1963 was oddly typical (that may be an oxymoron, but I’m going to let it stand). The Yankees won the AL for the 13th time in 15 years (they’d win the next year, too), so that was no change. A Yankee was named MVP for the 10th time in that 15 year span – so again, nothing new, particularly since Yankees catchers won more MVPs in this stretch than their teammates at other positions. Pythagoras had the Yankees and White Sox two games apart, but the Yanks actually won it by 10 in the win column, with each team missing its expected wins by four, but in opposite directions.
New York moved into a tie for first on June 15th, and never relinquished its lead. The Yanks and ChiSox were tied again as late as June 28th, but after facing each other and splitting the Independence Day double-header at the Stadium, New York was again up by 4.5, and stretched that lead out to 14 games before a late-season tanking (losing 5 of their final 9) brought the Yankees back to the 10.5 game margin they finished the season with. The Yankees started the season 41-28 (their mark on June 28th, when the White Sox were last in contact), then shifted into another gear the rest of the way, posting almost exactly the same number in the loss column, but adding 50% more wins to finish 63-29 (even with the late season mini-swoon). It… uh… was a pretty unexciting year.
But not only was it an unexciting year in the junior circuit on a team level – it was much the same on a player level, too. After seeing the HR record broken two years earlier and seeing a Triple Crown less than a decade ago, there wasn’t too much going on in 1963. While Sandy Koufax rewrote the record book in the NL, pitching in the AL was excellent, but hardly historic. Likewise, the RBI leader had only 118 and didn’t finish in the top-12 in MVP voting. No one scored 100 runs, only four players hit .300, and only two hit 40 HR. No one even came CLOSE to a .600 SLG (with the leader at only .555), leaving the voters in a quandary – when no one is great, who is best?
As should come as no surprise if you’ve been paying attention to the first couple posts, the top 13 vote-getters come from only 5 teams – the top three, plus the 5th and 7th place teams (there was only one from the 5th-place Tigers, but there was a perhaps inexplicable amount of love shown to 7th place Red Sox – but I digress). My read of the situation is this: when confronted with no easy choice, the voters went with the fallback – strength up the middle. In this case, the lucky winner was Yankees’ Elston Howard. Bill James has said many times that Howard certainly had the talent to be a Hall of Fame player, but that circumstances (well, a circumstance named “Yogi Berra“, in his final season in pinstripes) basically held him back from getting the requisite playing time necessary to earn his way to Cooperstown. Howard hit .287/.342/.528, the last ranking third in the AL – which is pretty great for a catcher. In 135 games, Howard scored 75 and drove in 85 while hitting 28 home runs.
Speaking of “strength up the middle,” three other Yankees finished in the top 11 in MVP voting. Tom Tresh, the previous season’s RoY winner at shortstop, played mostly CF (as Mickey Mantle managed only 65 games due to injury) and acquitted himself well in a new and demanding position that the Mick and fellow legend Joe DiMaggio had manned almost exclusively in the Bronx for the preceding 25+ seasons. Tresh slashed a respectable .269/.371/.487, added 25 HR, and didn’t embarrass himself on defense. But, speaking of embarrassment, the MVP voters should have been, as they actually placed Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson ahead of Tresh on their ballots, notwithstanding that Richardson was objectively terrible on offense in 1962, producing a typically underwhelming .265/.294/.330 slash that suggested an over-matched Triple-A player – not a tenth-place finisher in the MVP race. Sure, he was valuable on defense… but THAT valuable?
The other Yankee to show up in the MVP vote was 3rd place finisher Whitey Ford – another up-the-middle player. Ford’s credentials were typically solid, certainly more so than the other down-ballot Yankees. Though he didn’t show up in Cy Young voting (Koufax snagged all 20 CYA first place votes for a title that was still four years away from being awarded in each league), Ford went 24-7, with those 24 W’s (and the .774 W%) leading the league (no one else had more than 21 wins). Ford also led in starts (37) and innings (269.1), and was fourth in Ks (with 189 – it was a different world back then), doing all of that about as stingily as he could, with a 2.74 ERA.
