Friday, September 30, 2016

A Pennant Comes to Brooklyn - Part I

Sixty years ago today, I enjoyed my first great moment as a baseball fan when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1956 National League pennant at Ebbets Field on the season's very last day.  Little did I realize that I would become equally familiar with an even earlier Dodger pennant clinching, also at Ebbets Field.  Some 40 years before the memorable fall of 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first 20th century pennant, in a dramatic pennant race that Paul Zinn and I chronicled in the The Major League Pennant Races of 1916: "The Most Maddening Baseball Melee in History." Since 2016 is the centennial of that season, I'm using the next three posts to tell the story of the final crucial days of that race, publishing each post on the 100th anniversary of the day in question.  1916 was a year of close pennant races in both leagues which saw four records set, three of which, it's safe to say, will never be broken.  Four times in 1916 pitchers started and won both games of a doubleheader, a feat so unusual it's unlikely it will ever be attempted again.  Equally impressive were Grover Cleveland Alexander's 16 shutouts and Ferdinand Schupp's 0.90 ERA, although there has been debate about whether Schupp pitched a sufficient number of innings.


1916 was the third year of newly found parity in the National League.  From 1901 through 1913 every pennant was won by the Giants, Pirates or Cubs.  Perhaps fittingly the streak was broken in 1914 by the appropriately named Miracle Braves who came from last place on July 4th to overtake the Giants before sweeping the heavily favored Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.  Boston was followed by the Phillies as league champions in 1915 so most of the prognosticators saw 1916 as a wide open race and they were correct.  Brooklyn took over first place in May and other than a few days held the lead throughout the summer and early fall even though the Phillies and Braves remained right on their heels.  The once mighty Giants were a distant fourth for most of the campaign and by mid August appeared to be playing out the string.  But John McGraw was rebuilding his team and they caught fire in September, winning 26 straight games, still a record which, unlike the three mentioned earlier, could conceivably be broken.

Grover Cleveland Alexander

The last week of the season featured head to head match ups between the four contenders beginning with Boston visiting the Polo Grounds and the first place Dodgers hosting Philadelphia.  On September 28th, Philadelphia beat Brooklyn 8-4 to trail by only 1/2 game while the Giants made the Braves victims 24 and 25 of their record winning streak, moving the Giants within five games of the lead and dropping Boston four games off the pace.  The next day's games were rained out, setting up crucial doubleheaders on Saturday, September 30th.  At the Polo Grounds, the Giants won number 26 in the first contest, but finally lost in the second, ending New York's chances for what would have been an even bigger miracle than 1951.  Over in Brooklyn, the two contenders squared off in a separate admission, morning-afternoon twin bill.  Whether it was the early hour, cold weather “with a brisk raw wind” or annoyance over the separate admissions, only an estimated 7,000 fans attended the morning affair.  Perhaps they had a premonition of bad things, which was confirmed when Philadelphia scored early and often on their way to a 7-2 win to move into first place.  A number of reporters commented on the Dodgers’ listless play and lack of aggressiveness, which led to boos from the home town crowd.  The one negative for the Phils, but a significant one, was a leg injury to their shortstop, Davy Bancroft.

Dave Bancroft 

When the first game ended around noon, the two teams adjourned to their locker rooms for rest and refreshment.  It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting atmospheres.  The Phillies, back in first place, for the first time since May, seemed to believe their long quest to win the pennant was nearly over. Even better, with their ace Alexander going in the afternoon game, Philadelphia had every reason to believe they would return home with a 1 ½ game lead. Reportedly, the Phillies players were “whooping it up,” with a quartet rehearsing “Tessie” in anticipation of a World Series rematch with the Red Sox.  Things even looked hopeful when Bancroft, after trainer Mike Dee worked on his leg, was inserted in the starting lineup for the second game.  The situation was much different in the Brooklyn locker room, but the mood was determination, not despair.  The players faces were “set” as they “talked in the tone of men resolved to retrieve themselves.”  At one point, manager Wilbert Robinson addressed his team, and mincing no words, he “read the riot act to them” and “demanded a victory.”  The players reportedly “answered in one voice” with a terse, “you’ll get it Robbie.”

Rube Marquard

Alexander started the second contest on one day’s rest, a decision that merits some second guessing, since the Phils had won the first two games of the series, it might have been better to save him for the upcoming six games in four days against the Braves.  Manager Pat Moran’s team had limited pitching depth and would need all of it against Boston.  In any event, it was Alexander for Philadelphia while the Dodgers countered with Rube Marquard.  The game began in “cold and blowy” football-like conditions in front of roughly 16,000 still less than a sell out.   The top of the first did little for Brooklyn’s morale, when the Phils took a 1-0 lead, but they again lost Davy Bancroft, who suffered another leg injury and was done for the game and probably longer.  Sometimes, one run was all Alexander needed, but Brooklyn tied the contest in the bottom of the first and suddenly things began to change, with Marquard shutting down the Phils and the Dodgers threatening to break through against Alexander.

Casey Stengel

Finally in the bottom of the fifth inning, as Brooklyn Eagle writer,Tom Rice joyfully reported, Casey Stengel, “fell upon the second pitch, and the second pitch fell upon the pavement outside of the right field wall” for a 2-1 Brooklyn lead.  The Dodgers added single runs in the sixth and seventh, and Moran finally removed Alexander for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning.  When Zach Wheat caught a fly ball for the last out, the fans poured out on to the field to mob Marquard, who allowed just one hit and two base runners after the first inning.  Surprisingly the usually unhittable Alexander had been touched up for four runs on 11 hits in the biggest game of the year.   It marked the third time the Superbas had quickly regained first after having been knocked into second. However, the margin was only a razor thin  ½ game, so the “apoplexy breeding National League race” would now come down to the final series – Brooklyn at home against New York and Boston  at Philadelphia.

Standings on September 30, 1916

            Brooklyn                     91        59            -

             Philadelphia                89        58           ½

             Boston                       85        61           4

              New York                  85        63           5

No comments:

Post a Comment