This article was written by Joseph Wancho
The Murderers’ Row teams of the late 1920s are generally considered to be the greatest of all baseball teams. But the truth is that those vaunted New York Yankees teams led by Miller Huggins won three World Series (1923, 1927, 1928) in six years. As great as they were, they couldn’t compare to the Bronx Bombers of Casey Stengel.
When the Old Perfessor took the reins in 1949, the Yankees ripped off five straight World Series championships. His critics would point out that it was the talent on the team and not the manager for the Yankees’ success. Anyone could manage those teams. But Stengel was at the helm, and the team responded to his platoon system and sometimes questioned his moves during a game. But few could argue with the result, no matter the arguments that were made.
In 1954 the Yankees struggled at times, but still were in the American League pennant race for much of the year. A 44-14 record through July and August showed that the Yankees were still a dominant team, despite some chinks in the armor.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much how the Yankees played as how well the Cleveland Indians were performing on the diamond. In spite of the Yankees’ success, they trailed the Indians by 5½ games as the schedule moved to September. The Tribe was hammering opponents to the tune of a 95-36-2 record. New York entered the last month of the season with a record of 89-41-1. Certainly a formidable mark, yet they were staring at having October off for the first time since 1948.
The Yankees took two of three from the Indians (August 31-September 2) to close to within 3½ games of the front-running Tribe. The Yankees led the season series with Cleveland (11-9) with two more games to be played.
But Cleveland was in the midst of a 7-2 run to extend its lead to 6½ games as the Yankees made their way to Cleveland for a one-day, two-game set at Cleveland Stadium on September 12. The Sunday doubleheader was shaping up as do-or-die for the Bombers.
Cleveland fans, smelling blood and knowing their Tribe had the Yankees on the ropes, shoved their way into the ballpark for a record crowd of 86,563, a major-league attendance record that was broken when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and played their home games in the Memorial Coliseum.
Game One between the Yankees and Indians featured future members of the Hall of Fame on the mound. Whitey Ford (16-7, 2.90 ERA) matched up against Cleveland’s Bob Lemon (21-6, 2.90 ERA). Ford had won seven games in a row from July 6 to August 18 and in the process lowered his ERA from 3.47 to 2.85. Both Ford and Lemon were outstanding. Through six innings, each gave up a run for a 1-1 tie. Allie Reynolds relieved Ford in the seventh inning and he was charged with two runs as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead. Al Rosen’s double to drive in both runs was the definitive blow.
The Indians added a run in the bottom of the eighth to win 4-1. Lemon went the distance to improve his record to 22-6, struck out five, and walked two. The Yankees were now on the brink of falling out of contention. And the fans were whooping it up in the stands.
In Game Two, Stengel went with southpaw Tommy Byrne while Cleveland manager Al Lopez tabbed another one of the horses from his outstanding staff, Early Wynn. Byrne was making only his second appearance of the season for the Yankees, having spent the season pitching for Seattle of the Pacific Coast League. He pitched well for the Rainiers, going 20-10 with a 3.15 ERA before New York purchased his contract on September 3. Wynn (20-11, 2.82 ERA) chalked up his third 20-win season of his career in 1954.
The enthusiasm by the home crowd was tamped down in the first inning. Andy Carey stroked a one-out double to left field and came home when Yogi Berra smacked his 20th home run to give the visitors a 2-0 advantage.
The Yankees held their lead until the bottom of the fifth inning. With two down, Wynn singled to center field. He moved to second base after Al Smith singled to left, and scored the Indians’ first run on a single by Bobby Avila. Wally Westlake doubled to left field to plate Smith and Avila and give the Indians a 3-2 lead.
New York attempted to get the run back in the top of the sixth. Hank Bauer led off with a single and was sacrificed to second by Carey. But Wynn settled down and retired Mickey Mantle and Berra to strand Bauer.
Cleveland’s offense was unable to get any more runs against Byrne. But it mattered very little, as Wynn retired the Yankees in order over the final three innings to preserve the Indians’ 3-2 victory. Cleveland now led the Yankees by a whopping 8½ games; their magic number was reduced to three.
“This was the way we wanted it,” said Lopez. “We wanted to beat the Yanks ourselves. This was the way we wanted to win the pennant. But to win without beating the Yankees would have left something to be desired. Now nobody can knock us. It’s the most wonderful day I ever had in 30 years in baseball.”1
“We had two real pitchers today, didn’t we?” said Indians catcher Jim Hegan of the two winning hurlers. “Lem goes out and throws a great game and then Gus (Early Wynn) tosses a better one. That Wynn pitched a terrific game.”2
“So, down we go after five straight world’s championships, and up comes Cleveland, and that is life,” said Stengel.3
Cleveland broke the AL record for most wins in a season held since 1927 by the Yankees. Cleveland’s 111 wins eclipsed the Yankees’ total of 110. The Indians’ .721 winning percentage is still (as of 2018) the high-water mark in the junior circuit.
Cleveland was swept in the 1954 World Series by the New York Giants. The Yankees then won four straight pennants and two more World Series championships before they finished in third place in 1959 to Chicago. The White Sox were managed by Al Lopez.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information and other data, as well as retrosheet.org.
1 Hal Lebovitz, “ ‘Choke-Up’ Critics of Tribe Eat Crow,” The Sporting News, September 22, 1954: 4.
2 Dan Cordtz, “Avila Dream of Series Is Coming True,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 13, 1954: 29.
3 Dan Daniel, “Casey to Stick at Yanks Helm? – He’s Willing,” The Sporting News, September 22, 1954: 2.