Although the Detroit Tigers ended their wonderful winning streak last Sunday (seven straight victories may not sound particularly wonderful to you, but a team that hasn't been in the first division since 1950 has different values), they lost little of their newly acquired popularity. Almost every season since radio and then television took to sending detailed, personal reports of big league games to the outcountry, one ball club or another of the 16 in the majors has caught the imagination and affection of the country's baseball fans and become a sort of national favorite, everybody's team. In 1941 it was the Dodgers, on their way to Brooklyn's first pennant in 21 years. In 1949 it was the injury-riddled Yankees, beating out the powerful Boston Red Sox in Casey Stengel's first year as manager. In 1953 it was the sensational "new" Milwaukee Braves. This year it seems to be the Tigers.
It's not hard to understand. The Tigers are an exciting ball team, a young club on its way up. This year, because of a serious scarcity of pitching depth, the Tigers are not likely to finish higher than fourth but next year or the year after, watch out.
Right now the brightest Tiger of all is a slender young outfielder named Albert Kaline (rhymes with day line) who won't be old enough to vote until December 19. Kaline is six-one and weighs about 175 pounds, which is 20 pounds more than he weighed last season, his first with Detroit after signing a contract for a $35,000 bonus. He hit only four home runs all last year, compared to five in the first 14 games this year, with three coming in one game and two in one inning. The extra weight seems to have added extra power.
THE REAL THING
Kaline looks like the real thing, a great fielder with a superb arm, a hitter of tremendous potential. Paul Richards, the gimlet-eyed manager of the Baltimore Orioles, said last week, "Kaline can do more things well than most players in the league today. He won't fall far short of Joe DiMaggio."
Manager Bucky Harris of the Tigers, who has been a major league manager through more seasons than any other man in baseball history excepting only Connie Mack and John McGraw and who has no illusions, not even about Detroit's chances this year, beams when he talks about Kaline.
"Isn't he something to watch?" Harris says, just like a fan.
John Lardner, the Esthete, had an article on the same theme in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago in which he talked about players he liked to see, the great players, the ones with style and imagination and accomplishment. Kaline was on Lardner's list, after only one season in the majors.
The Tigers were spectacular in their streak, which improved their season's record from three wins and five losses to ten and five and their position in the league standings from sixth place to first, and they were spectacular in their departure from it, though in a different way. They fought hard against the Yankees last Sunday, trying to break through Bob Turley's fast ball. They stayed close for a while and almost caught up in the seventh inning when Ned Garver smacked a long drive over Mickey Mantle's head in center field with two out, two men on base and the score 2-1 Yankees. But Mantle raced back and caught the ball and in the next inning, the eighth, the Yankees scored three runs to go ahead 5-1.
The streak was just about dead. If any Tiger fan was not sure it was dead then, he was in the ninth when the Tiger infield trampled it to oblivion in a splendid G√∂tterd√§mmerung. Shortstop Harvey Kuenn bobbled Turley's grounder to start the inning. Catcher Frank House dropped a pop foul hit by Hank Bauer. Bauer then grounded meekly to Third Baseman Ray Boone but Boone booted it. With men on first and second and no one out, Andy Carey hit a double-play grounder Boone's way. Ray scooped it up, threw to Fred Hatfield at second for the force, but Hatfield, right in the spirit of things, threw wild past first for Detroit's fourth error of the inning.
Well, it could have happened to anyone, especially after the strain of winning seven in a row. But no one would blame Van Fletcher, the rookie who pitched the ninth, if he were to ask, "But why did it happen to me?"
It was a crazy Sunday anyway, one of those lush spring days when baseball runs slightly amok. In Cleveland the 36-year-old Bobby Feller pitched a brilliant one-hit shutout in the first game of a double-header against the Boston Red Sox. Twenty-one-year-old Herb Score, called the "new Feller" by Cleveland press-agentry, followed Bob in the second game and struck out 16 men, only two off Feller's 17-year-old record. Who can remember another double-header with two such remarkable pitching performances?
In New York, John Antonelli, who needs only adversity to demonstrate how fine a pitcher he has become, threw a six-hit 16-inning game against the Redlegs, who had been stunned once already that day in a mild train wreck near Thorndale, Pa., as they were making their way from Pittsburgh to New York.
NO BALL FOUR
The Giants won for Antonelli in the last of the 16th when a long fly off the outfield wall scored the winning run from third. How the winning run got to third fits the pattern of the day: Whitey Lockman was on second base with one out when the Redlegs, the snug new catcher's box notwithstanding, decided to walk Don Mueller intentionally. But on the fourth pitch Mueller reached out and smacked the ball into left field for a base hit that surprised Lockman almost as much as it did the Redlegs. Nevertheless, Whitey got to third and that was far enough for the winning run to score on almost anything.
In Kansas City 23,000 fans, still glowing over Bobby Shantz' wonderful shutout of the Yankees earlier in the week, sat patiently through a frightful three-hour, 26-run game between the Athletics and the Washington Senators but went home happy because the Athletics came from 5-0, 9-5 and 10-7 deficits to win out 16-10 and move up into fifth place in the American League.
In Los Angeles, in the Pacific Coast League, fiery Bobby Bragan, manager of the Hollywood Stars, got mad at the umpiring, protested the game and, in a fit of spite, sent eight men to bat, one after the other, for the same man in the ninth inning. They replaced each other after one pitch. The last man grounded out. The Stars lost both ends of a double-header. Bragan stayed mad.
Crazy Sunday, all right.