Sal "The Barber" Maglie Finished Just a Little off the Top in 1956

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Sal
Associated Press
Sal Maglie had a great season in 1956—but several had greater.

Ninth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Sal Maglie’s 1956 season combines the “Elston Howard factor” of collecting more MVP votes than worthier candidates largely because his team inched out theirs at the finish line with the “‘Indian Bob’ Johnson factor” of a hot stretch drive that stayed fresh in the memory of writers come ballot time.

Maglie enjoyed the double-whammy of earning lots of votes this way in two award races: the National League MVP and the very first Cy Young honor.

Not to paint a picture that Maglie reaped undue reward for a marginal season. On the contrary, he was a key starter who contributed mightily to a pennant winner—but in my opinion, his runner-up finishes for the MVP and Cy Young Award came at the expense of more-deserving candidates.

Sal Maglie’s story is well known: Struggling for several pre-war years in the mid-minors, he went home to work in a defense plant as America mobilized, until finally making his debut with the New York Giants just as the war drew to an end. Three of his five wins came by shutout, including one against the World Series–bound Chicago Cubs.

But nearing his 29th birthday as Opening Day of 1946 approached, Maglie, along with Max Lanier, Mickey Owen, Giants teammate Danny Gardella and more than a dozen other major leaguers, jumped to the Pasquale Brothers’ outlaw Mexican League, nearly aborting his career before it started.

Maglie pitched in Mexico for two seasons under the tutelage of hotheaded Cuban fireballer Dolf Luque, who had enjoyed a successful 20-year NL career, including a 27-win season in 1923.

Luque taught Maglie to be a more aggressive pitcher, soon transforming Maglie into one of the most feared moundsmen in the National League for his eagerness to throw high and inside, resulting in his sobriquet, “The Barber.” (Despite his nasty reputation, however, Maglie hit only 44 batters in his 10-year major league career.)

Temporarily banned from the majors for his outlaw days, Maglie pitched in Canada before returning to the Giants in 1950. Now a well-traveled 33-year-old, he unleashed his talent and temper on National League batters to the tune of an 18-4 record, pacing the NL in ERA, shutouts and winning percentage.

In the Giants’ legendary 1951 campaign, Maglie reached his apex, tying with teammate Larry Jansen for the major league lead in victories, with 23.

His 2.93 ERA claimed second best, and he finished third in strikeouts. In the Shot Heard ‘Round the World game, Maglie surrendered four runs in eight innings but took a no-decision when Ralph Branca spared him the goat’s horns.

Maglie followed 1951 with several more strong seasons, helping New York to a World Series championship in 1954 and remaining one of the hated nemeses of the Brooklyn Dodgers—and their fans—during his tenure in the Polo Grounds. While donning a Giants jersey, Maglie tortured the powerful Bums by taking 23 of 34 decisions.

In 1955, despite ringing up nine victories through July, the defending champs put Maglie on waivers. Quickly claimed by the Cleveland Indians, he hurled a mere 25.2 innings the rest of the season and looked to be near the end of the line.

Five innings into the 1956 campaign, the borough of Brooklyn did a collective double take as their defending champions, slow out of the gate, purchased the reviled Maglie from the Tribe.

During his first two months in Dodger blue, Maglie, used as both a spot starter and a reliever, did little to help Brooklyn’s fortunes, going 2-3 and carrying an ERA above 4.00.

Then, on July 28, The Barber found his groove. (He won his start previous to July 28 but did not pitch well and claimed victory thanks to Brooklyn’s 10-run assault.) Through the end of August, Maglie won four of five decisions, pitched three no-decisions in which he surrendered a total of two earned runs and dropped his ERA from 4.20 to 3.34

As Brooklyn slowly cut into the Milwaukee Braves’ summer-long lead—simultaneously rumbling with the revived Cincinnati Redlegs—Maglie maintained his magic.

On September 11, he went the distance to beat Milwaukee, 4-2, bringing Brooklyn into a tie for first. And in his next start, Maglie gutted out a narrow victory at Crosley Field to raise the Dodgers into the lead for the first time since April.

As Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Cincinnati played tug-of-war for the pennant, Maglie no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies on September 25. Although Milwaukee’s easy victory in Cincinnati that day kept Brooklyn from gaining ground, Maglie’s headline-making feat so close to the end of the season surely carried a lot of weight come awards time.

