As those of you who follow this blog know, when Spring is in the air, my mind turns for a time to Baseball: to the snap of a ball in a mitt; to the crack of a bat against a ball; to the stadium full of fans; to the flow of memories that all those sights, sounds and smells bring back; and to the hopeful anticipation that comes with the start of each new season. Yes, in a few months, there will be time enough to ask about what could or should have been, and to talk about “next year;” but for now there is joy in Mudville—Baseball and all its Caseys will soon be back.
My thoughts this Spring start with the reality that faces our home team, the Astros, as they try to rebuild the franchise as they are reborn in the American League West—arguably the most competitive division in Baseball right now. In fact, we have to acknowledge that what confronts the new owners and management is as daunting a task as any that has confronted this organization since its formation in the hands of men like Roy Hofheinz and Paul Richards. And as I thought about all this my mind shifted to Paul Richards, and about another summer and another story—the memorable season of 1954 in the American League.
1954—the year that serves as the backdrop for the wonderful comedy My Favorite Year—found America in the middle of the first Eisenhower term and the post-war Baby Boom, on the start of its march to justice for all Americans with the issuance of the landmark decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, with an expanding economy and a feeling of growing confidence in the first year after the end of the Korean War. In Baseball, Willie Mays and Ted Williams would return to the game from military service, and the season would see Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, and Bill Skowron begin their careers. On the personal front, my dad, who had just turned 30, was running his family’s business in Chicago and dating my mom—I was still 4 ½ years away from making my entrance to the family story. This season, like so many other seasons since he was a boy going to the park with his grandfather, my dad would use his season tickets to Comiskey Park to watch the White Sox engage in one of the most peculiar pennant races in major league history under the guidance of manager Paul Richards.
If you had been a Rip Van Winkle from September 27, 1920 to March 17, 1954, you could look at the American League and wonder if anything had changed. On the day you fell asleep, the White Sox, Indians and Yankees were locked in a tight pennant race, just as they had been in 1919. Looking at the final results of the 1953 season, the top three teams were still the Yankees, Indians and White Sox. But, as we know, a lot changed over those 33 years: the majority of the starting lineup of the White Sox would be suspended and then indicted over the next few days after Rip fell asleep, for throwing the 1919 World Series, and one of the best franchises during the first two decades of the modern era would not be competitive again until the early 1950s; the Yankees, who had never won a pennant since the founding of the franchise, would begin a run in 1921 that would see them win 22 of the next 33 AL pennants; and, though the Indians would win the 1920 pennant and World Series, the sudden death of their shortstop Ray Chapman from a bean ball to the head would coincide with the start of a decline for the team that would continue through World War II, and it would only win one other pennant and championship (in 1948) during this period.
However, for our Rip Van Winkle nothing had changed, and all of the news about the approaching 1954 season seemed to point to another three-way race in the AL, with the possibility that Boston might be in the hunt, too. Hope was especially high on the South Side of Chicago for the first time in a generation because of the work Richards had done to rebuild the team since 1951, and that hope continued through much of the summer. Richards, together with the White Sox’s new General Manager, had started a frantic effort to create a winner upon their arrival before the 1951 season, and those efforts started what would result in a 17-year streak of teams that would finish above .500.
From the start of the 1954 season, it looked as though this year would be the year the Yankee’s hold on the pennant might be broken, and that the White Sox would be the team to break it. By the end of May, the Chicago line-up would boast two former Al batting champions in Ferris Fain (formerly with the A’s) at First base and George Kell (formerly of the Tigers and Red Sox, and a future Hall of Famer) at Third base. They joined All-Stars Nellie Fox at Second base and Chico Carrasquel at Shortstop (the first of three generations of Venezuelans who would star for the White Sox at that position—the other two being Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Guillen) to form the first complete infield that had ever been named from one team to start an All-Star game for either league, and the Chisox would have a total of nine of its players named to the AL squad. Moreover, Minnie Minoso was in the midst of having the best year of his career, and the original “Mr. Cub,” Phil Cavarretta, had joined the Sox to add one of his best offensive seasons in years off the bench. On top of all of this, three of Chicago’s pitchers had 10 or more wins by the All-Star break, and were on their way to combining for a team ERA of 3.05. The team would end the year with 94 wins, and with a winning percentage above .600—the first time since 1920—and a .691 winning percentage against the teams below it in the standings.
