Brave Slugger

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Eddie Mathews

For more than a decade, Eddie Mathews was the slugger’s slugger. From 1953 through 1960, he averaged 39 home runs per season, leading the National League in that category twice with 47 in 1953 and 46 in 1959.

Eddie Mathews led the National League twice in home runs, with 47 in 1953 and 46 in 1959.

Eddie Mathews led the National League twice in home runs, with 47 in 1953 and 46 in 1959.

Mathews signed with the Boston Braves in 1949 and made the big league club in 1952, hitting 25 home runs and finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Joe Black and Hoyt Wilhelm. In his sophomore season, Mathews pounded 47 home runs (with 135 RBIs), a team record that was matched by Hank Aaron in 1971 and finally eclipsed in 2005 when Andruw Jones hit 51.

During the next two seasons, Mathews topped 40 homers and 100 RBIs each year. By the close of the 1950s, Mathews was the Braves’ all-time home run leader with 299 (Aaron had hit only 179 at that point).

During the 1960s, his power production gradually declined, but his numbers would still be envied by most hitters. From 1960 through 1965, Mathews averaged 30 home runs and 93 RBIs per season. A career .271 hitter, Mathews hit for a career-best .306 in 1961.

Eddie Mathews’ best season during the 1960s came at the opening of the decade. He batted .277 in 1960 with 39 home runs (third in the National League) and 124 RBIs (second in the league to teammate Hank Aaron).

Eddie Mathews’ best season during the 1960s came at the opening of the decade. He batted .277 in 1960 with 39 home runs (third in the National League) and 124 RBIs (second in the league to teammate Hank Aaron).

A shoulder injury in 1962 seriously hampered his swing for the rest of his career, which included stops in Houston and Detroit. He retired after the 1968 season with 512 home runs and 1,453 runs batted in.

A nine-time All-Star, Mathews was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978.

The Miracle

 

Lights Out: Jerry Koosman Pitches the New York Mets to a World Series Championship

When: October 16, 1969

Where: Shea Stadium, New York, New York

Game Time: 2:14

Attendance: 57,397

 

Looking back now, maybe we should have been able to predict how the 1969 season would end.

The New York Mets of 1969 would not be denied their miracle. The franchise that redefined on-the-field ineptitude in the early 1960s won it all by the end of the decade, and did so by beating a Baltimore Orioles team that, had it won the 1969 World Series, might have been recognized as one of the best teams of all time.

A 19-game winner during the regular season, Jerry Koosman won both of his starts during the 1969 World Series, including the decisive fifth game.

A 19-game winner during the regular season, Jerry Koosman won both of his starts during the 1969 World Series, including the decisive fifth game.

That Orioles squad was loaded. The team had power, was solid defensively and featured outstanding pitching depth, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The Orioles got big seasons out of Boog Powell (.304, 37 home runs and 121 RBIs) and Frank Robinson (.308, 32 home runs, 100 RBIs). The Orioles fielded four Gold Gloves (Paul Blair in center field, Dave Johnson at second base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, and, of course, Brooks Robinson at third). And the pitching staff was led by Mike Cuellar (23-11), Dave McNally (20-7) and a 23-year-old Jim Palmer (16-4) on the verge of becoming a perennial 20-game winner.

The 1969 Baltimore Orioles won 109 games during the regular season and, in the first American League Championship Series, swept the Minnesota Twins in three games. They entered the World Series as seasoned favorites.

The odds might have been in their favor. Fate wasn’t.

The Mets didn’t exactly limp into the World Series. They won 100 games during the regular season (27 more than they had won in 1968). They swept the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. And they had two of baseball’s best young pitchers in Tom Seaver (25-7, 2.21 ERA) and Jerry Koosman (17-9, 2.28 ERA).

Donn Clendenon’s sixth-inning home run – his second of the Series – brought the Mets to within one run of the Orioles.

Donn Clendenon’s sixth-inning home run – his second of the Series – brought the Mets to within one run of the Orioles.

The Orioles behind Cuellar beat the Mets and Seaver 4-1 in the first game, but Koosman pitched a two-hitter in the second game, with the Mets winning 2-1. Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined to shut out the Orioles 5-0 on four hits in the third game, and Seaver pitched a six-hit gem in the fourth game, beating the Orioles 2-1 with the aid of Donn Clendenon’s home run.

Shea Stadium was the site for the fifth game, pitting Koosman against McNally. The Orioles scored three runs in the third inning on home runs from McNally and Frank Robinson. But Koosman was masterful the rest of the way, shutting down the vaunted Orioles bats with six scoreless innings.

