A Brand New Ballgame, part 2
Scanning big-league baseball from 1948 to 1950
I’ve got a new book out, as I mentioned last week.
It’s called A Brand New Ballgame: Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, Walter O’Malley, and the Transformation of Baseball, 1945-1962, and it’s published by McFarland & Co.
The book tells about the many and varied front-office maneuverings that took place between the end of World War II and the onset of expansion — a wild and woolly 18-year span that changed the sport forever.
I’m celebrating its publication by devoting six Tuesdays of this blog to a review of the same time frame, though with a different focus. I’m looking here at action on the field — not in the board rooms — at three-year intervals.
Today’s timeline brings us from the late 1940s to the midpoint of the century. All three world titles went to American League clubs — the first to the Cleveland Indians in 1948, the latter two to the New York Yankees.
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Cleveland sets new mark for one-day crowd
The Yankees had held the record for single-day attendance (81,841) since 1938, and Bill Veeck, the Indians’ maverick owner, naturally wanted it. He heavily promoted a May 23 matchup with New York, but Cleveland fell short with 78,431 fans. Nothing special was planned for a June 20 date against the Athletics, yet 82,781 streamed into cavernous Municipal Stadium. Veeck made the announcement: “The attendance today is eight-two thou....” The rest was drowned out by the crowd’s gigantic roar.
Durocher shocks baseball world by leaving Dodgers
Manager Leo Durocher returned from a one-year suspension in April, yet the Brooklyn Dodgers played sluggishly. Brooklyn was mired in fourth place on July 16, when Durocher astounded everybody by jumping to the archrival New York Giants. He accepted their managerial offer after asking the club’s president, Branch Rickey, if his job with the Dodgers was safe. “He chewed on his cigar,” Durocher recalled. “He said nothing.”
Indians clinch AL title in playoff game
The Indians held first place in the American League for most of 1948 — setting an annual attendance record of 2,620,627 along the way — yet a loss on the final day of the regular season left them tied with the Boston Red Sox. Rookie Gene Bearden, Cleveland’s starter in the October 4 tiebreaker, pitched a gem, winning 8-3. His knuckleball was perfect. “How are you going to beat a guy like that?” moaned Boston second baseman Bobby Doerr.
Cleveland wins crown in six games
The World Series seemed almost anticlimactic after the hectic pennant race. The Indians lost Game One to the Boston Braves, 1-0, then stormed back to take four of the next five. A quarter of a million Clevelanders jammed the streets to salute their champions, yet the celebration was bittersweet for Veeck, who faced a divorce. “Do you know what the saddest thing in the world is?” he asked. “To go home to an empty apartment in a moment of triumph.”
Waitkus wounded in bizarre incident
Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus received a puzzling note from a stranger on June 15. “It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible,” wrote Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who was staying in the same Chicago hotel. Waitkus went to her room, where she inexplicably shot him. The attack inspired Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, The Natural, and the 1984 movie of the same name. Waitkus would recover and play six more seasons.
New York edges Boston for AL crown
The Red Sox trailed the Yankees by 12 games on July 4. But Boston won 61 of its next 81 games, vaulting into the American League lead with two dates left. That’s when its momentum vanished. The Sox lost both games — and the title — to the resurgent Yankees. Casey Stengel, New York’s first-year manager, gave all the credit to his players. “Their guts did it,” he yelled in a frenzied clubhouse.
Brooklyn seizes NL title on final day
The first-place St. Louis Cardinals lost six of their final nine games, opening the door for Brooklyn in the National League’s pennant race. All the Dodgers needed was a victory over Philadelphia on October 2. They broke out to leads of 5-0 and 7-4, yet the Phillies battled back. Duke Snider and Luis Olmo finally settled the matter in the 10th inning, driving in a pair of runs to give Brooklyn its second NL title in three years.
Yankees easily tame Dodgers in World Series
The Dodgers boasted a sublime blend of power and speed, pacing the majors in homers (152) and stolen bases (117) in 1949. Yet the Yankees shut them down with ease in the World Series, allowing only 14 runs en route to a five-game triumph. Brooklyn third baseman Spider Jorgensen gave voice to his team’s shock: “I was dumbfounded that they won it so easily.”
Gardella makes final big-league appearance
Baseball faced a dilemma after settling with Danny Gardella, an outfielder who had recently dropped a three-year restraint-of-trade lawsuit against the sport. The New York Giants refused to take him back, but somebody had to offer a contract to create an illusion of fairness. Owner Fred Saigh volunteered his Cardinals. Gardella batted just once for St. Louis, flying out to right on April 20. “It seems undesirable to give him his unconditional release,” cautioned Louis Carroll, the National League’s attorney. So Saigh shipped Gardella to the minors, then quietly cut him in June.
Red Sox destroy Browns, 29-4
The Red Sox were relentless all season — batting .302 as a team — but never more so than on June 8, when they pounded the St. Louis Browns, 29-4. Boston ripped 28 hits, led by Bobby Doerr with three home runs and Ted Williams and Walt Dropo with a pair apiece. It stood as the worst rout in major-league history until the Texas Rangers pummeled the Baltimore Orioles, 30-3, on August 22, 2007.
Phillies and Konstanty prevail in NL
Philadelphia hadn’t won a National League championship since 1915, a drought that ended when Dick Sisler blasted a three-run homer in the 10th inning of the season-ending game on October 1. The Phillies’ dramatic 4-1 victory over Brooklyn clinched a title that confounded the experts. Equally improbable was the selection of Philadelphia’s Jim Konstanty as the NL’s Most Valuable Player, the first relief pitcher so honored by either league.
Yankees win second straight championship
The vaunted Yankees repeated as world champs in 1950, but victory did not come easily. “We swept the Phillies in the World Series, so a lot of people assume they were overmatched. But that series was tight,” said New York outfielder Gene Woodling. Each of the first three games was decided by one run. Rookie Whitey Ford then locked down a 5-2 win for the Yanks in Game Four.