The evil eye of Hurricane Connie was expected to come peering over the horizon within a matter of hours but to the thousands in Yankee Stadium a hurricane was something to worry about later. Right now there was a ball game going on.
It was the seventh inning of the second game of the series and the score was tied at 2-2. Jimmy Piersall, who had led off the Red Sox half of the inning with a single, was only as far as second base and now there were two out and a full count on the batter. Don Larsen, the Yankee pitcher, looked for a moment at little Billy Klaus, waving his bat in a steady, urgent arc at the plate. He may also have glanced, briefly, toward the on-deck circle, toward the next hitter: Ted Williams. Then he leaned forward, squinting, to get the signal from Catcher Yogi Berra and went into his motion.
Out in a field box on the third-base line a middle-aged man from Boston, who had caught a train down to New York that morning to see the game, turned to his neighbor. "If Klaus gets on base," he said, "the Red Sox are going to win the pennant." The other man looked at him in dumb surprise; then his look changed to one of contempt. "That's about as absurd as anything I ever heard," he said. "They may not even win the ball game." The first man, solid and sure in his conviction, just shook his head. "I don't care," he said. "If Klaus gets on base, Williams will get 'em in. He's due. And the Red Sox will win the pennant."
Then Larsen pitched, Klaus swung at the blur of white—and missed. Williams stood up slowly in the on-deck circle, looked down at his two bats, then tossed them toward the Red Sox dugout and trotted toward left field. But the man in the third-base box only shrugged and leaned back in his seat, ignoring the amused glance of his companion. "Next time," he said. "Next time."
August 21, 1955
The next time didn't happen that afternoon, when the Yankees went on to win in 13 innings, or the next day either, when they beat the Red Sox 5-3 and walked off with the series, two games to one. But the Boston fan was not entirely wrong when he overemphasized the importance of a single pitch, just as Red Sox Manager Mike Higgins was not completely right when he, in turn, de-emphasized the importance of the entire series. ("No three games at this time, in this league, is going to settle anything. We've got six weeks to go and it's still anybody's race.") For the time has arrived when the American League is up to its ears in the hottest pennant fight in seven years and although no one really expects it to be settled until the last week of the season—and maybe not then without a play-off—every game counts, with emotional and mathematical urgency.
It was not a drama confined to Yankee Stadium. The same thing was going on at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, where the hard-hitting young Tigers ran into a Cleveland team which finally regained some of its 1954 magic and won three straight to take over first place (for the time being). The tenseness was also a thing alive in Kansas City's Municipal Stadium where the sometimes surprising Athletics managed to win only one game of three from Marty Marion's pennant-hungry White Sox, but that was enough to drop the south-siders from Chicago into second place. And the frenzy continued to mount during the rest of the week and into the next one at Fenway Park in Boston and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and Comiskey Park in Chicago. Wherever American League teams were playing, there was a race for the American League pennant.
OLD RIVALRY REVIVED
But the Yankee-Red Sox series was of unusual interest. For one thing, Yankee Stadium is a place where pennants are historically won—and sometimes lost; where important games with a bearing on the championship have a habit of being played. For another, it was a continuation—or more, a revival—of a great rivalry of the past which, in recent years, at least until this season, had become almost non-existent. Since 1951 it had been easy for the Yankees to be charitable toward the Red Sox. But more than any of these, the reason for two record crowds (61,000 for a Tuesday night game, 34,000 for an afternoon game next day) was simply the Red Sox themselves. They had become the most interesting team in baseball (did someone mention the Dodgers?) and everyone wanted to see what made them click.
They had not clicked (or even been interesting) through the first weeks of the season. Owner Tom Yawkey, who poured millions into buying a pennant in 1946, no longer had players like Doerr and Dominic DiMaggio, Pesky and Rudy York, Tebbetts, Hughson and Ferriss. It was not even certain the Red Sox could count on Ted Williams, who had announced his retirement but might—just might—return for the 1955 season. Instead, the squad which greeted Manager Higgins—a big, heavy-bodied, slow-talking Texan who played third base for the 1946 champions and then spent eight years in the minors learning a new trade—was loaded with youngsters who some day, it was hoped, would make the Red Sox a name again in the American League. But the time was still the future indefinite—so surely that one Boston native bet $3,000 to $30 the Sox would not win the pennant.
