This article was written by Thomas Van Hyning
This article was published in the The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
Pundits may call the 1954 Athletics one of the all-time worst major-league teams, but they had talented players and fine human beings, among them Art Ditmar, Spook Jacobs, Vic Power, Bill Renna, and Bobby Shantz. This is the story of Philadelphia’s final entry in the American League, which finished a full 60 games back of first place.
Pundits may call the 1954 Athletics one of the all-time worst major-league teams, but they had talented players and fine human beings, among them Art Ditmar, Spook Jacobs, Vic Power, Bill Renna, and Bobby Shantz. This is the story of Philadelphia’s final entry in the American League, which finished a full 60 games back of first place.Bill Renna was playing winter ball for the 1953–54 San Juan Senators, managed by Harry Craft, after his 1953 rookie season with the world champion New York Yankees, when a local sportswriter got the news Renna had been traded to the Philadelphia A’s in an 11-player deal. Renna, the San Juan right fielder, “was surprised when he (the sportswriter) told me. Then (I) played three-to-four more weeks for San Juan. (Eddie) Joost phoned me; he told me to come back to the states.” Little did Renna know the 1954 last place A’s would finish 51–103, a full 60 games behind Cleveland, and 52 games behind the 103–51 Yankees.
PRESEASON TRADES AND ACQUISITIONS
Renna, Puerto Rican prospect Victor Pellot Power (Vic Power), first baseman Don Bollweg, third baseman Jim Finigan, catcher Jim Robertson, and pitcher Johnny Gray went to the A’s on December 16, 1953, in exchange for first baseman Eddie Robinson, infielder Loren Babe, outfielders Tom Hamilton and Carmen Mauro, and starter Harry Byrd. Five of six players traded by the Yankees made the A’s 1954 Opening Day roster.[fn]Johnny Gray made his MLB debut for the A’s on July 18, 1954. Gray was a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, where the A’s did their spring training.[/fn] Robinson and Byrd were the key A’s targeted by the Yankees, but neither spent much time in New York. Robinson was dealt to Kansas City in 1956 and Byrd was part of a 17-player Yankees-Orioles trade prior to the 1955 season.
It was a busy offseason for the A’s. They released Bobo Newsom on November 19, 1953, drafted second baseman Forrest “Spook” Jacobs from the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft on November 30, and sold their 1953 second baseman Cass Michaels (who made his major-league debut a decade earlier under his real name of Casimir Eugene Kwietniewski) to the Chicago White Sox on December 8. Jacobs was having another fine 1953–54 winter baseball season in Cuba. “I played six years in Cuba, three in Panama, plus part of a season in Puerto Rico,” recalled Jacobs. “The Dodgers kept me at Mobile, 1949–52; they didn’t want to send any black players South. Played some at St. Paul (1952) and then had a real good season at Ft. Worth (1953).[fn]Phone interview with Spook Jacobs, September 27, 2010. Jacobs played 14 seasons in the minors, finishing with a .300 career batting mark. Jacobs retired after his 1960 season with Chattanooga. He got four hits in his first MLB game, on April 13, 1954, in the first, third, sixth, and eighth innings (retired in the fifth on pop fly). Jacobs was playing winter ball in Cuba when the A’s selected him. He represented Cuba in the February 1954 Caribbean Series hosted by Puerto Rico and played against Vic Power’s Caguas team. Jacobs was inducted into the Cuban (pro) Baseball Hall of Fame in January 2009, along with Negro Leagues stars Josh Gibson and James “Cool Papa” Bell. He was also inducted in Baseball Hall of Fames of Delaware, South Jersey, the Eastern Shore (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), and the Columbus (Ohio) Jets.[/fn]
- Related link: “Departure Without Dignity: The Athletics Leave Philadelphia,” by Robert D. Warrington (Fall 2010 BRJ)
The 26-year old Power got ready for 1954 spring training by playing third base for the champion Caguas (Puerto Rico) team, managed by Mickey Owen. This club featured a 19-year-old second baseman-outfielder named Henry Aaron and Jim Rivera, the 31-year-old Chicago White Sox flychaser and MVP of the 1954 Caribbean Series. “I had two good seasons with the Kansas City Blues and one with Syracuse (1951–53),” recalled Power. “But the (New York) Yankees did not call me up. They traded me to the A’s and they gave me the opportunity to play in 1954.”[fn]Lee MacPhail—a classmate of the author’s mother at Swarthmore College (Philadelphia area)—in his autobiography, page 49, stated that Vic (Power) was “making his presence felt by 1954 … was an outstanding fielder at first base—I am not sure I have ever seen anyone any better—and a good right-handed hitter with power. He was an aggressive player with an aggressive attitude, and the latter had caused a few problems in the clubhouse. (George) Weiss and (Dan) Topping wanted to be certain that the first black player to play for the Yankees would be a role model. We thought we had the ideal man in (Elston) Howard.” Power hit .328, with 101 doubles, 32 triples, and 38 homers in his three AAA seasons—Syracuse (1) and Kansas City (2).[/fn]
Other pre-1954 season trades had pitcher Joe Coleman and Frank Fanovich going to Baltimore for Bob Cain on December 17, 1953 and a February 19, 1954 deal that sent outfielder Dave Philley to Cleveland for hurlers Bill Upton and Lee Wheat. Coleman, a 1948 AL All-Star with the A’s, won 13 games in 1954 for the O’s, almost a quarter of their 54 wins. Upton and Wheat pitched ineffectively for the 1954 A’s, a combining for an 0–2 mark. Dave Philley was the starting right fielder for AL champion Cleveland. “Sugar” Cain was released by the A’s in May 1954.
