Well, if the last post was from before I was born, you know this one is from before then, too. So all the regular caveats about my own lack of personal experience with this particular season of Major League Baseball.
(Also, sorry for the length of this post, and sorry for taking so long to post. But it took me a couple weeks to research and write.)
So… why 1959? Is it because that was Mickey Mantle‘s worst offensive season from 1954-1964 (“only” a 151 OPS+)? Or maybe just that his Yankees actually didn’t win the pennant that year? Well, in part, yes; I thought it would be more interesting to cover a year in the ’50s that WASN’T the “usual suspects.” But the Senior Circuit featured one of the greatest three-team pennant races of all-time (including a season-ending three-game playoff), and some of the great individual performances of the 20th century. So I’ll give us a cursory look at the American League, and then spend the bulk of our time in the National. Hope you enjoy!
In the quick run-down in the AL, Mickey Mantle, as mentioned above, was typically great. But at this point, Mantle’s greatness was so taken for granted that his failure to his .300 (.295) for the first time in five years was taken as a sign of his decline. His OBP was also the lowest of his career, excluding his 96-game rookie season (but still sixth in the AL at .390). Likewise, his RBI total was lowest since his rookie season with just 75, and after five consecutive seasons of 120+ runs (leading the Majors in four of those seasons), Mantle scored only 104 times. I mean, he still led the AL in OPS+ and led all AL position players in WAR (6.6), but it looked like things were truly headed downward for Mantle.
Of course, all that proved to be a blip; his next five seasons would see a .304/.437/.612 line, leading in OPS+ all four of the complete seasons he played. The fifth, 1963, was injury-limited, and he still managed a 196 OPS+.
The fun thing about a less-effective Mantle was that it opened up a narrative for someone else to take the reins as the AL’s best player. The man chosen as MVP was Nellie Fox. Fox led the AL in showing up, however you measure it: games, plate appearances, and at-bats. He is also credited, via WAR, with 21 runs saved as a second baseman. Since 1953 (which is as far back as the leaderboard goes), that’s tied as the 11th-best number for any second baseman. It also ranks above all but one first base season, meaning it’s one of the most valuable defensive seasons ever for that half of the infield. (And, if you want to expand it even more, you can include catchers, as only two seasons ever are ranked above 21 runs saved.) Fox is credited with 6.1 WAR that season – which is pretty remarkable for a guy with an OBP and a SLG below .400: Fox had a .309/.380/.389 triple slash.
But, then, Fox was the best player on the best team, as the White Sox cruised to the AL pennant, never trailing after July 28 and ultimately winning it by 5 games over Cleveland, which was powered by AL home run leader Rocky Colavito (42). Like most White Sox pennants in history, this one had a little bit of a “how did those guys win it?” feel to it. They weren’t quite the Hitless Wonders, nor were they the curse-breakers of 2005. But they did have that uniquely “White Sox” sensibility that they were more than the sum of their parts.
But I’ve already spent more time on the AL than I’d planned; but before I do, I just have to point out a couple of other star players. The AL WAR leader was actually one of history’s most underrated pitchers: Camilo Pascual of Senators. In the six years he pitched in Washington (before the team moved to Minnesota), Pascual consistently had ERAs higher than his FIPs; 0.80 runs higher, in fact. In spite of being let down by the poor defenses behind him, Pascual managed a 2.67 in nearly 240 innings in ’59. His teammate Bob Allison won the Rookie of the Year, by leading the league in triples (9) and hitting .261/.333/.482, on his way to a career as one of those 1960s Twins who couldn’t stop getting hurt (along with Jimmie Hall, Tony Oliva, and Zoilo Versalles) and probably ultimately cost my adopted home-state a late-60s dynasty (though they were still pretty dern good during that half-decade, as I imagine you all know). And finally, there can never been enough digital ink spilled on the recently-deceased Al Kaline, someone who usually gets the “professional hitter” or “pure hitter” labels, but actually was a straight-up masher in ’59, pacing the AL in SLG (.530) and OPS (.940). His hitting prowess led to his being intentionally walked a league-leading 12 times.
