The 1950's were a decade of change and movement. After having stayed relatively the same for decades teams started to migrate. Cities were no longer able to support two major teams. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins. The Philadelphia Athletics became the Kansas City Athletics, the St.Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles and, most painful of all, the Dodgers left Brooklyn and the Giants left New York City.
It was the first full decade of baseball without segregation (on the field). After the success of Jackie Robinson nearly every team signed an African American player, raiding the Negro Leagues for the stars and driving the league out of business. Satchel Paige, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella. These were the young players (although Paige was not so young) that infused the game with an energy and would carry it into the future. Nearly every team was quick to follow the Dodgers and recognize the talent that was available in the Negro Leagues. Only the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees failed to react to the new landscape and two of the three suffered for it during the decade (the Yankees would suffer for their slow movement in the late 1960's through the early 1970's). The Phillies felt that their 1950's Whiz Kids team would be successful for the entire decade but their failure to consider scouting African American players kept them from being a competitive team the rest of the decade and by 1958 they were the worst National League team. The Red Sox suffered a similar fate. When Jackie Robinson entered the league the Red Sox usually were competing for a top spot (always coming up just short) but as the other teams began to accept the changes, and the Red Sox ignored them, they fell back into the middle of the pack and were only helped into the upper division by the habitually terrible teams of the Athletics and St. Louis Browns.
The saddest story of the fall of the Negro Leagues were the players who never had a chance to play in the Major Leagues once the color barrier was broken, not because of talent but because of age. No player is represented better in this category than Buck O'Neil. O'Neil played and managed in the Negro leagues and coached briefly for the Cubs after the Negro Leagues shut down but by the time Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier O'Neil was too old to play and no team would dream about giving an African American a manager job (that was nearly thirty years away). O'Neil loved the game, lived the game. Seeing the love of the game in the smile of Dave Henderson, Hal McRae, or Chipper Jones seems almost gloomy compared to the love of the game that radiates from one word out of the mouth of Buck O'Neil. There are hundreds of players who we can lament not having the chance to play in the Major Leagues but one of the biggest disappointments is that Buck O'Neil never got to manage in the Majors, let alone play. Buck's knowledge of the game, passion for the game and ability to teach the game, might have ranked him with some of the greatest managers of all time. O'Neil was a gracious man. His passion for the game came through in every word he spoke. He had the right to be bitter. Bitter that he was born too soon to get the opportunity to play. Bitter that others had the opportunities that he didn't. Bitter that others got the recognition he deserved. He wasn't. No better example exists than this: a few years before he passed away the Veteran's Committee of the Hall of Fame nominated a number of Negro League players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Embarrassingly, unbelievably, O'Neill was not among them. Not as a player. Not as a manager. Not as a special ambassador of the game. Unfortunately most of them had passed away or were not able to speak at the induction due to age. To represent these players O'Neil was asked to speak on their behalf. He could have spent the whole time saying what everyone else with a brain was saying: that he should have been included in the Hall of Fame. Instead he said how happy he was to be able to speak for these players and how wonderful it was that these men were being recognized. If you ever question that baseball is the national past time look up an interview with Buck O'Neil. It will restore your faith in the game.
Although the names of Jackie Robinson,Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle,Yogi Berra, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron will be the names that are remembered thirty, forty or fifty years from now (or more), every decade has tremendously talented, successful players who make wonderful contributions to the success of their teams, organizations and the league as a whole. Unfortunately many of the players who fall into this category will be forgotten, overlooked and generally ignored. Here are 14 players* from the decade you may not remember but you definitely should:
All Star Appearances: 1950, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960
MVP Voting: 1950 (27th), 1955 (11th), 1956 (16th), 1957 (22nd) , 1958 (9th) and 1959 (9th)
Many people consider the Catcher to be the most important position on the field. He is involved in every pitch of every game. He calls every pitch and is usually the manager's representative on the field. Very few players had more to do with the success of their team in the 1950's than Sherm Lollar. The White Sox may have only cracked the Yankee dynasty once in the decade but they were consistently fighting the Indians for second place. Lollar's best season coincided with the "Go-Go" White Sox's 1959 World Series appearance. Lollar set career highs in home runs (22) and RBI (84) and although the Sox lost to the Dodgers in the World Series he hit one home run and drove in 5. Lollar's biggest contribution was behind the plate and in the clubhouse. Al Lopez trusted him completely and depended on him to run the team on the field.