AN ECLECTIC 1954 ROSTER
Bob Trice, the Newton, Georgia native and the A’s first African American player (he made his debut on September 13, 1953), won 21 games for the 1953 Ottawa A’s. Trice was the only member of the 1954 A’s who played in the Negro Leagues, having done so for the Homestead Grays. He was penciled in to join a starting rotation of lefties Bobby Shantz and Alex Kellner, and righty Arnold Portocarrero. The latter spent the past two years in the military but showed promise with the 1953–54 San Juan club, one with pitchers Bob Turley of the 1954 Orioles and Jack Harshman of the 1954 White Sox. Portocarrero was a “New York Rican”—a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Alex Kellner had qualified for a Major League Baseball pension by virtue of five full seasons with the A’s, 1949–53. He pitched over 200 innings each of those seasons and won 20 games in 1949.”[fn]Dr. Bobby Brown, in a phone interview, recalled the A’s—late 1940s—had a very good pitching staff with Kellner, Joe Coleman, Phil Marchildon et al plus solid position players: Buddy Rosar behind the plate, Ferris Fain (1B), Pete Suder (2B), Hank Majeski (3B), Eddie Joost (SS), Barney McCoskey, Ben Chapman, Elmer Valo, and Wally Moses in the outfield.[/fn]
Bobby Shantz, winner of the 1952 AL MVP Award with a 24-7 record and 27 complete games, was cautious heading into 1954. “Joost replaced Jimmy Dykes as our (1954) manager. Dykes told me (in 1953) not to pitch that much and give it rest; took a lot of cortisone shots from 1953-55,” Shantz said. “Had that (opening day) start in 1954 but a sore arm kept me from starting any more games that season. We bought our home in Ambler (Pennsylvania) in 1954—and still live in it.”
Shantz stated the 1954 A’s had “good (camaraderie) guys—(shortstop) DeMaestri, Bollweg, Renna” and that “Renna comes in to sign autographs during Philadelphia A’s Historical Society events,” adding, “My brother Billy was a good catcher with a good arm who missed out on an MLB pension. We went to 1954 (and 1955) home games in separate cars. Spook (Jacobs) was a good little player in 1954 that lived in Milford, Delaware about sixty to seventy miles from Philadelphia. He came to the Historical Society shows. Vic Power was a really good ballplayer and fielder.”[fn]Bobby Shantz won eight Gold Gloves: four in the AL, 1957–60, with the Yankees, and four in the NL, 1961–64. Vic Power earned seven AL Glove Gloves with Cleveland, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, 1958–64. Bobby told me his career highlight was a 14-inning, 2–1 win over the 1952 Yankees where Mickey Mantle hit a third-inning homer. Dykes tried (unsuccessfully) to take Shantz out of the game a few times and Bobby related: “I told Dykes that our bullpen wasn’t that good and if I’m going to lose it, will lose it myself. Threw 300 pitches.” Shantz echoed Bobby Brown’s remarks about earlier A’s teams with two-time AL batting champion Ferris Fain.[/fn]
Gus Zernial was limited to 87 starts due to a collarbone injury sustained before the 1954 All-Star break. He hit fourth in the 1954 A’s lineup 56 times, fifth 30 times, and sixth once. His 232 home runs during the 1950s were third in the AL behind Mickey Mantle’s 280 and Yogi Berra’s 256. The 177 home runs clubbed by Zernial from 1950–55 tied him with Cleveland’s Al Rosen for the most in the AL during that six-year stretch. Zernial is credited with facilitating Joe DiMaggio’s first date with Marilyn Monroe, according to a SABR bio written by Marc Aaron.[fn]Marilyn Monroe posed for several publicity shots, in high heels, with Zernial, at the 1951 Chicago White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California, prior to a trade which sent Zernial to the 1951 Philadelphia A’s. Joe DiMaggio first noticed Monroe when he saw footage of those shots and wondered why Zernial was so lucky. Zernial suggested that DiMaggio contact the press agent who coordinated these publicity photos (and he did).[/fn]
Lou Limmer, a native of the Bronx, tore a muscle in his left shoulder when a fire broke out as the crew was fueling a B-29 in the Army Corps in Biloxi, Mississippi. After this injury, Limmer was never able to pitch again, and became a first baseman. He played for the 1951 A’s before returning to the minors in 1952–53. He “knew Vic (Power) from (my) playing for the Aguadilla club in Puerto Rico (1949–50, 1950–51).”[fn]Lou Limmer, via a phone interview, related how he left Aguadilla on December 18, 1950, at 3:30 a.m. on a jitney from the town plaza to San Juan. Limmer caught a flight to New York before Island police made it to the airport. Limmer was suspended from winter ball for two years due to his fugitive stunt but returned to Puerto Rico five years later and helped Caguas (led by league MVP Vic Power) win the title. Limmer recalled earning a lifetime supply of single-edged razor blades by hitting for the cycle in the 1950–51 Puerto Rico season. His 244 career homers in the minors culminated with 30 for the 1958 Birmingham Barons in the AA Southern Association. Limmer’s World War II-era shoulder injury was documented by Peter Epross with Martin Abramowitz in their 2012 book: Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words.[/fn] Limmer was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter by player-manager Joost the first part of the season, but eventually got more playing time, with 73 starts at first base for the 1954 A’s, hitting second in the order 61 times.
