The New York Yankees were the toast of baseball for forty-plus years from the Babe Ruth 1920s to the Mickey Mantle 1960s. Winning came easy: They were expected to play in every World Series. In fact, one sportswriter uttered that, “Cheering for the Yankees is like cheering for US Steel.” From 1936-1939, they won four straight championships, then ten years later they took an unprecedented five straight from 1949-1953.
Fans and the press called the Yankees the “Bronx Bombers” because they could slug a lot of homers. But that wasn’t all they had. The Bronx Bombers tag was basically a myth. They had the pitching--clutch pitching. No better example of that were manager Casey Stengel’s five straight championships. Without three quality starters in the rotation--Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, and Allie Reynolds--the Yankees would have been second-rate in that span.
The Big Three, as they became known, were different as night from day, yet complimented each other well. In addition, Casey--the intelligent skipper that he was--knew when to use them and against what teams. All three meant business on the mound. They were strong-spirited team players who didn’t take any guff from other Yankees not hustling. They knew the Yankee tradition of winning and expected it from others. They had attitudes and were tough as nails on the opposition.
Hard-throwing, six-foot-one Vic Raschi joined the Yankees as a 27-year-old rookie in 1946, three years out of baseball due to time spent as a US Army physical-education instructor during World War II. After that, he made up for lost time. Early in his career, he was told by pitching coach Jim Turner to put some weight on in order to go nine innings more often. He did by adding 20 pounds, remaining around 215 pounds for the rest of his career.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, his nickname was “The Springfield Rifle.” With a reputation for winning the big ones, Raschi was the epitome of consistency, often saved by Stengel to pitch against the opposition’s best. Despite bone chips in his pitching arm and torn cartilage in his right knee, he hated to miss starts. From 1949-1951, he won exactly 21 games each season, and started at least 31 games for five straight seasons from 1948-1952. During the five 1949-1953 championship years, his record was 92-40.
Combining a great slider and changeup with his fastball, Raschi was best described as a brute on the mound. Unshaven on days he pitched, he would stare down batters to gain a physiological edge. “He’d keep his eyes on their eyes, like a boxer before a fight,” his catcher, Yogi Berra said. Raschi also hated mound conferences with Berra and the infielders. His approach to such distractions was simple: “Give me the damn ball and get the hell out of here.”
In 1952, Raschi signed for $40,000 for the coming season, the most ever for a Yankee pitcher, with a stern warning from GM George Weiss: “Don’t ever have a bad year.” I guess he considered Raschi’s 13-6, 3.33 ERA marks in 1953 as bad. That fall, Raschi was asked to take a 25 percent cut in pay. He refused and was sold outright to the St Louis Cardinals on February 23, 1954, during spring training after posting lifetime marks of 120-50 and a .706 winning percentage as a Yankee. In 1954, the Cleveland Indians broke the Yankee five-year dominance by beating them out of the American League pennant 111 wins to 103. Several teammates agreed in unison that if they still had Raschi in the rotation, they would’ve no doubt won six straight championships.
As a Cleveland Indian from 1942-1946, part-Cherokee Allie Reynolds, nicknamed “Superchief,” had acquired an unfair reputation for walking too batters and having no guts on the mound, someone who shied away from challenging hitters: a pitcher who wanted the win and duck out after a few innings. Then he became a New York Yankee in a trade that sent the popular second baseman Joe Gordon to the Indians. Yankee fans were enraged. Their reasoning was simple: Gordon was a winner; Reynolds was so-so at best. As with Raschi, pitching coach Turner came to the rescue by teaching Reynolds the art of pitching, and not just throwing. Reynolds learned to take his time between pitches and change speeds. Heeding Turner’s advice, Reynolds made the fans forget Gordon in a hurry.
The versatile Reynolds could beat you in many ways. In his first year as a Yankee, he won 19 games against eight losses to lead all AL pitchers with a .704 win percentage. He pitched two no-hitters in 1951, the same season he won 17 games, threw an AL-leading seven shutouts and saved seven games in 14 relief appearances. In 1952, he won 20 and led the AL with a 2.06 ERA, 160 strikeouts, and six shutouts in 244.3 innings. In 1953, Stengel turned Reynolds even more into a closer where he saved 13 games in 26 relief appearances. He still found time to start 15 games, completing five of those and recording 13 total wins for the season.
In his six years in New York, he was on six World Series winners. The two other times, the Yankees finished second and third. Between 1949-1953, he started the opening games of the Fall Classic on four different occasions. In relief in 1950, he saved the clinching final game for Whitey Ford against the Philadelphia Phillies, then won the final games of the 1952 and 1953 Series coming out of the bullpen against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team he owned. In his six World Series, he won seven games (two in relief) and saved four others. In 77.3 innings, he fanned 62 batters and threw two shutouts. He also helped the team out and his own cause by batting a lifetime .308 in post-season, double what he hit in his 13 regular seasons combined.
What made Allie Reynolds especially fearsome was his fastball in late innings when the grandstand roof cast a shadow from the batter’s box half-way to the mound, making it extremely difficult for hitters to pick up Reynold’s rising fastball coming out of the sun, where the ball looked like an aspirin pill.
Last but not least, there was little, five-foot-ten southpaw Eddie Lopat, known as “The Junk Man” and “Steady Eddie.” Some opponents weren’t as kind with their nicknames, however. Iconic Boston slugger Ted Williams referred to him as “that f------ Lopat!” Lopat frustrated hitters with his assortment of breaking pitches thrown with expert command and plenty of movement.
He wasn’t flashy and didn’t strike out that many batters. Instead, he’d retire them on flies and a whole lot of ground balls. His tosses looked as big as basketballs coming to the plate, then they’d disappear into the catcher’s mitt. He had four pitches: screwball, fastball, curve, and slider. Deceiving to say the least, he used two speeds on his screwball and three speeds each on the other three, for a total of 11 different pitches for hitters to swing and miss at.
Born Edmund Walter Lopatynski to Polish parents in 1918, Lopat came to the Yankees in 1948 after four years with the Chicago White Sox where he had won a total of 50 games as a regular starter who continually beat the Yankees enough for GM Weiss to take notice. On February 24, the Yankees gave up three players--Aaron Robinson, Fred Bradley, and Bill Wight--to get him, in one of the best deals Weiss had ever made.
Lopat was the perfect contrast to the heat of Raschi and Reynolds, especially when he would slow things down by starting the third game of a three-game set. Other times Stengel would place him in the middle of the two, which really threw the opposition off with a three-game, heat-gunk-heat combination. His walk totals were microscopic during the five championship years, when he won 80 games to only 36 losses. He won 21 games in 1951, and led the AL with a 2.42 ERA, while 16-4 in 1953.
In seven World Series starts between 1949-1953 (at least once each post-season), Lopat won four, lost one, and a posted a 2.60 ERA in 52 innings, walking only 12. Against the Cleveland Indians, his lifetime regular-season record stood at 40-12, amazing considering the all-star starting pitchers he faced: Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon.
In the end, it all comes down to winning. The Big Three, in their New York Yankee careers, won a combined 371 games and lost only 169 for a .687 win percentage. During the 1949-1953 years, they were 255-117 and .685. Surprisingly, none of the three pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, and may not ever get there. However, teammate Charlie Silvera, a backup catcher to Yogi Berra with the Yankees from 1948-1956, said, “Those guys should be in Cooperstown as one unit.”