New Frontiers

The majors as they existed when I was born in 1957 were pretty much the same as back when my mom was born in 1926.  There were two leagues, both with eight teams, playing a regular season of 154 games followed by a World Series between the two pennant winners.  In both years the Yankees represented the AL, and lost both times in seven games (to the Cards and then the Braves).  

Some details started to change in the 1950s.  The Braves moved from Boston to Milwauke in 1953, and this move was soon followed by the Browns & A’s moves to Baltimore and Kansas City.  Then in 1958, the Dodgers and Giants both jumped to LA and SF.  California, the state where Fitzgerald famously said dreams go to die, now marked baseball’s western frontier.  I imagine, after decades of stability, that the idea of expansion in 1961 must have been seen as hand-in-hand with other changes rippling through society.  I cannot say which was more upsetting to my mother in April of 1961, getting her head around the idea of an American League with 18 teams, or of Yuri Gagarin circling the Earth in a Soviet rocket ship.

Throwing out the first pitch at the opening contest between the new Senators (the old ones had just moved to Minnesota to become the Twins) was my mom’s idol, President John F. Kennedy.  There was a lot for everyone to like about JFK, but for her the special connection was shared Irish, Roman Catholic roots and kids about the same ages.  It was not mere rhetoric to say 1961 marked the passing of a torch between generations.  Ike was 27 years older than our new president, which I believe is the largest age-gap between any successive presidents.  Change, like Gugarin, was in the air, but as always is the case, conservative forces were rallying against the progressive aggenda.  It is hard now to imagine a world with Jim Crow laws, but segregation was still the norm even though all sixteen major league clubs were finally integrated by the time I was toddling about on my own two legs in 1959.  The Red Sox hold the dubious distinction of being the last to roster an African-American, a young back-up infielder named Pumpsie Green.

I have decided to replay the 1961 season next, in part as an homage to my mom.  This expansion year is also likely to be the oldest season that I will ever cover, and I think it will be one of the more interesting ones.  Will Roger Maris break Babe Ruth’s long-standing HR record (set when my mom was a baby)?  I also want to stretch my own comfort zone a bit to see if a “before my time" season can hold my interest.  But unlike Kennedy, who tried to prevent the next domino from falling in Asia, my replay of 1961 will be a celebration of the rapid changes in MLB involving franchise relocations and expansion.  Just as air travel allowed teams to pioneer landscapes in the west and south, giving America’s Pasttime a continental reach, I intend to push my own baseball memories outside my usual comfort zone.    

There was an extra step required in the league setup this year, since the NL still had just 8 teams.  My method for years with this sort of imbalance — and this will be really important starting in 1977, when there were 14 AL teams and only 12 in the NL — is to conduct a mini-draft of cut players to strengthen/deepen the new expansion teams (which have no other franchise with which to pair).  Specifically, they are allowed to be 3-deep at each position (so can have up to 24 hitters rather than the usual 17).

West Metro, the expansion Angels plus some scraps that were cut from the other teams, is off to a pretty good start (3-2).  Daily lineups will be a bit of a challenge to put together, given the Angels didn’t have a single 500-AB player (one assumes that manager Bill Rigney was an advocate of platooning) and had just four guys with as many as 400 ABs.  In the mini-draft they did manage to snag a trio of semi-regulars, Don Zimmer (.252/13/40), Eddie Kasko (.271/2/27), and Bill Tuttle (.249/5/46), but the Maroons will need to nurse playing time to a degree that definitely was not present in the 1968 replay.  

The mini-draft for the non-paired clubs gave the Maroons plenty of depth.  For example, prior to the draft the catchers were led by Earl Averill, whose defense is subpar (a ‘4’ with a +2 arm) but the .266/21/59 slash line makes him a force to be reckoned with.  But Earl had just 323 ABs, and backup Ed Sadowski (.232/4/12) only has another 164.  But after drafting Cam Carreon (.271/4/27), the AB total jumps from a very tight 487 to a comfy 716.  So the draft not only brings in some nice depth, it might also let Averill spend some time in the outfield.

Depth was less of an issue at firstbase, where the club began with the platoon of Steve Bilko (.279/20/59), a lefty killer with plenty of ABs (294) to fill that role, and 36-yo Ted Kluszewski (.243/15/39), who mashes righties.  The mini-draft netted the club another 282 ABs, the left-handed Norm Larker (.270/5/38), who will allow Big Klu to DH some.  Over at third, drafting Tuttle doesn’t help the club’s defensive shortcomings at the hot corner, but he’s a ‘1’ in the outfield so that will be useful.  The regulars will probably remain the existing platoon of 23-yo George Thomas (.274/13/59) — whose glove likewise plays better in the outfield — and 34-yo Eddie Yost (.202/3/15 and 50 walks), who is approaching the end of a fine career but is still an on-base machine.

The starting middle infield will generally be some combination of a quartet of right-handers:  Kasko, Zimmer, and Joe Koppe (.251/5/40).  Keystone depth is provided by Rocky Bridges (.240/2/15) and Billy Moran (.260/2/22).  Alas, all five bat right-handed, so there are no real platoon options.