APRIL 13 TO JUNE 1
The A’s defeated Boston, 6–4, on April 13, 1954, Opening Day at Connie Mack Stadium, before a large home crowd of 16,331. Bobby Shantz (1–0) pitched five frames before Ozzie Van Brabant (hold) and Bill Upton (save) hurled two innings each. Vic Power scored the team’s first run on a Bollweg single off Mel Parnell in the home first. Bill Renna then doubled in Bollweg and Zernial to make it 3–0. Gus Zernial cracked a two-run homer in the home fifth with Power on to make it 5–2. Spook Jacobs went 4-for-5. The A’s traveled to New York and lost, 3–0, on April 15. They split a twin-bill at Fenway Park on April 18, via a 6–4 win by Trice in game one, before losing game two in 13 innings, 4–3. Their April highlight game was a 1–0 home shutout by Trice on Saturday, April 24, where he bested ex-A’s hurler Harry Byrd. Joe DeMaestri’s fifth-inning homer was the only run. Trice (3–0, 1.67) also pitched a 5–1 (April 30) home win over Baltimore, helped by Bill Renna’s three RBIs.
April was the only month the A’s sported a winning record: 6–5. Five A’s—Jacobs (.326), Power (.304), Zernial (.324), Renna (.325), and Billy Shantz (.316)—got off to a good start at the plate. Player-manager Eddie Joost started twice at third base versus New York (April 24–25) and, also in the leadoff spot, at shortstop against Baltimore (April 30–May 1). Joost suffered from astigmatism, and began wearing glasses for the 1948 A’s, a franchise that set an all-time home attendance record at Shibe Park with 945,076 paid fans. He had 119 walks in 1948, during a six-year run (1947–52) in which he had 100-plus walks per season. “I didn’t want Mr. Mack to know it (he had astigmatism),” related Mr. Joost to a reporter in 1994. “But it got worse … I finally got up the nerve to tell Mr. Mack that I’d probably have to wear glasses.”[fn]Frank Fitzpatrick, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, shared this on April 14, 2011. Eddie Joost helped spark a final revival for the A’s, who had won five World Series (1910–11, 1913, 1929–30) earlier in the century. The ’47 A’s drew a franchise record 911,566 fans. With Mr. Joost as their acknowledged leader, Mack’s fourthplace team went 84–70 the following year and again broke its attendance mark with 945,076 fans. Joost his .263 with 23 homers and 81 RBIs in 1949. He was an AL All-Star in 1949 and 1952. The San Francisco native died in California at age 94.[/fn]
Saturday, May 1, featured a game-winning single by third baseman Jim Finigan, to give the A’s a 2–1 win over Baltimore in the home 10th. Lou Limmer, who pinch-hit for Spook Jacobs, was a reserve player early in the season. The third-place A’s, with a 7–5 mark after games of May 1, trailed the 10–5 White Sox and 8–4 Tigers. They were a half-game ahead of 7–6 Cleveland and two up on the 6–8 Yankees. Baltimore (5–9) and Boston (4–9) brought up the rear. Philadelphia was tied for the league lead after their home opener—the only day they would claim a share of first place.
The next 30 days presented a more realistic view of the A’s as they won seven of 29 games. Baltimore won nine but lost 17. The A’s (15–27) held a half-game lead over the Orioles through June 1, and this race for seventh was tighter throughout 1954 than the pennant chase. Cleveland (28–13), Chicago (28–15), and New York (26– 17) held the top three spots, with Detroit (21–17) fourth. Washington (17–24) and Boston (13–22) were fifth and sixth.
Bobby Shantz’s sore arm precluded him from mound work so Joost scrambled to find other starters. Carl Scheib, who also had a sore arm in spring training, had his only start on May 3 versus Chicago, but lasted two innings and gave up five runs in a 14–3 loss. The A’s hosted Cleveland for the first time on May 4—a 3–2 complete game win by Bob Trice (4–0) with 6,071 onlookers. Cleveland took the next two games, 7–2 and 3–2, behind Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. Vic Power homered in each game.