Meanwhile, the Mets cranked up their last miracle of the season. Cleon Jones was hit by a pitch to lead off the sixth inning and Clendenon homered off McNally to cut the Orioles’ lead to 3-2. In the seventh inning, Al Weis hit a lead-off home run to tie the game.

Ron Swoboda’s eighth-inning double drove in Cleon Jones with the go-ahead run. Swoboda later scored on an error by Orioles reliever Eddie Watt. Koosman made the lead stand up with a scoreless ninth inning.

Baltimore’s bullpen ace Eddie Watt came on to pitch the eighth inning. Jones doubled to open the inning, and advanced to third on Clendenon’s ground out. Ron Swoboda doubled to drive in Jones. After Ed Charles flied out to left field, catcher Jerry Grote hit the ball back to Watt with Swoboda running on the pitch. Watt bobbled the ball, allowing Grote to reach first base safely while Swoboda scored. It was all the scoring the Mets would need.

Koosman came out to pitch the ninth inning, facing the Robinsons and Powell, the heart of the Orioles’ batting order. Frank Robinson worked Koosman for a walk. Powell hit a grounder to Weis at second for the force out on Frank Robinson. The Orioles brought Chico Salmon in to run for Powell, but he would have nowhere to go. Brooks Robinson flied out to Swoboda in right field, and Dave Johnson flied out to Jones in left field to end the inning, the World Series, and a decade of baseball like no other.

 

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Center of Power

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Duke Snider

Throughout the 1950s, major league baseball was blessed with a trio of center fielders unmatched before or since. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider had no peers as all-around players. And the Duke, generally considered the third of the three, posted hitting numbers and consistent fielding that deservedly put him in the class of Mantle and Mays.

Duke Snider hit 326 home runs during the 1950s, the most of any major leaguer during that decade. He also batted .308 for the decade and averaged more than 100 RBIs per season.

While the peak years of his long and productive career came during the 1950s, Snider played in half the decade of the 1960s.

Signed by the Dodgers in 1943, Snider made the big league team in 1947 and was Brooklyn’s starting center fielder by 1949, when he hit .292 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs. He hit .321 in 1950, with 31 home runs and 107 RBIs. From 1950 through 1956, Snider averaged 35 home runs and 113 RBIs per season, leading the National League in home runs (43) in 1956 and leading the league in RBIs (136) in 1955. Snider led the National League in runs scored each season from 1953 through 1955. He hit 40 or more home runs every season from 1953 through 1957.

A chronic knee condition and the cavernous right field in the L.A. Coliseum limited Snider’s productivity when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. He made a strong comeback in 1959, hitting .308 with 23 home runs and 88 RBIs in leading the Dodgers to the 1959 World Series title. But entering the 1960s, Snider was relegated to a part-time role, with his center field post taken over by the fleet Willie Davis.

Duke Snider returned to New York in 1963 as a member of the New York Mets. He batted .243 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs.

Duke Snider returned to New York in 1963 as a member of the New York Mets. He batted .243 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs.

Snider spent 16 seasons with the Dodgers, the last coming in 1962. He hit a combined .300 over that period, with 389 home runs and 1,271 RBIs. In 1963 he was purchased by the New York Mets, and spent the 1964 season with the San Francisco Giants before retiring at the end of that campaign.

An eight-time All-Star, Snider was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

 

 

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Aces on Strike

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(February 28, 1966) Seeking a three-year, $1.05 million contract, Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale today began a joint holdout, threatening to boycott spring training and the start of the season unless their demands for multi-year contracts were met.

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax

Meeting their salary demands would make the Dodgers’ starters the highest-paid pitchers in major league baseball. The pitchers had agreed that neither would sign with the Dodgers independently.

At first, the Dodgers’ general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, would agree to negotiate only with the pitchers themselves. He refused to negotiate with Koufax’s agent.

After nearly a month’s holdout, Bavasi would meet with Koufax and Drysdale at a corner table in the restaurant of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to hammer out a deal. The pitchers wanted $150,000 each for three years, a figure Bavasi could not accept, and the talks stalled.

Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale

Practically on the eve of Opening Day, the pair struck a pair of one-year deals: $110,000 for Drysdale, $125,000 for Koufax. They were still the highest-paid pitchers in baseball, and avoiding any multi-year deals worked out for the Dodgers, as 1966 would turn out to be the last season for Koufax.

 

 

 

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A Star Is Born

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Chuck Estrada

He was a shooting star of a pitcher, bursting upon the American League as its winningest pitcher and then fading away almost as quickly. But in his first two major league seasons, Chuck Estrada showed a Hall of Fame promise that injury and wildness would never allow to become fulfilled.

