Look at them line drives," snorted Charles Dillon Stengel, the gnarled oak of baseball whose roots are now firmly planted in the sod of Yankee Stadium. Mr. Stengel was peering through the rope mesh of a batter's cage in St. Petersburg, Fla., where his Yankee baseball team was starting to work the winter's creaks and squeaks from its joints. "This Silvera'll hit you nothing but line drives, won't you, Charlie? Hey, Charlie, they could use you in the movies, Charlie. How much you charge—$200 a line drive?"
Mr. Stengel was in a happy frame of mind as his athletes sweated and grunted under the Florida sun. At 64, the onetime Kansas City dental student who swiped the name of Casey from his home town was enjoying some visions—visions of a sixth American League pennant in seven years. Last fall, after the Yankees finished second to Cleveland—thus failing to win the championship for the first time since Casey took charge in 1949—he was petulant and irascible. He even went so far as to say he would trade any players on his ball club except Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle.
BLOOD IN A BLUE EYE
Stengel's winter barters were not that drastic, but he made a deal with the Baltimore Orioles that was the biggest baseball news since the World Series. He dealt off nine players, including dependable Outfielder Gene Woodling, Pitcher Harry Byrd, who had been only so-so in a Yankee uniform, a promising young catcher named Hal Smith, who led the American Association in batting last year, and some lesser talent. In return he got 24-year-old Bob Turley, probably the fastest pitcher in the major leagues, a couple of mediocre infielders and a questionable pitcher named Don Larsen. Casey was looking for a pitcher who could win 20 games, and Turley was the target of his trading.
March 14, 1955
Now Stengel is back in Florida with blood in his eye and a slight California patio around his waistline after a winter at home tending to his lucrative business interests and plotting another pennant. In Casey's mind there is only one logical and satisfactory place for that American League pennant: Yankee Stadium.
During the first week of training, Casey shuffled and jigged his way around the grass of Miller Huggins Field, his blue, hawk's eyes taking in the performances and mistakes of an impressive but unevenly distributed collection of 46 ballplayers whose number he must reduce to 25 by May 12. Running through his mind was the question now bothering the entire American League: Does he have the pitching and the infield?
In his own anarchistic syntax, Casey has a way of bringing such matters into sharp focus. Musing on his dilemma, Casey said early in the week: "So, the way you look at it, you've got to say that if Mantle plays good I've got the best outfield in the league and the best catchers in the league. My outfield and my catching departments are of pennant-winning caliber, but if you want to go to the infield you can't say how strong it is or who will finally play where, although I know now who will start the way they figure at this moment. Then there's my pitching, and that's the other thing."
At noon each day, while the players took their brief break for lunch, Casey would retreat to the shade of the dugout and discuss for reporters some aspect of his team and its prospects. The first day it was the outfield, whose roster of only five players is incredibly thin for a manager like Stengel.
"Well, now look what we got," Casey began. "In left we got this Noren who's a fella can lead the league and bat you over .300, but then you think he's left-handed and you hardly ever see a graceful left-handed fella in left field can turn around and make that throw to second, but Noren can do it.
"Now Mantle. This year if he could play great I know I'd be better than last year. Look at the way he can hit left-handed to left and right, and right-handed to right and left, and he's fast on his feet for a base runner and a strong fella if he can improve his play."
FILLING THE OUTFIELD
"I'll go to right field and I'll say we got Bauer, and you got to play him a lot else he ain't gonna hit all the time cause he likes to work, and when he's workin he's playin good.
"Now Cerv comes into the picture, who led the American Association [actually he was second in 1951] one year. Then there's Slaughter, and he's a little old , but he'll pinch-hit any time for you, and even if it weren't for nothing else he's got the spirit that makes a ball club go like you hardly ever see, and then there's Collins [first baseman Joe Collins].
"If I get in a jam at first base I have Collins at number six in my outfield. Now this new fella Elston Howard [the rookie Negro catcher]. He come down here with a bad leg, and I don't know how he's gonna do for us until I see what shape he's in. But he can play outfield, and a fella like that who bats .330 up in Toronto can pinch-hit for you and he can run too."
On the second day Casey again assembled the reporters at noon, crossed his legs in the dugout and discussed the other department over which he loses no sleep—the catchers. With the tireless and indestructible Berra, probably the best catcher in baseball, the Yankees are more than adequately staffed. But they can back him up with 30-year-old Charlie Silvera, the line-drive hitter, and the sensational but still un-proven rookie, Elston Howard. Stengel sized it up this way:
"Berra's in good shape this year, for one reason because he's been down here for three weeks or more and don't have to take too many pounds off his body, so if he don't get too nervous on the screen making all them moving pictures [here Stengel gestured toward a camera crew making a baseball training film in the corner of the park] I'd say he could catch all the games this year.
"Silvera, of course, is one of the best catchers in the league, if not the best. He's a very intelligent catcher and a good line-drive batter who will hit you over .300 all the time. I don't know whether to use Howard as my second catcher or my third catcher. Howard's a three-way man [he also plays first base and outfield] and this boy is a very powerful hitter, as you know if you have looked at the figures [he hit 22 home runs at Toronto last year]."