Okay, now let’s get to the good stuff and see what was going on over in the National League. Let’s start with the stars, and end with the teams.
First, we have the runaway MVP winner in Ernie Banks. Banks win in the MVP race of 1959 is totally justified – baseball-reference pegs him at 10.2 WAR, outpacing the runner-up (discussed later on) by more than a win-and-a-half. Banks had been the ’58 NL MVP, batting .313/.366/.614, leading the league in SLG, G (155), HR (47), RBI (129), and TB (379). He followed that up with nearly identical numbers in ’59: .304/.374/.596, 156 G, 45 HR, 143 RBI, and 351 TB. Only the G and RBI numbers led the league in ’59, but c’mon… it’s the same season. And since no one else was really any better, it’s tough to argue against him… particularly when he is rated even better in the field by TotalZone (23 in ’59 versus 10 in ’58; though, if you were skeptical of that number, I’d have no problem with that), AND his team improved by two games. Also, that 10.2 WAR number is one of the greats in history – one of 60 by a position player since 1901, if my count is correct (I didn’t include Ruth in ’16). Here are the shortstops with 10+ WAR in the two-league era:
*Honus Wagner, 1905 (10.2)
Honus Wagner, 1908 (11.5)
Lou Boudreau, 1948 (10.3)
Ernie Banks, 1959 (10.2)
Rico Petrocelli, 1969 (10.0)
Robin Yount, 1982 (10.6)
Cal Ripken, Jr., 1984 (10.0)
Cal Ripken, Jr., 1991 (11.5)
Alex Rodriguez, 2000 (10.4)
So there’s no complaining about Banks’s win; however, part of what makes ’59 so remarkable is not just that there was one player having a great year; there were five MVP-caliber players.
The second is the fifth-place WAR man. Normally, you don’t mention someone in fifth in WAR; normally, you don’t mention someone almost three wins behind the leader. But Ken Boyer had 7.4 WAR. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about Boyer’s stats; it’s just a black-ink-free season with a .309/.384/.508 line from a top-flight defensive player. If the Cardinals had been good and had Banks not been so obviously the league’s best player, you can imagine an alternate world in which Boyer won two MVPs, including the one in ’59.
Next, we have, of course, the Say Hey Kid himself, Willie Mays. Mays won his fourth-consecutive stolen base crown in ’59, and managed his first season with 30+ HR, 100+R, and 100+ RBI since his MVP season in ’54. Of course the Giants as a team disappointed, finishing third for the second straight year. In an interesting note, Mays finished second on his own team in MVP voting; pitcher Sad Sam Jones finished a spot ahead of Mays in the voting, given his league-best 2.83 ERA and a league-best 21-15 record (Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette had identical records*, weirdly enough, but with radically different ERAs: Spahn was fourth in the league at 2.96, Burdette’s was 4.07, ranking 19th of 26 qualified pitchers). But Jones missed the Triple Crown by 33 strikeouts after three strikeout titles the previous four seasons.
*This is apropos of nothing, but you guys know me well enough know to know that I’m going to go on a Milwaukee tangent when presented with the opportunity, so here you go. Spahn actually finished behind Burdette in MVP voting. This is totally mystifying. Milwaukee was a pitcher’s park in 1959. Burdette actually ranks 22nd in the league in FIP, and 26th (again, OF 26) in ERA+. I’m guessing this has to do with A.) the good W-L record, and B.) a WHOLE LOT to do with a hangover from the previous two years. You can make a very not-crazy argument that Burdette was the NL’s best pitcher in ’58. And his World Series in ’57 is the stuff of legend – a 3-0 record with a 0.67 ERA against the mighty Yankees. But the idea that he was anywhere in the Zip Code of MVP votes in ’59 is just silly.