In his 1960 rookie season, Chuck Estrada won 18 games, tied for the American League lead in victories with Cleveland’s Jim Perry.

In his 1960 rookie season, Chuck Estrada won 18 games, tied for the American League lead in victories with Cleveland’s Jim Perry.

Estrada was signed out of high school by the Milwaukee Braves in 1956. He had an outstanding first professional season, winning 17 games for Salinas in the California League.

Acquired by the Baltimore Orioles, Estrada spent two seasons in the Orioles’ farm system before making his major league debut with two innings of one-hit relief (and five strikeouts) on April 21, 1960. He quickly worked his way from the Orioles’ bullpen to the starting rotation, and finished the 1960 season tied for the American League lead in wins (18, tied with Cleveland’s Jim Perry). In 25 starts, he pitched 12 complete games and finished with a 3.58 ERA. He also led the league with the fewest hits per nine innings (7.0)

Estrada followed up in 1961 with a 15-9 season and a 3.69 ERA. Again he led the league with the fewest hits per nine innings (6.8) but also led the league in bases on balls (132). Teamed with left-hander Steve Barber (18-12 in 1961), Estrada anchored one of the best young pitching staffs in the league, one expected to allow the Orioles to challenge the New York Yankees for years to come.

It wasn’t to be.

Two problems would plague Estrada for the rest of his abbreviated career: elbow miseries, and the inability to consistently throw strikes in crucial situations. Estrada’s record slipped to 9-17 in 1962, as he led the league in losses though his ERA rose only to 3.83. However, in 1963 and 1964, Estrada appeared in only 25 games, going 6-4 with a combined ERA of 5.02.

He spent a year in the minors trying to recover his pitching magic. Then Baltimore sent him to the California Angels, who promptly returned him to Baltimore two months later, without having thrown a pitch for the Angels. He spent part of the next two seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets, and then retired as a player in 1967 with a record of 50-44.

 

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Glad All Over

 

Oh, What a Relief: Fred Gladding

Ideally, you would never need a relief pitcher. (At least in the 1960s, when starters were expected to pitch complete games.)

But when you need a relief pitcher, and have a good one, you’re glad to have him in the bullpen.

That’s the way the Detroit Tigers (and later, the Houston Astros) felt about Fred Gladding.

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Fred Gladding’s best all-around season as a Detroit Tiger came in 1967, when he went 6-4 with a 1.99 ERA and 12 saves

Gladding was signed by the Tigers in 1956 and made his big league debut at age 25 in 1961. His first full season was 1964, when Gladding went 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA. All 42 appearances that season were in relief. He finished 23 of the games he appeared in, with 7 saves.

During the mid-1960s, Gladding was the heart of the Tigers’ bullpen staff. His niche was his consistency. What made him valuable – in Detroit and later in Houston – was his day-to-day dependability.

Gladding appeared in 46 games in 1965, all in relief, going 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 5 saves. He raised his appearances to 51 in 1966, going 5-0 with a 3.28 ERA. His best all-around season as a Detroit Tiger came in 1967, when Gladding went 6-4 with a 1.99 ERA and 12 saves in 42 appearances. He also had his only career start that season.

After 7 seasons in Detroit, Gladding pitched for six seasons with the Houston Astros, saving 76 games.

After seven seasons in Detroit, Gladding pitched for six seasons with the Houston Astros, saving 76 games.

Coming off his best year as a Tiger, Gladding was shipped to Houston to complete Detroit’s acquisition of slugger Eddie Mathews. After missing nearly the entire 1968 season, Gladding came back in 1969 to lead the National League in saves (29). He recorded 18 saves for the Astros in 1970, going 7-4 with a 4.06 ERA while appearing in a career-high 63 games. Over the next two seasons, Gladding averaged 44 appearances and 13 saves per season with a combined ERA of 2.43. He registered 14 more saves for Houston in 1972, and retired midway through the 1973 season.

In 13 big league seasons, Gladding compiled a 48-34 record with a 3.13 ERA and 109 saves. He finished more than half the games he appeared in (278 out of 450). He still ranks third all-time in saves among Astros pitchers.

 

 

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Living Little League Dreams

 

Career Year: Joey Jay – 1961

Pitcher Joey Jay had a big year in 1961, the kind of year that was pivotal in helping to propel his team – the Cincinnati Reds – to its best year in two decades.

In 13 seasons, Jay’s career record was 99-91 with a 3.77 ERA.