Philadelphia traveled to New York for a weekend series, May 7–9. Morrie Martin pitched well in the Friday contest except for back-to-back homers by Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, in a 2–0 Yankee win. Scheib was sent to St. Louis in a conditional deal that same day. A May 9 twin bill resulted in Trice’s first loss, followed by a tie. Harry Byrd (1–3) got his first win in a Yankees uniform in the opener. Spook Jacobs took over the leadoff spot and Limmer got his first start of 1954, hitting fourth. Vic Power played center field and hit third. In game two, a 1–1 tie, the A’s only run came on a Renna homer. The A’s then took the train to Baltimore for a two-game series, May 10–11. Trice, in his only relief appearance, blew a save in the opener as Baltimore scored four times in the ninth, to win 7–6. Joe Coleman outdueled Arnie Portocarrero, 2–0, in the next game.
The A’s boarded a train to Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit for a May 13–19 Midwest swing, and took one win in seven games, a 3–2 contest with the White Sox on May 13. They played in Washington Friday, May 21, and lost their seventh straight, 7–3. Rookie Art Ditmar struggled, lasting one inning, forcing Marion Fricano and Van Brabant into long relief duties. Arnie Portocarrero (1–3) got his first major-league win the next day in a 10–3 romp, as Zernial hit his fifth homer and Jacobs got three hits. The A’s won three of their next eight, including a 6–5 win over the Red Sox on May 26, when Zernial hit a grand slam. They traveled to Boston for a doubleheader on May 31. Boston took the opener, 20–10, and the nightcap, 9–0. A Ted Williams’ three-run homer in the first frame of game one came off Art Ditmar, a Massachusetts native, who lasted one inning. Ditmar was sent to the Ottawa A’s for more seasoning, but rejoined the parent club later in the season. Ted Williams left the game early, with a .400 batting average thus far in 1954. The A’s defeated the Red Sox, 16–6, in a June 1 day game before heading home for a 13-game homestand. Gus Zernial hit two homers in that A’s win, and had 11 homers and 35 RBI—on pace to hit 40 and drive in 128. Bob Trice (5–3) went the distance. Finigan (.333), Joost (.321), and Jacobs (.304) were all hitting over .300.
JUNE 2 TO JULY 11
Bill Renna was a pro in every sense of the word. He enjoyed hitting at Connie Mack Stadium where “the wind didn’t blow too much and the visibility was good.”[fn]Bill Renna phone interview February 11, 2013. Renna noted it took a good clout to hit it over center field (447 feet from home), and it was 363 feet to leftcenter (published data: 358 feet to left-center, 355 feet to right-center at Connie Mack Stadium). Renna, in right field, was near the scoreboard that was 400 feet from home plate, 50 feet high, and once had a 60-foot Ballantine Beer sign attached to it. Bobby Brown recalled it was 330 feet down the right-field line (329). The leftfield foul line measured 334 feet. This was the first concrete-and-steel stadium in MLB history. William Steele and Sons built it in less than a year, and had it ready for 1909. The land cost $141,918.92. Stadium building costs totaled $315,248.60. Seating Capacity (1954) was 33,608.[/fn] Renna first played at Shibe Park—before it became Connie Mack Stadium during the 1953 season—where he roomed with Don Bollweg on road trips as a Yankee. They also roomed with the 1954 A’s. Renna rented a Philadelphia row house near the stadium and adjusted to his new team. “We took the train with New York (1953) and Philadelphia (1954),” stated Renna, adding: “Zernial and Joost didn’t get along; Joost did have some problems with players, Zernial for sure.” Renna experienced no problems with Joost, and kept in touch with Joost and Joe DeMaestri over the years.
The June 2–13 homestand included three doubleheaders, starting with two wins in three games versus Baltimore. The A’s won the series with a 7–6 game three win, Friday, June 4, Bob Trice’s sixth victory. Attendance figures for the three games were 2,717, 2,187, and 1,092. Cleveland then swept the A’s: 4–1, 11 innings, on June 5, and a Sunday twin bill sweep, 2–1 and 7–5. Cleveland was just ahead of White Sox for first place, while the A’s and Orioles were deadlocked for seventh.
Chicago toppled the A’s, 9–3, on June 8 and 9–4 on June 9, behind Virgil Trucks and Bob Keegan, to hold a one-game lead over Cleveland. These White Sox were a talented bunch with a lineup of Chico Carrasquel, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Ferris Fain, George Kell, Sherm Lollar, Jim Rivera, and John Groth. Cass Michaels was their utility infielder. Philadelphia traded pitcher Morrie Martin and outfielder Ed McGhee to the White Sox on June 11 for pitchers Sonny Dixon and Al Sima, and outfielder Bob Wilson. This trade helped the A’s, who trailed Baltimore by a game. The A’s won four out of the five games versus Detroit, only losing game one of the June 11 doubleheader, 16–5, before getting a split thanks to Marion Fricano’s fine start. They then won again on Saturday, June 12, and swept the June 13 twin bill, 4–3 and 6–3. Bob Trice won his seventh, and final, game on June 12 with a Sonny Dixon save. Dixon then saved game two on Sunday, June 13. Lou Limmer hit his first homer of the season off Don Weik in Detroit’s only win. He hit another homer in the last game of the series. The Tigers left town with a 25–29 record.
