Sunday, September 27, 2015

Yogi, Garver and the 1951 AL MVP Award

The passing of Yogi Berra reminds us of a controversey near and dear to the hearts of Browns fans.

In 1951, Browns' right-handed pitcher Ned Garver was setting the record that still stands for pitchers who won 20 games for a team that finished in last place and lost 100 games.  Better still, Ned was in the fourth year of an incredible four-year rWAR spurt (4.6, 4.1, 7.3, and 5.6) which started right in Garver's rookie season, 1948.  Meanwhile, in '51, Yogi could rise no higher than seventh in any major batting category (except for home runs where he was in a three-way tie for fourth place with a not-so-incredible 27 dingers).

Yogi of course also had "being a catcher" going for him.  But the Yanks had only the third-best pitching staff in the eight-team league.   And the staff featured - not kids who might need some grooming from their battery-mate - but veteran all-stars like Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat.  So "Where was the beef?" (as Yogi might have said himself).

Fielding-wise, Yogi was solid, but not spectacular, ranking only third in caught-stealing and fielding percentages and ranking first in errors.

Garver seemed to be the clear MVP.

And so Ned thought. The night before the announcement was due, back home for the off-season in Ney, Ohio, Ned received a call from a wire service reporter out of Cleveland (Ned doesn't remember whether it was AP or UPI) congratulating Ned on his MVP victory, and asking for his comment.

But then the announcement came out that Berra had won.

Yogi Berra     AL   M.V.P.
A griming Yogi Berra, center, Squat New York Yankee catcher, receives thumping congratulation from other Major Leaguers at American Baseball Academy in New York on Nov. 7, 1951 after learning that he will be named on November 8, most valuable player in the American League for 1951. Berra polled 184 votes to 157 for runner-up Ned Garver of the St. Louis Browns. From Left to right are: Sid Gordon, Boston Braves; Ed Lopat, Yankees; Berra; Gil Hodges, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Gil McDougald, Yankees. (AP Photo/John Rooney) (John Rooney)

The theory is that the votes were rigged by the New York press. Both American League and (especially importantly) New York Yankee attendance was falling in 1951, after robust postwar gains for several years. The baseball minions– and the press– decided that the very last thing the game needed was for a member of the laughingstock St. Louis Browns to win the MVP, and a pitcher at that. The likable and comical Yogi was the candidate to bring everybody out of the doldrums.

Ned himself says that the information he received down through the years was that the New York press even left Garver's name off of some ballots.

Yogi would repeat the MVP award in 1954 and 1955 with somewhat more formidable numbers.  But his 1951 award was the most inauspicious AL MVP winner until 1965's Zoilo Versailles of the Minnesota Twins.  The Browns, for their part, would never win a modern (post-1931) MVP award.

"Gee, Yogi, gimme a break!"

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