I was musing recently on World Series of years gone by. In the 1950s, it was all Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, with a few interruptions from the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. Then the Milwaukee Braves, with Henry Aaron, Eddie Matthews, and Warren Spahn came in for two years while the Dodgers and Giants were moving to California.
Then suddenly it’s the 1960s, and you’ve got the Mickey Mantle Yankees in their twilight, and the Bob Gibson Cardinals and Sandy Koufax Dodgers (with the Willie Mays & Willie McCovey Giants in a brief supporting role).
But there’s an interesting gap of three years in there – where three teams that almost always get left out of the discussion managed to win pennants while playing exciting baseball.
The 1959 Chicago White Sox
The White Sox in the 1950s we in a similar position as the Cubs were in the 1960s. A very good team stocked with very good players (Billy Pierce, Minnie Minoso, Nellie Fox) that just happened to be around at the same time as a couple of great teams. Winning around 90 games each year wasn’t going to cut it. In 1959, though, they got lucky. The Yankees had a bad year (for them), finishing in third place with a 79-75 record. The Cleveland Indians took second, with an 89-65 record.
Built on pitching, speed, and defense, the “Go Go Sox” wound up on top with a 94-60 record. Pitcher Early Wynn led the way, going 22-10 with a 3.17 ERA – good enough for the Cy Young Award (at a time when there was only one given out for both leagues). Second baseman Nellie Fox won the MVP award; shortstop Luis Aparicio finished second in the voting. Centerfielder Jim Landis (.370 OBP and a career high 5.7 WAR) and pitcher Bob Shaw (18-6, 2.69 ERA) also played vital roles.
The 1959 World Series, in which they faced the Los Angeles Dodgers of Koufax and Drysdale, was a bit closer than you’d think. Four of the six games were decided by only one or two runs.
The Sox would continue to post winning records for the next eight seasons, coming close to the title in 1964 (one game back) and 1967 (three games back). It wouldn’t be until 1983 that they’d see any playoff action.
The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates
The “Battlin’ Bucs” suprised a lot of people in 1960. The year before, they finished in fourth place (9 games back) with a perfectly mediocre 78-76 record. Other than a young Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, the greatest defensive infielder ever, there was no one on the roster who’d even be a likely candidate for the Hall of Very Good.
Everything came together for them that summer. Shortstop Dick Groat would win the NL MVP with a league-leading .325 batting average (teammate Don Hoak would come in second in the MVP voting). Vern Law’s 20-9 record and 3.08 ERA got him the Cy Young Award. The team was never more than two games out of first place, and took over the top spot for good by the end of May. They finished up with a 95-59 record, seven games ahead of Milwaukee.
Their luck continued in the World Series, where they managed to fend off the overpowering New York Yankees and win the series in one of the most exciting Game Sevens ever.
The next year it would be back to mediocrity: they finished in sixth place, 18 games back, with a 75-79 record. Dick Groat would come in second in the MVP voting in 1963, but he’d be out of baseball five years later. Vern Law would also have one other good season (1965), and also be gone by 1968. Don Hoak wrapped up his career even sooner; he was traded to the Phillies after the 1962 season and would give them only one full year and a handful of pinch hit appearances before calling it quits.
The 1961 Cincinnati Reds
The Reds were another “where did that come from?” team. Although when you’ve got “inner circle” Hall of Famer Frank Robinson on the roster, you shouldn’t really be surprised. What was surprising was that they finished the 1960 season 28 games back, with a 67-87 record, good enough – er, bad enough for sixth place.
Unlike the 1960 Pirates, though, they didn’t have it easy. They didn’t take over the first place spot for good until the middle of August. And most of baseball was watching the Great Mantle & Maris Home Run Chase, anyway. When the season ended, they had a record of 93-61, four games ahead of the Dodgers.
Frank Robinson won the MVP award, hitting .323 and slugging 37 home runs. Centerfielder Vada Pinson came in third in the MVP voting, thanks to a .343 batting average. Jim O’Toole and Joey Jay led the pitching staff with records of 19-9 (3.10 ERA, 178 Ks) and 21-10 (3.53 ERA) respectively.
Unfortunately, in the World Series they ran into the Yankees of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris.
The next year saw expansion and some rule tweaks to favor the pitcher (too many balls were winding up in the bleachers, and the balance of power needed to be adjusted). The Reds did even better, going 98-64. Alas, it wasn’t good enough. The Dodgers and Giants finished with identical records of 101-61, necessitating a three game playoff to determine the pennant winner. The Reds would be out of contention for most of the next few years, until another phase of expansion set up divisional play, and the “Big Red Machine” was born.