Philadelphia then went on a 12-game road trip, June 15–27, starting with three games at Chicago. The A’s took the first game, 11–4, behind good relief pitching by Moe Burstchy, and Al Sima’s save. A Renna homer, a Limmer triple, and Jacobs’ three hits propelled the A’s to a win. But, Trice and Kellner were ineffective in the next two games. Renna and Limmer went yard in the middle game, and Zernial cracked his 12th homer in the finale won by Jack Harshman. The A’s then swept both games with the faltering Tigers to reach .400 (24–36). Portocarrero won his fourth game on June 18 in front of 23,216 fans, and Dutch Romberger got his only win the next night, in relief of Fricano, when the A’s scored five times in the eighth, en route to a 5–4 victory. The A’s won two of three at Cleveland, June 22–24, to improve to 26–37, in sixth place.
AL STANDINGS, JUNE 24, 1954
Philadelphia ended the road trip with four straight losses at Baltimore, culminating in a June 27 twin bill sweep. Two of the four defeats were one-run, extrainning games. Ex-A’s pitcher Joe Coleman won the final game and scored the winning run. The 27–42 Orioles (.391) moved into sixth place, slightly ahead of the 26–41 A’s (.388) and the 24–41 Red Sox (.381). The A’s returned home and finished the month with 3–2 and 8–7 wins over Washington. Bill Wilson’s ninth-inning walk-off homer off Conrado Marrero won the latter contest. Philadelphia split their 28 games in June 1954 and were on a pace to win 62 games, but they would fall short of this total.
Bobby Brown retired as an active major-league player on June 30, 1954, after getting two hits in Boston against the last place Red Sox—who trailed the sixth place A’s by two games—and flew to San Francisco to begin his residency on July 1, 1954. He recalled that the Yankees stayed at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, located in the Rittenhouse Square District, when they played the A’s. The exact address was 200 South 17th Street, a cab ride to Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium.
July 1–11, 1954, was not kind to the A’s. They went from 28–41 to 30–49 at the All-Star break. The A’s came into Boston for a Fourth of July weekend series, winning the middle game, 7–3, as Kellner got win number four and Zernial hit his 14th homer. When they left Boston on Sunday evening, July 4, it would be the last time the 29–43 A’s (.403) had a winning percentage above .400. Back-to-back losses to the Yankees, in a Connie Mack Stadium doubleheader on July 5, started the downward spiral. Harry Byrd (4–5) pitched seven-plus innings in game one, a 7–4 New York win. Then Tom Morgan won game two, 11–2. The A’s went to D.C. for a makeup game the next day and Bob Trice took the loss, 5–2. Philadelphia then hosted Boston in four pre-All-Star break games, winning only the Friday, July 9 contest, 9–3, behind Alex Kellner. Vic Power returned to the A’s lineup after an injury-related absence, and played first base. The A’s most embarrassing loss of 1954 was in game one of the Sunday twin bill, an 18–0 Red Sox rout. Trice departed in the fourth inning, and Gus Zernial broke his left collarbone after he tripped on a water spigot trying to catch Billy Consolo’s double. Some A’s fans booed Zernial as he came off the field. Zernial would return later in the 1954 season but did not have the same pop in his bat that he had pre-injury.[fn]Marc Aaron’s SABR bio of Gus Zernial stated this injury was the result of the left fielder’s foolishness and competitiveness. It was 17–0, and Zernial was tired of the team taking a beating.[/fn] The Red Sox then took game two of the July 11 doubleheader by a slightly less embarrassing 11–1 margin. Boston’s three (out of four) wins enabled the Red Sox to go into the break in sixth place, one game ahead of the A’s.
AL STANDINGS, ALL-STAR BREAK, JULY 11, 1954
JULY 15 TO AUGUST 31
Jim Finigan, the only A’s player selected to the All- Star Game, did not play in the 11–9 AL win at Cleveland, Tuesday, July 13. He rejoined the A’s in Philadelphia to face Cleveland, July 15. Cleveland swept the A’s to extend their skid to six games, as Kellner, Portocarrero, and Sima were no match for Wynn (11–7), Garcia (12–5), and Feller (7–1). Wynn and Feller threw shutouts while Garcia gave way to Ray Narleski for three innings. Cleveland denied the Yankees a sixth straight AL pennant by playing .765 baseball after sweeping the A’s July 15–17.
The White Sox swept the A’s, Sunday, July 18, by 10–2 and 4–3 scores. Renna homered off Jack Harshman in game one, while Sandy Consuegra and Minnie Minoso (4-for-4) starred in game two. The A’s losing skid reached 10 after Detroit swept them in Philadelphia two days later. A two-run homer by Lou Limmer on Wednesday, July 21, helped the A’s tame the Tigers, 4–1, with Dixon pitching a complete game to get the win. Charlie Bishop—one of 15 pitchers Joost used as a starter in 1954—took the loss the next night versus Detroit. Baltimore then came in for a four-game set, July 23–25. The A’s won the last three to take a three-game lead over the O’s and improve their record to 34–58.
