Dreams and Dynasties: American League 1964
by Shawn Weaver
It was the beginning of the end, but nobody saw it at the time. The New York Yankees, the most dominant team in baseball history, were on an unparalleled string of success with thirteen pennants in the preceding fifteen years. Nine of those pennants had netted World Series wins. There was some doubt that the Yankee dynasty would ever end. This was a time of dynasties, as the Boston Celtics were on their way to their 6th straight NBA title, a string that would stretch to 8, and 11 of 13. The Yankee dynasty had survived the 1960 changing of the guard, when 70-year-old Casey Stengel “retired” following a World Series loss to the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates, and Ralph Houk took the managerial reins. Houk then managed the Yankees to three pennants and two Series wins. Now, the guard changed again, as Houk moved up to the general manager’s position, and veteran player Yogi Berra was hired for the manager’s job. It looked like another easy year for the Yankees.
The top contender was expected to be the White Sox, coming off a second-place finish even though they were 10.5 games off the pace in 1963. With a solid, deep pitching staff, the Chisox hoped to follow in the footsteps of the Dodgers, who had swept the 1963 Series on the strength of their pitching. Chicago didn’t have a Koufax, but a deep stable of pitchers and a balanced offense made for a solid team. The Twins had the league’s biggest power team, and a promising rookie in Tony Oliva. The Orioles had a young and exciting pitching staff, plus airtight infield defense featuring Luis Aparicio and Brooks Robinson. The Indians had power, both at bat and with their flame-throwing young staff. Detroit still had power hitters Al Kaline and Norm Cash, but had traded their best pitcher, Jim Bunning, to the Phillies. The rest of the league figured to languish, but the Yankees were overwhelming favorites.
The calendar year 1964 got off to a good start, when I was born January 10. The nation was still reeling from the death of President Kennedy the previous November, the Vietnam War continued to rage, and a battle was being fought in the streets of the U.S. as the Civil Rights movement continued. February 24th, the British Invasion started as the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and began their first American tour. On March 14, Jack Ruby was convicted of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. And on Monday, April 13, the baseball season got underway as the Houston Colt 45s beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-3 to start the National League, and the Los Angeles Angels beat the Washington Senators 4-0 to begin the sparring in the AL.
The Orioles got off to the best start, winning their first four games, but as play continued the pack did not separate much early. The Indians took over first place on April 24, but with rainouts had just a 4-1 record on that date. Cleveland kept their lead, but on May 1 the Indians’ 6-3 record had them just 3 games in front of last place Kansas City, at 4-7. The AL teams continued to bunch together, even as the Indians continued to pick up steam, behind hard-throwing 21-year-old Sam McDowell and power hitter Leon Wagner. On May 6, the White Sox tied the Indians at the top with a 10-5 record, and soon Cleveland began to fade. The Senators and Athletics were establishing themselves as the doormats. The Yankees were pacing the White Sox, and Boston also began to fade. On May 16, the Indians had clawed back to the top spot, and the Orioles were just a half-game behind, with 19-year-old Wally Bunker pitching like a house afire. The next day, the White Sox and Yankees were tied atop the league. This was not shaping up like another Yankee runaway.
As the Twins offense began to heat up and threatened to make it a five-team race, the Angels sank near the bottom of the league. By June 1, the AL had separated into haves and have-nots, as the White Sox had the best percentage at 24-12, behind the pitching of Gary Peters and Joel Horlen, and the hitting of LF Floyd Robinson, with power from SS Ron Hansen and 3B Pete Ward. The Orioles, at 28-15, were actually a half-game ahead, Brooks Robinson having a strong season, 22-year-old LF Boog Powell providing power, and SS Luis Aparicio tearing up the basepaths. Wally Bunker was leading the pitching, with support from Milt Pappas and veteran Robin Roberts. Cleveland trailed by 3.5 games, as did Minnesota, with Jim Kaat and Camilo Pascual being joined by trade acquisition Mudcat Grant, acquired from Cleveland with IF Jerry Kindall for P Lee Stange. Grant had been struggling for the Indians, but immediately solidified the Twins’ rotation, supporting the power of Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, and Jimmie Hall, and the fantastic rookie season of Tony Oliva. The Yankees had slumped to fifth, 4.5 games out, and there were rumblings in the Bronx that Berra might be good for morale, but he was not good for discipline. The Bombers’ bench was proving thin, key players like Mantle, Maris and Kubek were missing time, and the pitching was struggling as Ralph Terry was ineffective, leaving the rotation with young Jim Bouton, aging Whitey Ford, and wild hard-thrower Al Downing. Boston was also surprisingly above .500, with 19-year-old rookie Tony Conigliaro providing welcome support for Dick Stuart and Carl Yastrzemski, but little pitching ahead of bullpen ace Dick Radatz.
