Monday, September 19 2022 @ 12:30 PM EDT
Contributed by: Magpie
I met a Traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
--- Percy Shelley, 1819
On 15 October 1964, the New York Yankees and the St.Louis Cardinals matched up at Busch Stadium for the final game of the 1964 World Series. The Yankees had grounds for optimism, for believing they could reclaim the championship that had been ripped away from them by Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers a year earlier. Bob Gibson was on the mound for St.Louis, but the Yankees would answer with their young phenom, 22 year old Mel Stottlemyre, who had gone 9-3, 2.06 since his major league debut that August. Stottlemyre had beaten Gibson in the second game, and pitched him to a draw in the fifth game (won by the Cardinals in extra innings against the New York bullpne.)
But it was not to be. The two starters, both working on just two days rest, matched zeroes for three innings. But the Cardinals broke through with three runs off Stottlemyre in the fourth, three more against Downing and Sheldon in the fifth, and hung on from there. Gibson was running on fumes by the end - he gave up a three run homer to Mantle, and ninth-inning solo blasts by Boyer and Linz, before finally retiring Bobby Richardson to end it. The Cardinals were champs. The Yankees had lost. Again. So the Yankees fired their manager. Again. Just four years earlier, they had fired Casey Stengel when his Yankees lost the seventh game of the World Series. There was, and there still remains, about the Yankees a sense of entitlement that is far too vast for human comprehension.
The new manager, replacing franchise icon Yogi Berra, was Johnny Keane. The same Johnny Keane who had just managed the Cardinals to the 1964 title. The 1965 Yankees brought back the same team that had gone to Game Seven the year before, except this time they would have young Stottlemyre in the rotation for the entire season, They would also have Pedro Ramos as their bullpen ace - his brilliant work down the stretch (1-0, 1.25, 8 saves) had been a crucial part of the Yankees rallying from four games back in early September to finish atop the AL pennant race. Ramos had not joined the team in time to be eligible for the World Series, and his presence may well have made a difference in the pivotal fifth game.
You will often be told, as I have been told all my life, that these Yankees were an old team, and that this made their fall inevitable. Do not believe them. The Yankees did not have a particularly old team. They certainly weren't anywhere near as old as the 2015 Blue Jays. The 1965 Yankees had three position players and one starting pitcher on the wrong side of 30; the 2015 Jays had five such position players and three starting pitchers. Catcher Elston Howard, 36 years old, was the oldest of the regulars. He was still a great player. He'd just finished third in the MVP voting after hitting .313/.371/.455 and winning his second Gold Glove; he'd been the league's MVP the year previous. The incomparable Mickey Mantle was now 33 years old, but he was coming off yet another outstanding season (.303/.423/.591) - he had been the runner-up in the 1964 MVP vote. Roger Maris, 30 years old, was the only other position player on the wrong side of 30, and while he was no longer a threat to any of Babe Ruth's records, he was still a very fine player. The infielders were all at or approaching their peaks, from 23 year old Joe Pepitone to 29 year old Bobby Richardson. They had won in 1964 despite an off year from 25 year old outfielder Tom Tresh, whom they expected to bounce back.
The starting rotation featured the marvellous old veteran Whitey Ford, still one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball and coming off a brilliant age 35 season (17-6, 2.13.) Behind Ford were three very talented youngsters: the skinny sinker-baller Mel Stottlemyre and the two hard throwers, RH Jim Bouton and LH Al Downing. Bouton had just gone 18-13, 3.02 with two World Series wins in 1964; he had won 21 games in 1963; Downing had gone 13-8, 3.47 and led the AL with 217 Ks. A full season of Pedro Ramos would further strengthen a relief corps held down by solid veterans Pete Mikkelson, Hal Reniff, and Steve Hamilton. Hey, if they got lucky they might even get some contribution from the oft-injured Bill Stafford and Rollie Sheldon. Ramos and Hamilton were both 30 years old; they, along with Ford, were the only Yankees pitchers on the wrong side of 30.
There was no real reason to expect what happened to happen. Johnny Keane's major innovation was to have Mickey Mantle and Tom Tresh swap outfield positions, with Tresh taking over in centre and Mantle moving to left field. The idea, surely, was to put the young legs in centre field, and ease the burden on Mantle's always aching pins. This may not have been the wisest idea, as the left field area in the original Yankee Stadium was enormous. But it probably had little to do with what ensued.
Things actually began to go wrong before the games even began. Elston Howard injured his elbow in spring training. It didn't get better - it got worse. He played on Opening Day anyway (he went 2-5 with a homer while catching 11 innings) and pretty much vanished from the lineup. He wouldn't appear behind the plate again until mid-June. Even when he did, his elbow was still hurting and his bat would never come back, ever. Johnny Blanchard filled in behind the plate at first, but the Yankees had never much liked Blanchard's defensive work and at the beginning of May they traded him and Sheldon to Kansas City for Doc Edwards, a competent enough catcher but very much a non-hitter.