Philadelphia won just one of five at Detroit, July 27– 29, a route-going effort by Fricano in game two on the 27th. Limmer’s 10th home run in the fifth paced a 13- hit attack. The White Sox then hosted the A’s from July 30 through August 1 and swept their guests (including a twin bill on the last day). Baltimore came next and Bob Turley, the 1954 AL strikeout king, got a 10–2 win at Memorial Stadium, August 2. The A’s won the next two games behind the hitting of Don Bollweg. Joe Astroth was catching more A’s games and Pete Suder spelled Jacobs at second, while Elmer Valo got much more playing time due to Zernial’s injury. The A’s led the Orioles by one game.
AL STANDINGS, AUGUST 4, 1954
An August 6–8 weekend in Cleveland had the A’s on the losing end of another sweep, leaving them with a 37–71 record—just behind the 38–72 Orioles, who lost three of four against Boston. Bob Lemon (15–5) homered off Portocarrero (7–11) in game one on Sunday, August 8. Bill Renna opined that Cleveland was second to none in 1954 with of Hall of Famers Bob Lemon (23 wins), Early Wynn (23 wins), Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser (in the pen), and Larry Doby (led the AL with 32 homers and 126 RBIs). Jim Hegan was fabulous behind the plate. Vic Wertz furnished power. Bobby Avila, the 1954 AL batting champ, played second, and Al Rosen was a force at third. Al Smith and Dave Philley produced. The bench included Hal Naragon, Hank Majeski, Dale Mitchell, and Wally Westlake.
A four-game series at New York resulted in four more A’s defeats, one each for Bishop (0–5), Gray (1–5), Portocarrero (7–12), and Kellner (6–14). Harry Byrd (7–6) won game two of the series (August 10) going the distance, while Eddie Lopat (9–4) won on August 12 when Mantle’s 25th homer broke a 4–4 tie. The 1954 Yankees won more games than any of the 1949–53 world champions. Yogi Berra, their clean-up hitter, was the 1954 AL MVP, Mantle hit third, and rookie Bill Skowron performed well. But Eddie Robinson did not hit for power in 1954 after replacing the retired Johnny Mize. Hank Bauer and Irv Noren were fine outfielders. Bob Grim, Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, Tom Morgan, Byrd, and closer Johnny Sain made up a solid staff.
A short train trip to D.C. gave the A’s a chance to retool and win back-to-back games, August 13–14, before losing the series finale. Marion Fricano (5–8) won the first game, helped by an eighth-inning double-steal, where Finigan stole home and Power stole second. Finigan went 3-for-3 to up his average to .302. Charlie Bishop (1–5) got his first win the next day, an extra-inning thriller, when Bollweg’s two-run double drove in Renna and Wilson with the deciding runs in the 11th. The 39–76 A’s now led the 39–77 Orioles by half a game. Cleveland, which swept four from Baltimore that weekend, led the Yankees by three games. The A’s then returned home to play New York. Harry Byrd (8–6) once again bested the A’s in an 11–1 Yankee rout on August 17. Whitey Ford (13–6) and Eddie Lopat (10–4) then took care of the A’s on August 18–19 to complete the sweep.
Eddie Joost took a leave of absence August 20–25, and coach Rollie Hemsley took over the managerial reins. Hemsley caught in the majors for 19 seasons, including Bob Feller’s Opening Day no-hitter in 1940. He managed the 1950 Columbus Red Birds to the American Association crown, and the Little World Series title over the International League champion Baltimore Orioles. Ellis “Cot” Deal played for Hemsley at Columbus in 1950 (and for the 1950–51 San Juan Senators). Deal said he was a “lovable guy, and easy and fun to play for.”[fn]Hemsley’s first major-league coaching job came with the 1954 A’s. He also coached the 1961–62 Washington Senators. His best MLB playing seasons were with the 1934–35 St. Louis Browns, managed by Rogers Hornsby. He hit .304 for the 1934 Browns with 31 doubles, and .290 with 32 doubles in 1935. Hemsley was an AL All-Star with the 1935–36 Browns, 1939–40 Cleveland, and 1944 Yankees. He managed against Rogers Hornsby during the 1950–51 Puerto Rico season, when Hornsby’s Ponce Lions played Hemsley’s San Juan Senators. Hemsley passed away in Washington, D.C. at age 65.[/fn] The A’s were 2–3–1 in the six games managed by Hemsley, including a 4–4 tie in game two of the August 22 doubleheader versus Washington. Limmer and Renna each hit their 11th homer in the tie game, while Joe DeMaestri’s 12thinning walk-off single gave the A’s a 3–2 win in game one. The Nationals came back the next day to sweep the A’s, 8–5 and 10–3. Alex Kellner (6–16) gave up 16 hits and eight earned runs in seven innings of work in game two. Washington’s Harmon Killebrew made his major-league debut in the field, playing second base and going 3-for-4 with two RBIs. The 40–81 A’s led the 39–84 Orioles by two games.