Career Teams: Cincinnati Reds (1950-1952), Milwaukee Braves (1953-1962), Cleveland Indians (1963), Los Angeles/California Angels (1964-1966)
All Star Appearances: 1960
MVP Voting: 1954 (8th), 1956 (11th), 1958 (22nd) and 1960 (19th)
Although the decade was dominated by the three New York teams the Milwaukee Braves had some tremendous success. They nearly made the World Series in 1956 but fell apart down the stretch and were overtaken by the Dodgers who won the pennant by one game. The Braves had one of the great one-two pitching punches in history with Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette. Their offense was extremely powerful with two of the greatest hitters in the history of the game: Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews. It was easy for Joe Adcock to get lost in the big names. Adcock was a truly powerful bat and even hit a ball clear out of Ebbett's Field, estimated as the longest ball hit in (or out of) Ebbett's Field. Considering Duke Snider and Gil Hodges played there on a regular basis, it is a pretty impressive shot. The Braves made the World Series two years in a row (1957 and 1958), both 7 game classics against the Yankees. Playing in Milwaukee in a decade dominated by New York teams made it even more difficult to get attention. Adcock could have made a name for himself while the world was watching the World Series but he didn't have eye popping numbers in the two World Series. He had only 7 hits combined over the two series and had 0 extra base hits but Joe Adcock was a big reason for the Braves success.
Chuck "The Rifleman" Connors
Career Teams: Brooklyn Dodgers (1949) and Chicago Cubs (1951)
All Star Appearances: None.
MVP Voting: None.
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors played a total of 67 career games. One of them for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 66 for the Cubs and hit just 2 home runs and .238. All games were played at first base and he made 8 career errors. It was a brief, unsuccessful career. Connors did gain a lot of success after leaving the diamond by getting in front of a camera. Connors became an actor and gained a lot of attention playing his signature character, "The Rifleman". The show ran for five years on ABC debuting in 1958. The show featured many big name guest stars including Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis, Jr and Don Drysdale. CBS is currently considering a remake of the show but no cast or debut date has been announced.
Career Teams: Philadelphia Athletics (1947-1949), Chicago White Sox (1950-1963), Houston Colt .45's/Astros (1964-1965)
All Star Appearances: 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1963
MVP Voting: 1951 (17th), 1952 (7th), 1954 (9th), 1955 (7th), 1956 (14th), 1957 (4th), 1958 (8th), 1959 (1st), 1960 (18th) and 1963 (26th)
If Sherm Lollar was the field general of the White Sox in the 1950's Nellie Fox was the generals assistant. He was the face of the White Sox during a dark period for the team and although he was considered one of the best in the game he played for a very poor team that made it difficult for anyone outside of Chicago to recognize his contributions. In that sense he is very much like Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount. Fox came up in the Philadelphia Athletics organization but was never recognized by Connie Mack as the talent he was. There is a story that is usually told that when Mack waived Fox, Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators wanted to claim Fox's contract from Philadelphia but was cautioned by Connie Mack not to waste his $10,000 as Fox had no talent (it is usually explained that Mack was senile by this point but these stories are not always reliable). Fox was then traded to Chicago for a Catcher named Joe Tipton who played a total of 417 career games. Fox went on to a Hall of Fame career. Similar to Yount and Gwynn, Fox did get a brief shot at the World Series. He won the MVP in 1959 as the "Go-Go White Sox" dethroned the Yankee dynasty. Fox was never a big power hitter but he had 34 doubles, scored 84 and drove in 70. Along with Lollar, Fox was a clubhouse leader and was trusted heavily by Al Lopez. Similar to Yount in 1982 Fox had a great Series and had the "Go-Go Sox" won the World Series he likely would have been considered for the MVP of the series. Fox hit .375 with three doubles and four runs. When he retired from the game Fox held several all time White Sox records. He made the Hall of Fame but never quite got the nation wide recognition he deserved.
Career Teams: St. Louis Cardinals (1945-1956), New York Giants (1956-1957), Milwaukee Braves (1957-1960) and St. Louis Cardinals (1961-1963)
All Star Appearances: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1957
MVP Voting: 1946 (26th), 1949 (10th), 1952 (10th), 1953 (4th), 1954 (13th) and 1957 (3rd).