Rival Dodgers were led by pitching sensation (and future COG-inductee, if I get my way!) Don Drysdale. Drysdale’s 242 Ks were best in NL since 1924. And while Drysdale made the big headlines, a sensation just a year older than Drysdale’s 22 years was making his first big splash, too, as Sandy Koufax struggled with walking too many people, but was third in the league in strikeouts, in spite of – no joke – being more than 100 innings behind the other three pitchers in the top-4, and not within 40 innings of anyone else in the top-14. Oh yeah – technically, Koufax didn’t even qualify for the ERA title, yet he finished third in strikeouts! But I was talking about Drysdale; Drysdale was still kind of a “swing man” in ’59, coming out of the pen 8 times… but he still started 36 games! Can you imagine doing that today? All told, there were six guys who started 10+ games, with 8 or more relief appearances, as well – including our guy Sam Jones from above. Anyway, Drysdale was just coming into his own in ’59. The Dodgers were converting from the offensive juggernaut of the ’50s (take ’55: they scored 96 more runs than anyone else in the NL) to the pitching-and-defense ’60s squad (by ’63, they were leading the league in fewest runs allowed). Some of this was Dodger Stadium, of course, but in 1959, the Dodgers were in Memorial Coliseum, then a hitter’s park. We’ll talk about this more below, but the change is very real, and Drysdale led it.
Our final two players with MVP-type seasons were teammates, of course. They were the Braves’ usual suspects, Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Let’s start with the only really negative thing you can say about either of them in ’59: both had their fewest walks in a 12+ year stretch in 1959. (Mathews 12-year stretch runs from 1953-1964; Aaron’s 17-year stretch runs from 1957-1973.) Considering Aaron still finished second in OBP and Mathews 5th, I think we can live with that kind of performance. Besides, Aaron was busy winning the batting title (.355)! Aaron also led in SLG, OPS, and OPS+. In those latter three categories, Mathews ranked 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd. And Mathews, while not a high-average hitter, did bat .300 for one of only three times in his career in ’59. What makes that particularly impressive is that Mathews was also busy leading the NL in HR. Here were the highest HR marks of the ’50s:
1. 52 – Mickey Mantle, 1956
2. 51 – Willie Mays, 1955
3. 49 – Ted Kluszewski, 1954
4. 47 – Ralph Kiner, 1950; Eddie Mathews, 1953; Ernie Banks, 1958
5. 46 – Eddie Mathews, 1959
In many ways, this rounded out a crowning season for Mathews (and I’m going to focus on him here, because there’s been plenty said about Aaron everywhere, and it’d be hard to say something no one’s said before). Mathews finished third in the ’50s in HR (299; behind only Gil Hodges at 310 and Duke Snider at 326). Consider: Mathews didn’t play a single game in the first TWO years of the decade! Consider: if you push the time constraint to the decade beginning with Mathews’ debut in ’52, the 1952-1961 decade gives Mathews 370 HR, most in baseball. Here’s the list of HR, ’52-’61:
1. Mathews, 370
2. Mantle, 361
3. Mays, 299
4. Banks, 298
5. Snider, 296
6. Hodges, 254
7. Aaron, 255
So Eddie was, indeed, mighty in ’59. But let’s not totally forget about Aaron. The two were virtual twins in most batting categories in ’59:
278 Times on Base (H+BB+HBP), 116 R, 7 3B, 39 HR, and 123 RBI for Aaron
265 Times on Base (H+BB+HBP), 118 R, 8 3B, 46 HR, and 114 RBI for Mathews
The only real differences are that Aaron had about 40 more hits, whereas Mathews had about 30 more walks; and Aaron had 30 more doubles than Mathews; that’s the big one. For what it’s worth, bWAR ranks this as Mathews’ best and Aaron’s 3rd-best seasons (fWAR thinks Mathews was better in ’53, FWIW). Mathews was the better defender at a more premium position, so who was better depends on who you ask; fWAR says Mathews (8.3-8.2), while bWAR says Aaron (8.6-8.2). Either way, it’s close.