The third day Stengel turned to the infield, one of his two major question marks. Having now made it clear to the press that he intended to go sparingly this year on the two-platoon system which has been his trade-mark, he tried to sort a starting line-up out of the nine experienced major leaguers and five rookies presently in camp. The discourse went like this:
"Okay—Carey. Now I've got to start with Andy Carey at third base with that record he's got of hitting .300, and he played better in the second half of the season. He's very young and he's been troubled by that arm but he's a good, trying fella. But where else am I gonna play Carey? He can't play short with his arm, and he can't play second, so he's gotta be third."
WHO'S ON WHERE?
"Second's got to be McDougald the way he hits. No matter where he plays he is always fourth in Runs Batted In no matter where he is in the batting order—second, fifth, sixth, eighth, anywhere. He's one of the best base runners on my club, although the average person sitting up in the grandstand don't believe it when you tell it to them.
"If you want to go to short, that's something. Rizzuto looks in good shape. He's got on glasses, and sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's a bad thing, but it does help some men. Last year they weren't much help, but I thought they annoyed him, and maybe he didn't feel so safe wearing them. But you still got to figure Rizzuto was the best shortstop in the league, and maybe he still is.
"All their jobs are still open.
"Skowron—you got to go with him at first. Collins is possibly the best first baseman in the league, if you look what they got in the league now, so if it isn't Skowron it's got to be Collins. Collins hits well against some pitching.
"Why am I so strong on Skowron? Hitting. He's got a good arm, and he can throw to them other bases, so if he can field and hold the grounders he'll be all right."
It is Yankee pitching, however, which will decide the fate of the team. For his key starter Casey looks to Whitey Ford, the New York City boy who was an 18-game winner in his first full season. In 1954 Ford faltered in the closing months and his 16-8 record was a disappointment. Slimmer this spring, he has Stengel's hopes up.
The number two pitcher is Bob Grim, the American League's Rookie of the Year for 1954, when he won 20 games and lost only six. Grim had trouble going the full nine innings, but the Yankees feel that age and experience will give him durability.
Turley, the man from Baltimore, completes the list of regular starters now set in Casey's mind. With the sickly Orioles last year he won 14 games, but he also lost 15. Like so many young fastballers he tends towards wildness, and the Yankees are counting heavily on wise old pitching coach Jim Turner to tame this instinct.
In aging Eddie Lopat, the Yankees have what Casey calls "a fifth pitcher." He is slow and crafty, but he will be 37 in June and hardly able to pitch more than once every five or six days.
Casey spends a good deal of his time in camp watching the work of the other 19 pitchers in training. By April 12, when he plays his opening game against Washington, Casey hopes to know whether his fourth starting pitcher—to back up Ford, Grim and Turley—will emerge from his present talent. If not, he will have to go to market again and perhaps deal off one or two first-stringers to get what he wants and needs so badly.
These things furrow Casey's brow, but they don't destroy his confidence. This week a reporter suggested to Casey that no one would ever repeat his performance of five consecutive pennants. Casey, who expects to be around the Yankees for a long time yet, looked like a man suffering from a mild personal affront. Then he muttered, "I'm not so sure about that."
YANKEE BENCH: CASEY'S BANK ROLL
Eight first stringers and three sure pitchers are backed by a wealth of substitutes and trading bait. Twin problems are—
THE INFIELD RESERVES
Outstanding among five proved major leaguers in this group is Jerry Coleman, 30, regular Yankee second baseman until the Marines took him to Korea in 1952. A great glove man, he can also play shortstop, hits well in the clutch. From the Baltimore deal comes Billy Hunter, 26, who is a good-fielding, weak-hitting shortstop. Among six possible first basemen are Dick Kryhoski, 29, also from the Orioles, whose bat went sour last year; Eddie Robinson, 34, an American League castabout whose long ball makes him the kind of pinch hitter Stengel likes on the bench; and Joe Collins, 32, a Yankee veteran who can also play outfield. Two bonus babies who must remain on the roster are Frank Leja, 19, hulking first baseman, and Tom Carroll, 18, tall shortstop. Billy Martin, star of the 1953 champions, isn't due for Army release until October.
THE PITCHING STAFF
Search for a fourth starter still centers on the present staff. It could be Tommy Byrne, 35, onetime Yankee ace who was brought up late last year after a sensational comeback with Seattle. He could stick as a starter or reliefer if his old wildness doesn't return. Another possibility is Don Larsen, 25, who lost 21 and won only three for Baltimore last year but may be better than that. Art Schallock, 29, small left-hander who had a fine 1954 season with Oakland is a sleeper, while the big question mark is Tom Morgan, 24. Troubled with injuries last year, he had a disappointing 11 wins. The strength of the bull pen will probably depend on right-handers Jim Konstanty, 38, and Johnny Sain, 36, two one-time National League greats who still have plenty of guile, and Tom Gorman, 29, up from Kansas City for another try at the big time.