The Fabulous 50's: Baseball in a New York State of Mind - 1952-1954
by Tony Aubry,
January 21, 2007

Go Back to Part 1

Mantle waged a war all his own

1952: This was probably the worst season of the decade.  In December of the previous year, Joe DiMaggio was forced to retire after enduring quite a few injuries to his feet, ankles, and his heel. Also, in 1952, for the second time in nine years, the army came calling. Players like Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Ted Williams, Don Newcombe, and a myriad of others were called to fight for our country. In spite of plenty of players losing time due to the war, one player that wasn’t drafted was Mickey Mantle, due to his knee injury. 1952 saw the blossoming of the great Mantle, which really was the only bright spot of the year.  After a frustrating rookie season in 1951, he went on to hit .311/.394/.530 with 23 HR. Mantle also began his career-long World Series onslaught with a blistering line of .345/.406/.645 along with 2 four-baggers.

Attendance had been slipping at a rapid rate after peaking only three years earlier, as attendance figures had slipped from 21 million to 17 million. At the time, many theories were prevalent. One of them was that as good as the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants were for New York baseball fans, it wasn’t so good for baseball in general. Many fans of teams that weren’t from New York were disappointed with the lack of success and therefore did not want to attend games.

Branch Rickey, who was the GM of the Pirates at the time, believed that television was to blame, and he had the numbers to prove it. Profits fell fastest in parts of the country where more games were televised. “Radio created a desire to see something,” Rickey explained. “Television is giving it to them. Once a television set has broken them of the ball park habit, a great many fans will never acquire it.”

Not only were the major leagues feeling the wrath of television, the minor leagues were getting hit hard, and perhaps even harder, than the major leagues. The number of teams decreased by a dramatic 34%, and there were roughly 8,000 minor league players at the beginning of the 50’s compared to 2,500 at the end of the decade. This not only hurt baseball economically, but the quality of the major leagues could be questioned since the pool of players that were being drafted was shrinking by the year. However, a move west (something we’ll get into later) saved the sport.

1953: It had finally looked like this would be “next year” for the Dodgers, as they dominated the Senior Circuit. They won 105 games, the most ever by a Dodger team, and quite possibly, this may have been they very best regular season Dodger team of all time. Their offense was nothing short of amazing. Roy Campanella won the MVP that season with an OPS+ of 155. He also knocked in 142 men and launched 42 moon shots. However, despite Campy’s MVP Award, this offensive juggernaut that scored 955 runs was led by none other than Duke Snider. The Silver Fox raked to the tune of .336/.419/.627, popped 42 long balls, and drove in 126 runners. Jackie Robinson played the Honus Wagner role, aka Super Utility Man, as he was able to post the team’s highest OBP at .425 and steal 17 bases at an 80% clip.

Speaking of stolen bases, the Dodgers stole 90 bases with the help of Rookie of the Year Award winner Junior Gilliam, who stole 17 bases as well.  Normally, I wouldn’t even mention a team stealing 90 bags, but that was the most in the National League that decade. This implies that in the 50’s a lot of station-to-station baseball was played ie: get men on and hit homeruns. This style of play is very similar to today’s, yet people still complain, wishing the game was played the way it was “back then.”

On paper, the 1953 Subway Series heavily favored the team from Brooklyn, offensively. The Dodgers outscored the Yankees 955-to-801 that season, however, the Yankees led the league in opponents’ on-base percentage and was second in opponents’ batting average.

The series that year actually played out the way one would have expected based on the regular season. The Dodgers out-hit the Yankees .300 to .279 and had more extra base hits: 22-19. However, outside of Game 4, the Dodgers could never get their pitching on the same page as their hitting. In games where the Dodgers scored five runs or more, they gave up an average of a little more than seven runs. And when they held the Yankees to four runs or less, they were simply out-pitched, losing by scores of 4-2, and 4-3. At the end of the series, Dodger fans, and maybe even some Yankee fans, were in disbelief as the Yankees went on to win a record fifth World Series in a row.

1954: If 1954 would have been an ordinary season, we would have seen yet another Subway Series, this time consisting of the Yankees and the Giants. However, Cleveland had finished in second place the previous three seasons, and they made sure not to make it a fourth. So sure that they won 111 games while the Yankees won 103 (more than any of the previous five seasons). The Tribe also had a team ERA of 2.78, which had been the lowest total ERA by any team since 1918.

In the senior circuit, the Giants dominated, as Willie Mays returned from military service. In his first year back, Mays hit .345/.411/.667 with 41 HR and was awarded the first MVP of his career. On the other side of the ball, Johnny Antonelli led the league in ERA with a mark of 2.76, held batters to a .219 batting average, and went 21-7. Not to be forgotten, though, was that the Giants’ amazing bullpen very well may have been their key to success.  It was anchored by a forgotten great, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Marquis Hughes, as the two won 22 games and saved 26 combined.

If the 1954 World Series could be summed up in one word, it would be “disappointing.” The Indians had an unbelievable pitching staff, and it was the first time since 1948 the team representing the American League was not the Yankees. On the other hand, the Giants had a phenom in Willie Mays, who was young, powerful, and African-American. The country anticipated a great World Series, and what they got was a dud with one of the most overrated catches in baseball history.

To be fair, Game One was a great game. In the eighth  inning, with two men on, Vic Wertz sent a 425-foot shot to center field, only to be robbed by Willie Mays. In the bottom of the 10th, Dusty Rhodes hit a can of corn to right field that landed in the seats, awarding the Giants three runs and a Game One victory. From that point on, the Giants outscored Cleveland 16-7, giving the Indians a 4.84 ERA for the series, which was 2.06 runs higher than their regular season ERA.

Unless you’re incapable of independent thinking, you should be questioning why I’m calling this the Fabulous 50’s, because I know I am. After hearing plenty of people wax poetic about this being baseball’s Golden Age, I thought it would be worth chronicling the 1950’s. However, the decade started off with Branch Rickey, who is arguably one of the top 10 most important/influential people in the history of baseball, getting conned out of his job. Happy Chandler, who could have been a great commissioner, was denied a seven-year contract extension. In 1952, a major attendance crisis was cast over the head of baseball, and put the sport in serious danger as minor leagues teams were wiped out. Many of the teams played very similarly: they would get men on base and blast them home, which could be boring at times.

Will the second half of the 50’s be any better? Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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