In Yankee stadium where the New York Yankees were about to play the second and final game of a brief but possibly significant early season series with the Cleveland Indians, a well-dressed man in a charcoal-gray suit was giving illuminating bits of information to a less well-informed companion, who nodded amiably from time to time without appearing too profoundly impressed by anything that was said.
When the game started and Bobby Avila of the Indians came to bat in the first inning, the man in the charcoal-gray suit poked his friend in the arm.
"This is the guy," he said, "who made that bunt last night that started everything."
At this, the man who had previously been unimpressed sat up, leaned forward and watched Avila intently.
May 22, 1955
"Is that right?" he said. "This is the fellow, huh?"
Obviously, he had been hearing about "the bunt that started everything." And obviously he was impressed. This showed good sense. It was a bunt (see drawing below) well worth remembering, and it pointed up a situation that even Casey Stengel can't gloss over.
The bunt came in the third inning of the game played between the Indians and the Yankees the night before and was a masterpiece of conception and execution. It tipped the game in the Indians' favor (they won 9-6), probably the series as well (the unworried Indians won again the next day against the previously undefeated Bob Turley) and possibly the season.
This last may sound a little farfetched, the season being less than 25 games old at the time, but it seems less so when Avila's bunt is viewed as another impressive contribution to the ever-growing pile of testimony that the Indians are now the Big Team in the American League. There is no doubt that they have the big pitchers and the big hitters and the alert get-the-break get-the-jump players who win ball games and pennants.
Consider the setting. The Indians had come into New York on a four-game winning streak. They were in first place (two games ahead of the Yankees, who were tied for second with the White Sox), mostly by reason of 11 victories in 13 games against the four second-division clubs, an old Indian habit.
If the Yankees could beat the Indians both games they could squeeze past Cleveland in the league standings. More than that, they would put the Indians in their proper place by making it plain that, while the Indians might steal pennants by beating the blood and bone out of the second division, they still could not beat New York. The Indians haven't won a season's series from the Yankees in 10 years.
It was just the kind of challenge the Yankees used to rise to, the kind of series they used to win. This time they lost. They lost because the Indians outhit them, outpitched them, forced the fight to them, put pressure on them, made the breaks and took advantage of the breaks.
They lost because of things like Bobby Avila's bunt. This is how that play came about.
In the Tuesday night game the Yankees had a 1-0 lead going into the top of the third inning. With one out Don Larsen—who was on trial for his major league existence—walked his opposing pitcher, Bob Lemon.
Al Smith worked a walk too and suddenly Larsen was in trouble. Two men were on base with only one out, and Avila, Al Rosen, Ralph Kiner and the rest of the meat-and-muscle part of the Indians' batting order coming up. The potential tying run was on second, wanting only a base hit to be realized.
The Yankees arranged their infield defense for a double play. Al Smith, leading off first base, looked toward Avila and raised his eyebrows.
"I knew he was going to bunt," Smith said. "There wasn't any sign on, but when you play with a guy you get to know what he's going to do."
"I was bunting for a hit," Avila said. A sacrifice bunt would have been pointless. With two out the potential tying run, now on third base, would still require a base hit to be realized. And with first base open after the sacrifice Rosen, the next batter, would be walked intentionally to let the Yankees pitch to Kiner, a dangerous hitter but not so dangerous in Casey Stengel's mind as Rosen.
But a bunt hit, on the other hand, would move the lead runner to third base without sacrificing an out, and he would then be able to score on an outfield fly. The bases would be loaded and the Yanks would have to pitch to the clutch hitter, Rosen, who was a good bet to hit that outfield fly.
So Avila promptly bunted for a hit.
"I do this, oh, several times a year," he said. "I don't push bunts very often, you know, toward first, unless it is a sacrifice. I hit them toward third. If I do it right, the ball angles toward the foul line so that it is a hard chance for the third baseman. It's either a base hit or a foul ball, and either way I don't make out."
On the second pitch, a fast ball, Avila slid his right hand up the barrel of the bat, met the ball perfectly and sent it rolling down the third-base line. Third Baseman Andy Carey, a superb fielder, charged in and over toward it, made a beautiful try, but was simply too late to catch the flying Avila. The bases were loaded and Rosen was up. The bunt hit had worked perfectly.
Larsen took a deep, sad breath and pitched to Rosen, who punched the ball hard and flat into right center for a base hit. The Yanks kicked the ball around, all three runners scored and the Indians took a lead they never lost.
Other things happened to support the feeling that the Yankees are in a decline and the Indians in ascendance. In the fourth inning of the night game Dave Pope hit a long home run off Larsen, and Stengel came out of the dugout. He walked to the mound flapping his arms together, looking as if he might have been whistling tunelessly, lost in bemused thought. Out went Larsen, all the way to Denver, another pitcher that Casey doesn't have. In came Whitey Ford, who pitched poorly, though the Indians did not score again that inning. When the Yankees came up they rallied, scored a run and had men on first and third with two out and the eighth and ninth men of the batting order coming up.
Rallies die on the weak bats of the tail end of batting orders. But this was where Stengel's strength had lain for six seasons. He'd thrown in pinch-hitter after pinch-hitter, each of such ability that they made the tail end of the Yankee batting order ring with authority. Then he'd sent in replacement fielders of equal skill and one fine relief pitcher after the other. Here, against the Indians, he sent up Eddie Robinson to bat for Billy Hunter. Robinson got a hit, the third in a row and the fourth of the inning off Lemon.
"Pour it on, Case!" a man yelled, looking toward the Yankee dugout for the next pinch-hitter. Instead, Ford came out to bat for himself.
"What the hell?" the man said, sitting back. "No pinch-hitter?"
Ford walked but the fact remained: Stengel could not pinch-hit for him. With Bill Skowron and Gerry Coleman hurt, he did not have the pinch-hitting depth, and he did not have the necessary faith that his relief pitchers in the bull pen could do any better than the wavering Ford. And after Ford walked to load the bases, Casey could not put pressure on the right-handed Lemon, who was obviously laboring, by sending up a left-handed batter to hit for the right-handed Hank Bauer, a device he used regularly despite injuries with strikingly successful results when the Yankees were winning five consecutive pennants and World Series.
That's not the way it used to be. Casey Stengel talks about his bench, but he has no bench; not the way he used to have one.
BUNT ANGLES TOWARD THIRD BASE LINE