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1964 World Series

By Bill Lucey, October 8, 2014

October 2014 marks the 50-year anniversary of the 1964 World Series, which pit the New York Yankees, the beast of the East, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the beneficiaries of the Philadelphia Phillies’ epic meltdown during the bruising pennant race.

At the time, few knew just how symbolic this fall classic would become. It ushered in a new generation of baseball players who smashed through the color barrier with a fury, while bidding a fond farewell to a generation of ballplayers: a motley crew of aging white players.

The Yankees entered the 1964 World Series having amassed 14 pennants and nine world championships since 1949, a truly unprecedented era of dominance in Major League Baseball that came to a screeching halt after the ’64 Series.

Bob Gibson (pitching on two days rest) outmuscled the Bombers in the decisive seventh game in St. Louis, which gave the Cardinals their seventh World Championship. The Yankees wouldn’t be seen again in a World Series until 1976. Plus, the ’64 Series was Mickey Mantle’s last.

Bob Gibson set a World Series record by striking out 31 batters in three games to help the St. Louis Cardinals capture the 1964 world championship over the New York Yankees.

In 1965, the Yankees slipped precipitously to sixth place in the AL; the next year they would plunge to dead last. The Redbirds, on the other hand, won yet another World Series title three years later in 1967, followed by a pennant in 1968, before absorbing a postseason drought that wouldn’t end until 1982.

So what exactly was at work here?

Beginning with the integration of Major League Baseball with Jackie Robinson suiting up in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947, the game changed dramatically, seemingly in a blink of an eye. New, faster, and decisively more powerful black and Latino players were signing with teams; and the National League, rather than the American League, was absorbing them at a faster, more progressive clip.

The evidence is simply overwhelming.

For starters, all 10 National League home run leaders of the 1960s were either black or Latino. What’s more, in 11 of the 15 years from 1949 through 1963, black players were named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. The first black MVP for the American League wouldn’t come until 1963 when the Yankees’ Elston Howard was so honored.

In 1955 Elston Howard became the first black player for the New York Yankees. After batting .287 with 28 homers and 85 RBI, Howard became the first black American League MVP in 1963 while also claiming his first Gold Glove Award.

Neither could the American League match the impressive array of future hall of famers that the NL was turning out, including Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Roberto Clemente; and later Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Ferguson Jenkins. Reggie Jackson didn’t make his Major League debut until June 1967 (Kansas City Athletics). Rod Carew signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1967 as well.

Before the integration of baseball, the American League was head and shoulders above their interleague rivals. From 1903 through 1949, the AL won 29 of 46 head-to-head World Series matchups. But the National League captured four of the last six Series of the 1950s, putting a decisive dent into the Yankees’ dominance, which began the 1950s with four world championships in a row.

During the tumultuous 1960s, moreover, the NL captured six world championships, with the Yankees winning two in the decade in back to back years: 1961 and 1962.

One glaring example of how the balance of power was tipping in the National League’s favor came in 1963, when the Yankees were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that included five black ballplayers: catcher John Roseboro, second and third baseman Jim Gilliam, shortstop Maury Wills, left fielder Tommy Davis, and center fielder Willie Davis. The Dodgers would win another World Series in 1965 with practically the same cast of characters.

Batterymates Sandy Koufax and John Roseboro celebrate after the final out of the 1963 World Series. Two years later, the Dodgers would claim another world championship with the help of Maury Wills and “Junior” Gilliam

Even American League President Lee MacPhail later acknowledged that the AL acted too slowing in signing black players, which hurt the league more than they realized at the time. The Yankees, after all, didn’t sign a black player (Elston Howard) until 1955, becoming the 13th Major League organization to do so; and the Boston Red Sox didn’t sign their first black player until 1959—Pumpsie Green, the switch-hitting infielder. A year earlier, the Detroit Tigers finally integrated, signing Ozzie Virgil Sr. who became the first Dominican to play in Major League Baseball.

