existed for 52 years. During that time, they finished within the top four places in the AL standings a total of 12 times - less than one out of every four seasons. They managed two second-place finishes, one of which came before the World Series existed.

The other second-place team was the 1922 edition, which is generally (and correctly) regarded as the best Browns team ever. They allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL, and scored the most; their hard-hitting outfield of Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson, and Jack Tobin drew some of the headlines, but most of the attention (justifiably) went to the spectacular George Sisler, who in 1920 had set an MLB record with 257 hits in a season (since broken by Ichiro - but in a longer schedule). He didn't quite match that number in 1922 - but he did put up 246 hits, while also leading the league in runs (134), triples (18), and steals (51), and hitting .420.

Sisler's 1920 and 1922 seasons came under very favorable conditions - the league was high-scoring at the time and the Browns played in a good hitter's park. He also didn't have great power or patience (he never drew 50 walks in a season), and as such, his high average can tend to make him a bit overrated in some circles. But the backlash against him in sabermetric analysis has been overdone; Sisler's peak is not just two years long, it's six, stretching from 1917-22. The earlier years don't look as impressive, because the league wasn't scoring as much and the 1918-19 seasons were shortened by World War I. But over that six-year stretch, Sisler was probably the third-best position player in baseball - and given that the top two were Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby, third place is no mean feat.

Despite arguably being the better team, the '22 Browns finished a game behind the Yankees - and then disaster struck, as Sisler came down with double vision that cost him the entire 1923 season and left him a shell of his former self when he returned. St. Louis regressed to its former state of mediocrity - which was made all the worse when the cohabitating NL team, the Cardinals, emerged as a powerhouse later in the decade (and really, they've remained one for about the last 90 years).

But just as catastrophe taketh away, catastrophe also giveth. The Browns were mired in mediocrity until World War II, at which point nearly all of the best players in the league were called into military service. In 1944, the Browns assembled a respectable pitching staff and patched together a lineup around star shortstop Vern Stephens, and won 89 games - just enough to finish one game ahead of the Tigers and capture their first pennant.

Their World Series opponents, of course, were the Cardinals; the team that had developed baseball's first farm system had so much depth coming out of the minors that they could lose nearly all of their best players to the war and still field a credible major league lineup and pitching staff. And in 1944, a credible team (well, plus Stan Musial) was all it took to win 105 games and run off with the pennant.

The stage was set for a classic matchup of powerhouse and punching bag - and the first game, at least, did not disappoint:

1944 World Series Game 1: Browns 2, Cardinals 1. The pitching matchup was exactly what you'd expect from the two teams. The Cardinals started ace Mort Cooper, who had won 20 games in each of the last three seasons and was best known as the 1942 NL MVP. The Browns responded with Denny Galehouse, who had also established a career high in wins in '42 - with twelve. He is best-known today as Joe McCarthy's surprise choice to start the 1948 AL playoff game for the Red Sox; the Sox would lose that game 8-3.

Cooper set the Browns down in order in the top of the first, while Galehouse allowed a single to Stan Musail in the bottom of the inning but left him on. Gene Moore drew a two-out walk in the top of the second and was stranded. The Cards mounted a threat in the bottom of the inning when Marty Marion doubled and Emil Verban singled him to third, but Cooper was up next and struck out to leave the runners on the corners.

Galehouse drew a walk in the third and was left on, and the Cardinals tried again in the bottom of the inning. Johnny Hopp and Ray Sanders started the inning with singles, and Musial sacrificed them to second and third, because apparently when you have one of the ten best players of all time batting with a chance to break open the first game of the World Series, you have him bunt. Walker Cooper (Mort's brother and the hard-hitting Cardinal catcher) was intentionally walked, loading the bases with one out, but Whitey Kurowski struck out and Danny Litwhiler grounded into a force at third to end the inning.

The Browns broke up the no-hitter in the fourth when Moore singled with two outs - and the shutout vanished immediately thereafter, thanks to a George McQuinn homer. Now staked to a 2-0 lead, Galehouse settled in, working a flawless fourth and allowing only lone walks in the fifth (to Sanders, erased on a Musial double play ball) and sixth (with two outs to Litwhiler, who was left on). Cooper was similarly effective over the same stretch, giving up only a sixth-inning walk to Vern Stephens over the next three innings.

Pinch hitter Augie Bergamo led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk, and Cooper was lifted for pinch hitter Debs Garms, who advanced the runner with a groundout. Galehouse then retired the next two Cardinals to leave Bergamo in scoring position. Blix Donnelly relieved for the Cards and was perfect for the next two innings, while Galehouse allowed only a Kurowski single in the eighth.

The bottom of the ninth brought a brief threat, as Marion led off with a double, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter Ken O'Dea. But the Cardinals still trailed by a run, and Hopp followed with a game-ending flyout to give the Browns their first-ever postseason victory - a win they had secured despite never having an at bat with a runner in scoring position.

They would have a chance at a second straight win the next day; they rallied from two runs down to tie the game in the seventh, then got a leadoff double in the eighth. But Donnelly relieved again and this time came out on top in a relief duel with Bob Muncrief as the Cards took the game 3-2 in 11 innings. Jack Kramer threw a complete game 6-2 win in Game 3, but the reason I'm linking the box score for Game 3 is that it's the only other postseason win in Browns history, as the Cardinals won the next three in a row to take the Series.

The end of the war in 1945 brought baseball's stars back, which in turn relegated the Browns back to obscurity for the remainder of their time in St. Louis. Less than a decade after their only pennant, the team would move to Baltimore and be re-christened as the Orioles - and not too long after the move, they would become one of baseball's most successful franchises for a period of about three decades.

But we'll get to that next time.

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