The Orioles and White Sox continued to separate themselves from the pack in June, as violence in the South got hotter. On June 11, the White Sox led the Orioles by 1.5 games when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa. On June 14, Baltimore retook the lead when the Yankees swept the White Sox in a doubleheader, while the Orioles twice beat the Red Sox. Chicago rolled into Baltimore for a key mid-June series, and won three of five, but left little settled. The White Sox then hosted the Yankees, and lost four straight to drop into third as the Yankees traveled to Baltimore for a series. The Orioles swept three to establish a 3.5 game lead over the Yankees, with the White Sox four games back in third as of June 26. By now, it was a three-team race, with the Twins in fourth and eight games back.
The murder of four little girls and three civil rights workers steeled the nation’s resolve on race relations, and on July 2 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. As the AL contenders played also-rans, the positions were maintained so that the Orioles kept first place with the Yankees and White Sox trailing close behind. The race was again shaping up as the White Sox’ pitching versus the balanced teams of the Yankees and Orioles. The Yankees were stumbling as Tony Kubek was suffering with back trouble, and Clete Boyer was not hitting. Mantle and Maris each missed time with injuries. Berra, with backup Phil Linz in the lineup, began playing the better-hitting Linz at third base and glove man Boyer at shortstop. Hector Lopez filled in at outfield spots, and the juggling led Berra to keep Tom Tresh in left field, rather than shifting him to shortstop where he had played as a rookie the year before in Kubek’s absence. Lack of another bat off the bench, save for defensively challenged Johnny Blanchard, also kept Tresh in place. At the historic July 4 marker, the Orioles still led by three games.
On July 14, the Orioles came into Yankee Stadium with a 1.5 game lead in tow. The Yankees won the first two games to grab the league lead, then lost the third and final match to fall back into second. Meanwhile, the Angels had put together a spirited run to get to .500, with the least productive offense in the league but excellent pitching from youngster Dean Chance. The Indians had faded back into eighth place. On July 21, the Indians swept the Orioles in a doubleheader while the Angels swept the White Sox, and a Yankee win over the Senators landed them again in first place. On the 23rd, the three teams were separated by a bare half-game. Baltimore regained the lead the next day with a sweep of the Senators. On the 26th, the Yankees regained first, and the seesaw threatened to tip back and forth precariously the rest of the summer. On July 31, the Ranger 7 probe collected the first samples of moon dust from the lunar surface, and the Yankees were percentage points ahead of the Orioles, with the White Sox one game behind.
The Orioles regained first with a win on August 3, then the Yankees returned the favor on August 6. Another Orioles-Yankees series began the next day, with the Orioles taking three of four to send the Yankees spinning into third place. The White Sox came into Yankee Stadium August 11, and swept a doubleheader that day. With the Yankees down to 3.5 back and reeling, tensions boiled over. On the Yankee team bus, infielder Phil Linz sat in the back playing a harmonica. Incensed with an attitude he interpreted as taking defeat lightly, manager Yogi Berra told Linz to cut it out. Linz asked Mickey Mantle, sitting nearby, what Berra had said. Mantle replied, “He said ‘louder.’” Linz persisted, Berra confronted him, and Linz flipped the harmonica at Berra, who swatted it away, cutting another team member. This incident is often credited with bringing the Yankees together as a team, but a more important factor was probably the callup of Mel Stottlemyre, who began a terrific pitching run down the stretch and solidified the rotation, as well as a hitting tear by Mantle. The Yankees won the next two from Chicago, and the news broke that team owners Dan Topping and Del Webb had sold 80% interest in the team to the CBS television network, amid allegations that the corporate influence would ruin the game and guarantee the Yankee dynasty in perpetuity. The Yankees then traveled to Baltimore for a series with the Orioles. New York won two of three, and then went to Chicago.
The White Sox swept all four games, and at the end of the day August 20 the White Sox led the Orioles by a half-game, with the Yankees 4.5 back. The Orioles gained first the next day, and the Yankees looked like a beaten team. On the morning of the 23rd, the Yankees were 5.5 games back of the Orioles. After a loss to the Red Sox on August 28, the Yankees stood in third place, 4.5 games back. Then, something happened.
There were no reports of a loud “click” being heard, but to the end of the season, the Yankees went 27-9 to race past the other contenders. The White Sox did not exactly fall apart, going 19-11 in the same span, while the Orioles were a respectable 19-14. But New York, powered by the tremendous pitching of Stottlemyre and the hitting of Mantle, drove to the pennant. The White Sox took the lead on September 5, as the Yankees closed slowly, inexorably. Baltimore retook the lead on the 7th, but the race continued to get tighter. On the 16th, all three teams had a .590 winning percentage. New York took first place with a win over the Angels on the 17th, then swept the Athletics to solidify the lead. After a win over the Senators on the 26th, the Yankees stood four games ahead of the Orioles and White Sox, with eight to play. A doubleheader sweep of the Tigers on the 30th left the Yankees with a 3.5 game lead over second-place Chicago and a magic number of two. On October 1st, New York dropped both halves of their doubleheader to Detroit, and then beat Cleveland the next day while Chicago beat Kansas City twice to clinch a tie. A victory over the Indians October 3rd clinched the pennant for the Yankees, who then dropped the season’s last game to finish at 99-63, one game ahead of the White Sox and two games ahead of the Orioles for a hard-fought pennant. No one guessed at the time that the Yankees wouldn’t win another until 1976.
