Tale of Three Cities: The Race for the 1956 National League Pennant
by Glen Stroup
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a spring of hope for the World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers, it was a winter of despair as the Dodgers lost a close World Series to the Yankees, it was a season of light for the Braves and Redlegs; it was a season of darkness for the Cubs, Phillies and Giants, it was the end for Jackie Robinson, it was the start for Frank Robinson – in short, the 1956 National League season was one for the ages.
The 1956 National League pennant race was a story of three teams. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the returning World Series champions and would again be considered the favorites. The Milwaukee Braves were an up and coming team that would win the World Series the following year. The Cincinnati Redlegs were the surprise team of 1956, but could not build on their excellent year and regressed before becoming a contender in the early sixties.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were nearing the end of a long run with a core group of players that included Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson. From 1947 to 1956, the Dodgers rode their stellar group of players to six National League titles. In addition to this group of stars, the 1956 the Dodgers also featured Don Newcombe, who was the National League MVP and the first Cy Young award winner.
The Dodgers were also strengthened by the arrival of an old nemesis. Sal Maglie was sold to the Dodgers from Cleveland on May 15th after being released by the Giants the previous season. “The Barber” turned out to be an integral part of the Dodgers pitching staff. He won 13 games against only 5 losses and finished with an E.R.A. under 3.
Led by an established pitching star and a young hitting star, the Milwaukee Braves were building the dominant NL franchise of the late fifties. Hank Aaron was in the third year of his long superstar career and the 35 year-old Warren Spahn was working on what would be the first of six consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more.
The Braves had a balanced hitting attack, which included All-Star and future Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Matthews, All-Star catcher Del Crandall and first baseman Joe Adcock. The pitching staff also featured three additional pitchers who won ten games or more. Lew Burdette won 19 games and finished with a better E.R.A. than Spahn, Bob Buhl added 18 wins and Ray Crone added 11.
The Cincinnati Redlegs were a team in transition. Ted Kluszewski had what would turn out to be his last productive year and he would be traded to the Pirates after an injury plagued 1957 season. Frank Robinson had an outstanding first year. Not only did he make the All-Star team, he ended up winning the NL Rookie of the Year award and setting a Major League record for most home runs by a rookie.
The Redlegs scored 5 runs per game on the way to leading the National League in scoring. A healthy Kluszewski, an outfield trio of Robinson, Gus Bell and Wally Post and the underrated catching combination of Ed Bailey and Smoky Burgess helped the Redlegs to outscore their opponent in 91 games that year. However, the weakness of the Redlegs that season was that while the offense was scoring 5 runs a game the pitching staff was giving up 4.25.
The Dodgers and Giants both started the 1956 season with uncertainty about their futures. The Dodgers played 15 games in Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium and were looking at several Brooklyn locations to build a new stadium. The Giants were also looking into building a new stadium. A new 110,000-seat stadium located in Manhattan was proposed. However, the cost was determined to be over $75 million dollars and the project was eventually scrapped. In a lighter note, former NFL player Frank Umont becomes the first umpire to wear glasses in a regular season game. Heckling ensues. At the end of April, no team had established itself as a clear favorite and no team had fallen back out of the race. The Dodgers and Cardinals were tied for 1st with no other team trailing by more than 3 ½ games.
On May 12th, Jackie Robinson caused headlines by shoving a newspaper article into the face of scout Tom Sheehan that stated that Carl Erskine was done as a Major League pitcher. Robinson smugly brought this up after Erskine had just pitched a no-hitter against the Giants. Also in May, Pittsburgh Pirate Dale Long set a Major League record by homering in 8 consecutive games. He held this record by himself until Don Mattingly tied him in 1987. May 26th saw three Redleg pitchers combine to no hit the Braves for nine and 2/3 innings. Alas, the Braves ruined the no-hitter in the 10th and won the game in 11 innings.
By the end of May a few teams started to fall back in the race. The Cubs were 11 ½ games out already and were well on their way to losing 94 games under manager Stan Hack. The Cubs had a young Ernie Banks playing shortstop but little else. They were in the midst of 20 straight years of finishing 5th or worse and wouldn’t pose any threat for the rest of the year. The Phillies and the Giants were slowly working their way out of the pennant race also. The Phillies were lead by future Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts but the Phillies couldn’t provide their big two stars with more than a couple of good players to help. The Giants were two years removed from winning the World Series and had a young Willie Mays patrolling the large dimensions of the Polo Ground’s center field. The magic of 1954 seemed to be long gone and the Giants never really challenged for the pennant.
In the first part of June the Braves struggled to win consistently and on June 17th in the midst of a four game series with the Dodgers, Charlie Grimm was asked to resign. Fred Haney took over the reigns and the Braves promptly responded by dumping the Dodgers in a doubleheader. The Braves went on to win 9 more games in a row before finally losing again. In that span the Braves went from 3 1/2 games out to a 2 game lead.