Cleveland came in for the last two contests (August 24–25) that Hemsley managed. Johnny Gray (2–7) outpitched Mike Garcia (15–7) on the 24th, but Garcia saved Bob Lemon’s (19–5) win the next evening by getting one out in the 10th inning of a 4-3 Cleveland victory.
The long home stand continued with four games versus Chicago and two each against Detroit and Baltimore. The A’s got one win in the Chicago series, lost to Detroit twice, and swept the Orioles in two games on August 31. Zernial was activated for the White Sox series and made two pinch-hitting appearances, then he hit cleanup versus Detroit in game one of their August 29 twin bill. The highlight of the August 31 doubleheader was Lou Limmer’s home run in the bottom of the fifth in game one, leading to an 8–6 win. DeMaestri and Astroth singled, with Fricano pinch-running for Astroth. Jacobs then walked before Limmer hit the final A’s grand slam at Connie Mack Stadium, to give Burtschy (4–1) the win.
For Limmer, “It was the highlight of my 1954 season. (Philadelphia) A’s fans still reminded me of that (blast) decades later.” The “race for seventh place” was interesting since Jimmy Dykes, the 1954 O’s manager, had managed the A’s from 1951–53. A number of 1954 A’s played for Dykes in the early 1950s but Art Ditmar, the A’s rookie hurler, did not. Ditmar did comment on Joost. “Joost was a good manager,” he Ditmar. “It’s the players who play the game—that’s the way it is. We were not good on the playing field in 1954.”
FINAL AL STANDINGS, AUGUST 31, 1954
Baltimore went 11–10 in September to overtake the A’s for seventh place. Cleveland eclipsed the Yankees’ 1927 AL single-season record of 110 wins. The A’s wound up with seven wins in September: one versus Boston on September 4; game-two at Washington, September 6; at Detroit on September 10; game two at Baltimore on September 12; at Chicago on September 14; and two at New York, September 24 and 26, in the season’s final weekend. The A’s players witnessed history in game one of the September 6 twin bill at Washington, when Carlos Paula—a Cuban—became the first black player to wear Nationals flannels. Paula went 2-for-5. The Orioles hosted the A’s later that week (Sunday, September 12) in a doubleheader, with both teams tied (47–95) going into the action. Bob Turley (12–15) fanned 10 A’s in winning game one, a 4–3 A’s loss. The A’s earned a split with a 5–4 win in game two behind newcomer Joe Taylor’s key pinch-hit, two-run double. Spook Jacobs drove in DeMaestri with the winning run when he drew a bases-loaded walk in the ninth. The A’s and O’s were both 48–96 with two weeks left.
Arnold Portocarrero pitched a 1–0 shutout at Chicago on September 14, and the A’s returned home, trailing 50– 96 Baltimore by half a game. Meanwhile, the Yanks were eight back of Cleveland. New York swept the A’s, and the O’s took two of three at Chicago to take a two-and-a-halfgame lead over the A’s. Cleveland then won three straight at Detroit to clinch it. Art Ditmar started the last A’s game held at Connie Mack Stadium, on Sunday, September 19. “I pitched five scoreless innings,” He recalled.
Joost called Ditmar back to the bench with two outs in the home fifth, after rookie shortstop Jack Littrell walked and catcher Joe Robertson singled. Don Bollweg pinch-hit for Ditmar, and made it to first when Eddie Robinson muffed his grounder. Marion Fricano then pinch-ran for Bollweg. Leadoff hitter Pete Suder hit a two-run single to break the scoreless tie. Lou Limmer got the last hit and stolen base by an A’s player at home when he singled in the seventh, after Yogi Berra dropped his foul pop-up. Limmer then stole second off Johnny Sain. Charlie Bishop held the Yanks scoreless for two frames before Moe Burtschy (5–4) gave up a gamewinning, three-run homer to Gil McDougald in the eighth. Johnny Sain (6–6) won it and Jim Konstanty got the save. The 4–2 New York win took 2:30 and was watched by 1,715 people.
Three straight losses to Boston, from September 20– 21, sealed the A’s fate. Baltimore (53–98) clinched seventh place. All the 49–102 A’s could do was end the season at Yankee Stadium. Arnold Portocarrero (9–18) struck out 11 Yankees on Friday, September 24, in a 5-1 win, the A’s 50th. Art Ditmar, who roomed with Portocarrero in 1954, recalled “Arnold had nine wins—tops for us” and “lived in Long Island during the offseason, and had a pretty good arm.” Lou Limmer’s 13th homer (and his next-to-last one in the majors) came on Friday. He hit number 14 the next day off Sain, in a 10–2 Yankee win.
The stage was set for the last game in Philadelphia A’s history. Art Ditmar was optimistic he could beat the Yanks since he pitched so well against them a week earlier. “Casey (Stengel) shifted his players around that day—Berra played third base, Mantle was at short, I think Skowron played second (he did) the entire game,” noted Ditmar. “They were the Yankees. We had nothing to lose.”