But why spend so much time on these two Braves? Is it because my dad grew up in Milwaukee in the ’50s and told me stories about these two? Well, yeah, a little bit. BUT, more importantly, knowing the key players sets the stage for one of the great pennant races in the history of baseball. It was a three-team race between the Giants, Braves, and Dodgers.
Since 1947, only team other than these three to win the NL was the Whiz Kid Phillies in ’50. It was a three-team stranglehold on the NL for over a decade. Each team had moved during that span; each team had won a World Series in that time, and each team had lost to the Yankees at least once (they almost all beat the Yankees, too, but the Giants famously won their one title at the hands of Cleveland). 1959 was going to be about who might be holding the title into the decade to come, who might represent the the Best of the West (let’s please keep in mind that Milwaukee and Chicago were, geographically speaking, then the center of the NL, so they were still “West,” relative to most baseball teams, as the AL was even more heavily Eastern).
As of Saturday, September 12th, all three teams had played 141 games, with 13 to go. After a win over the Phillies, the Giants sat in first, a game ahead of the idle Dodgers, who were tied with the Braves, who kept pace by beating the Reds.
On Sunday, all three teams played in one-run games, but the leading Giants, who won a 1-0 game over the hapless Phils; the Braves, who actually had a 2-1 lead two-thirds of the way through the game, saw Hall of Famer Spahn blow the lead and lose the game. The Dodgers, who were actually leading by two runs, blew their lead, as well (of course, the Pirates were actually a good opponent, so it’s a little more understandable). The most important lead, though, was measured in games and not runs; and that lead belonged to the Giants, who now led the pennant race by two.
The two-game lead lasted the week. As of Friday (the 18th), the lead was still two games over both their opponents, through 146 played. That meant that the Dodgers and Braves each had, not only to hold off one another, but to catch the NL’s best team by two with only eight to play. But on the 19th, things changed, and radically.
The Braves had the Phillies, whom they took for a 9-3 win. But the Dodgers and Giants played a Saturday double-header. In Game One, Dodger Roger Craig kept the Giants quiet. The G-men managed two baserunners only one of the first eight innings (two baserunners in the sixth), and by the time the Giants finally scraped a run across, the deficit was 4-1 in Craig’s complete-game victory.
Thankfully, the Giants would have a chance to turn things around in the nightcap. In the second game of the double-header, Drysdale held the Giants to a solitary run through six innings as the Giants clung to a 1-0 lead. Though the Dodger bats had been silent in this second game, they erupted in the seventh for five runs when the Giants left starter Mike McCormick in (he gave up all five runs). Even a couple more Giant runs in the eighth weren’t enough to make up the difference, and the Dodgers took both ends of the double-header to tie for the league-lead. Not only that, but with their win, the Braves now sat just a half-game back, and we truly had a pennant race on our hands.
On Sunday, the 20th, the Dodgers completed the three-game sweep, dominating the Giants 8-2, and suddenly San Francisco found themselves trailing for the first time since July 29 – and not just in second, but in third. The Braves, unsurprisingly, took care of the Senior Circuit’s worst team, 8-5, although they did, at least, have to beat Robin Roberts to do it. Of course, Roberts was a shell of his former self by ’59, and it wouldn’t be until the Phils dealt him to Baltimore that he recovered his former glory to post a few more good years.
The only game on Monday the 21st was the Braves’ 8-6 win over the Pirates, which did three things:
1. It mathematically eliminated the Pirates;
2. It equalized the number of games played by the Braves and the West Coast teams, and
3. It kept the Braves and Dodgers tied atop the NL, with the Giants still one back with just five to play.
On Tuesday the 22nd, the Braves took first all by themselves with a 5-3 win over the Pirates, who now had nothing to play for. The Dodgers lost a one-run slugfest with the Cardinals, 11-10, and the Giants continued their losing ways by allowing the Cubs, a sub-.500 team, to beat them by a run, 5-4.
