The American League race was like an old-fashioned battle royal. The Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox stumbled around the ring that was the American League, flailing away at one another. First one, then another, then the third would rule supreme, only to tumble headlong again.
Nothing all season better exemplified this up-again, down-again gait than the erratic behavior of the Indians last weekend. When the league-leading Yankees walked into Cleveland's Municipal Stadium Friday night for the second game of their three-game series, the Indians were in miserable condition. They had lost to the Yankees the night before and had fallen to third place, two full games off the pace, which is as far behind as they had been in five weeks.
Early Wynn, who earlier in the season had boasted an 11-2 record, had lost seven of his past 10 games, including the one of the night before. Bob Lemon, who was to pitch the Friday night game, had not finished a game since May 30 and represented a much-criticized gamble on the part of Cleveland Manager Al Lopez.
Outfielder Larry Doby, the Indians' big hitter, had a tight bandage holding in a pulled muscle in his thigh. Hoot Evers, one of the many veterans the Indians have grabbed during the season in hopes of squeezing one last drop of pennant-winning ability from them, was recuperating from the effects of a baseball in the eye. Gene Woodling, the broad-backed ex-Yankee, had been hit in the ribs by a wild fast ball the night before and could not play.
Worst of all, big Vic Wertz, the cheerful power hitter who plays either right field or first base and who had sat out the game the night before complaining of a fever, headache and general disability, had had his ailment diagnosed, shockingly, as poliomyelitis. He'd be out for the season.
And so the Indians dragged themselves out to the chopping block, jeered by 43,652 of the extraordinarily short-memoried Cleveland fans, who are bitter because the Indians are not going to win 111 games this year. And so Lemon pitched a sparkling game, his famous sinker working to perfection, as the Yankees hit 16 balls on the ground to an Indian infield that looked better than an Indian infield has in years (the presence of the intense, fine-fielding Ferris Fain at first base seemed to give the whole team a lift in the field). The Indians won 5-2.
The next day, Saturday, Indian hopes were high because their great young rookie pitcher, Herb Score, was to go against the Yanks. But the Yankees saddened Cleveland by hitting Score for five fast runs and seemed on their way to a decisive victory that might turn out to be the start of a runaway to the pennant. At least the pessimists in the grandstands felt that way; the Indians were through.
But a confident little Puerto Rican named José Santiago tramped out to the pitcher's mound, stopped the Yankees cold and revived the Indians. It was not how well he pitched that was impressive (he weakened after a few innings and required relief); it was the attitude he seemed to present. He pitched with what appeared to be a complete lack of awe for Yankee reputations. He struck out Mickey Mantle twice. And he revived the Indian batting attack by getting Cleveland's first hit and scoring Cleveland's first run. He lay down a deft sacrifice bunt and then almost beat the throw to first. The run his sacrifice set up eventually scored. The Indians kept fighting. The attitude in the stands changed from one of submission to one of, "Well, at least we're going down fighting." In the seventh Ralph Kiner made a great bid to tie the game but his long drive to deepest center fell short and was caught. In the eighth Bobby Avila did what Kiner tried to do and tied the game with a three-run home run. Immediately, other Indians clambered on the bases after Bobby had cleared them and pushed across what proved to be the winning run.
It was a great victory, bringing hope, a tie for first and victory in the season's 22-game series with the Yankees (the first time Casey Stengel has lost a season's series in his reign as Yankee manager).
But the next day as the White Sox and Yankees cut each other's throats in Chicago, the Indians lay down and died twice to the seventh-place Senators, a thoroughly depressing defeat. Maybe the pessimists in the Cleveland grandstand were right.