So Close in ’46!
By Jim Silva
The Red Sox are off to a good start after some off-season moves, some maturation of prized rookies, and some positional adjustments of some expensive players. Will they win the World Series this year? Who knows; it is certainly possible. Are they the best Red Sox team ever? Well, obviously that is impossible to say at this point in the season, but the Red Sox have a very long history which, until 2004, had been filled with much futility and frustration. But while they went 96 years without a World Series championship, they had some really great teams that just failed to close the deal. The best – very possibly the 1946 Red Sox who made it to the World Series but lost in a heart-breaking seven game series to the Cardinals that included one extra inning game and a one run loss in game seven. Were they the best? Let’s take a look at that team led by Ted Williams and managed by Joe Cronin.
A minor conflict called World War II had stolen Marine pilot/left fielder Ted Williams (talk about positional versatility!) from the Boston club. Team America held onto him for three seasons 1943, ’44, and ’45 when Ted was 24, 25, and 26. He was just coming off a 1942 season where he had won the triple crown after just missing it in 1941 (finishing fourth in RBI by five runs driven in while winning the batting title and home run crowns). He also hit .406 – the last man to eclipse .400. DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak won the MVP in 1942 even with substantially inferior batting numbers. Williams would lose two more seasons to the Korean War where he served some time as John Glenn’s wingman and had to land a shot-up plane on its belly with no landing gear, but that’s for another article. Williams would return from World War II as a 27 year old and pick up right where he had left off. While he didn’t win the Triple Crown, he did lead the league in several offensive categories including walks, on-base percentage, total bases, slugging, and runs scored. Williams would win the league MVP after finishing second two years in a row before his military service. Williams’ 1946 season was his best from a WAR standpoint – fortuitous pun intended. So was this like the Braves teams of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” where the team rode one or two stars to victory and would have collapsed completely without their elite? Certainly Teddy Ballgame was a superstar and his absence would and did cause trouble for the Red Sox, but the Boston club was loaded in 1946.
The Red Sox did a lot of things better than the rest of the American League in 1946. They led the league in runs scored, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage to name a few statistical categories. Their team got on base at a .356 clip and was second in the league in home runs meaning that many of those long balls likely came with runners on base. The Sox were embodying Earl Weaver before Earl Weaver. Williams, of course, had a pretty large impact on the team’s OBP with his .497 effort, but center-fielder Dom DiMaggio got on base at a .393 clip, and shortstop Johnny Pesky at a .401 rate. This being Boston, the team cranked out a lot of doubles, leading the league in that category too. They were paced by Pesky with 43, but Williams, second baseman Bobby Doerr, and first baseman Rudy York all cracked at least 30.
In the pitching department, the Red Sox hurlers managed a team ERA+ (park adjusted ERA relative to the rest of the league) of 108 where 100 is league average. So even in a hitter’s park the Red Sox managed to be better than league average by a solid margin. They got a career year out of starting pitcher Mickey Harris who would win 17 games – the only time he reached double digit victories or made the All Star team in his career. 24 year old Boo Ferris also managed his best season being credited with 25 wins, an .806 winning percentage, and an ERA of 3.25 in 274 innings. 30 year old ace, Tex Hughson hurled his last star-quality season, winning 20 games with an ERA of 2.75 over 278 innings, and leading the league with a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.37. Burrhead Dobson threw in 13 wins, mostly in the rotation, and even Jim Bagby, the Sox swingman, contributed league average innings and seven wins.
In short, the 1946 Red Sox managed 104 wins in a 154 game season due to a combination of stars at their peak and players having career years at the same time. They had a superstar in his prime, a future Hall Of Fame member, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, in Ted Williams. They had Bobby Doerr at second – another future Hall of Fame inductee. They had seven time All Star Dom DiMaggio in center. Dom wasn’t the superstar that his brother Joe was, but he was a rangy centerfielder with a strong arm. DiMaggio and shortstop Johnny Pesky were on-base machines leaving lots of men on base to be driven in by Williams et al. Pesky, like the Little Professor (DiMaggio) covered a lot of ground at shortstop so the Red Sox had some defensive standouts to go with their pitching and offense.
The 1912 Red Sox are the only other Sox team that could lay claim to the best Red Sox team ever, and honestly they might have been. The Red Sox from 1912 through 1918 were the Yankees before the Yankees were the Yankees. They took the World Series four times during that stretch. Smoky Joe Wood was only 22 in 1912, but still managed to go 34 and 5 also winning game 8 (game 2 had been declared a tie after 11 innings) of the World Series to give the Red Sox their second World Series victory. The 1912 Sox won one more game than the ’46 Sox and then went on to win one of the most exciting World Series ever, besting the New York Giants and Christy Mathewson. So the 1912 club has an argument, but the two teams are certainly close.
If the World Series victory is the difference maker then take this into account. While running out a two RBI, game-tying extra base hit in the 8th inning of game seven of the 1946 series, Dom DiMaggio pulled a hamstring and had to be pulled from the game. Leon Culberson came in to play center field in his stead. Culbertson didn’t have Dom’s arm or outfield skills. With two outs and Country Slaughter on first, Harry Walker hit a soft liner between left and center and Slaughter, who was running on the pitch came all the way around to score when the relay throw was late and a bit wide. DiMaggio was clearly the best defensive outfielder on the Boston club and had an excellent arm. It is possible that Slaughter wouldn’t even have tested DiMaggio’s arm. DiMaggio claims that the outcome might have been different because he knew the outfield better implying that he would have gotten to the ball sooner. Here is the YouTube link showing the actual play.
Who knows what would have happened had Slaughter failed to score from first on the two out hit, but as that was the difference-maker, it sure makes the ’46 Sox and the 1912 Sox look pretty similar. Who would have won a head to head match up? It’s impossible ever to know, but clearly the ’46 Sox were a great team that the 2016 Sox can only hope to come close to matching.