On the 23rd, the Dodgers and Braves reversed their results against their opponents from the day before, tying things up at the top again. And in the Giants-Cubs series… what happened to the ’59 Giants? They lost in extra innings, 9-8 to move two back; keep in mind, they were two up less than a week ago! I cannot imagine the pain of a Giants fan in 1959.
There were literally no games on Thursday, the 24th – not just among these three teams, but in either league. That strikes me as very odd, but I wasn’t alive in 1959, so maybe back then that happened all the time right before the final series of the year. In the three-game finales, the Braves played host to the Phillies, while the Giants and Dodgers traveled to the Midwest, to face the Cards and Cubs, respectively.
On September 25th, the Giants were rained out. The Dodgers turned a seventh-inning, two-run lead into an extra-inning squeaker, won only when Gil Hodges hit a two-out homer in the 11th to scrape by with a 5-4 win. The Braves, inexplicably, took a 6-3 loss to the Phillies, and we sit with the Dodgers up with two days left in the season.
The Braves-Phillies tilt featured the two best pitchers of the 1950s; had they waited a day for these two, it would’ve been arguably the world’s most appropriate sign-off – the two best pitchers of the decade, in a clash that would decide the pennant. But in this particular battle of giants (not Giants), both pitched complete games; Spahn came out ahead of Roberts. Since the Dodgers apparently took an unscheduled day off (they lost to the Cubs, 12-2), the division was tied yet again, a Giants win (4-0) gave their fans a dying breath of hope.
The final day of the season ended like this:
The Giants had a doubleheader against the Cardinals. In the first game, the Giants had:
First inning: first & second, one out;
Third inning: third, one out;
Fourth inning: first & second, one out (and one in)
They had baserunners in every inning but the second. They lost 2-1, and were officially eliminated. For what it’s worth, they lost the nightcap 14-8, but the season was already over at that point.
The Dodgers and Braves coasted to easy wins (7-1 and 5-2, respectively) to remain tied, and lead to a playoff with the pennant on the line.
That led to the NL’s then-playoff format (which lasted, officially, I believe, until the three-division realignment), which was a best-of-three series, unlike the AL’s one-game affair. This was, at one time, one of the rules that differentiated the two leagues (see the 1948 AL, for example).
The Dodgers were treated as the home team (they won the season series, 14-10), which meant one game on the road in Milwaukee, before finishing things with two in LA. Game One was a tight affair; and with their seasons on the line, these two teams entrusted themselves into the hands of Danny McDevitt for the Dodgers (what?!) and Carl Willey for the Braves (who?!). McDevitt had given up two runs before getting out of the first inning, so technically, I guess, Willey outpitched him; that said, Willey did take the loss in a definitional quality start. Mathews and Aaron were a combined 0-6 (Aaron walked twice) in 8 PAs. For what it’s worth, cleanup hitter Adcock was 0-3 (with a walk), meaning one of the scariest hearts of the order in history went 0-9 in a pivotal game – against Danny McDevitt and Larry Sherry. (Sherry was a good pitcher; but c’mon; if you’re going to lose it all, couldn’t it at least be to Drysdale or Koufax?)
Still, the season wasn’t over for the Braves. Game Two was in LA. It was clear from the start that things were different. Drysdale walked Mathews with one out in the first, and Aaron followed with a double. Frank Torre (yes, Joe‘s big brother, in case you are a reader of this site who somehow doesn’t know that) knocked ’em both in. The Dodgers responded with one of their own in the bottom half. Then, in the second, Braves starter Lew Burdette, hero of the ’57 World Series, helped his own cause, singling. A Duke Snider throwing error allowed a run to score. With two out, though, no one could get Burdette home in what we prove a costly run. Then in the bottom of the fourth, after a couple uneventful innings, the Dodgers responded. Charlie Neal, who had scored the Dodgers’ lone run to date, hit a solo shot off Burdette to make it 3-2.
