Friday, 2 November 2018

THE BRONX BOMBERS MYTH

1933 Goudey Gum card of Babe Ruth (US Public Domain)

Apparently, the New York Yankees have been known as the “Bronx Bombers” since the arrival of slugger Babe Ruth in the “Big Apple” in 1920. Yes, for nearly a hundred years now the Yankees have killed the ball: singles, doubles, triples, and high batting averages. And, they’ve showcased the mighty home run hitters such as the Babe, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and more recently Aaron Judge. From 1921-1964, otherwise known as the Golden Era of the National Pastime, the Yankees became the toast of baseball by winning 29 pennants and 20 World Series. Of course, hitting played a major role in them reaching the top.

Historically and technically, the term “Bronx Bombers” didn’t really come about until July 1936 (well into their winning ways) when sportswriter Dan Daniels of the New York World-Telegram gave the team the powerful name in one of his well-read newspaper columns. So, is the Bronx Bomber tag true or is it merely an overrated myth?

OK, in Babe Ruth’s 15 years in New York from 1920-1934, the Yankees won seven pennants and four World Series. During the regular season he hit 50-plus homers on four occasions, and another 15 in World Series play. All told, Ruth batted .342 lifetime, with 714 homers in 22 regular seasons, with 15 more homers in World Series play. In his 17 New York years (1923-1939), teammate Lou Gehrig followed up with a .340 average, 493 career homers: 10 blasts in the World Series, plus a Triple Crown in 1934 smashing 49 homers, 165 RBIs, and .363 average.

Joe DiMaggio played in 10 World Series (1936-1951), nine of those on winners as a 13-year New York Yankee. Seven times he hit at least 30 homers, and he won back-to-back batting championships. Then in his last season, someone named Mickey Mantle came along. Mantle went on to win three MVP awards, a triple crown in 1956, and hit 536 homers, plus another 18 in 12 World Series of which his team won seven. In 1961, he and teammate Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s single-season 60-homer record, in which Maris won out.

Then there was Reggie Jackson more than a decade later. Anyway, enough of the sluggers. There’s another factor missing, the real reason why the New York Yankees had won so many pennants and championships was…get this…their “pitching.” Yes, pitching.  In fact, to make things more clear, pitching wins ballgames. Yes, the Yankees had the hitters, but they also had the superior pitching, especially clutch pitching, a department that NEVER would have sent them to any of their World Series had it not been clicking when it was needed most.
1953 Bowman Gum card of 
Casey Stengel (US Public Domain)

In New York’s first three pennants (1921-1923), led by manager Miller Huggins, they had recorded the lowest American League ERA twice and were .001 behind the leader in the third season. The 1927 Yankees, considered by many as the best major league in history, won 110 games and lost only 44. This was the year Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit 60 homers and 47 homers, respectively. As a team, they led the AL with a .307 batting average, plus most runs scored and fewest runs against.

But, what so many people do not consider was that the 1927 Yankee pitching staff ERA, a major league best 3.20, was a full one run better than the American League average. They also had one of baseball’s first bullpen artists--Wilcy Moore. He started 12 games and relieved 38. With 19 wins total, he was 13-3, 13 saves in relief for starters Waite Hoyt (22 wins), Herb Pennock (19), Urban Shocker (18), Dutch Reuther (13), and George Pipgras (10). Then, to prove a point, in the World Series that fall, the Yankees smoked the National League champs Pittsburgh Pirates in four straight games. Ruth hit two homers, the only ones in the series. The Yankee pitchers dominated…2.00 ERA to the Pirates 5.19, 23 runs to 10.

Again, pitching wins ballgames

From 1936-1939, the Yankees won four straight championships by leading the league in runs, home runs, slugging average, and ERA every year. Manager Joe McCarthy also had a great stopper coming out of the bullpen in Johnny Murphy who saved 5, 10, 11, and 19 games respectively. Murphy’s outstanding relief work was still a positive factor during the Yankees 1941, 1942, and 1943 pennants.

Jump ahead to 1949…Casey Stengel entered the scene as Yankees manager in 1949, the first of five straight championships for him. He changed everything. He used infield and outfield platooning, and relief pitching as ultimate weapons. Three of those five post-seasons, the Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers and dominated them all three times (along with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies) with three clutch starting pitchers: fastballers Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi, and junkballer Eddie Lopat. From 1949-1953, “The Big Three” won 255 games and lost only 117 for a .685 won-loss percentage.

In the bullpen, Stengel had Joe Page, Reynolds (between starts), and Johnny Sain, also between starts. While the Dodgers crushed their National League opposition in that same time span, they couldn’t touch the Yankee pitchers in the big games.  Basically, they choked.

It took the Dodgers till 1955 to finally win their first championship and beat the Yankees after losses to them in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. Pitching did it for Brooklyn, with southpaw Johnny Podres throwing a 2-0 shutout in Game Seven. In the mid-to-late-1950’s, Casey, while counting on sluggers Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Moose Skowron for key hits, including the long ball, he had quality starters in Whitey Ford, Bob  Turley, and Bobby Shantz, who also subbed in the bullpen before becoming the chief closer in 1960. In 1958 and 1959, the main guy Casey used in relief was the flame-throwing Ryne Duren.

Taking over from Casey beginning 1961, Ralph Houk enforced a set lineup, ridding the team of platooning and spot starters/relievers. That spring, Houk approached Whitey Ford and asked him, “Can you start every four days?”
Whitey replied, “You’re damn right I can!”

“The games you can’t finish, we got Arroyo in the pen,” Houk concluded, meaning Luis Arroyo who recorded 7 saves in 1960.

Prior to that, Casey started Ford usually against the better teams. As a result, Ford had yet to win 20 games in any season under Stengel’s managing. Also, that spring, Houk hired ex-20 game winner Johnny Sain as his pitching coach. Sain taught his boys the slider as their “out” pitch and they excelled: Ford, along with Jim Bouton, Ralph Terry, Al Downing, and others.

1954 Bowman Gum card of Whitey Ford
(US Public Domain)
The Yankees went on to have one of their best seasons in MLB history in 1961, winning 109 games, eight games up on the second-place Detroit Tigers. New York led the American League in fielding average (.980) with one of the best infields ever in Moose Skowron at first base, Bobby Richardson at second, Clete Boyer at third and Tony Kubek at short. They also hit a record-setting 240 homers: Roger Maris smashing 61, Mickey Mantle 54, and four others at least 20. The Yankees finished second in team ERA and led the league with 39 saves. Whitey Ford started 39 games, won 25 of them to only 4 losses, enough to take his first Cy Young Award. Relieving 65 times for 119 innings, official American League “Fireman of the Year” Arroyo finished 15-5 with a major-best 29 saves, and a stingy 2.19 ERA.

In the World Series that autumn, the Yankees took care of the Cincinnati Reds in five games. The Bronx Bombers hit seven homers and Ford won twice, including an opening-game 2-0 shutout.

For the next three pennants (1962-1964) that finished their 1921-1964 Bronx Bombers run, the Yankees continued slugging and they also had one of the best pitching staffs. But…as I had said before…

Pitching wins ballgames
.

The New York Yankees never would’ve won 29 pennants and 20 championships during those iconic 44 years without solid, clutch pitching. Period. The same idea still applies since that 1921-1964 and well into today’s game. Pitching still wins it.

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