Ditmar pitched into the sixth, departing with the bases loaded, one out, and a 6–4 lead. Fricano came in and threw a wild pitch that scored Lou Berberet, and sent Enos Slaughter to third and Joe Collins to second. Mantle was walked intentionally and Berra smashed a grounder to first, which Vic Power turned into a 3-6-3 double play. Joe DeMaestri’s two-run single in the seventh gave the A’s two insurance runs, and the final score was 8–6. Mantle, hitting .299 going into the game, struck out once and walked twice versus Ditmar (1–4), but his eighth-inning hit off Fricano gave him a .300 batting average for 1954. Lou Limmer, pinchhitting for Power in the ninth, lined a single to right field—the final pinch-hit in Philadelphia A’s history— to finish at .231.
AL FINAL STANDINGS, 1954
The 1954 AL season was the first time in the twentieth century that two teams won more than 100 games and two teams lost more than 100. When the 1915 A’s finished 43– 109, the Red Sox (101–50) and Tigers (100–54) won 100 games, but Cleveland was 57–95. The 1915 A’s finished 58.5 games behind Boston. The 1954 A’s set a franchise record finishing 60 games behind Cleveland.[fn]The Philadelphia A’s lost 100 or more games in 11 seasons: 1915–16, 1919– 21, 1936, 1940, 1943, 1946, 1950, and 1954. They finished 50–59 games behind the first-place team in six seasons: 1915–16, 1919–20, 1939, and 1946. The 1939 St. Louis Browns (43–111) finished 64.5 games behind the New York Yankees. The 1932 Boston Red Sox (43–111) trailed the Yankees by 64 games at season’s end. The 1935 Boston Braves (38–115) finished 61.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL, in Babe Ruth’s last season as a major leaguer. Ruth’s 1927 Yankees (110–44) finished 59 games ahead of the last place Boston Red Sox (51–103). In 1961, the Yankees won 109 and Detroit won 101, while Kansas City and Washington lost 100 games each. The 1962 San Francisco Giants (103–62) and Los Angeles Dodgers (102–63), along with the 59–103 Cubs and 40–120 Mets expansion team accomplished this feat in the NL.[/fn] Home attendance for the 1954 A’s totaled 304,666 paid fans, the team’s lowest total since the 285,173 in the Depression era of 1936. In their first year in Baltimore, the 1954 Orioles drew 1,060,910 fans to Memorial Stadium, more than triple the 1954 A’s total. New York had the highest AL home attendance in 1954 at 1,475,171, ahead of secondhighest Cleveland’s 1,335,472.
The A’s had the worst home (29–47) and road records (22–56) in the league (Baltimore was 32–45 at home and 22–55 away). These A’s were outscored 875–542, or by over two runs per game. Philadelphia was 46–94 in nineinning games, 4–8 in extra innings, and 1–1 in shortened games. They were a respectable 22–26 in one-run games, but 7–43 in blowouts of five runs or more. The A’s had a winning record against the Orioles (12–10) but were 4–18 versus Cleveland and the Yankees, 5–17 versus the White Sox, 7–15 against the Red Sox, 9–13 versus the Tigers, and 10–12 against the Nationals.
The A’s hit a league-worst .236, compared to the league’s .257. Jim Finigan (.302) was the only regular that hit over .300 (Eddie Joost hit .362 in 47 at-bats). Their 94 homers tied Chicago for fourth place—Bill Wilson led the team with 15 homers in 323 at-bats followed by Limmer with 14 in 316 at-bats, Zernial with 14 in 336 at-bats, and Renna with 13 in 422 at-bats. The team stole 30 bases, 17 of them by Spook Jacobs.
The A’s ERA of 5.18 was 1.5 runs higher than the league’s 3.72. Portocarrero led the team in wins with nine in 33 starts and 248 innings of work. Moe Burtschy and Sonny Dixon had four saves apiece. The A’s had three shutouts (Portocarrero, Kellner, and Trice) but were shut out 13 times. A’s pitchers fanned 555 hitters and gave up 685 walks. The team’s .971 fielding percentage was the league’s worst, but Vic Power (8.0) and Bill Renna (6.1) were second and fifth in the AL, in terms of outfield fielding runs saved. Pundits may call the 1954 A’s one of the all-time worst major-league teams, but they had talented players and fine human beings, among them Art Ditmar, Spook Jacobs, Vic Power, Bill Renna, and Bobby Shantz.
THOMAS E. VAN HYNING grew up in Santurce, Puerto Rico, rooting for his beloved Santurce Crabbers (Cangrejeros) in Puerto Rico’s Winter League (PRWL). His two books are a Crabbers team history, plus a PRWL history. Tom’s articles have appeared in “The National Pastime,” “Baseball Research Journal,” and the SABR BioProject: Atley Donald, Joe Gibbon, Ruben Gomez, Jerry Moses and Jack Reed. Tom is the Research Program Manager for Mississippi’s Tourism Division since 1994, with a BBA from the University of Georgia and two Master’s degrees. His mother (Paula) was a Swarthmore College classmate of Lee MacPhail, class of 1939.