Fischer, David. The New York Yankees of the 1950s: Mantle, Stengel, Berra, and a Decade of Dominance. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2019. Pp. 271. Bibliography, epilogue, index, preface, and source notes. $26.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.
The New York Yankees were the dominant baseball team of the 1950s. On paper, teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians appeared to be superior, but somehow Yankees manager Casey Stengel found a way to win — and win often. Stengel, who had a 965-582-2 record during the decade, piloted the Yankees to eight American League pennants and six World Series titles during the 1950s. The team averaged 96 victories per season, and it is ironic that the New York team that won the most games during the decade — the 1954 Yankees captured 103 victories — did not win the pennant.
As Roger Kahn wrote in his 1993 book, The Era, 1947-57, the decade following World War II — which includes a large chunk of the 1950s — was “a time of thunder and tectonic change.” What did not change was the Yankees’ success. It’s a subject David Fischer explores in The New York Yankees of the 1950s: Mantle, Stengel, Berra and a Decade of Dominance. The Yankees, Fischer writes, “were a constant, a dependable and reliable winner.” (p. viii). They won four straight World Series to open the decade, and the two Fall Classics they lost came down to a seventh game.
That did not make them lovable. The Yankees won with cold, metallic efficiency, and Stengel platooned players and juggled lineups to get the best out of his lineups. Stengel had some help, with Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. But the Ol’ Perfessor also got mileage out of role players like Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling and Gil McDougald. The pitching staff was strong with Ford, Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat and Vic Raschi. Other pitchers, like Bob Grim, Bob Kuzava and Bob Turley, would play crucial roles during the decade.
The Cleveland Indians spent a good part of the 1950s chasing the Yankees before finally winning the pennant in 1954 with an American League-record 111 victories. Third baseman Al Rosen, the A.L.’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, admitted the Yankees knew how to win. “The Yankees were so great,” Rosen told me in a May 19, 1983, interview that was published in The Stuart (Fla.) News. “They were just a great team with a lot of consistency. “We were always a little short.”
Fischer’s work offers the casual fan a quick look at the 1950s. It is not a deep-dive project, like The Era, Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty or Marty Appel’s Pinstripe Empire. Nor, does it pretend to be. Fischer lists all three of these books in his bibliography, which contains twenty works. They include books by Jane Leavy (The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood), David Falkner (The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle), Glenn Stout (Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball) and Robert Creamer (Stengel: His Life and Times). Books written by Mantle and Ford are also referenced in Fischer’s bibliography. Archives of the New York Daily News, The Associated Press, The New York Times and New York Post, along with Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, also flesh out Fischer’s research.
Baseball history lovers will know most of the material Fischer covers. Casual Yankees fans — is there really such a thing? — and casual fans, in general, will find The New York Yankees of the 1950s interesting and informative. Fischer is no stranger to writing about the Yankees, with books about Aaron Judge and Derek Jeter in his catalog. He also edited the 2014 book, Facing Mariano Rivera. Every chapter of The New York Yankees of the 1950s summarizes one year during the decade. Fischer starts with 1950, describing the tactics that made Stengel such an effective manager. Stengel believed in the five-man pitching rotation and platooning players, and while the players involved may not have enjoyed it, the results spoke volumes. The platoon system especially rejuvenated the career of Johnny Mize, whose clutch hitting helped win key games for the Yankees.
Throughout his work, Fischer sprinkles baseball events with the current events of the day. Whether it was political news — the Red scare, McCarthyism, or the point-shaving scandals in college basketball — Fischer adds context to the decade. While the political situation in the world may have seemed fluid. Baseball was solid because of the Yankees’ consistency. At least, to fans of the Bronx Bombers. Success sometimes breeds resentment, and American League teams from Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and Detroit were frustrated in their efforts to overtake the Yankees. So were the Brooklyn Dodgers (at least until 1955) and the New York Giants were similarly stymied in the World Series. The Milwaukee Braves earned a split against the Yankees, and it took a major comeback by New York in the 1958 World Series, winning three straight games after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven Fall Classic.
Of particular note is Fischer’s mention of Douglass Wallop’s 1954 book, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which was converted to play on Broadway and on film as Damn Yankees. Wallop was writing fiction, but his words rang true: “It’s been written that when the Yankees took the field in that decade of the 1950s, they must have appeared seven feet tall to the opposing team, and to the opposing pitcher, even taller when they strode to the plate.”
While Fischer has a nice, steady narrative throughout the book, several mistakes are jolting. For example, Fischer writes that Don Newcombe, who died Feb. 19 at the age of 92, was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (p. 61). “Big Newk” never got the call to Cooperstown, but the right-hander could be considered for enshrinement in the upcoming Golden Days Era Committee vote in 2020. Along with teammate Gil Hodges, he should get some consideration. Newcombe won 20 games three times, won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, and missed two full seasons due to military service.
Another error involving Newcombe comes when Fischer writes that Ralph Branca and Clem Labine (p. 37) were warming up in the bullpen just before Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in the deciding game of the 1951 National League playoff series. It was Carl Erskine who was in the bullpen throwing, and when bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth said Erskine was bouncing his overhand curve, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen called for Branca. For years afterward, Erksine always joked that his best pitch was “the curveball I bounced in the Polo Grounds bullpen in 1951,” according to Bob Hurte’s article on the pitcher on the Society for American Baseball Research’s website.
Fischer mentions that Dusty Rhodes’ pinch-hit, three-run homer in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series cleared the 297-foot mark at the Polo Grounds, when in fact, it was 257 feet down the right-field line (p. 104). He also writes that when Willie Mays made “The Catch” earlier in the game, the runners on first and second did not advance. That is only partially true. Larry Doby tagged up and went to third, according to Retrosheet.org and several other sources. Mays’ throw to the infield prevented Doby from scoring. Al Rosen, who was on first base, said years later he never thought Mays would catch Vic Wertz’s drive to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds.
“No. Absolutely not,” Rosen told me in that 1983 interview. “I felt the ball would drop and we’d be two runs ahead with a man on third. “I had one of those surprised looks, I had already rounded second. It shocked me.”
Fischer writes that Paul Simon remembered Joe DiMaggio in song with “Mrs. Robinson” in 1969 (p. 219). While it is true the song won a Grammy Award in 1969, it was actually included in the 1967 film “The Graduate” and was released the following year. Fischer also misspelled organist Gladys Goodding’s last name (p. 82, p. 181). Goodding, by the way, is the marvelous answer to the trivia question, “Who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Knicks and New York Rangers?” While the mistakes do not detract from the overall product, they certainly were avoidable.
Writing for the New Journal and Guide in 1952, John B. Henderson noted that whether one rooted for or against the Yankees, “you will have to admit that the Yankees have the punch that’s needed for the pinches.” It’s hard to argue with that success. Eight pennants and six World Series titles in a 10-year span are a phenomenal achievement. Fischer shows how that punch the Yankees always seem to display at crucial moments got them through the few pinches they encountered during the 1950s.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.