Moving into June, it appeared he was right. As the tremendously patient Higgins continued to experiment with his lineup, looking for a winning combination, Boston was in sixth place, 14½ games behind the Yankees and playing at a miserable .396 gait with only 19 wins against 29 defeats. The pitching staff was a big surprise (as canny Casey Stengel pointed out even back there, it was among the best in the league) but the team just wasn't hitting—and it had no spark. Even Williams—who had ended his retirement in late May—was slow to get going; his back hurt, he had a cold, his hands were sore. The batting of Jackie Jensen, with help from a big rookie first baseman named Norm Zauchin, was not enough to carry the load. But in the first week of June, Higgins made up his mind and settled on a day-by-day lineup which he has stuck to without even changing the batting order, except for an occasional day of rest or to let somebody shake off an injury, for more than 60 games. It still had a lot of the old look, with Catcher Sammy White, Second Baseman Billy Goodman and an outfield of Williams, Piersall and Jensen, all veterans of the 1954 team which finished fourth, 42 games behind Cleveland. But it had some new faces, too. There was Grady Hatton, a cast-off National Leaguer, at third. Zauchin took over at first, permanently. And Klaus stepped into shortstop.
From the day the little fireball from Fox Lake, Ill. became a regular until they went into the series at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox won 43 of 60 games, playing at a .717 pace, the best in baseball. They stormed up from the second division, passed slumping Detroit and on the Fourth of July were only eight games out of first. It had been a good streak and the Sox were playing good baseball but no one else in the league was getting too excited. Those things had a way of dying out. They forgot to tell the Red Sox, however, who just kept right on winning and last week climbed to within 1½ games of the lead. The fact they lost two of three to the Yankees apparently did not discourage them a bit—nor did it give any lasting encouragement to Cleveland, Chicago or New York, who finally realized they are going to have to fight off this Boston team right down to the finish—if they can.
Even in losing to the Yankees, the Red Sox showed why they are tough. Higgins, of course, for one thing. A man of almost inhuman calm, he refuses to get excited about a game—won or lost—once it's over. "You can't do much about them in here," he says in the dressing room. He displays great faith in his ballplayers and refuses to become angry about errors of commission. After Goodman and Klaus booted ground balls which directly led to the 13-inning Yankee win and ruined Frank Sullivan's beautiful pitching job, Higgins growled, "If you never made an error in this game, you'd be a damn wizard." It is an attitude which has left the Red Sox with a feeling of security—and an unprofessional desire to win games not only for themselves but for Higgins.
Williams, too, of course. Against the Yankees he had his troubles but he has been great since his return and his very presence at the plate injected an even greater feeling of excitement into the game—and kept the Yankees on edge. When you're facing a batter with a .348 lifetime average who is looking for his 2,000th major league hit and has hammered 19 home runs in only 54 games, you have to be worried.
MAGIC IN CENTER FIELD
And Piersall, who needed only the first game to show why he must be included among the fine outfielders of baseball history. He went back to the wall to pull down two drives by Eddie Robinson. He dashed in behind second base to scoop almost sure hits out of the grass tops, once making such an almost impossible catch of Bill Skowron's sinking liner in short right center that Irv Noren was easily doubled off second. Later Higgins grinned and absolved Noren of bonehead base running. "Everyone in the park knew that was a hit," he said, "except Piersall."
Zauchin, a right-handed first baseman, is like a big cat around the base and his hitting, although erratic, has been tremendous when he's hot. Goodman has hit well after a slow start; Hatton is steady at third; Jensen has led the league most of the season in runs batted in and ranks high in stolen bases; Sammy White is one of the game's best young catchers.