Red Schoendienst played on three of the greatest teams in the history of the game (1946 Cardinals, 1957 and 1958 Braves) but each time he was overshadowed by the bigger names. He played with names that are the most identifiable in the history of the game: Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey. Schoendienst was always overshadowed but always a strong presence in the lineup. Similar to George Kell (keep reading you'll get to it) he made ten all star games in 15 years but unlike Kell he won the World Series twice and lost a third in seven games. Schoendienst had his best series the year his Braves lost in seven games, hitting .300 with 9 hits and 3 doubles. After retirement (and long after his entrance into the Hall of Fame) Schoendienst remained a legend in St. Louis. He became a coach for the Cardinals as part of the legendary 1980's World Series teams. Similar to Don Zimmer in the 1990's with the Yankees, seeing Schoendienst on the bench often brought a chuckle of the silly old man sitting on the bench. Yet his comical appearance covered a brilliant baseball mind.
Alvin "The Swamp Fox" Dark
All Star Appearances: 1951, 1952 and 1954.
MVP Voting: 1948 (3rd), 1949 (25th), 1951 (12th), 1952 (12th), 1954 (5th) and 1957 (17th)
Every team needs a player with a Napoleon complex. Someone who is not afraid to show his temper. Someone who will fight back, if not for an insult done to him, then at least for an insult done to a teammate. In hockey they're called the enforcers. In baseball they're called "red asses". The A's in the 1970's had Bert Campaneris. The Royals of the late 1970's and 1980's had George Brett. The Giants in the 1950's had Al Dark. Dark was never afraid to mix it up with the big guys, especially the Dodgers, though at 5'11" and 185 pounds Gil Hodges probably used bats bigger than Dark. Anytime something went bad between the Dodgers and Giants you could bet Alvin Dark was at the start of it. Although he was best known as a Giant, Dark was also a big contributor to the 1948 National League Champion Boston Braves. Dark was the rookie of the year that year but fell flat in the World Series hitting only .148 as they lost to the Indians in 6 games. He got his revenge in 1954 against the Indians. The Indians were a heavy favorite in the Series but the Giants shocked everyone. Dark had 7 hits and a .412 average to help lead the Giants to their last World Series victory in New York.
Career Teams: Philadelphia Athletics (1943-1946), Detroit Tigers (1946-1952), Boston Red Sox (1952-1954), Chicago White Sox (1954-1956) and Baltimore Orioles (1956-1957).
All Star Appearances: 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1957
MVP Voting: 1944 (22nd) , 1946 (16th), 1947 (5th), 1948 (16th), 1949 (8th), 1950 (4th), 1951 (15th) and 1953 (26th)
George Kell played for 15 years and appeared in close to 1800 career games. He was an all star ten times, won a batting title and ended his career with 385 doubles and a .306 batting average. Yet if you were to tell someone that George Kell is a Hall of Fame member the immediate response would probably be "Who the hell is George Kell?" In 15 years he played in 0 postseason games and he rarely played on teams that finished closer than 15 games behind the first place team. Unlike Nellie Fox, who toiled in obscurity and finally got a shot at the World Series late in his career, Kell was the invisible superstar for his entire career, and his Hall of Fame status as well.
Career Teams: Cleveland Indians (1947-1956)
All Star Appearances: 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955
MVP Voting: 1950 (17th), 1952 (10th), 1953 (1st) and 1954 (15th)
Star players of the Jewish faith in the early years of the game were few and far between. There was Hank Greenberg then Al Rosen then Sandy Koufax. The anti-Semitic stereotype of the day was that Jewish boys had no interest in sports. Rosen once told the story of a high school football coach who questioned why he wanted to play the sport because he couldn't believe his people would want to play a contact sport. When he was younger Rosen said he was glad his name was "ambiguously" Jewish so that it didn't draw attention to his religion. As he got older he said he wished his name was more Jewish, like Rosenberg, so that no one would doubt it. Regardless of his religion, Rosen was a great ballplayer. He won an MVP in 1953 leading the league with 115 runs, 43 home runs and 145 RBI. He had a short playing career (only 10 years) but he went on to become a great executive for the Yankees and helped George Steinbrenner build the Yankees World Series teams in late 1970's.
Career Teams: Cleveland Indians (1947-1955), Chicago White Sox (1956-1957), Cleveland Indians (1958), Detroit Tigers (1959) and Chicago White Sox (1959).
