The Fabulous 50's: Baseball in a New York State of Mind - 1949-1951
by Tony Aubry,
January 21, 2007

The Fabulous 50's: when I hear that term, the first thing I think of is baseball. Part of that is due to my grandfather. Because of him, I could have probably told you how many homeruns Yogi Berra had hit in 1953 before I could multiply eight by eight. The other reason I think of baseball is, aside from an attendance scare (we’ll get into that in a bit), baseball in the 1950's was pretty fabulous; it was if you were a fan of a New York team, anyway. However, even though New York dominated, some of the greatest players played a good chunk of their careers in the 50's. Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial are all arguably top 10 players. But before we delve into baseball’s ninth decade of existence, we have to backtrack to 1949.

1949 was a big year for New York baseball for two reasons. The Yankees hired Casey Stengel in 1949 and started a run of success that has yet to be matched. However, if you told someone in 1949 that the Yankees would win five championships in a row, they’d recommend that you visit Bellevue hospital. By 1949, the Yankees were getting old and breaking down (sound familiar?). Tommy Henrich had turned 36.  Charlie Keller was 36 as well, and had been bothered by a ruptured disk in his back.  Joe DiMaggio had terrible problems with his feet and heel, and was quoted saying that when he walked, it felt like he was “stepping on a spike.” So, with a bewildered outfield and a new manager who was known as a clown, the Yankees appeared vulnerable.  112 sports writers were polled and asked who would win the World Series that year.

How many chose the Yankees? One. Yeah, that’s right, one. Not surprisingly, the sports writers were wrong. The Yankees’ one strength, their pitching staff, held up. It is well documented that Stengel loved Berra, and when he was asked about the secret to his success, Stengel replied, “I’d never start a game without my man.”  The Yankees pulled it out that year, beating the Red Sox in the final two games of the regular season after having trailed by one game. After winning the pennant, they went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

The other reason why 1949 proved so important was Jackie Robinson. Yes, we all know that he broke in two years earlier, but for two seasons, Jackie was the type of person to turn the other cheek. Then in 1949, Robinson became ferocious both on and off the field. “They better prepare to be rough, because I’m going to be rough with them,” Robinson said at the start of the 1949 season. His new attitude definitely helped his play, as he batted .342/.432/.528, belted 16 homeruns, stole 37 bases, and won the league’s MVP Award.

Robinson’s aggressiveness was shown off the field as well. Robinson had never let racist remarks really get to him, or if he did, you wouldn’t know it. That changed in 1949, however. After agreeing to avoid the hotel where all his white teammates stayed at, he demanded, and ultimately received, a room at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Earlier that same year, at Pelican Field down in New Orleans, the owner of the stadium allowed black fans a few seats in the white section to watch Jackie play in an exhibition game. Unfortunately, the fans did not get the greeting from Robinson that they would have wanted. Robinson called them stupid bastards, shouting, “You only got what’s coming to you.” The Sporting News ran a cover that read “ROBINSON SHOULD BE A PLAYER, NOT A CRUSADER.” Robinson replied, “I was a hero to most people, but the minute I sound off, I become an uppity nigger.” As the fifties would go on, actions like this from Robinson on and off the field would not be uncommon.

The fact that Robinson finally broke out of his shell and showed that he could handle the majors paved the way for the black stars of the 50’s, such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso and countless others. And such a movement really got the ball rolling for such a prominent decade.

1950: Ted Williams became the highest paid baseball player ever, earning 125,000 dollars, and Grover Cleveland Alexander passed away. 1950 also granted two big wishes for Phillies fans, as they saw things they thought would never happen: the last of Connie Mack and a World Series berth. The World Series berth was their first since 1915. However, the Wiz Kids certainly played like a bunch of kids, as they managed to score only 5 runs and knock a measly 7 extra base hits against the Yankees. In 1950, though, the World Series would not be the most important event.

Happy Chandler and Branch Rickey, two men who pushed as hard as anyone to get Jackie Robinson into the majors, both lost their respective jobs. Rickey had done almost everything Dodger fans could have hoped for.  Their farm system was spitting out some great ball players, and they became one of the National League’s best, if not the best, team. Since 1943, when Rickey took over as the President and GM of the Dodgers after Larry Macphail was drafted to serve in World War II, Rickey built an amazing farm system and won three consecutive pennants from 1947-49.

Walter O’Malley, who reminds me of a very active George Steinbrenner, was not happy. To him, baseball was all about profit. O’Malley, like Steinbrenner, was born rich, and got even wealthier once he became a lawyer who specialized in bankruptcies during the Depression in the early 1930’s. In 1943, he became an attorney for the Dodgers, and bought a one-quarter interest in the team. O’Malley became very active, and did not like the way Rickey handled the club. In 1950, O’Malley finally had his chance. O’Malley, Rickey, and a third party owned 75% of the team at the time. That year, the third party passed away, and Rickey talked the widow into selling him her share.  O’Malley would soon force Rickey out of his job.

That same year, Happy Chandler, who was known as the player’s Commissioner because he always took their side, argued for a minimum salary to be implemented, developed a pension plan for the players, and was in favor of baseball integration, was forced out of his job. Chandler suspended the very popular Leo Durocher and later vetoed a plan that would raise ticket prices. That plan he vetoed would be his last straw, as he was denied a seven-year extension by a vote of 9-7 and would retire in 1951.

1951: While 1950 was a big year off the field, on the field, 1951 is one of the most memorable seasons of all time, and did a great job kicking off the Fabulous 50’s.  By August 11th, the Dodgers had built a 13 ½ game lead over the Giants, and it appeared that they would get another crack at beating those damn Yankees. The Giants, however, had planned otherwise. Behind Leo Durocher, a strong lineup, and a young man named Willie Mays,who was called up to compliment Monte Irvin, Bobby Thompson, and Don Mueller in the outfield, went on a torrid run, helping the Giants win 37 of their last 44 games. The Giants would have actually won the pennant in the regular season if it weren’t for a season-saving catch by Jackie Robinson. With the last game of the season tied at eight, in the bottom of the 12th, Robinson would rob the Phillies’ Eddie Waitkus of a game-winning single. Robinson would then knock a homerun only a few minutes later in the next inning to secure the win.

In a best of three series, the Giants took the first game, but would get shellacked in the second game, 10-0. So it would all come down to game three, tied 1-1 in the 8th inning. The Dodgers would take the lead in the 8th on a wild pitch and a pair of singles by Andy Pafko and Billy Cox. The Dodger fans could once again taste a trip to the World Series, but the Giants had once again planned otherwise. Dodger ace Don Newcombe, who had tossed 272 innings that season, began to tire, as he surrendered consecutive singles to Don Mueller and Alvin Dark. Monte Irvin then popped up, but Whitey Lockman doubled, scoring Dark, and moving Mueller to third.

Now here comes the kicker. It was obvious that Newcombe was getting slapped around like a piñata, and that he couldn’t finish the game. So Chuck Dressen took him out and had a choice of Carl Erskine, or Ralph Branca. Dressen decided to go with Branca, despite his being only on one day rest to face Bobby Thompson, WHO HAD HIT FOUR HOMERS OFF BRANCA DURING THE SEASON AND ONE IN THE FIRST PLAYOFF GAME!. Branca came in, got a fastball over for a called strike, and then wham! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

That would be all they would win, however, as they ran into the Yankees, and the American League version of Willie Mays in Mickey Mantle. Mantle ripped his knee apart by getting his foot caught in a drain trying to avoid DiMaggio on fly ball.  This was the first of many injuries to come in one of baseball’s greatest careers.

Continue on to 1952

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Tony resides in Queens, New York and can be reached at