The pitching staff, without Cleveland's great names or Chicago's experience, has still been impressive. Higgins now considers Frank Sullivan and Willard Nixon (the Yankees' nemesis) his stoppers, and also praises the work of Tommy Brewer and Rookie George Susce, who have helped take up some of the slack caused by an injured Mel Parnell. When these have faltered, the bullpen of Tommy Hurd, Ike Delock, Leo Kiely and ageless Ellis Kinder has rushed to the rescue in true storybook fashion.
The Red Sox surge has been a team effort but there remains—even more important, perhaps, than Higgins, more than Williams, more even than the pitching staff—the contributions of Billy Klaus, a ballplayer who spent eight years in the minors and could not even make the Santurce club of the Puerto Rican League last winter. He was traded to the Red Sox by the Giants off their Minneapolis roster for a bullpen catcher who did not even report, which would make his market value about equal to a broken bat. But Higgins, who had been pestered nearly to death by the little guy last year while managing Louisville, felt he was worth a try, and when a string of injuries hit the Red Sox at shortstop, he shoved Billy into the breach. Mike Higgins has never been sorry.
Klaus is not a great fielder but he has never lost a fight with a ground ball yet, and he gets it over to first in time for the putout. Not fast, he's quick and covers a lot of ground. No great hitter, he's a pesky one, waiting for his pitch, fouling off the tough ones, punching the ball through a hole, drawing a walk. Occasionally he shows real power and against the Yankees hit for eight total bases, more than anyone else for the series. Playing with such sluggers as Williams and Zauchin and Mantle and Berra, he had one of the series' two home runs. Hatton had the other.
Klaus may be only a one-year wonder but most baseball men admit he's furnishing the spark which has ignited a blaze in Boston. Marty Marion calls him "the key to the Red Sox" and George Kell goes even further. "He's a gutty guy who's always giving you a battle," says the veteran White Sox infielder. "He pulls, he pushes, he bunts; he gets on base any way he can. The Red Sox fight for everything and they're never out of the game. Give Billy Klaus credit for that. He wants to play so badly that everyone catches the attitude.... He's more than just a good shortstop—he's a state of mind."
It is not a perfect team by a long way, of course, and they showed it against the Yankees. The errors by Klaus and Goodman were big ones at the wrong time. Piersall's decision to bunt, on his own, with two men on base and none out in the second inning of the second game, ruined a promising Red Sox rally. The infield is slow and Williams, never mentioned among the great outfielders, is older and slower and fortunate to have Piersall at his side. Even Higgins makes mistakes: Bonus Baby Frank Bauman was clearly not ready to make his 1955 debut in the important third game; fresh out of the Army and still overweight, he was pounded hard by the Yankees and knocked out in the second inning.
NO BOOS FOR THEODORE
Perhaps because of their failings—and the way they have overcome them—the Red Sox have been gathered to the breasts of fans not only in Boston, where the pennant fever rages from Fenway Park to the British Consulate (SI, Aug. 15), but in other cities as well. The southeastern Massachusetts town of Taunton has adopted the Sox, unconditionally; in the Taunton Daily Gazette, the sports page lists the team as the Taunton Red Sox. Even in Yankee Stadium, once a hotbed of Red Sox haters, fully one-third of the big crowd each day was openly rooting for the visitors (including tremendous cheers for Ted Williams, who once drew only tremendous boos).
The Sox, tested in early-season defeat and tempered by the death of teammate Harry Agganis in June, have become a happy, confident team. They have learned to live with their weaknesses and know that—without having Cleveland's pitching staff, the speed and bench of the Yankees or the brilliant defense of the White Sox—they have assets almost as great. They have spirit, an incentive born of hunger and tremendous momentum built up during the long winning streak. They may not win the pennant but they will be hard to stop.
"This club," said Casey Stengel, who leaned back in his dressing room and breathed an audible sigh of relief when the Red Sox finally left town, "is tough to beat. They're always out there after you."