The Brooklyn Dodgers have been extinct for fifty-three years now.
Yes, I am aware that there is a team out in L.A. that calls itself the Dodgers, and that they have been in existence for nearly as long as their original name-sake. But the two versions of the Dodgers are as different from one another as Bob Marley, the comedian from Maine, and Bob Marley, the Reggae singer from Jamaica.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were baseball’s happy, lovable, birthday-party-of-a franchise. Their Sym-phony band serenaded fans and players alike with a perpetual cacophony of off-key, tone-deaf music recalling a time when baseball’s soul hadn’t yet been completely sucked dry by corporate avarice.
The L.A. Dodgers, on the other hand, are your well-to-do, late middle-aged uncle tooling around in an expensive convertible, trying to impress a girl-friend half his age.
But the Brooklyn Dodgers were also an actual baseball team. And, although theirs was largely a record of futility dating back to the days of Zach Wheat, by the late 1940’s,this was a team on the rise.
Their names, summoned from the stately pen of Roger Kahn, still evoke timeless awe in those who hear them: Pete Reiser, Don Newcombe, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine, and, of course, Jackie Robinson. The Boys of Summer.
But one man, a right-fielder by trade, has sometimes gone overlooked among those who journey down memory lane all the way to Ebbet’s Field in Flatbush, N.Y. His nickname… “The Reading Rifle.”
His name was Carl Furillo.
Outside of his baseball address in Brooklyn, N.Y., Furillo lived his entire life in Stony Creek Mills, PA, where he was born in 1922. At the age of 24, he made his debut with the Dodgers, the team with whom he spent his entire 15 year career.
Although Furillo had already enjoyed seven productive seasons with Brooklyn, including identical 18 homer, 106 RBI campaigns in 1949-50, Carl Furill0’s Best Forgotten Season occurred in 1953.
At the age of 31, he won the N.L. batting title with a .344 mark. His on-base percentage was .393, he slugged .580, and his OPS was .973 (fifth best in the league.) His OPS+ was a career high 146, also good for fifth best in the N.L.
Furillo had 38 doubles, 21 homers and 92 RBI’s while striking out just 32 times all season. He finished tied for 9th in MVP voting in 1953 with teammate Carl Erskine. In fact, an astonishing seven Dodgers finished in the top 14 in MVP voting in 1953. Furillo’s teammate, Roy Campanella won the award, and Duke Snider finished in 3rd place (although he had the highest WAR of any of the Dodgers at 9.5.)
Interestingly, Jackie Robinson, 12th place in the voting, had a slightly higher WAR than MVP winner Campanella (7.3 to 7.2.)
Furillo remained a productive player for the Dodgers for the next five years, hitting between .289 and .314 per season.
When the Dodgers moved to Chavez Ravine in L.A. in 1958, Furillo went with them. He enjoyed his first year out west, batting .290 with 18 homers and 83 RBI’s. But at the age of 36, his career was clearly winding down.
He finished his career with a .299 batting average, over a thousand RBI’s, and nearly 2,ooo hits. He also led the N.L. in outfield assists twice, and he played in two All-Star games.
Furillo played his last game as a Dodger on May 7, 1960.
In a few months, a new young President would be elected, and a new era would dawn on the L.A. Dodgers.
Now, meet Joe Black.
Before there was Tony LaRussa and his coddled, one-inning specialist, there was Joe Black.
Joe Black, born in Plainfield, New Jersey, made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 at the age of 28. He had pitched well for a Negro League team, the Baltimore Elite Giants, for several years before arriving in Brooklyn. His late arrival may indicate that although the dam holding back the flood of African-American talent had been severely eroded by 1952, it had not fully collapsed.
In 1952, Joe Black enjoyed one of the Best Forgotten Seasons of any Brooklyn Dodger.
He pitched in 56 games in his rookie season, tossing 142 innings, far more innings than modern relief pitchers are expected to hurl. He finished 41 games, and his 15 saves were second best in the N.L. These totals demonstrate how much the role of a relief pitcher has changed over the decades. Black pitched whenever his manager felt like he needed him, not merely when a pre-determined inning number appeared on a scoreboard.
His 15-4 record, 2.15 ERA, and 1.00 WHIP were so impressive that Black not only won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award, he finished third in the MVP voting.
After injuries decimated the Dodgers pitching staff shortly before the 1952 World Series began, Black was asked to start Game One of the World Series against the Yankees. Black beat Allie Reynolds 4-2, becoming the first African-American to win a World Series game. Black then started Games 4 and 7. Although he lost both of them, he pitched very well in all three outings.
Strangely, however, this was Black’s only effective season in his major league career. His WAR for 1952 was 4.0. For his entire career, it was 3.4. WAR is a cumulative stat, so this indicates that Black’s career after 1952 actually resulted in negative value until his retirement in 1957 at the age of 33.
It is a mystery as to why a career that began with so much promise went downhill so quickly and dramatically. Black pitched just 414 innings in his entire career, finishing with a career record of 30-12, but his ERA after 1952 was never lower than 4.00 in any season.
Perhaps starting and working deep into three World Series games in seven days took their toll on his arm.
Although Joe Black’s 1952 season is largely forgotten today, it deserves to be remembered as one the Best Forgotten Seasons any Brooklyn Dodger ever produced.
This was my 50th blog-post. I want to say thank you to all of you who have been reading along for the past several months. I appreciate all the comments many of you have left for me, and I have enjoyed this experience even more than I thought I would.
So, once again, Thank You.