Four days later, his complete-game victory in the opener of a double-header against the Pittsburgh Pirates put Brooklyn one game in the lead for good. (After winning the back end of the double-header, Brooklyn clinched the pennant with a series sweep of Pittsburgh the next afternoon, despite Milwaukee also winning its final game.)

At season’s end, Maglie stood at 13-5, with a 2.87 ERA for Brooklyn—a fantastic ERA while hurling two-thirds of his innings in a home park among the toughest in which to pitch.

There is no doubt that Brooklyn—which edged Milwaukee by a single game and Cincinnati by two—won the pennant largely on the arm of Sal Maglie. From late July onward, Maglie was money—especially during the three-team race of September, when he went 6-1, with a 1.77 ERA.

For his heroics, Maglie finished second to teammate Don Newcombe in both the MVP race and the brand-new Cy Young Award, as Newcombe authored one of the monster seasons of the post-war era: 27-7, 3.06 ERA and a 0.989 WHIP—by far, baseball’s best.

Not to minimize in any way Maglie’s huge contribution to a pennant winner, but of the 11 NL pitchers who received MVP votes, only reliever Clem Labine collected fewer wins. Maglie also pitched the fewest innings of any vote-getting starter.

Especially considering that Don Newcombe and his 27 victories were the true anchor of Brooklyn’s staff—and rightfully rewarded as such—a Dodger who played every day deserved more recognition than Maglie for keeping the Bums churning through a daily dogfight.

Anonymous/Associated Press
Duke Snider's 43 home runs helped Brooklyn keep up with powerful bats in Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

How Duke Snider finished a distant tenth in the MVP is a real head-scratcher. Garnering a single first-place vote, the Duke’s vote share lagged well behind not only Maglie, but teammates Jim Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese—a part-time keystone combo having an excellent fielding season, with Gilliam cracking an even .300 and drawing 95 walks.

But Duke carried the biggest stick on an aging team suddenly replaced by Cincinnati as the most potent offense in the league.

Snider paced the Senior Circuit in home runs, walks and OPS, tying with Junior Gilliam for the lead in on-base percentage, all while chasing down fly balls to center field at his usual reliable rate. He also crossed the plate 112 times, second most in the league.

And as Newcombe struggled to clinch the pennant on the schedule’s final day—surrendering six earned runs on 11 Pirates’ hits—it was the Duke who saved Brooklyn’s season, slamming a pair of home runs and driving in four RBI.

Sandy Amoros also clubbed two homers, but Duke’s three-run blast in the bottom of the first set the tone and put Pittsburgh in a hole from which it could not fully emerge before Don Bessent relieved the fatigued Newcome and sealed the pennant.

Of course, no one knew from WAR at the time, but the Duke tied Willie Mays for the NL lead at 7.6. Having topped 130 RBI in the previous two seasons yet driving home “only” 101 in 1956, perhaps voters turned their pens elsewhere based on Duke’s “drop-off” in that coveted stat.

Already a potent lineup, the long-lost Redlegs—who hadn’t seen .500 since 1944—slugged their way from 75 to 91 wins largely on the addition of Frank Robinson.

Enjoying one of the greatest freshman campaigns ever—and copping a unanimous Rookie of the Year honor for it—the gritty Robinson smashed 38 home runs, a record that would stand for 31 seasons.

In doing so, Robinson also helped Cincinnati clout a record-tying 221 home runs. Exhibiting impressive bat discipline for a 20-year-old slugger, Robinson drew 64 walks to go with his solid .290 batting average, which, combined with a league-high 20 hit-by-pitches for the rookie who defiantly dug in against veteran hurlers, led to an NL-best 122 runs scored.

Robinson also tied teammate Ed Bailey for second in OPS, with .936. Considering Cincinnati’s dearth of starting pitching—only Brooks Lawrence chalked up more than 13 victories, and only Joe Nuxhall logged an ERA better than league average—Robinson, in my opinion, had more to do with Cincinnati’s sudden resurgence than any other Redleg.

One can argue that a seventh-place finish on the MVP ballot was amply complemented by the Rookie of the Year honor, but Robinson, a natural-born leader and the highest-scoring player on the highest-scoring team, should have finished higher in the vote.

Interestingly, both Snider and Robinson batted their best against each other as Brooklyn and Cincinnati jockeyed all summer for the inside track. Duke lit up Redlegs hurlers for an even .400 and slugged a monstrous .787, while driving in 18 runs and scoring 23 times in 22 contests.

