On Tuesday, September 29, 1959, the Los Angeles Dodgers completed a two-game sweep of the Milwaukee Braves to win their playoff and advance to the World Series. In those days, playoffs occurred only if two teams ended the season tied for first place. This was the fourth such playoff in baseball history and the third in the National League. The Dodgers had been involved in the previous two, losing both. The most recent loss had occurred in 1951, thanks to Bobby Thompson’s famous home run. The 1959 playoff, though not nearly as dramatic, deserves to be remembered.
One of the neat things about the old-fashioned playoffs was the pitching match-ups. By their nature, these series pitted teams that had pulled out all the stops during the last few games of the regular season. Therefore, they usually were forced to use second-line pitchers in the first playoff game. 1959 was no exception. 50 years on, I still remembered the 1959 Game 1 starters — Danny McDevitt (10-8) for LA and Carlton Willey (5-9) for the Braves. The only other detail I remembered was the final and decisive play of Game 2.
LA manager Walter Alston was the star of Game 1, as he was throughout the year. He pulled McDevitt in the second, with one out, after the lefty gave up a walk to Logan and singles to Bruton and Crandall. With the score now tied 1-1, Alston turned to Larry Sherry. A second run scored as the result of an error by Neal, but that was all Milwaukee would get the rest of the way. The Dodgers tied the game in the third (singles by Neal, Larker, and Hodges) and took the lead for good in the sixth on a home run by Roseboro.
Game 2 featured a more conventional match-up Don Drysdale (17-13) against Lew Burdette (21-15). Drysdale didn’t make it through the fifth inning. He left trailing 4-2 and the Braves led 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. The lead was almost larger. Sandy Koufax, brought on to pitch the ninth walked the bases loaded with two out. But Clem Labine struck out pinch-hitter Mickey Vernon to keep the deficit at three runs.
The Dodgers opened the ninth by loading the bases with three straight singles (Moon, Snider, and Hodges). Milwaukee manager Fred Haney then replaced Burdette with Don McMahon. It may be harsh to second guess the selection of McMahon, who had tied for the league lead in saves and had the lowest ERA of any National League closer. On the other hand, Haney had Warren Spahn, one of the greatest southpaws of all-time, available to face the left-handed hitting Larker (who would, however, been replaced by Carl Furillo had Haney made that move). Spahn had two days rest, more than enough to pitch effectively in relief, though using him would presumably eliminate him as the Game 3 starter.
Larker proceeded to single home two runs. Haney then brought in Spahn, and Alston duly sent up Furillo to bat for Roseboro (had Furillo batted for Larker, Alston probably would have used Essegian in place of Roseboro). The long-time Dodger tied the game with a sacrifice fly and the game went into extra innings.
In the bottom of the 12th, veteran right-hander Bob Rush retired the first two Dodgers. But then he walked Hodges and gave up a single to light-hitting Joe Pignatano. Furillo then hit a slow ground ball over second base. Mantilla had to hurry his play and ended up throwing the ball away, allowing Hodges to score the run that put the Dodgers into the World Series.
Mantilla’s error was a fitting end to the Braves season, their inability to find a competent second baseman to replace Hall of Famer Red Schoedienst having plagued them all year. The following players, in descending number of games played, manned the position for Milwaukee in 1959: Mantilla (.215), Avila (.238), Johnny O’Brien (.198), Wise (.174), Roach (.097), Joe Morgan (not that one) (.217), and Cottier (.125). Schoendienst, who had come down with tuberculosis, managed three at-bats (with no hits), one of which was in the final playoff game.
But even with their problems at second base, the Braves should have won their third consecutive pennant. They outscored LA by 19 runs and gave up 47 fewer runs. In fact, it should have been San Francisco that gave the Braves their toughest competition, but the Braves had a better run differential than the Giants too.
Why did the Braves under-perform to this extent? Some of it may have been down to back luck, but much of the blame has to rest with Fred Haney. Some baseball historians, and I thnk Bill James is among them, have argued that Haney’s performance as a manager in 1959 rates among the very poorest in the annals of baseball.
After looking at a cross-section of Braves line-ups, I can’t disagree. Sure, Haney had a problem at second base. But that didn’t mean he had to bat his second basemen, including the awful Casey Wise, leadoff, as he frequently did. And what was up with batting Eddie Mathews, the league leader in home runs, second? What other manager in the history of baseball would have batted Mathews behind Wise when he could have batted him behind Hank Aaron, who led the league with a .355 average?
Aaron has said that he still can’t believe the Braves, with all their talent, won only two pennants and one World Series. The numbers confirm Aaron’s lament. They say the Braves should have sandwiched their ’57 and ’58 pennants with flags in ’56 and ’59. But 50 years ago today, Larker’s single and Mantilla’s error meant that Milwaukee would end up settling for just the two pennants.
UPDATE: Writing about these games helped me remember watching them with my parents. My mother was a Dodgers fan, having grown up in Brooklyn, while my father, who lived in Boston as a boy, rooted for the Braves. Fortunately, neither was a particularly vocal fan, which makes me wonder how they ended up with a son like me.
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