Roger Maris, off to a slow start, went down with a hand injury at the end of April. He was out for a little more than three weeks and continued to struggle upon returning to the lineup. It turned out he had a broken hand, which had been misdiagnosed. He would start just 42 games in right field; his replacement, Hector Lopez was 35 years old and had been the Yankees fourth outfielder since 1959. He was still a solid player and did a decent job filling in. He just wasn't Roger Maris.
And while we're at it - Howard and Maris were both superb defensive players, considerably better than the men who replaced them.
While Mickey Mantle was still just 33, he had the legs of a man twice his age, and the butcher's bill came due in 1965. By this time he'd had at least four surgeries on his right knee, the
first for what was almost certainly a torn ACL in 1951. This was back in the pre-arthroscopic day, when surgery always involved very sharp knives. There wasn't much cartilage remaining in that knee, it was very close to being bone on bone. He'd hurt his
other knee a couple of times as well, broken his left foot on an
outfield fence in 1963, permanently damaged his throwing shoulder in a
basepath collision in the 1957 World Series, and pulled more muscles
than most people have. Still, Mantle got off to a decent enough start - in the team's 13 April games, he hit .308/.491/.667 with 4 HRs - but for the next three months he struggled as he had never struggled before in his mostly glorious career. From the beginning of May through the end of July, Mantle hit just .235 with 9 HRs in 70 games. In late June, he pulled a hamstring trying to score from second base on a wild pitch, and would be restricted to pinch-hitting for the next three weeks. He finally began to play like himself again in August, before collapsing completely in the season's final month. He was in left field for just 11 of the team's final 29 games, finished the year in a 4-34 skid, and had to be talked out of retiring immediately by GM Ralph Houk.
First baseman Joe Pepitone wasn't old - he was just 24 years old and in 1964 he'd hit 28 HRs and driven in 100 runs. He'd hit 27 HRs the year before that, in his first full season. There was no reason to expect him to collapse to .247/.305/.394 with just 18 HRs. But he did.
Infielders Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, and Clete Boyer weren't expected to hit. They never had before. They were in the lineup because of the brilliant defensive play they provided. They didn't step up and fill the gaps in the offense on this occasion, not that anyone actually expected them to do anything of the sort.
The only positive development in the lineup was 26 year old Tom Tresh, who did indeed have a fine bounce back season, hitting .279/.348/.477 with 26 HRs and winning a Gold Glove for his work in centre field. The 1964 Yankees had been second in the league in runs scored, with 4.45 per
games, despite playing half their games in one of the greatest
pitcher's parks the game has ever seen. The 1065 team fell to seventh in
the league in scoring, managing just 3.77 per game.
On the mound, young Mel Stottlemyre emerged as a bonafide ace, going 20-9, 2.63 and working 291 IP. Al Downing basically repeated his 1964 performance (12-14, 3.40); the team's much poorer offense took a large bite out of his W-L record. Whitey Ford had another fine season (16-13, 3.24), although it was nowhere near as sensational as his work in 1964. The one absolute disaster was the other starter, Jim Bouton. Bouton, just 26 years old and coming off two outstanding seasons, went utterly to pieces. He had a sore bicep, it never got better, and he and the team decided he should just pitch through it. This did not go well. Bouton went 4-15, 4.82 and would never throw a decent fastball again. Bill Stafford joined the rotation in early May to help the team cope with some double-headers. As he immediately performed better than both Downing and Bouton, Stafford remained in what became a five man rotation until his chronic shoulder miseries shelved him at the end of June. The bullpen was decent enough, especially Ramos and the tall southpaw Steve Hamilton. It wasn't enough. The fall-off on the mound was modest compared to what had happened to the hitters, but the fall was there as well.
The 1965 Yankees went 77-85, and finished in sixth place. It was their first losing season in 40 years, since 1925, the year of Babe Ruth's legendary bellyache.
Things would not get better after that. Kubek had become increasingly troubled by back and neck miseries. He
had missed more than 50 games in both 1964 and 1965. His replacement, Phil
Linz, was just as much of a non-hitter and far less adept in the field.
It turned out Kubek had nerve damage at the top of his spine, and
doctors recommended he retire. Which he did, at age 29, when the 1965 season
was over. Richardson had been planning to retire at the end of the
1965 season, but the Yankees, not wanting to lose both Kubek and
Richardson at the same time, talked him into returning for one last
season. Richardson retired at age 30 at the end of 1966, and the Horace Clarke era would begin. They would finish dead last in 1966, tenth place in a ten team league, and ninth in 1967. The Yankees went 11 years before their next World Series appearance, in 1976. Since Babe Ruth arrived in 1920, the Yankees had never gone more than three years without making it to the World Series.
For the rest of the baseball universe, their collapse was indescribably wonderful. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, that had come crashing so suddenly down that the very earth seemed to tremble... oh, there was much rejoicing.
There would be even better times to come. In the heart of the Steinbrenner era, the Yankees went a glorious 14 seasons (1982-1995) without making it back to the Fall Classic, and fielded some of the worst teams in franchise history while doing so. The Yankees have lost more than 90 games just four times since they changed their moniker from Highlanders back in 1913. They managed to do so in consecutive seasons at the beginning of the 1990s.
Their current streak stands at 12 seasons without playing in the World Series - I think we'd all like to see it extended to a nice baker's dozen.