Nearly matching Duke’s mastery of Cincinnati pitching, the rookie Robinson still bruised Brooklyn for nine homers and .716 slugging, resulting in 13 RBI and 20 runs scored in the same 22 games.

Neither fared well against Milwaukee’s deep and stingy rotation.

Warren Spahn also probably should have ranked higher than Maglie. Arguably the best pitcher on what was, far and away, the best pitching staff in the NL (team ERA of 3.11nearly half a run better than runner-up Brooklyn), Spahn enjoyed a typical Warren Spahn season: 20-11, 2.78 ERA. He led the league in nothing but hurled 90 more innings than Maglie.

Over the course of an entire season, during which Spahn’s Braves spent 83 percent of its schedule within two games, either way, of first place, 90 high-quality innings is a huge difference to overlook.

Milwaukee’s strength on the mound may have actually worked against Spahn at voting time. Lew Burdette spun a season very similar to Spahn statistically (19-10, 2.70 ERA, in 256.1 innings), yet although voters barely took notice of Burdette or 18-game winner Bob Buhl at awards time, Spahn’s 20 wins might have lost some impact among his big-winning teammates.

Of course, had Milwaukee finished a game ahead of Brooklyn, Spahn likely would have received many of the votes that instead went to Maglie.

Unfortunately for Spahn, who went 7-1 and saved one game in September (including a 12-inning complete-game victory on September 13), he took a truly hard-luck loss in Milwaukee’s penultimate game of the season, which dropped the Braves a game behind Brooklyn and allowed the Dodgers to claim the pennant the following afternoon despite Burdette’s 4-2 win in St. Louis.

Tied with Brooklyn with two games to play, Spahn spun a masterful 11 innings, yielding only three hits and one earned run. But Cardinal Herm Wehmeier, an oft-wild thrower with a career mark of 80-100 going into the game, matched Spahn inning for inning.

With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 12th, Spahn yielded a double to Stan Musial. Intentionally walking Ken Boyer to get to Rip Repulski, Repulski ripped a double to left, scoring Musial and giving Brooklyn—busy winning the second game of a double-header against Pittsburgh after Maglie won the opener—a one-game edge going into the season’s final day.

Associated Press/Associated Press
Both Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford deserved more Cy Young consideration than Maglie.

As for the Cy Young Award—which, in 1956, was issued to a single pitcher selected from both leagues—Maglie again placed second to Newcombe. The same argument for Spahn (and Burdette) in the MVP race becomes stronger for this vote. With Newcombe deservedly running away with the inaugural award, Maglie earned four of the remaining six votes, outpacing both Spahn and Whitey Ford.

The ace of the eventual world-champion New York Yankees, Ford went 19-6, with a Major League–topping 2.47 ERA. But the Bronx Bombers peeled away from the rest of the AL in July and coasted to the pennant, so Ford enjoyed none of the hero-making drama of a close race, as did Maglie.

Yet a pitcher superior that season both to Spahn and Ford, let alone Maglie, was completely ignored. Herb Score, coming off a Rookie of the Year effort in 1955, took another step toward the superstardom he’d sadly never reach (see his entry, No. 2, in my series for a fuller explanation).

Flame throwing his way to a 20-9 season, garnished with an AL-high five shutouts and 263 strikeouts—best in the Majors and 71 more than anyone else—Score unfairly went missing at ballot time thanks to an 88-win Cleveland Indians squad made irrelevant by the machine-like Yankees.

As good as was Maglie down Brooklyn’s stretch drive, Score, with his adjusted ERA of 166, pitched at the highest caliber virtually all season.

Pitching in his third—and final—World Series, in 1956, Maglie went the distance in the opener, whiffing 10 Yankees in a 6-3 victory at Ebbets Field. In Game 5, he had the misfortune of pitching against history, as his gutsy eight innings were no match for Don Larsen’s perfection. (Along with the Shot Heard ‘Round the World game, this made Maglie a starting pitcher in perhaps the two most famous contests in baseball annals.)

New York, of course, went on to reclaim the crown Brooklyn had usurped the previous year.

Maglie pitched one more season in Brooklyn, but now 40 years old, the Barber’s days were numbered. He bounced to the Yankees—becoming one of only 14 players who made the stop at all three New York boroughs—before concluding his short but eventful career with the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1958.

Etching a most impressive 119-62 record, with a career ERA 27 percent better than league average, Sal Maglie enjoyed one helluva ride for a guy who didn’t stick in the Majors until age 33.

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