by Dan Coomer
The “Summer of 1949”, David Halberstam’s superb book focused on the magnificent 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Considering that two celebrated giants of the game, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, were the respective stars of those teams it is not surprising that Halberstam focused on them. But, the pennant race in the National League was just as riveting and it focused on two other giants of the game, Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial.
Jackie Robinson is simply the most riveting figure in American baseball history. Due to the ban on Negro players participating in the Major Leagues he was already 28 when he broke in with the Dodgers. This would be a common theme with the first wave, actually a small trickle, of black player into the majors. They were usually past the age in which a very promising talent would be brought to the big leagues. It wasn’t until the arrival of Willie Mays in 1951 that we began to see the entry of talented black players in to the majors at an age appropriate to their talent.
Branch Rickey brought Robinson to the majors in 1947. Jason Whitlock wrote a magnificent article in the Kansas City Star on the role of Rickey in this affair. As a black man himself Whitlock has the understanding that Rickey’s role was as important as Robinson’s was. To paraphrase Whitlock, “no minority ever advanced without the support of someone in the majority”.
1949 would be Robinson’s third year in the league, but the gates weren’t really open to black players yet. At the end of 1949 only three teams, the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians would have black players on their roster. The Dodgers would have Robinson, Roy Campanella, and rookie Don Newcombe. The Giants had Hank Thompson, who originally came up with the Browns in 1947, and rookie Monte Irvin. The Indians had Larry Doby, the legendary Satchel Paige, and rookie Luke Easter. Of these first eight players, five would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It would take another ten years before all teams would break the color barrier.
In Milwaukee the city fathers began a trend that would haunt baseball and professional sports for decades. They selected a site, the Story Quarry, to construct a new baseball stadium. The problem, of course, is that Milwaukee didn’t have a team. The city fathers would use this new facility, County Stadium, to lure the Boston Braves to Milwaukee in 1953. County Stadium thus became the first stadium built at public expense for the use by a major professional team and the first to entice a team to move from one city to another.
In 1966 Atlanta would bribe the Braves to re-locate from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
A couple of events in the American League are worthy of note here. Joe DiMaggio became the first player to be paid $100,000. DiMaggio only played in 76 games in 1949, but was still a vital cog in the Yankees drive to the world championship. Today if a player racked up DiMaggio’s counting numbers of 14 home runs, 58 runs scored, and 67 runs batted in while playing all year, say 152 games, he would be worth $5,000,000.
The other Yankee tidbit is that on Opening Day they unveiled the monuments to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins. These monuments were located in dead center field approximately 450 feet from home plate. The monuments would remain in the field of play until Yankee Stadium was remodeled in 1977.
The Mexican League had folded after the 1948 season but the players who “jumped” to it were still banned from returning to the major leagues. Max Lanier and Fred Martin sued for $2.5 million dollars and the right to be re-instated. A judge quickly quashes their claim to re-instatement. On June 5, 1949 Happy Chandler will lift the ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. Lanier and Martin would later drop their lawsuit. Only Sal Maglie would return from his Mexican adventure and have a significant career.
The National League race of 1949 was a two-team affair between the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, but two other teams need mention here. The Philadelphia Phillies were one of the most hapless franchises of all time. They begin in 1883 as the Philadelphia Quakers. They would change their name to Phillies in 1890. They won the National League pennant in 1915, but lost the World Series to Boston four games to one.
From 1918 to 1948 the Phillies were absolutely moribund. In an eight team league over a thirty-one year period they finished fourth once, fifth twice, and sixth once. The rest of the time they spent about equally between seventh place and the cellar. In the 1949 the Phillies would climb to third place behind such stars as Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Jim Konstanty, Del Ennis, and Curt Simmons. In 1950 they would become the Whiz Kids.
In Chicago, on June 15, 1949, Ruth Steinhagen shot Eddie Waitkus of the Phillies. She would later be placed in a facility to treat mental illness. Waitkus would miss the rest of the season but would recover and play another six seasons. It was this incident that would be the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s short story The Natural.
