Sunday, April 21, 2019

"THIS IS NEXT YEAR!" The Brooklyn Dodgers 1956 Topps Team Set

One of the fun things about a completed set is deciding how you want to organize it. I have the 1956 Topps set in a binder, sorted by team, in the same order that the teams finished in the 1955 Standings. In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the National League champions, with a 98-55 record. They would win the World Series in seven games. 

Without Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers were Bums. They had 3 championship teams in the 1800s, but they had little success in the 20th Century. Just 3 National League titles from 1900 to 1947. Once Jackie joined the club in 1947, the team became a perennial contender, going to the World Series in 6 of Jackie's 10 big league seasons. Ironically, the only World Series game that Jackie would miss in his career would be Game 7 in 1955, the first and only Brooklyn World Series Championship victory.

The 1955 Dodgers' team had the best record of any team in MLB, scoring the most runs while allowing the fewest. And yet, they still had to feel like underdogs against the Yankees, a team that had bested them in the championship 4 times in a row since 1947.  The Dodgers had finished with better records in 1941, 42, and '53, but no championship. In 1942, they didn't even reach the World Series, winning 104 games but finishing in 2nd place in the National League. "Wait 'Til Next Year" was the common refrain in Brooklyn (Cubs fans came to embrace it as well.), but in 1955, it finally was next year.

The Dodgers' best hitter in 1955 was the Duke of Flatbush himself, Duke Snider. He was the team leader in hits, doubles, runs scored, walks, homers, RBI, OBP, SLG, etc. Snider would also provide power and clutch hitting during the World Series, adding 4 more homers to the 42 he hit in the regular season.

Snider was the NL leader in runs scored in 1953, '54 and '55. He was in the midst of a run of 7 straight All-Star appearances and would make it 8 overall by the end of his career. He slugged 40 or more homers every year from 1953 through 1957, and had 407 for his career. He'd score over 100 runs in a season 6 times, and drive in 100 or more runs 6 times. It took 11 years on the ballot, but he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

The best pitcher for the Dodgers in 1955 was their ace for the majority of the decade, Don Newcombe. Newk won 20 games during the regular season, but only pitched in game 1 of the World Series. During the regular season he led the NL in WHIP, with the lowest walk rate (1.5 per nine innings) and the highest rate of strikeouts to walks. He pitched complete games in 17 of his 31 starts, and registered 1 shutout on the season. If he had more plate appearances, you could argue that he was also the team's best hitter- he had 7 homers and a triple slash of .359 / .395 / .632(!) in 1955, which is not too shabby for a pitcher.

Newcombe would have an even better season in 1956, going 27 - 7 and winning both the Cy Young award and the NL MVP award as the Dodgers returned to the World Series. For his career, Newcombe had impeccable control and was able to convert from a power to finesse pitcher later on. Battling personal issues and some career setbacks, Newcombe found success again on the field in Cincinnati and also re-claimed his path in life by dedicating himself to the service of others post retirement. As a recovering alcoholic, he mentored others on their own path towards sobriety.

Jackie Robinson was not in the lineup for Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, and didn't appear in the game as a defensive replacement, pinch hitter, or pinch runner. One teammate (Newcombe) later stated that it was an injured Achilles tendon, while another offered that knee injuries sidelined Jackie. For his own part, Robinson did not mention it in his autobiography. He only talks about the great pitching performance of Johnny Podres, Sandy Amoros making an incredible catch to preserve the lead, and how it was one the greatest thrills of his life to be on a World Series winning team.

The truth was that life for Jackie with the Dodgers hadn't been the same since Walter O'Malley assumed control of the team. The cool relationship between Manager Walter Alston and Robinson didn't help either. Alston benched Jackie about 1/3 of the time in 1955, and roughly the same in 1956. Robinson was not bitter about being benched, he too was aware that his skills had declined due to age and injury. But he would note in his book that Alston and O'Malley seemed to think there was mutual resentment. O'Malley for replacing (forcing out) Branch Rickey, and Alston for taking Chuck Dressen's job as Dodgers manager. I haven't read any O'Malley biographies, but if I extrapolate from Jackie Robinson's and Bill Veeck's books, I have a consistent picture of O'Malley as a powerful man that is suspicious of anyone that might challenge that power. If there's any bitterness, it certainly wasn't on Jackie's side. He stated in no uncertain terms that he benefited from Baseball, and was glad that Baseball had benefited from him. He had been looking for his post career landing spot since the end of the 1954 season, so the timing of his trade to the Giants after the 1956 World Series and the announcement of his retirement / new role with coffee house chain Chock Full 'O Nuts was (mostly) a coincidence. He was genuinely considering the Giants' offer before Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi told the press that Robinson was trying to leverage a higher salary. That was enough for Robinson to just retire like he had been planning.

The 1955 NL MVP was actually Roy Campanella, who edged out Snider in the voting by 5 points. There was a small controversy about this as there was a single ballot from a Philadelphia writer that listed Campanella 1st and also 5th. The assumption was that one vote was meant for Snider. The writer was ill at the time the votes were being counted, so they decided to go with Campanella as written as #1, and made #5 blank. Both players received 8 first place votes, and in terms of total points, Campanella won by 5 points. Another fifth place vote for Snider would have made him the points leader in the MVP race, making him the winner. But in the end, both players made compelling cases. Campy joined Yogi Berra as league MVPs, which they had done previously in 1951. 1955 and 1951 are the only two seasons in which both MVP awards were given to Catchers.

Johnny Podres was known as a humble guy in the clubhouse, a Brooklyn kid that was thrilled to be playing for the team he grew up cheering for. So when he saw the tension on his teammates faces (or maybe just felt the tension himself), he piped up before Game 7 - "Just get me one today, boys and I'll take it from there!" This immediately loosened the mood among the team, and Podres pitched a masterful game to back up his rare boast. He later revealed that he got a great deal of confidence when Walter Alston told him after his Game 3 victory that if the series went the distance, he'd be starting Game 7.
The bullpen was led by Clem Labine, who won 13 games and saved 11 in relief, and Ed Roebuck who led the team with 12 saves.

Don Bessent and Roger Craig both sported ERAs under 3.00, and youngster Sandy Koufax led the team with 2 shutouts despite only being asked to start 5 games. Don Zimmer provided some pop off the bench, contributing 15 homers to the squad in '55. It was Walter Alston's second year as manager, but he was already establishing his style as a close to the vest tactician. He did not show the outward passion of Dodgers managers of the past like Leo Durocher, or the future like Tommy LaSorda, but he would certainly find a way to succeed, winning 7 NL Pennants, 4 World Series titles, and over 2,000 regular season games.

1 comment:

  1. That's a nice group of cards. Did not know about the mvp voting that year - interesting.

    Who's a bum!?