The end of June saw two teams, the Pirates and the Cardinals, desperately trying to stay with the big three of Milwaukee, Cincinnat and Brooklyn. The Pirates made a valiant attempt at challenging the more experienced teams of the National League but couldn’t quite keep up the pace they had established earlier in the season. The oldest player in the starting lineup was only 30 and the team featured six every day players who were 25 years old or younger. Two of the young Pirates were future Hall of Famers who were just starting their careers. The 19 year-old Bill Mazeroski was in his first year of playing second base for the Pirates and Roberto Clemente was only in his second season. As the season wore on the Pirates were not able to keep up the pace and they faded to a 7th place finish.
On July 21st two Dodgers had memorable days. Junior Gilliam set a major league record by recording 12 assists as a second baseman and Pee Wee Reese collected his 2000th career hit.
During the month of July the Milwaukee Braves increased their lead over their nearest competitors. The Redlegs fell 2 games back and the Dodgers were now four games out. The big story, however, was the St. Louis Cardinals falling out of the race. The Cardinals started July only 3 games out but thanks to a 9-16 record over the course of July they now found themselves 11 games back. The Cards were a team in transition. They had won four National League pennants and three World Series behind the great Stan Musial. Musial, however, was starting to wind down his Hall of Fame career and the Cardinals didn’t have enough around him to overcome their July swoon. The Cardinals would fade towards a 4th place finish but they would play an important role as a spoiler later in the season.
August did not bring much change in the standing. The Redlegs, Braves and Dodgers continued to occupy the top spots as the other teams fought for a 4th place finish at best. The Redlegs continued their torrid hitting pace. On August 18th the Redlegs tied a National League record by connecting on 8 home runs in one game. The Redlegs also would go on to tie the National League record for most home runs in a season.
The end of August brought more of the same and going into September the Redlegs and Dodgers and Braves had continued their domination of the National League and were ready to embark on one of the greatest pennant races in NL history. Milwaukee had a 2 ½ game lead over the Dodgers and a 3 ½ game lead over the Redlegs.
September started off bittersweet for the Dodgers. They swept a double header from the Giants only to turn around and be swept by the Giants the next day in a doubleheader. The Braves and Redlegs both won a couple of games and then met up for a four game series in Milwaukee. The teams split a double header but then the Redlegs closed the gap on the Braves by taking the next two games. The Dodgers took advantage by taking two of three from the Pirates.
While the Dodgers and the Braves played the two worst teams in the NL (Cubs and Giants), the Redlegs tried to build on their momentum in St Louis. The Cardinals had stuck around the pennant race but ultimately fallen back due to mediocre pitching. The Cardinals were still a very dangerous team in Sportsman’s Park and they ultimately finished with a 43-34 record in their home park. The Cardinals only outscored the Redlegs by four runs for the series. Unfortunately for the Redlegs the Cardinals also won all three games.
The series with the Cardinals left the Redlegs 3 games out of 1st. They got a break in the schedule. While the Dodgers and Braves played each other, the Redlegs got to beat up on the Pirates and Giants. Frank Robinson hit his then Major League Record 38th homerun as a rookie in a win over the Giants.
The Braves had a one game lead on the Dodgers as they prepared to invade Brooklyn on September 11th and 12th for a two game series. The Dodgers took a 4-2 decision in the opener but couldn’t capitalize because the Braves won the finale 8-7.
Milwaukee looked like they were going to extend their lead when they swept a doubleheader from the Phillies as the Dodgers rested. The Braves couldn’t keep their momentum and they dropped their next two games. The Dodgers won both of theirs and the teams found themselves tied with a little more than two weeks to go.
On September 16th and 17th the Redlegs went into Ebbets Field with a big chance to gain in the standings. With the exception of a make up game between the Braves and the Redlegs this would be the time any of the challengers would play head to head. Brooklyn took a three game lead over the Redlegs by winning the opener 3-2. The Dodgers then extended their lead by taking a close 5-4 victory in the finale. Although the Redlegs were not out of the race, this two game series would deal a serious blow to their championship aspirations.
In the week that followed the Dodgers split a series with the Cardinals and then dropped three of four to the Pirates. The Braves managed three wins in five games against the Pirates and Cubs. Meanwhile, the Redlegs dropped a doubleheader with the Phillies and then went on winning streak to climb back into the race. Cincinnati took the final two games with the Phillies and then swept four games from the Cardinals. This streak left them a game behind the Dodgers and 1 ½ games behind the leading Braves.
The Redlegs would play three more games, a make up game against the Braves at Crosley Field and two games against the last place Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Dodgers would finish the season at home with two games against the 5th place Phillies and three games against the 6th place Pirates. The Braves would have the toughest schedule, they would be on the road to play the makeup games versus the Redlegs and then they would travel to St. Louis for three games against the 4th place Cardinals.
The Dodgers started off their final games with a bang. The aging Sal Maglie, after having been waived by the Giants and sold to Brooklyn, pitched a no-hitter in one of the biggest games of his career. The Braves kept their ½ game lead by beating the Redlegs 7-1. The Redlegs still had a slim chance but now needed the Dodgers and Braves to lose the rest of their games.
While the Braves and Redlegs traveled the Dodgers lost a 7-3 decision to the Phillies pushing them a full game behind the Braves. A break in the schedule on September 27th allowed each of the teams to rest up for one final push. The pennant would come down to the last series of the year for each team.