In 13 seasons, Jay’s career record was 99-91 with a 3.77 ERA.

A Connecticut native, Jay was the first major league player to have “graduated” from Little League, where he played first base. He gradually made the move to the pitching mound, where he threw three no-hitters in high school and attracted attention from several big league scouts, signing with the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.

As a “bonus baby,” he was required to spend two years with the Braves rather than improving his pitching skills in the minors. He spent most of that time sitting and watching. Jay made his major league debut with the Braves in July and picked up his first victory by shutting out the Reds in September. But in 1953-1954, he appeared in only 21 games with three starts and a 2-0 record.

Jay’s minor league tutelage began in 1955. He won 17 games for AAA Wichita in 1957 and was 7-5 as a starter and reliever for the Braves in 1958. He was a combined 15-19 for the Braves over the next two seasons, and in December of 1960 was traded with Juan Pizarro to the Reds for shortstop Roy McMillan.

Jay was slotted to be part of the Reds’ starting rotation for 1961, but no one could have realistically anticipated the season he would have. He started the season by losing his first three starts, with the Reds being shut out in the first two starts. But Jay won all six of his May starts and was 10-4 at the end of June. At the All-Star break he was 13-4 with a 2.55 ERA and seven complete games.

Jay was 4-2 in August and 3-2 in September. He finished the 1961 season at 21-10 with a 3.53 ERA. He tied with Warren Spahn for the National League lead in victories and his earned run average was eighth lowest in the league. He finished among the league’s top ten pitchers in innings pitched (247.1), strikeouts (157) and complete games (14). His four shutouts tied Spahn for the league lead.

Jay was 4-0 against his former team, the Braves, with a 2.57 ERA. His twentieth victory in September was a 1-0 shutout of Milwaukee. He was the first Reds pitcher to post a 20-win season since 1947.

Jay placed fifth in the voting for Most Valuable Player. He garnered the only first-place vote that wasn’t claimed by teammate Frank Robinson, the 1961 National League MVP.

Jay had another outstanding season in 1962, going 21-14. But then his career collapsed. He was 7-18 in 1963 and 11-11 in 1964. He won 15 games over the next two seasons, and was out of major league baseball for good following the 1966 season.

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The Ageless Arm

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Warren Spahn

The winningest left-handed pitcher in major league history, Warren Spahn could just as easily appear in any blog of great players from the 1940s and 1950s. And while the 1960s were, for him, the least productive of his three chronological decades as a ballplayer, Spahn had some of his best years in the early 1960s, continuing his run of pitching excellence well past age 40.

With a career record of 363-245, Warren Spahn won more games than any other left-handed pitcher in baseball history. The Braves were beneficiaries of 350 of those victories.

With a career record of 363-245, Warren Spahn won more games than any other left-handed pitcher in baseball history. The Braves were beneficiaries of 350 of those victories.

Spahn’s professional baseball career began prior to World War II, as he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Boston Braves in 1940. He debuted for the Braves in 1942, appearing in only four games before returning to the minors.

A tour in the U.S. Army kept Spahn out of the major leagues until his discharge in 1946. In 1947 he went 21-10, the first of 13 20-victory seasons in his career. From 1947 through 1952, as the Braves closed out their stay in Boston, Spahn won 114 games with a 3.03 ERA. In four of those six seasons, he won 21 or more games.

Spahn remained the ace of the now Milwaukee Braves throughout the rest of the 1950s. He was a 20-game winner six out of those seven seasons, leading the league in victories four times, in complete games three times, and in innings pitched twice. His combined ERA for those seven seasons was a sparkling 2.86.

Spahn turned 39 at the beginning of the 1960 season, but his excellence on the mound continued. From 1960 to 1963, he won 83 games, leading the league twice in victories and all four years in complete games. His 3.02 ERA was the league’s best in 1961. In both 1960 and 1961, Spahn finished second in the Cy Young award voting. (His only Cy Young title came in 1957.)

Warren Spahn liked to finish what he started. He led the National League in complete games nine times, including seven consecutive seasons from 1957-1963.

Warren Spahn liked to finish what he started. He led the National League in complete games nine times, including seven consecutive seasons from 1957-1963.

Spahn pitched his only no-hitters during the 1960s, shutting down the Phillies in September of 1960 and blanking the Giants the following April. In 1961, Spahn became the first National League left-hander to post 300 career victories.

Spahn’s best season during the 1960s came in 1963. At age 42, Spahn was 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA and seven shutouts. His 22 complete games led the National League (for the seventh consecutive season). He was an All-Star for the fourteenth (and last) time.