According to Michael E. Lomax, an associate professor of sport history at the University of Iowa, “The Yankees in many ways represented the old order and were slow to integrate their player force. This was primarily a reflection of the Yankees’ general manager George Weiss and the one who followed him, Roy Hamey.” “Moreover,” Lomax says, “1964 marked the end of the Yankees dynasty, where they won 14 American League pennants in 16 years, and won eight world championship. There was little or no pressure to integrate their player force.”

In the baseball classic, The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn quotes GM George Weiss of the Yankees during the 1952 World Series, who after downing three martinis blurted out that he would never allow a black man to slip on a Yankee uniform. “We don’t want that sort of crowd,” he said. “It would offend box holders from Westchester to have to sit with N*****.”

The Yankees’ reluctance to sign black players was echoed by Jackie Robinson during a November 1952 television show Youth Wants to Know, when he said, “I think the Yankee management is prejudiced. There isn’t a single Negro on the team now and very few in the entire Yankee farm system.”

Racist or not, not all believe that the lack of diversity within the Yankee organization of the 1950s and 1960s led to their rapid decline.

Rick Swaine, author of The Integration of Major League Baseball: A Team by Team History, says, “As much as I’d like to believe it, I’ve never bought the popular notion that a shortage of black players led to the Yankees downfall since they were pretty much on par with the rest of the AL in that regard. I think the premature declines of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tony Kubek, Whitey Ford, and Ralph Terry, and early retirement of Richardson was more to blame.”

Whitey Ford bid farewell to fans at Yankee Stadium after announcing his retirement on May 30, 1967 at the age of 38. Two years later, Yankee legend Mickey Mantle would also end his career. 

Another contributing factor to the Yankees’ decline stems from the organization’s decision to save money by slashing their farm teams from 15 to 7, drastically diluting the pool of potential prospects from which to choose from. In addition to the reduced number of farm teams, for decades the Yankees were able to get away with signing players at bargain-basement prices on the premise that since they were likely to win a World Series, their postseason checks would more than make up for their low pay.

Clearly, more than any other factor however, going into the 1964 World Series the Bronx Bombers were weighed down by an aging core of veterans.

As David Halberstam wrote in his New York Times bestseller October 1964, “More and more, the Yankees seemed patched together and carried by memories.” “Some New York stars,” Halberstam went on to write, “were simply getting old: catcher Elston Howard was 35; others, like pitcher Whitey Ford (also 35), were old and hurt; and one, Mickey Mantle (32), was not all that old, but had a right knee virtually without cartilage, making it painful for him just to get out of the dugout, much less to chase down a fly ball or to bat left-handed.”

What made October 1964 such a consequential book was that it served as a backdrop to what was taking place in America outside the baseball diamond. The long hard-fought struggle for civil rights raging through a number of cities would culminate in Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Slugger Lou Brock helped the St. Louis Cardinals to championship seasons in both 1964 and 1967.

So with the Cardinals penciling in three black starters (Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bill White) in their lineup (and four with pitcher Bob Gibson) to face the Yankees, the Goliath of Major League Baseball, it was a poignant indication that if the wheels of justice were grinding slowly, but surely, in the nation’s capital, so too were more integrated teams bearing more fruit for the National League.

Not surprisingly, after winning two games, including pitching (and completing) the decisive Game 7 on only two days rest, Bob Gibson was awarded the Series MVP. And the Cardinals might not have seen the postseason at all had it not been for the slick trade that brought Lou Brock to the Redbirds from the Chicago Cubs in June. Brock batted a scorching .348, scoring 111 runs and stealing 43 bases during the 1964 campaign.

Though the American League was unquestionably slower to integrate, beginning in the 1970s they made great strides in signing more non-white players, especially Charlie Finley and his Oakland A’s, who won three consecutive championships (1972 through 1974). Later in the decade George Steinbrenner would bring the Yankees back from the dead, making three Series appearances from 1976 through 1978, winning two of them in back-to-back years (1977 and 1978). And, of course, the 1970s began with the Baltimore Orioles thumping the Cincinnati Reds in five games, led by the hard-hitting bats of Frank Robinson, Don Buford, Frank Blair, and Ellie Hendricks, all African-Americans.




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