All Star Appearances: 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955
MVP Voting: 1948 (29th), 1950 (8th), 1952 (12th) and 1954 (2nd)
Everyone remembers the first person to accomplish a major feat but it is rare the second person to do it is recognized. Jackie Robinson will forever be remembered for breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues but few remember Larry Doby was the first African American to play in the American League. Doby debuted in July 1947, just a few months after Robinson. He didn't have the success of Robinson, but he also didn't have the support from his ownership that Robinson had and didn't have the talent that Robinson had (but no one had Robinson's talent). Doby had a very good career playing for the Indians and White Sox both under the management of Al Lopez. Whereas Robinson gained a reputation for being a team player who got along with his teammates, Doby had a reputation for having a bit of a sour reputation and was not always liked in the clubhouse. Doby's greatest season was the Indians' greatest season. Doby led the league in home runs and RBI in 1954 as he finished 2nd in the MVP voting. When the Indians slumped in the World Series Doby only hit .125. Doby is often considered a failure because he didn't achieve the numbers that Robinson did but it is unfair to compare the two.
Carl "The Reading Rifle" Furillo
Career Teams: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1946-1960)
All Star Appearances: 1952 and 1953
MVP Voting: 1946 (36th), 1949 (6th), 1950 (30th), 1951 (19th), 1953 (9th), 1955 (21st), 1956 (21st) and 1958 (23rd).
The Dodgers clubhouse in the 1950's was a fun place to be. Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella. You can almost picture each one of them with a big smile on their face. Who wouldn't smile when you got a World Series bonus check almost every year. Apparently Carl Furillo didn't smile much. In the histories of the Brooklyn Dodgers Furillo is alternately portrayed as dumb, angry and racist. He denied all of these. When the Dodgers announced they were signing Jackie Robinson several players decided to pass a petition that they would give to the Dodgers management expressing their disapproval. Furillo swore to the day he died that he didn't sign it, though some claimed he did. In the "Jackie Robinson Story" movie there was a character that Furillo felt was meant to portray him. The character was portrayed as one of the players who fought against having Robinson join the team. Furillo was furious and claimed that he had not done anything to hinder Robinson. Regardless of the personality, Furillo was one of the great defensive players in the game. No one played right field like Carl. A local merchant named Abe Stark advertised on the right field wall with a sign that said "Hit Sign, Win Suit". Stark never had to give away a single suit because Furillo patrolled rightfield so well. Furillo should likely be in the Hall of Fame but is hurt by the fact that so many of his teammates have already been elected.
Career Teams: Brooklyn Dodgers (1949-1952), Cincinnati Reds (1952), Pittsburgh Pirates (1953-1954), Baltimore Orioles (1954-1955) and Chicago White Sox (1956).
All Star Appearances: None.
MVP Voting: 1954 (26th)
Visit Brooklyn in the 1960's and there are two names you never want to mention: Walter O'Malley and Cal Abrams. It would be like mentioning General Sherman in Atlanta, mentioning Scott Norwood in Buffalo or mentioning Bucky Dent in Boston. Just a whisper of these names would probably spark some cursing, some angry looks and probably a spit just for good measure. So what did Cal Abrams do to garner such hatred? He took about three or four (or none depending on where you were sitting) extra steps and cost the Dodgers the 1950 pennant. Philadelphia's "Whiz Kids" had shocked everyone by sticking with the Dodgers and Giants in the National League. The Phillies led the Dodgers by two games with two games left to play in the season. The last two games of the season were head to head in Brooklyn. The Dodgers took game 1 cutting the lead to one game. If the Dodgers won the last game of the regular season there would be a three game playoff to decide the National League pennant, lose and the Phillies would play the Yankees in the World Series. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th when Cal Abrams led off the inning with a walk. Pee Wee Reese sent him to second with a single. 2 on, 0 out and Duke Snider at bat. Snider lined a single to center. Abrams was moving on contact, it was clear it would fall. Richie Ashburn, the Phillies centerfielder, did not have a great arm. The third base coach didn't hesitate, he waved Abrams home. Abrams hit the third base bag and made a wide turn. He went about four steps wide as he headed home. Ashburn fielded the ball on one hop and fired home on the fly. Abrams was out at the plate. The Dodgers failed to score, even with Reese on third and Snider on second with only one out and Robinson, Hodges and Furillo due up. The game went to the top of the 10th tied when Dick Sisler hit a three run Home Run to give the Phils a 3 run lead and the National League pennant. The reaction to Abrams was immediate and angry. Cal played another season and a half in Brooklyn but he was forever blamed for the loss of the 1950 pennant just like Ralph Branca would be blamed for the 1951 loss.
