One Trade, Three Teams, and Reversal of Fortune
This article was published in the Spring 2012 Baseball Research Journal.
The 1946 season had been a deep disappointment for the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. Hopes had been high for both organizations. After two dismal war years when NY finished third and fourth in 1944 and 1945, the Yankees were looking forward to securing their normal perch on top of the AL pack, led by their returning war veterans: Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, and Marius Russo. But, Dickey at age 39 had nothing left. Ruffing, who had seemed indestructible, finally ran out of gas at age 41. It took a while for Rizzuto and Henrich to regain most of their pre-war form, but they made it back for respectable seasons. The shock to the system came about when the front office realized that three returning veterans had aged far beyond expectation. Russo, a promising left-hander, was completely ineffective, went 0–2, and was sent to the minors. Just 31 years old, he never pitched again in the majors.
But what had happened to MVPs DiMaggio and Gordon struck fear into Yankees executives Larry MacPhail and George Weiss, two of the most knowledgeable baseball people in the business. DiMaggio, the heart of the Yankees dynasty from 1936, at age 31, returned from military service an old man. For normal mortals, a year with a .290 batting average, 25 home runs, and 95 RBIs would register as a solid performance; for DiMaggio, it was a bitter disappointment, the first time he finished under .300 with fewer than 100 RBIs. Worse yet was Joe Gordon’s year. In 1942, Gordon hit .322 with 18 home runs and 103 runs batted in, an MVP year in the American League. He fell off offensively in 1943 yet remained an acrobatic second baseman, a perennial All-Star who always got the nod over his Boston Red Sox rival, Bobby Doerr; but, 1946 proved to be a disaster for Gordon. He hit an anemic .210, played in just 112 games, knocked in 47 runs with 11 homers. Worst of all, his fielding collapsed. Gordon gave every indication that the war had sapped his talents, and he was through. Weiss and MacPhail decided in the fall of 1946 that they would get whatever they could for him in a trade. Gordon, they were certain, was finished. MacPhail, franchise president acting as his own general manager, trusted his farm director’s advice; Weiss wanted another starting pitcher.
For the Cleveland Indians and their new owner Bill Veeck, 1946 had been just as frustrating. The only bright spot was the returning star Bob Feller. Feller, a war hero, gave up three prime years by enlisting in the US Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor. Now the 27-year-old flamethrower was back and turned in a 26–15 mark with a sixth-place team, leading the league in complete games (36), innings pitched (371), strikeouts (348), and shutouts (10). On Opening Day he beat the Chicago White Sox, 1–0, with a three-hitter, striking out 10. On the final day of the season, Feller threw a six-hitter beating the Detroit Tigers and Hal Newhouser, the league’s other 26-game winner, 4–1. Feller was back, with a vengeance. His 2.18 ERA was bested only by Newhouser and the Yankees’ Spud Chandler.
The rest of the Cleveland team flopped. They had the league’s worst team batting average at .245; and the worst of the worst was second base, where two war-time retreads, Ray Mack and Dutch Meyer, batted .205 and .232 respectively. Veeck looked around for available talent and set his eyes on the disappointing Yankees second baseman. Acting as his own general manager, he guessed that Gordon needed only a little more time to get straightened out and return to pre-war form; and Veeck had pitchers to spare. The only untouchable was Feller; every other pitcher was expendable. The Yankees, he told MacPhail and Weiss, could have anyone else.
MacPhail and Weiss looked over the Indians roster. The liked a 28-year-old righthander named Red Embree, who Weiss believed was just coming into his own. In 1946 he had been moved into the starting rotation for the first time, threw 200 innings, and baseball people generally felt that his 8–12 record was only a stop on the way to a brilliant career. For a moment, they considered a converted third baseman whom the Indians had shifted to the mound. But no one believed that the 25-year-old Bob Lemon would have much of a career as a pitcher. Mel Harder was too old; Steve Gromek didn’t throw hard enough; and Allie Reynolds, Veeck’s biggest disappointment, showed that, after four years, he really could not be a consistent winner in the big leagues. Now he was 29 years old, couldn’t finish games he started, and could not control a fastball that many felt was the equal of Feller’s. What good was it if you couldn’t throw strikes and faded after the fifth inning?