With all that said, if you’ve now gone to Baseball-Reference.com, or one of the other websites or books on Baseball history, you’ll note that the White Sox didn’t win the American League that year. In fact, as exciting as the team was to the long-suffering South Side fans, the Sox ended the season in third place—17 games behind the Indians (who ended the season with 111 wins—the most in AL history until 2001), and 9 games behind the Yankees (who ended with 103 wins—the most by a Yankee team to that point under Casey Stengel). What happened? As Paul Harvey would say, it’s “the rest of the story” that makes the 1954 season so peculiar—and memorable—and which carries some lessons for today’s Astros and their fans.
First, the competition in the AL in 1954 was so lopsided, that it really was two different leagues—a “major” league composed of the Yankees, Indians and White Sox, and a “minor” league composed of the remaining five teams.
The competition among the “major” league teams was fierce: the Indians finished exactly .500 against both the Yankees and the White Sox (11-11 against each for a total of 22-22); while the 9-game difference in the standings at the end of the season between the Sox and the Yankees was largely based on the Yankee’s 8-game advantage over the Sox in their head-to-head match-up (15-7). In fact, if the season had just been held among these three teams, the Yankees would have won the American League again (which may explain why the Indians lost to the Giants in the World Series).
But each “major” league team had to also play the “minor” league teams—and they feasted on them. The Indians amassed an astounding 89-21 record against the rest of the league (think about that—they lost virtually the same amount of games to the rest of the league (21) as they did to just the Yankees and White Sox (22)!), while the Yankees and White Sox finished with records against the rest of the league of 77-33 and 76-34, respectively.
In this intense competition over the course of the summer, the White Sox simply could not keep up with the Yankees, or keep pace with the Indians’ unprecedented slaughter of the rest of the league.
Second, the fortuities that result from playing an entire season hit the White Sox harder than the other teams. The Sox had held or been tied for first place for 26 days of the season through June 11, and were still only 3.5 games behind the Indians after playing 85 games going into the All-Star break—but then life happened.
In same week at the end of June, both Fain and Kell injured their knees: Fain would be out for the rest of the season, and the lingering effects of the injury would lead to his retirement at the end of the 1955 season; while Kell would return in early August by moving to First base, he would play hurt the remainder of the season.
Then, on August 27th, 28-year-old Cass Michaels, Kell’s primary replacement at Third base, would become the second major leaguer that month to be carried from a game on a stretcher after being beaned in the head. Like the Indians’ Chapman three decades earlier, Michaels’ fractured skull was such a serious injury that he was given his “last rights” at the hospital. Though he recovered, the effect on his eyesight never allowed him to play again.
Finally, a contract dispute between the Comiskey family and Richards led Richards to resign before the season ended, and to accept almost twice as much money to become the manager and general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
But as I said, there is something for the Astros to learn from the peculiarly memorable season of 1954. Buried in 7th place that year were the Baltimore Orioles (ending their first season after moving from St. Louis and changing their names from the Browns) with a dismal record of 54-100. Then they obtained Richards, who steadily rebuilt the Orioles, as he had started to do with the White Sox (and as he later started to do with the Colt 45’s/Astros). By 1960, both the team on the field (built around the young Brooks Robinson) and the farm system (that was producing players like Rookie of the Year Ron Hansen, and later “Boog” Powell) began to produce results, which, with the addition of Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson later in the decade, created the foundation for the great Oriole run of winning teams through the 1983 season. Moreover, the process that Richards started in Chicago carried that organization to almost two decades of success.
If the new ownership and management of the Astros are as dedicated to a patient and thorough rebuilding process as they say they are, then we should soon have a very good team for us to enjoy for years to come—even if we may have to face the type of competitive lopsidedness in the AL West that existed in 1954 for the next few years before we get to that point. Here’s to hoping for a Paul Richards-type of turnaround for our “new” Astros!
In the meantime, it’s time again to “play ball!” And, it’s time again for another memorable season.