Not so fortunate was Pirates pitcher Ernie “Tiny” Bonham. After beating the Phillies 8-2 in late August Bonham developed appendicitis. After the appendectomy and stomach surgery Bonham died. His widow would receive $90 a month for the next ten years. It was the first benefit ever paid out of the player’s pension fund.
The Boston Braves had won the National League pennant in 1948 behind the pitching of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. The everyday players were pretty nondescript. In 1949 they fell to feuding with each other. Even before the season started Manager Billy Southworth called a closed-door meeting to air things out. Finally in mid-August Southworth was removed as manager and replaced by John Cooney, but the Braves still finished fourth. The side bar to this run-of-the-mill team dissension story is that the Braves players in a moment of spite voted Southworth only a half share of the losing World Series pot from 1948. Commissioner Happy Chandler overruled the players and awarded Southworth a full share. After the season the Braves would trade two of their best players, Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky, to the Giants for four players.
The Pittsburgh Pirates at 71-83 had a fairly uneventful summer (other than Bonham’s medical problems) and finished sixth. Ralph Kiner hit four consecutive home runs for the second time in his career. In his last two at bats on September 11th and his first two at bats on September 13th he cracks home runs.
The race between the Dodgers and Cardinals featured some magnificent offensive performances. Robinson led the league in hitting, second in runs batted in (124), and third in runs scored (122). He had an OPS of .960 and an RCAA of 54. Musial was second in hitting (.338), second in runs scored (128), third in runs batted in (123), and second in home runs (36) His OPS was 1.062 with an RCAA of 84.
Most of the future “Boys of Summer” had arrived. Reese, Robinson, Campanella, Hodges, Furillo, Erskine, Cox, Snider, Newcombe, and Roe were on the scene. Of lesser importance, Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, had one fruitless at bat. In addition to Musial the Cardinals had future hall of famers in Red Schoendienst, and Enos Slaughter.
The race was simply nip and tuck all the way. Neither team came out particularly hot. After twenty-five games the Dodgers were 12-13 and the Cardinals were 10-15. The Dodgers absorbed their twelfth and thirteen losses at the hands of the Braves. In the first of those two losses Earl Torgeson is sidelined for the rest of the season with a separated shoulder when he attempts to block Jackie Robinson on a double play.
In his first major league start on May 5, 1949, Don Newcombe pitches a five hit shut out over the Reds. The same day in the second game of a double header (remember those) Ed Raffensberger pitched a one-hit shutout for the Reds. Raffensberger died earlier this week.
The 1949 All-Star Game is held in Brooklyn at venerable Ebbets Field. The National Leaguers commit five errors assisting the junior circuit to a 11-7 victory. Of importance is that this is the first All-Star Game with any black participants. Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe of the Dodgers and Larry Doby of the Indians were named all-stars.
The Dodgers led the Cardinal by a slim margin until July 24, 1949. That day Stan Musial hits for the cycle and leads the Cardinals to a 14-1 whipping of the Dodgers in Brooklyn. This may well be the came in which Dodger fans respectfully bestowed the title “The Man” on Musial. The Cardinals (54-36) now claim a half-game lead over the Dodgers (53-36). The next day the two teams play to a 4-4 tie.
The Cardinals basically held the lead from this point until late September. In an incredibly close race the Cardinals led by one game after 100 games, were tied after 110 games, led by 1 after 120 games, and led by 3 after 120 games which would be their high-water mark. After 140 game the Cardinals led by two games. They still clung to a one game lead with just five games to go. But the Cardinals then dropped two straight to the sixth place Pirates and two more to the cellar dwelling Cubs. They did win their final game against the Cubs. They finished at 96-58, which is good enough to win a lot of pennants.
The Dodger didn’t finish much better than the Cardinals. The lost to the Phillies, beat the Braves twice, and then lost to the Phillies again before beating the Phillies on the last day of the season to clinch a one-game final margin over the valiant Cardinals.
The Dodgers would go on to be overwhelmed by the DiMaggio led Yankees four games to one.
Jackie Robinson would be awarded the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.In post season news a proposal to revive the spitball is rejected. Apparently the eleven-year-old Gaylord Perry didn’t get the message.
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