A terrific hitter for a pitcher, Spahn smacked 35 career home runs, tied (with Bob Lemon) for second-best all-time among pitchers (Wes Ferrell had 37). In 1958, Spahn achieved a rare feat, winning more than 20 games and batting better than .300 in the same season.

Warren Spahn’s best season during the 1960s came in 1963, when he posted a 23-7 record with a 2,60 ERA and seven shutouts. He pitched two no-hitters during the 1960s, both after reaching age 40.

Warren Spahn’s best season during the 1960s came in 1963, when he posted a 23-7 record with a 2,60 ERA and seven shutouts. He pitched two no-hitters during the 1960s, both after reaching age 40.

He ended his 21-season career with the San Francisco Giants in 1965 after starting the season with the New York Mets. The rest of his career was with the Braves. His 363 career victories (plus four World Series wins) put him at the top among all southpaws. His 63 career shutouts are also the best among all major league left-handed pitchers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

 

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Every Dozen Years or So …

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(February 13, 1968) For the first time in 12 years, West Coast rivals Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants completed a trade.

Tom Haller

Tom Haller

The Dodgers sent infielders Ron Hunt and Nate Oliver to the Giants for catcher Tom Haller and minor league pitcher Frank Kasheta.

A seven-year veteran, Haller had been the Giants’ regular catcher since the team’s pennant-winning season of 1962. Twice an All-Star with the Giants, Haller’s best season with the team was 1966, when he had career highs in home runs (27), RBIs (67) and runs scored (74).

The 1968 season would be his best during four seasons with Los Angeles. In 1968, Haller would hit .285 with a career bests in hits (135) and doubles (27).

The key player in the trade for the Giants was Hunt. He broke in with the New York Mets in 1963 and hit .272 (finishing second in the Rookie-of-the-Year race to Pete Rose). He hit .303 in 1964 and was a member of the NL All-Star team that season and again in 1966.

Ron Hunt

Ron Hunt

Hunt had been traded to the Dodgers in 1967 in the deal that brought Tommy Davis to the Mets. He hit .263 in his only season in Los Angeles, and would hit a combined .262 in three seasons with the Giants. He would also play for the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 1974.

And the Dodgers-Giants trade of 12 years earlier? It was a trade that never really happened. The (then) New York Giants sent Dick Littlefield to the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers for an infielder named Jackie Robinson.

Robinson retired rather than report to the Giants, and the trade was voided.

 

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The Sweetest Swing This Side of North Side

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Billy Williams

The Chicago Cubs of the 1960s were something of an enigma: all that talent – especially in the heart of the line-up, and so little to show for it. (Of course, the same thing might also be said about the Cubs of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.)

Left fielder Billy Williams was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1961 and the NL batting champion in 1972.

Left fielder Billy Williams was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1961 and the NL batting champion in 1972.

How did the Cubs, with the likes of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo playing nearly every day, consistently have to struggle so hard to reach .500, much less contend? And add a Billy Williams to that equation, and the Cubs of the 1960s become all that much more puzzling.

Because out of that trio of offensive superstars, Billy Williams might just have been the best of the three during the 1960s.

Williams was consistent, not spectacular. His swing was so compact, so smooth and sweet, that it’s somewhat surprising he won only a single batting title during his 18-year career.  He never led the league in home runs or RBIs, and led only once in runs and hits (both coming in 1970). But between 1961 and 1973, William never had fewer than 20 home runs or 84 RBIs.

All told, during those 13 seasons, he averaged 28 home runs with 98 RBIs, batting a combined .298. He batted over .300 five times during that period. He ranks twelfth among home run hitters during the 1960s.

From 1962-1969, Billy Williams was the model for consistent performance. He batted a combined .293 and averaged 28 home runs and 95 RBIs per season. He also played in an average of 162 games per year.

From 1962-1969, Billy Williams was the model for consistent performance. He batted a combined .293 and averaged 28 home runs and 95 RBIs per season. He also played in an average of 162 games per year.

All three of those great Cub players were also three of the most durable in the National League, but no one was more durable than Williams. From 1962 through 1970, Williams averaged 162 games per season, appearing in more than 162 games for three of those seasons. He set the league record for consecutive games with 1,117 in 1970, a record that stood for more than a dozen years.

Williams was Rookie of the Year in 1961 and an All-Star six times.  He was a Cub for all but the last two seasons of his career, when he was a designated hitter for the Oakland A’s (and made his only post-season appearance in the 1975 American League Championship Series, going hitless in seven at-bats).  He finished his career with more than 400 home runs and over 1,400 RBIs. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.