Career Teams: Brooklyn Dodgers (1953-1966), Detroit Tigers (1966-1967) and San Diego Padres (1969)
All Star Appearances: 1958, 1960 and 1962
MVP Voting: 1961 (14th)
The Dodgers pitching staff in the 1950's had some names that are still remembered today: Carl Erskine, Don Newcomb, Ralph Branca. Very few remember Johnny Podres, yet he won the most important game in Brooklyn's history. He was in only his third year as a major league pitcher and he was known more for his nightlife reputation than his pitching reputation. Podres was given the job of doing what Newcombe and Erskine had never done before: beat the Yankees in a Game 7 of the World Series. The Dodgers had lost to the Yankees in the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. Each time they lost it seemed there was a cruel new way for it to happen. This year would be even more cruel because they would lose without even having their best out there. Podres had already won Game 3 but pitching when your team is 2 games down and 5 games left is different than an all or nothing game. Podres showed no signs of nerves. He easily got the first 5 batters, then, after giving up a ground rule double to Moose Skowron he closed out the 2nd inning. He had to work out of trouble a few times. With 2 outs in the third he walked Rizzuto (nothing angers a pitcher more than a 2 out walk) and gave up a single to Billy Martin. Gil McDougald hit a ground ball toward third and it looked like Rizzuto would score the first run. He slid into third base and as he slid the ball hit Rizzuto. He was out. Inning over. Still scoreless. He gave up a leadoff double to Berra in the fourth but got the next three batters. The biggest threat was in the 6th. Berra hit a ball that looked like it would be a game tying base hit but Sandy Amoros made one of the great catches in World Series history then doubled off Billy Martin to end the threat. With two on and one out in the 8th he worked his magic again. In the 9th the Dodgers led by two and needed just three outs to win their first ever World Series. Podres got Skowron on a ground ball, Bob Cerv on a fly ball and Elston Howard on a ground ball to Pee Wee Reese. The Dodgers were finally World Champs and Johnny Podres was the World Series MVP.
Career Teams: Cleveland Indians (1946-1958)
All Star Appearances: 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954
MVP Voting: 1948 (5th), 1949 (9th), 1950 (5th), 1952 (8th), 1953 (16th), 1954 (5th) and 1956 (10th)
The 1954 Indians are legendary. They did only one thing wrong all year. They got upset in the World Series. The greatest team in history is rarely recognized as one of the best because the New York Giants swept them out of the post season. Similar to the undefeated Patriots team who were upset by the Giants in the Super Bowl the Indians are now designated as "a very good team" but are not always spoken of with the great teams. The Indians won 111 games. 21% of those games (23 wins overall, tied with Early Wynn for the most in the league) were won by Bob Lemon. Lemon was what would be called a "work horse" pitcher. He routinely led the league in innings pitched and complete games. The heavy work load may have had a lot to do with his short career. He pitched only 13 years in the majors (only 9 as a full time starting pitcher) and won 207 games. Lemon later became a manager and managed the 1978 Yankees (a team that his Cleveland teammate Al Rosen helped to build) to an unbelievable come from behind World Series Championship.
All Star Appearances: 1947, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960
MVP Voting: 1943 (18th), 1947 (23rd), 1951 (16th), 1952 (5th), 1954 (6th), 1955 (20th), 1956 (13th) and 1959 (3rd)
Cy Young Voting: 1959 (1st)
Bob Lemon was one of the best pitchers of the American League during the 1950's. Early Wynn was even better. Al Lopez loved to have certain players with him wherever he went. Early Wynn was player number one. In both years where Lopez was able to get past the Yankees Early Wynn was his ace. He won 23 for the 1954 Indians and 22 for the 1959 White Sox. Wynn was also known for having a short fuse. Umpires who gave Wynn a small strike zone were playing with fire. One night when Wynn was positive he was being removed from the game (Lopez was coming out for his second visit of the inning) and was unhappy with the calls he was receiving ripped into the umpire. When the umpire told Wynn he was out of the game Wynn yelled back at him: "What the hell do you think Lopez is coming out here for? To bring me a sandwich?"
* Author's Note: Just as you have seen over the last few weeks, and as may be seen in the next few weeks as we move through this series of articles, I did my best to keep this to one player per position. The summary of the decade is very short and is clearly missing some key information such as the Dodgers-Giants-Yankees rivalry, details on the move of the Dodgers and Giants as well as many other key points of the decade. Because this was more about forgotten players than the decade as a broad point I have left these topics out and will likely cover many of them in the weeks to come. This is not a comprehensive list of players who fall into this category from this era, it is simply my choice of players who best represented their position and have become forgotten. Your list is probably different. Email me yours or leave a comment.