As you expect your best players to do, Mathews played up to the moment. He answered Neal’s solo shot with one of his own, putting the Braves back up two. After walking Aaron, Drysdale was removed in favor of Johnny Podres. Nothing much more happens until the 8th, when the Braves move comfortably ahead by three on a sac fly.
In the top of the ninth, with the Braves up three runs, the Dodgers decide to save their best arms, and they bring in the wild child – a young fella mentioned way above named Koufax. Facing the top of the order, he strikes out leadoff man Bill Bruton. Then, he induces a Mathews groundout. Two down. Then, he walks Aaron – honestly, a reasonable choice. But that’s followed by another walk to Torre. Then another, and Koufax is lifted. There’s a part of me that thinks, “If only the Dodgers had given this one up for lost, the Braves might’ve won another World Series in Milwaukee!” But they didn’t. The inning ended on a strikeout, and it all came down to the bottom of nine.
Burdette, still in the game – seriously, please imagine that through modern eyes, and keep in mind that he wasn’t really very effective in 1959, AND that the whole season is coming down to this half-inning – gives up three straight singles before being lifted. Don McMahon gives up a hit that scores two and advances Hodges to third. In a move that reeks of desperation, the planned Game Three starter (Spahn) enters, only to give up what would’ve been a meaningless fly ball, had Hodges not done some heads-up baserunning to advance to third in the previous at-bat. Instead, the game was tied. Spahn sat down, and the Braves did get out of the inning, but it was now tied at five.
Each team mounted a threat by loading the bases in the 11th (unsurprisingly, the 11th was the inning in which the Braves got to bat Mathews and Aaron), but to no avail. Milwaukee’s 7-8-9 hitters didn’t get the ball out of the infield in the 12th, and the Dodgers had 3-4-5 coming up. Hodges wound up with a two-out walk, and he scored on a Carl Furillo infield single, and just like that, the Dodgers win the pennant, the Dodgers win the pennant, the Dodgers win the pennant.
(Honestly, just writing about this game, which I’ve never seen, didn’t attend, and should have no emotional attachment to, brought back shades of this game last from last year.)
As it goes, I see this extra inning loss as the “beginning of the end” for baseball in Milwaukee. The Braves were a nearly unrivaled success; their Milwaukee winning percentage is basically the same as the all-time Yankees winning percentage. They never had a losing season, they only finished in the second division once in Milwaukee (and they were 84-78 that year!). But after the World Series win in ’57, they began to lose attendance. They began to crater in ’58, drawing under 2 million for first time; in this season in question, 1959, they drew only 1.7 million. By 1962, they had dropped below a million fans; compare this to the modern Brewers, who’ve drawn 2mil+ since 2004, and have drawn 2.8 million or more 6 times since 2007, including topping 3 million thrice – in what is still MLB’s smallest market. I do wonder if fans were spoiled with the success, though. Oddly, the only similar team I can think of… is also the Braves, but of the ’90s and ’00s; starting in 1997, for example, the Braves lost attendance 8 years running, in spite of winning the division every year. Must be a Braves thing.
But even though I’m a Milwaukee guy, I don’t want to leave on a sour note, because there’s a lot to celebrate about that Dodger team. Some fans think of ’59 Dodgers as a “weak” pennant winner because the stars of the ’50s were gone or fading, and there’s truth in that. By the same token, though, the stars of the 60s Dodgers were just getting started! Sure, that was going to be a pitching-defense team after the mashers of the ’50s, but it was going to be something special. And ’59 had that special, alchemical mixture of fading veterans and not-yet-arrived young players that means you get a ridiculous number of great players on the roster, it’s just that no one is having their best season that year. But sometimes, that’s enough. And for the ’59 Dodgers, it was.
So if you made it to the end of this article, congratulations! Sorry for its length, but there was so much to talk about! Hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll be sure to do another in this series – though, hopefully shorter, both in terms of post length and in terms of wait between posts.