A gimpy Mickey Mantle, who despite his leg pain produced a .303 average, 35 homers and 111 RBI, led the Yankees. Elston Howard, the defending MVP, clicked for a .313 average, 15 homers and 84 RBI. 1B Joe Pepitone kicked in 100 RBI, while Roger Maris produced a .281 average, 26 homers and 71 RBI. The pitching staff was led by Jim Bouton at 18-13 with a 3.02 ERA, Whitey Ford at 17-6 with a 2.13 ERA, and Al Downing led the league in strikeouts and walks while going 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA. Late season callup Mel Stottlemyre was invaluable down the stretch, producing a 9-3 record and a 2.06 ERA, and earning a start in the second World Series game, following Ford.
The White Sox got production from SS Ron Hansen’s .261 average, 20 homers and 68 RBI, while 3B Pete Ward kicked in a .282 average, 23 homers, and 94 RBI. LF Floyd Robinson batted .301 with 11 homers. Gary Peters led the pitching staff with a 20-8 record and 2.50 ERA, with Juan Pizarro at 19-9, 2.56 and Joel Horlen at 13-9, 1.88. Knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm was the relief ace at 12-9 with 27 saves and a 1.99 ERA.
Baltimore’s surprise pennant run won an MVP award for Brooks Robinson, the slick-fielding third baseman who led the league in RBI and finished second in batting average, with a .317-28-118 line. Boog Powell led the league in slugging percentage and hit 39 homers with 99 RBI and a .290 average. SS Luis Aparicio led the league with 57 steals and played magnificent defense. 1B Norm Siebern led the league in walks with 106, and had a .245 average. Wally Bunker led the pitchers with a 19-5 record and 2.69 ERA, Milt Pappas finished 16-7 and a 2.96 ERA, and Robin Roberts was 13-7 and a 2.91 ERA.
In the rest of the league, Detroit finished 4th, as catcher Bill Freehan batted .300 with 18 homers and 80 RBI, and Al Kaline hit .293-17-68. Dave Wickersham won 19 and Mickey Lolich 18 games. Los Angeles finished 5th mostly due to Dean Chance’s Cy Young season, as he finished 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA. Jim Fregosi hit .277-18-72. Cleveland and Minnesota tied for sixth. The Indians set a record for strikeouts in a season with 1161, led by Sam McDowell’s 177, Sonny Siebert’s 144, Jack Kralick at 119 and Luis Tiant at 105. Leon Wagner hit 31 homers. The Twins boasted the top-scoring offense, with batting champ/Rookie of the Year Tony Oliva (.323-32-94) and home run champ Harmon Killebrew (.270-49-111). Jim Kaat’s 17-11 and 3.22 ERA led the pitching staff.
Boston finished 8th with Dick Stuart’s 33 homers and 114 RBI, while Tony Conigliaro hit .290-24-52 in his rookie year at 19, while also dealing with a broken ankle in a foreshadowing of an injury-shortened career. Dick “The Monster” Radatz brought heat out of the bullpen to finish 16-9 with a league-leading 29 saves and a 2.29 ERA to win Fireman of the Year honors. The Washington Senators lost 100 games, with CF Don Lock (.248-18-80) and Claude Osteen (15-13, 3.33) their best players, and the Kansas City Athletics lost 105, with no pitching to speak of while Rocky Colavito hit .274-34-102 and SS Wayne Causey hit .281-8-49.
Gold Glove Winners: P Jim Kaat, Minnesota; C Elston Howard, New York; 1B Vic Power, Minnesota/Los Angeles; 2B Bobby Richardson, New York; 3B Brooks Robinson, Baltimore; SS Luis Aparicio, Baltimore; OF Vic Davalillo, Cleveland; Al Kaline, Detroit; Jim Landis, Chicago. According to Bill James’ Win Shares, Norm Cash of Detroit should have been selected over Power, who was not a regular; 2B Jerry Adair of Baltimore and SS Ron Hansen of Chicago were more deserving; and the top three defensive outfielders were Jackie Brandt of Baltimore, Jimmie Hall of Minnesota, and Mike Hershberger of Chicago.
The Yankees faced a young Cardinal team in the World Series and lost in seven games, as Whitey Ford started Game 1, got knocked around, and did not pitch again with arm problems. Mel Stottlemyre made three starts, pitching Games 2, 5 and 7, as Berra did not entrust Downing with the Game 7 ball until he appeared in relief of a frightfully tiring Stottlemyre in the fifth.
The 1964 AL season marked a last hurrah for a strong White Sox team that could manage only a 1959 pennant, a coming-out for the Orioles, the 1966 winners and builders of a dynasty, and a gathering step for the Twins, the 1965 flag winners. The impending fall of the Yankees would create an American League free-for-all that would produce four different pennant winners over the next four years.
Sources used include: The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball; The Summer Game (Angell); Win Shares (James); baseball-reference.com; encyclopedia.com for the current events; and retrosheet.org for the daily results and standings.
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