Billy Martin's number 1 will never be worn by another Yankee. via farm1.staticflickr.com
Controversial manager Billy Martin played seven seasons for the New York Yankees in their dynasty years under his mentor, Hall of Famer Casey Stengel. Martin was never that great of a player, but he had arguably his best season in 1953, when he started at second base and played in 149 games while Jerry Coleman was in the military. It was the most games and plate appearances Martin ever totaled in his 11-year career, and he hit .257/.314/.395 with 15 homers and a 93 wRC+. Although the numbers were not overwhelming, it was a fine season for a middle infielder.
The Yankees were going for a record fifth consecutive World Series title, and they got off to a scalding hot start, winning 18 games in a row from May 27th through June 14th. After the first game of a doubleheader on June 21st, they were 46-13 (a .780 winning percentage) and already 12 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. It was evident that the '53 campaign would be Stengel's easiest road to the AL pennant thus far in his managerial career. Not even a nine-game losing streak that immediately followed that high point hurt the Yankees very much; the lowest the lead ever became was four games in mid-July. The Yankees recovered with a 20-10 August and after beating Cleveland 6-3 on September 13th, they were in prime position to clinch the pennant the next day against the Tribe.
There was no doubt that the Yankees were very good in '53. The Yankees' offense was so superb that Martin was the only starter with a sub-100 wRC+. Yogi Berra finished runner-up to the Indians' Al Rosen in American League MVP voting thanks to 27 homers and a stellar .296/.363/.523 batting line with a 139 wRC+, tremendous numbers for a catcher. Mickey Mantle turned in another good season in center field, and his hitting was surprisingly matched by left fielder Gene Woodling (147 and 148 wRC+, respectively). The rest of the regular lineup was filled out by productive seasons from first baseman Joe Collins, shortstop Phil Rizzuto, third baseman Gil McDougald, and right fielder Hank Bauer. Collectively, the offense hit .274/.359/.418 with a 114 wRC+; the batsmen were a force to be reckoned with.
On the mound, '53 was the last year that the acclaimed starting trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat was together since Raschi was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals after the season. Raschi and Reynolds had fine years with sub-3.50 ERAs (Reynolds also frequently pitched out of the bullpen), but the lefty Lopat was the ace. His 2.42 ERA and 152 ERA+ in 24 starts were the best marks in the AL. 24-year-old southpaw Whitey Ford returned from two years in the service during the Korean War to lead the staff in starts (30) and innings (207), pitching to a 3.00 ERA and 123 ERA+ in the process. Veteran Johnny Sain mimicked his teammates Reynolds and Ford by splitting time between the bullpen and rotation, and recording a 3.00 ERA with a 123 ERA+ in 189 innings.
The normally-reliable Ford turned in a rare clunker on clinching day at Yankee Stadium. The potent Indians offense surged to a 5-0 lead and knocked him out of the game after only three innings. Ford was uncharacteristically wild, walking four and hitting a batter, with two of the walks coming with the bases loaded. With those extra baserunners, the Indians did not even need any extra-base hits to plate five runs on five hits. Fortunately for Ford, his bullpen and offense let him off the hook.
The Yankees countered the Indians' four-run third with a four-run fourth against fellow future Hall of Famer Early Wynn. McDougald got the Yankees' first hit of the game with a double to left, then scored on a triple by Collins off the right-center field wall. Bauer grounded into a fielder's choice at the plate, but the Yankees would have scored a second run had Collins not missed the plate. Catcher Jim Hegan tagged Collins before he had a second chance to touch home. Nonetheless, Bauer moved to second on a wild pitch and to third on a grounder to first. Mantle walked, and a passed ball on Hegan allowed Bauer to score and the Mick to move to second. Woodling walked, and up came Martin. Wynn was still an out away from escaping the inning with minimal damage, but Martin was hot, coming off consecutive multi-hit games. "Billy the Kid" crushed a long double to right-center field to make it a one-run affair. Although Rizzuto squandered a chance to tie by grounding out to second, the Yankees were officially back in the game. Like Ford, Wynn departed after this rough inning.
Meanwhile, relievers Tom Gorman and Bob Kuzava combined for three hitless innings to halt the momentum of the Indians' offense. A pair of infield singles against reliever Bill Wight put Mantle and Woodling on first and second again for Martin. This time, Martin rapped a double off the third baseman's glove into left field. Mantle scored, but Woodling was held at third. Rizzuto walked to load the bases for pinch-hitter Johnny Mize. "The Big Cat" was 40 years old in the final season of a Hall of Fame career and had hit a crucial pinch-hit three-run homer the day before to decide the game in the eighth inning, the 359th of his career. Alas, that was the last roundtripper he ever hit, and this time, he grounded out to first base.
Sain came in to pitch, and he eventually picked up the win by tossing three hitless innings of his own. The Indians put four baserunners on against the bullpen through walks, but they went scoreless the rest of the game. It was an excellent performance from the underrated relievers. The Yankees took the lead in the seventh when Collins grounded an infield single to third. A batter later, Berra stepped to the plate with an opportunity to further his MVP case. The best catcher in AL history pulverized a Wight pitch and sent it flying deep into the seats in right field for a two-run homer, his final homer of the '53 season. As usual, Yogi saved his best for last. Two batters later, Mantle and Woodling were again on first and second for Martin, courtesy of a single to center and a walk. Martin added some insurance with an opposite-field single to score his buddy Mantle and to give the Yankees a 8-5 lead.
In the ninth, Sain retired the Indians in order, and a ground ball to Martin at second finished the game and secured the Yankees' fifth consecutive AL pennant. It was the first time in MLB history a team that a team won five straight pennants. Despite this accomplishment, it was not a big deal to the Yankee players. Accustomed to such success, they "displayed no more emotion over winning the game that clinched the flag than if it had been a victory in mid-May," although manager Stengel did say proudly, "That's a tremendous ball club I've got."
Martin's 3-for-4 game in the pennant-clincher was a glimpse of what was to come in the World Series. Martin won the Babe Ruth Award as the best player in the World Series after setting a Series record with 12 hits in the six game-victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, including the championship-winning single in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6. Even including his managerial victory in the 1977 World Series, his efforts in September and October of '53 may have been his finest moments in a Yankee uniform.
Rest in peace, Billy.