Albie Pearson

Saving the best for last, the Maroons outfield has its top 4 hitters (by WAR).  The star is Albie Pearson, a 5’6" lefty — Sport’s Illustrated ran a story about him called him “The Littlest Angel” — who is a ‘2’ in RF and had 96 walks to go along with his .288/7/41 slash line.  His .420 on-base makes him one helluva lead-off man!  Albie had a decent career, but due to back trouble was out of baseball by 1967.  He was known as being a religious player, and became a minister later in life.  As an interesting bit of trivia, in 1962 Pearson was picked to escort Marilyn Monroe onto the field on her birthday, as part of some kind of charity event.  Albie remembered it thusly: "On her 36th (and last) birthday, Marilyn Monroe goes to […] a baseball game, as promised. At the park, Angels outfielder Albie Pearson is chosen to escort Monroe to home plate for a charity presentation. A week later, Monroe is fired from her film. A few weeks after that, she is found dead at her L.A. home…  When she took her life, or whatever happened, it really devastated me. I looked into her eyes and she looked so lonely. I remembered every Bible verse I ever learned while I was staring at her. She asked me, ‘What? What is it you want to tell me?’ I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of a religious nut, so I held it in. It put my life on a different path from that day on. I saw past that woman’s beauty. I saw a lonesome, searching person. Her sadness had a profound effect on me."

A nice mix of sluggers and glove-men complete an outfield full of semi-regulars.  Ken Hunt (.255/ 25/84) is a little of both: a ‘2’ in CF and enough power to make his pedestrian average seem tolerable.  A pair of lefties are classic LF/DH types: Lee Thomas (.285/24/70) and Leon Wagner (.280/28/79).  The five backups were all drafted. Don Taussig (.287/2/25) and Chuck Essigian (.289/12/36) are both strong vs lefties, which ties the bow on a nice outfield that would otherwise lean too far to the left.  Gus Bell (.255/3/33), who is a ‘1’ in LF, completes the mix.

SUMMARY LOOK AT WEST METRO HITTERS (WAR of 29.5)
CA (3): 716 ABs, 1R balance, and WAR of 2.3
1B (3): 839 ABs, 9R balance, and WAR of 3.9
2B (3): 879 ABs, 2R balance, and WAR of 1.2
3B (3): 955 ABs, 0 balance, and WAR of 1.9
SS (2): 807 ABs, 1L balance, and WAR of 2.3
LF (2): 688 ABs, 10R balance, and WAR of 3.7
CF (2): 652 ABs, 0 balance, and WAR of 4.8
RF (3): 1067 ABs, 1R balance, and WAR of 9.4

Here are the historical ballpark ratings for Washington (note all IBC parks are 9’s across the board).  This shift should have a pretty dramatic effect on homers!

Ballpark Effect     Washington 
Lefty Singles         19 
Righty Singles         8
Lefty Homers           1
Righty Homers          1

It makes me a bit sad to see only one hitter on this roster, Leon Wagner, who was also playing in my 1968 replay.  This is not to say that the rest are all nameless faces, but I do begin to worry that a 7-year leap back into the mists of times may be less familiar than expected.  Hopefully, this is just an “expansion club” thing, though.  Regardless, let’s now move on to the mound corps.

The staff is bit more familiar, especially after the mini-draft brought in some memorable faces. Johnny Podres (18-5, 3.74, 183 IP) is a lefty from those familiar Dodger clubs of the Koufax era, and Jack Fisher (10-13, 3.90, 196 IP) logged over 100 innings in my 1968 replay.  This pair headlines what is basically (for a league such as this) a collection of 5th-starter types.  A trio of original Angels are the second bananas: Ken McBride (12-15, 3.65, 242 IP), Eli Grba (11-13, 4.25, 212 IP), and Ted Bowsfield (11-8, 3.73, 157 IP).  The draft also netted Harvey Haddix (10-6, 4.10, 156 IP), a valuable swing-man. 

Tom Morgan (2.36, 10 saves) gives the team what seems like a real closer (in the modern sense), but with just 39 K’s in 92 IP this definitely isn’t today's Kansas.  The rest of the bullpen is pretty bad, even after the mini-draft gave it an infusion of mediocrity.   Two of the vaguely-familiar names from this era are going to be pretty useful — Art Fowler (3.64, 11 saves) and Al McBean (3.75); a third, Don Larsen (4.13), has definitely seen better days, however.  The bullpen is rounded out by Mike Fornieles (9-8, 4.68, 119 IP, and 15 saves), Jim Donohue (4.18, 121 IP, and 6 saves), and Dick Stigman (4.62).

SUMMARY LOOK AT WEST METRO PITCHERS (WAR of 20.8)
RELIEF (1): 92 IPs, 2L balance, and WAR of 2.3
RELIEF/STARTER (7): 712 IPs, 12R balance, and WAR of 3.5
STARTER (5): 990 IPs, 3R balance, and WAR of 15.0

Below is a link to the Strat-O-Matic league file, followed by the current standings. 

1961IB-5-28-2019.lzp

4/16/61 Iowa Baseball Confederacy        Won   Lost    Pct     GB
Ames Little Cyclones (Orioles-Pirates)    5      1    .833     — 
Waterloo Sailors (White Sox-Braves)       4      2    .667     — 
West Metro Maroons (Angels)               3      2    .600    1.5
Davenport Knights (Tigers-Cards)          3      2    .600    1.5 
Council Bluffs Falcons (A’s-Giants)       3      2    .600    1.5 
Dubuque Golden Eagles (Senators)          3      3    .500    2.0 
Cedar Rapids Saints (Twins-Dodgers)       3      3    .500    2.0 
Des Moines Scarlets (Yankees-Cubs)        2      3    .400    2.5
Sioux City Crusaders (Indians-Reds)       1      4    .200    3.5 
Iowa City Regals (Red Sox-Phillies)       0      5    .000    4.5

That’s all for this week. 

© John Kisner 2019