Friday, 3 July 2015

THE GREATEST INFIELD EVER?

When it comes to baseball nostalgia, the mere mention of one team--the Brooklyn Dodgers--stands out 60 years after they had vacated the east in 1957 for the palm trees and the sunny west coast of Los Angeles, California.

While in Brooklyn, the Dodgers played in the iconic Ebbets Field: a cozy bandbox of a ball park that seated only 30,000 patrons, where the foul lines were so close to the playing field that you could almost hear the ball players breathing. The Brooklyn fans loved their team and treated the players like kings. The names are legendary: Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, and Don Newcombe. 

1947-1956 inclusive was the Jackie Robinson era, when the Dodgers were at their glorious peak: six National League championships, one World Series win, and two very close second-place finishes. The pitching was their biggest drawback, however, often suspect in crucial games, preventing them from winning more than their one World Championship of 1955. But, they could run, they could field, they could hit, and with power. Looking closer into it, the main reason for the Dodgers’ success may well have been that they had one of the best—or quite possibly the best ever—infields in major league history during a portion of their exceptional ten-year National League dynasty.

Which four infielders are we talking about?


1952 Bowman card of Gil Hodges
(US Public Domain)
First base: GIL HODGES…

A catcher early in his pro career, the six-foot-plus Hodges was asked to try first base out in 1948 to make room for the talented Negro Leaguer Roy Campanella behind the plate. As a result, for the next decade, Hodges was the best fielding first baseman in the majors. He was one of the strongest players, and had the biggest hands in baseball. Someone once made the joke that Hodges could play first without a glove. An eight-time All Star, he won three Gold Gloves. In a game in 1949, he hit for the cycle. The following year, he hit four home runs in a nine-inning game, the first time that had happened since Lou Gehrig in 1932.
Six times Hodges connected for over 30 homers in a season, and was the first Dodger to reach 40, which he did twice. For seven straight years, he produced 100 RBI’s. He was probably the only Dodger who the hometown fans never booed. In fact, he was so well liked that when he went into a bad hitting slump beginning at the end of the 1952 season that continued into the World Series (0-for-21 against the New York Yankees) and eventually to a few games into 1953, a Brooklyn priest asked his parishioners to say a prayer for brother Gil. In seven different Fall Classics, Hodges still managed a decent .267 batting average with seven homers against some excellent pitching, six times against the Yankees, and once against the Chicago White Sox.

Upon his retirement, Hodges held the National League record for 14 grand slam homers and the most homers by a National League right-handed batter at 370.


1950 Bowman card of Jackie Robinson
(US Public Domain)
Second base: JACKIE ROBINSON…

He was the fireplug of the Dodgers who got under the skin of opponents. In the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, he was a shortstop, although it wasn’t his best position: he had good range, but no arm from the “hole.”  His natural place was second base. When Robinson broke the MLB color line in 1947, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey inserted him at first base, a position Robinson had never played before, and that was because they already had Eddie Stanky at second base. The next year, with Stanky gone to the Boston Braves, Robinson took over at second and remained there for the next five years.

Robinson got the job done on offense, as well as defense. As the premier National League second baseman, he won the National League batting crown in 1949 by hitting .342, followed up with over .300 for the next five years. He could take the extra base and he could steal. He could bunt and while on base he would aggravate pitchers until they balked.

His great catch of a line drive in the last game of 1951 regular season helped to preserve a Dodgers victory and take the Dodgers into a three-game playoff against the New York Giants who eventually won on the famous Bobby Thomson walk-off homer. Robinson’s only weakness in the field: he had trouble moving to his right. With that in mind, he played a step or two closer to Hodges at first, allowing shortstop Pee Wee Reese to cover more of the area up the middle.


1954 Bowman card of Billy Cox
(US Public Domain)
Third base: BILLY COX…

Who? Not a big name today, but in his time everybody in baseball knew who Billy Cox was. His nickname was “Horseface” because… well…he looked like a horse with large nostrils. Not the biggest infielder around at five-ten and 150 pounds, he could move like lightning, though.

He had the range and a rifle for an arm. He’d run out pop-ups, dive into the dirt, and throw across the diamond in a blink. Without a doubt, he was the best fielding third baseman in the game from 1949-1953. Yankees Casey Stengel said it best when the two met in three different World Series: “That’s not a third baseman out there. That’s a f---ing acrobat!” The only knock against Cox was his hitting, if there was one. Not that great at the plate, but not that bad either: a lifetime .262 hitter with little power. On base, he could run like a deer. Then, to prove everybody wrong, he hit .302 in 15 lifetime World Series games.

Cox began life in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a shortstop, playing there briefly in 1941, then again after returning from World War II. He was traded to the Dodgers with pitcher Preacher Roe in December, 1947, in a six-player deal, a lopsided transaction in Brooklyn’s favor.


1952 Bowman card of Pee Wee Reese
(US Public Domain)
Shortstop: HAROLD “PEE WEE” REESE…

While Robinson was the fireplug, Reese was the leader. This Kentucky gentleman was the Dodgers captain and everybody on the team knew it and respected him. He had a strong throwing arm; and he and Robinson could turn the double play with their eyes closed. Reese was the perfect lead-off man in the mighty Dodgers batting order. He knew how to get on base, whether be it a walk or hit, and he knew how to steal bases once he was on. In seven World Series post seasons, he hit .272 lifetime, all seven times against the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers were very fortunate to get Reese in the first place. As a minor leaguer with the American Association Louisville Colonels in 1939, he was property of Boston Red Sox, and one of the hottest minor league prospects in the country. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey sent his player-manager Joe Cronin, the aging shortstop on the team, on a scouting trip to take a good look at the 20-year-old Reese and evaluate him. The 36-year-old Cronin, still thinking he could play for a few more years and extremely jealous of Reese, suggested to Yawkey that Reese sucked and the team should trade him away. Yawkey did: to the Dodgers for $35,000 and four players to be named later, another deal the Dodgers took advantage of.

What broke this great foursome up?

In 1953, rookie sensation Jim Gilliam appeared at second base, forcing the 34-year-old Robinson to split his time between third base and left field, which turned Cox into the part-time third baseman. Cox was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1954 season, then to the Cleveland Indians in mid-1955. Refusing to report to Cleveland, he retired. Robinson, in turn, called it quits after the 1956 season.

Pee Wee Reese hung on with the team and made the swing to Los Angeles, playing there only one year before retiring after the 1958 season. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were still looking for a quality long-term shortstop, twenty years after trading him away. They had Joe Cronin to thank for that.

Gil Hodges, with his steady play, helped the new LA Dodgers win the World Series in 1959. He went the longest of the four as a Dodger, until 1961. Hodges retired as a New York Met two seasons later. As their manager, he took the same Mets from a ninth-place finish in 1968 to an upset World Series win over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in 1969.

Both Robinson and Reese are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1962 and 1984, respectively. Cox is not. And won’t ever be because he doesn’t have the numbers. Hodges, despite all his accomplishments, is not so honored either. And that’s one of baseball’s travesties. 

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