Thursday, June 24, 2010

Damn Yankees

The New York Yankees won the American League pennant 14 times in 16 years between 1949 and 1964. Now that’s what you call a dynasty. Al Lopez took both of the pennants that escaped the Yankees’ grasp during this period, as manager of the 1954 Cleveland Indians and the 1959 White Sox. A four-game series that took place 51 years ago this weekend at old Comiskey Park proved that the ’59 Sox were for real.

     The White Sox entered the 1959 season as clearly a team on the rise. After five straight third-place finishes from 1952 through 1956, they’d moved up to second in 1957 and 1958. But standing between the Sox and their first American League championship since 1919 were the mighty New York Yankees, winners of four pennants in a row and nine in the past 10 years. The Yankees were managed by the legendary Casey Stengel, and their roster included future Hall-of-Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. It was said that rooting for them was like rooting for that other fifties powerhouse, U.S. Steel.
     The U.S. Steel analogy was apt, for the Yankees and most teams played baseball with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The White Sox were the exception that proved the rule. In an era dominated by lead-footed sluggers who launched tape-measure home runs, the Sox excelled at “small ball”—they had solid pitching, played airtight defense, and led the league in stolen bases every year. They were a throwback to teams of 40 and 50 years earlier. “In modern baseball,” Sox owner Bill Veeck wrote, “the winning equation is Power + Pitching = Pennant. Teams like the White Sox which depend upon speed and defense delight the hearts of all old-timers and generally finish in the second division.”
     But Veeck’s manager was convinced that his club could beat the Yankees, and he said so. “I should have listened to Al Lopez,” wrote Veeck. “Al told me from the beginning that we were going to win it. ‘This,’ he kept telling me, ‘is my kind of team.’” Lopez’s opinion carried some weight. In eight seasons of managing, first with Cleveland and then with the Sox, he had never finished lower than second place, and he had guided the Indians to the flag in 1954 for the lone interruption in the Yankees’ decade of dominance.

     Throughout the first half of the season, Cleveland set a rather leisurely pace with the White Sox close behind. Even the lowly Kansas City A’s and Washington Senators remained within 10 games of the front. It was a case of “man bites dog” on May 20, when the Yankees found themselves in last place. They soon climbed out of the cellar but continued to flirt with the .500 mark. Nonetheless, many fans assumed that it was just a matter of time before the Yankees took up residence at the top of the standings.
     When New York invaded Comiskey Park for a four-game series on the last weekend of June, the race was starting to take shape. The Indians clung to a one-game lead over the White Sox, with the surprising Baltimore Orioles a game and a half out, and the resurgent Yankees only two games back. On Friday night, June 26, Sox center fielder Jim Landis went four-for-four to no avail, as New York won 8-4 to draw even with Chicago at 36-32.
     On Saturday, though, the Sox bounced back in dramatic fashion. They trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth when Nellie Fox walked with two outs and nobody on. First baseman Earl Torgeson followed with a single, and catcher Sherm Lollar walked to load the bases. Then Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a seldom-used outfielder, lofted a wind-aided grand slam off the upper-deck railing in right field. New York’s Norm Siebern and Bill “Moose” Skowron clouted back-to-back homers to open the ninth, but the Sox held on for a nerve-wracking 5-4 win that moved them into a second-place tie with Baltimore.
     Sunday belonged to the White Sox, who swept a doubleheader by scores of 9-2 and 4-2. In the first game, Early Wynn bested Whitey Ford. “If I had to win one game,” Stengel remarked, “I’d have to say I’d want Wynn to go. He knows just about all there is to know about pitching.” In the second game, Dick Donovan surrendered only one hit through the first seven innings and only five altogether before he began to falter in the ninth. Turk Lown retired the last two Yankees to preserve the win.
     The White Sox’ three-out-of-four weekend left them only a game out of first place and dropped New York to four games out. More importantly, it damaged the Yankees’ aura of invincibility in the minds of the Sox players. The Sox were on their way.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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