Reynolds, who was 18–12 in the wartime year of 1945, was supposed to give Cleveland the most powerful one-two punch in the American League, the equal of Newhouser and Dizzy Trout with the Tigers. Instead, he finished 11–15, starting 28 games and completing nine. With 108 bases on balls, he gave one more walk than strikeouts. His 3.89 ERA was well above the team average.
The Cleveland press never let up on Reynolds. He was one-quarter Creek Indian, whose ancestors had been driven to Oklahoma from Georgia and Alabama generations earlier and had settled on Indian land. When he consistently ran out of gas in the final innings, he was dubbed “The Vanishing American.” Comparisons were made to the first native American in major league baseball who also happened to play in Cleveland at the turn of the century, Lou Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine who was immediately dubbed “Chief” and who, the newspapers reported, could not hold his “firewater.” Sockalexis eventually drank himself out of baseball. One Cleveland sportswriter wrote his eulogy: “Socks swears by the feathers of his ancestors that he hasn’t removed the scalp from one glass of foamy beer since last Spring, when he whooped up a dance on Superior Street…but the wiles and temptations of the big cities stimulated poor Lou’s thirst and set him forth in search of the red paint.”
So much for native American baseball players. The beat writers firmly believed that Reynolds lacked some inner character that would prevent him from ever reaching his potential. (No one suspected that Allie had early-stage diabetes, and once he started drinking orange juice during games, his stamina improved dramatically.)
The Cleveland-New York discussions began immediately after the season’s end; all the Yankees had to do was to confirm that they wanted Embree. But, MacPhail, at the last moment, told Weiss that he wanted to hear from two more voices: DiMaggio and Henrich. He called them personally. Each gave the same answer: “Get Reynolds.” When the surprised MacPhail told Weiss, the farm director was hesitant. Reynolds had pitched his last start in 1946 against the Yankees and was dreadful. Weiss remembered; DiMaggio, even more strongly than Henrich, didn’t care: “If you can get Reynolds, get him,” said the Yankee Clipper; and the deal was made on October 11, 1946: straight up, Joe Gordon for Allie Reynolds.
Joe Gordon was a much beloved Yankee, a genuinely selfless player who gave everything to the team, a gentleman of considerable character. When Larry Doby arrived to integrate the American League and the Cleveland Indians in the summer of 1947, he was met with a frosty hostility, until Gordon pushed his way past the turned backs, walked up to Doby with extended hand, and welcomed him to the clubhouse. Doby remembered that act of sincere humanity for the rest of his life.
When the 1947 season got underway, everyone in baseball was delighted that Gordon almost instantly reverted to form and put together a regenerative year for the Indians and for his career. At age 32, he played 155 of the 157-game season, hit .272, smashed 29 home runs, and knocked in 93. No longer was “Flash” Gordon the acrobat around the keystone, but he played a respectable second base and with Lou Boudreau at shortstop gave Cleveland the offensive punch it needed in the infield. The Indians moved up two notches in the American League to fourth place, and were ready for the surge to come.
Everything came together in 1948, when the Cleveland Indians, to everyone’s amazement, won the American League pennant, beating the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff, then went on to defeat the Boston Braves to become baseball’s champions of the world. Player-manager shortstop Lou Boudreau hit .355 for the year and ran away with the league’s MVP award, but Veeck always insisted that the heart of that team was their second baseman, Joe Gordon, who had career highs in home runs(32) and RBIs (124). He was sixth in the MVP voting. Veeck knew that it was Gordon who helped Larry Doby integrate the Cleveland clubhouse and to fulfill his promise. Doby hit .301 and anchored the Cleveland outfield. (The converted infielder the Yankees didn’t want, Bob Lemon, had the first of his six twenty-victory seasons.) Cleveland home attendance of 2.6 million surpassed by nearly 400,000 the previous record, set by the Yankees in 1946.