On the 28th of September the Braves started their series with the Cardinals in Sportsman's Park. The Cardinals had a chance to be a spoiler and cut the Braves lead with a 5-4 victory. The Dodgers pulled within a ½ game and the Redlegs stayed alive at 2 games back.
The 29th of September would be one of the key days in the race to decide the pennant. When all was said and done the Redlegs were eliminated, the Dodgers had moved into 1st place and the Braves were reeling. The Dodgers made their move by sweeping both games of a doubleheader from the Pirates. The now struggling Braves lost a heart-breaking 2-1 game to the Cardinals in 12 innings. The Redlegs beat the Cubs but were eliminated from the pennant chase.
The pennant came down to one final day. The Dodgers got two home runs each from Sandy Amoros and Duke Snider to beat the Pirates and clinch the pennant. The Braves and Redlegs both won but it was too late. The Dodgers would move on to meet the New York Yankees in one of the most memorable World Series ever.
The 1956 World Series would mark the last time that the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees would meet to decide the baseball championship. The Yankees and Dodgers had meet in the World Series six times before and the mighty Yankees had come out on top five times. However, the Dodgers were the defending champions after finally beating the Yankees in a thrilling four games to three games victory in the previous year’s classic.
After Games 1 and 2 of the ’56 series the Dodgers looked to be in good shape to take the title again. In the first game, Sal Maglie pitched the home team to victory by tossing a complete game. Whitey Ford was hit hard in the early going and was gone by the 4th inning. In Game 2 the bats on both teams exploded and runs were scored early and often. Both of the starting pitchers, Don Larsen for the Yankees and Don Newcombe for the Dodgers, were both given the hook in the 2nd inning. The Dodgers scored more runs off of the Yankees bullpen and managed to slug their way to a 13-8 victory.
Game 3 moved to Yankee Stadium where Whitey Ford got the call again after lasting only a few innings in Game 1. Opposing Ford would be Roger Craig who had finished 12-11 on the year. A 1-1 pitcher’s duel was broken up in the 6th inning. The Dodgers put one run on the board in the top of the 6th but the Yankees came back with three runs from an Enos Slaughter home run and went on to win the game.
In Game 4 Casey Stengel decided on 26 year-old Tom Sturdivant in an attempt to tie the series up. Sturdivant pitched a complete game seven hitter on the way to a 6-2 victory for the Yankees.
Game 5 featured one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pitching performances in World Series history. Don Larsen was knocked out of Game 2 in the second inning of a Dodger victory. In Game 5, however, everything went his way. Twenty-seven Dodgers came to the plate and twenty-seven players went back to the dugout after making an out. Larsen had pitched a perfect game on the most dramatic stage that baseball has to offer. Sal Maglie pitched his second complete game of the series but it wasn’t enough to match the perfection of Larsen.
It was back to Ebbets Field for Game 6 where the Dodgers needed to sweep both games to take the series. The Dodgers went with Clem Labine, who was normally their best pitcher out of the bullpen. Bob Turley, who had gone 8-4 with a 5.05 E.R.A. for the season, was picked by Yankee manager Casey Stengel to oppose Labine. These two unlikely starters did their best to match Larsen’s wizardry from the day before. Both pitchers pitched nine innings of shutout baseball and were still in the game to pitch the 10th inning. Labine had no problems with the Yankees in the 10th inning but in the bottom of the inning Turley put the winning run on base. One of the heroes of Game 3 would become one of the goats of Game 6. Veteran Enos Slaughter, playing in his first World Series as a New York Yankee after winning two championships with the St. Louis Cardinals, misplayed a hard hit drive by Jackie Robinson into the game winning hit. The Series would go to a Game 7 and unlike the previous year’s Series the Dodgers would have the home field advantage for the pivotal game.
Game 7 could not match the excitement of the other games in the series. Yogi Berra hit two two-run homers and Elston Howard added a solo shot off of NL MVP Don Newcombe and the Yankees cruised to a 9-0 win behind the stellar pitching of Johnny Kucks in the last World Series game at Ebbets Field. The fans of Brooklyn wouldn’t get another chance to cheer for their heroes in a World Series again.
The tales for each team of the three cities would go in very different directions after the 1956 season The Braves would rebound from the heartbreak of 1956 and would go on to play against the Yankees in the World Series in the two years that followed, winning in 1957 and losing in 1958. The Redlegs took a step back in the years that followed but continued to build around Frank Robinson and finally broke through in 1961 with a National League title. The Dodgers would lose some of their heart and soul when they tried to trade Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants. Instead of accepting a trade, Robinson retired and left the burden of the continuing quest for racial equality in the Major Leagues to young stars such as Mays, Aaron and Frank Robinson. The Dodgers would fall to third the following year and then move abruptly to California where they would start a new tradition of excellence.
The 1956 National League pennant race was one of the closest and most exciting in history. The Braves and Reds both had a chance to win it up until the last days of the season. But in the end the experience of the Brooklyn Dodgers won out and they took their final pennant. Baseball would change quite a bit in the years to come and 1956 was the end of an era for the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
With a Nod to “A Tale Of Two Cities” By Charles Dickens
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