Sunday, March 31, 2019

Cleveland 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, Cleveland finished in 2nd place in the American League with an 93-61 record.

Baseball in Cleveland was big in the mid-fifties with a championship in 1948 and another World Series appearance in 1954. Even with that success, baseball was still second fiddle to the great football team that shared space in Municipal Stadium. The Cleveland Browns were NFL champions in 1950, 1955, and 1956. appearing in the Championship game every year from their first NFL season in 1950 until that 56 title. The team was also 1st in their previous league for 4 years leading up to their joining the NFL, a full decade of division/league titles with their star QB Otto Graham.

On the baseball diamond, the 1956 Topps set is interesting as much for what is missing from the 1955 team as for what remains. The team parted ways with Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Ralph Kiner, and Hal Newhouser following the 1955 season- yet retained a talented and formidable core of players.

Even if you counted the seasons by Kiner and Doby, the best hitter on the 1955 squad was Al Smith. "Fuzzy" was the AL leader in runs scored, and was the team leader in hits, doubles, walks, stolen bases, batting average, and of course runs scored. His big season would take him to his first All-Star game, and rank him 3rd in the AL MVP voting.

Smith was an under-the-radar minor star in the 50s - he amassed 1,458 career hits in the majors, having been signed to play in the majors from the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro American League. For the Buckeyes, Smith was signed as a 17 year old and led the league in doubles and triples in his 2nd season. He was signed after being scouted on the same day as pitcher Sam "Toothpick" Jones. Smith was a 2 time All-Star and appeared in the World Series in 1954 and again with the White Sox in 1959. During Game 2 of that series, Smith was absolutely soaked with beer by a fan who knocked over a cup reaching for a home run by Tommy Davis.

Cleveland had a tremendous year from their pitching staff, but the biggest surprise was the amazing debut of 22 year old Herb Score. The lefty had a 16-10 record, and struck out a league leading 245 batters in just 227 innings. He was named AL Rookie of the Year, and made his first All-Star team.

He followed it up in 1956 with another season in which he led all AL hurlers in strikeouts, and also had a league leading 5 shutouts, and winning 20 games.  He suffered a freak injury in 1957, struck in his left eye by a line drive that effectively ended his season. He would return in 1958 only to have a torn tendon in his elbow, pitched in the majors for the last time in 1960, and by 1962 he had retired from baseball. He would start as a TV broadcaster in 1964, but was best known for his radio voice for Cleveland for more than 30 years.

When Herb Score burst onto the scene, he was replacing the great Bob Feller in the rotation. Score was even called a "left-handed Bob Feller," which was a very high bar that he would approach only in 1955 and 1956. For Feller, those would be his last two MLB seasons, pitching sparingly for Cleveland, the only team he would ever suit up for.

The Hall of Famer was a legend in the game, and his carefully crafted public persona as a crotchety old man brought decades of fodder for broadcasters and journalists alike, who would regularly name-check Feller anytime they wanted to talk about "the state of pitching today." In his day, Feller was nothing short of remarkable. Despite missing nearly 4 seasons in the prime years of his career, Feller still had 3 no-hitters, 44 career shutouts, and won 268 games. He was a 7 time strikeout leader, and would easily have won nearly that many Cy Young awards if the accolade was given in his prime.

Cleveland acquired Chico Carrasquel in the Larry Doby trade, and Chico did not replace Doby's bat. Instead it would fall on 22 year old rookie Rocky Colavito and veteran Vic Wertz to make up for the vacuum in the lineup left by Doby's departure in '56. Al Rosen was the 1953 AL MVP and was a fixture in Cleveland's lineup for the first half of the 1950s, but his career stalled out in 1956 with just 15 homers. Bobby Avila is credited with being MLB's first major star born in Mexico - he was the AL batting champ in 1954.

You can take your pick of Hall of Fame pitchers here-- Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Bob Feller all received the call from the Hall after their playing days were over. Score had a great 1955, but was 3rd on the team in victories - Wynn won 17 and Bob Lemon won 18. All three would win 20 games apiece for Cleveland in 1956. Don Mossi pitched beautifully out of the bullpen in '55, with a 2.42 ERA (a 166 ERA+) in 57 appearances.  Ray Narleski saved 19 games as the team's closer.

Jose Santiago pitched in 17 games for Cleveland in '55, with a 2.48 ERA. Hal Naragon hit .323 as the reserve catcher in 57 games, and Jim Busby came over to be the regular centerfielder for Cleveland in 1956 after a season split between the Senators and the White Sox.


  1. One of these days I'm gonna need to add the Feller to my collection. Also like this team card. It's an affordable way to add a vintage Doby to the collection.

  2. I hadn't heard of Al Smith before, I'm gonna have to go read up on him.