Joe Gordon was indeed in the twilight of his career. He gave Cleveland two more respectable years, then hung up his spikes after the 1950 season and began a career that would lead him to managing four different major league teams between 1958 and 1969, including three years at the helm of the Indians. But, for millions of Cleveland fans, Joe Gordon will always be connected to the fantasy year of 1948 and the role he played in bringing so totally without expectation a world’s championship to the city.
For Allie Reynolds, there was also a rebirth, and one that would totally reverse what most baseball people saw as the inevitable decline of fortune. The universal consensus after the 1946 season believed that the Yankees dynasty was over. The shock of seeing the diminished skills of Joe DiMaggio left the sportswriters stunned and certain that the age of the Red Sox was upon American League baseball, in spite of the unexpected loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series.1 The Red Sox were loaded with stars Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, John Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio. In 1947 and 1949 they executed trades with the St. Louis Browns that brought them Ellis Kinder, hard-hitting shortstop Vern Stephens, and all-star outfielder Al Zarilla. The Boston Red Sox were labeled the team of the decade. It never happened.
In 1947, the Yankees unexpectedly stormed back. This was no longer the Bronx Bombers. The fans didn’t see the dominant DiMaggio of the 1936-41 years, but he still carried the offense as much as he could. The 32-year-old outfielder hit 20 home runs to lead the team, knocked in 97, and hit .315: a little better than 1946. But, there was a new leader on the mound; and it was Allie Reynolds, back from the dead. He immediately took over as the Yankees ace at the top of the rotation, started a team-leading 30 games, 17 of which he completed, finished at 19–8 with a 3.20 ERA , under the team and league average. No Yankee hurler was close to his 242 innings pitched.
For Allie Reynolds, 1947 was the annus mirabilis; for Joe Gordon, the magic struck in 1948: one trade, two World Series. The Age of the Red Sox never arrived. They lost the American League pennant in two consecutive years—1948 and 1949—on the last day of the season, once to Cleveland and again to the Yankees. From 1949 to 1953, Boston’s nemesis was Allie Reynolds, who became a dominant pitcher in the American League—the first in history to throw two no-hitters in a season (1951, when he was given the Ray Hickok Award as Professional Athlete of the Year)— and a superstar in the post-season, leading the Yankees to five consecutive World Series triumphs, a record that arguably will never be broken. Reynolds, along with Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat, gave the Yankees three ace starters, and when Whitey Ford joined them permanently in 1953, Branch Rickey stated that this was the best starting rotation in baseball history.
Joe Gordon passed away in 1978, at age 63. In 2009, the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame elected him to membership. Allie Reynolds, who as a Yankees stalwart went 131–60, threw two no-hitters, won seven World Series games and saved four others, died in 1994, age 77. He was on the Veterans Committee election ballot of 2011. These two veteran ballplayers are joined together in baseball immortality by a trade in which everyone was a winner, except perhaps the Boston Red Sox.
SOL GITTLEMAN is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor at Tufts University, where he has taught for forty-eight years. For the past five years, he has taught a seminar in the History Department called "America and the National Pastime." He joined SABR in 1986 and published his first article in 1992. That article led to a book in 2007, "Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat: New York’s “Big Three” and the Great Yankee Dynasty of 1949–1953."
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Gittleman, Sol. Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2007.
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Kahn, Roger. The Era, 1947–1957. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993.
Rizzuto, Phil with Tom Horton. The October Twelve. New York: Forge, 1994.
Spatz, Lyle, Yankees Coming, Yankees Going. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2000.
- 1. Unexpected to everyone except those who knew that the Cardinals had three off-speed left-handers in Howie Pollet, Harry Brecheen, and Al Brazle, who would drive Ted Williams to distraction. Williams collected five singles, drove in one run, and hit .200 in his only WS appearance. Harry Brecheen won three games.