Al Kaline was the runner-up in MVP voting for a Tigers team that played itself out of contention early (29-46) but finished well (50-37). Kaline batted .312/.375/.514, with 89 R, 101 RBI, and 27 HR. It’s a middling season in the scope of his career… but in a year with no standouts, it apparently stood out enough to make voters take notice.
While Kaline was the MVP runner-up, the best candidate from the AL runner-up White Sox was a guy who hit .259/.287/.444, which doesn’t sound that great… until you realize that it’s Rookie of the Year pitcher Gary Peters. Peters went 19-8 with a league-leading 2.33 ERA in 243 IP, while matching Ford with those same 189 Ks. Peters’ 1.070 WHIP was third in the league, but only .007 behind leader Ralph Terry of the Yankees. The Sox had another outstanding rookie in third baseman Pete Ward who batted .295/.353/.482 with 22 HR, 84 RBI and 80 R, to finish just behind Peters in both the RoY and MVP voting.
Speaking of Sox, the Red variety, in spite of a disappointing season, had some MVP love. This is probably because the league-leader in RBI (Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, with 118 ribbies and famously terrible defense), batting average (Carl Yastrzemski at .321) and ERA (Dick Radatz, who, as a reliever, didn’t technically qualify, but posted a sparkling 1.97) were all BoSox. Stuart hit a rather miserable (except for slugging) .261/.312/.521, but his league lead in RBI and 2nd-place finish in HR (42) caused him to be noticed… in 13th place. Yaz scored 91, 3rd in the AL, but knocked in only 68, which the voters can’t much have liked. He did, however, hit 40 two-baggers to go along with his league-leading .418 OBP and 10th-place SLG (.475), placing him 3rd in OPS playing in hitter-friendly Fenway.
The only other team that finished near the top of both the standings and the MVP voting was the Minnesota Twins, posting a second straight 91 win season (good for 3rd behind the White Sox) that presaged their pennant-winning campaign two years hence. Catcher Earl Battey‘s 7th place in the MVP vote is a bit hard to figure; he hit .285/.369/.476 with 26 HR, 84 RBI, and 64 R, nearly identical to, albeit a touch poorer than, Elston Howard’s year. Battey’s every-fourth-day battery-mate Camilo Pascual was 21-9 with a 2.46 ERA in 248.1 IP, while striking out a league-leading 202. The team’s top vote-getter was Harmon Killebrew, who led the league with 45 HR and .555 slugging, and was second in OPS (.904). His .349 OBP was workmanlike, not spectacular, and his .258 average can’t have helped endear him to the BBWAA of 1963. Killer’s 96 RBI were 3rd in the AL, but, in a down year, his 88 R don’t look so bad. The great stumper is why Bob Allison fared so poorly with the voters in 1963. Renowned for his defense, Allison led the AL with 99 R and a .911 OPS. He mashed 35 HR (3rd), drove in 91 (4th), and was 3rd and 2nd, respectively, in OBP (.378) and SLG (.533). Doesn’t seem like 15th place to me, so maybe he’s worth another look.
So who’ll it be: A Yank, Mr. Tiger, a Sock (Red or White), or a Twin? Could it possibly be someone else? I know I’ve given a lot of candidates this week, but it’s a particularly confounding year. So let’s discuss for three days and vote for four!
DIRECTIONS: Please list 5-10 players on your MVP ballot (ballots with fewer than 5 candidates will be thrown out). Ballots will be scored as per BBWAA scoring (14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1). Strategic voting is discouraged, though unenforceable, so please just don’t do it, as the goal here is to (somewhat) mimic the BBWAA process. The post will be live for about a week; please discuss and vote whenever you’d like, but there will be no vote changes, so don’t vote until you’re sure you’re ready!