This is the time of the clean slate and the fresh start, the soaring spirits and the joyful tidings: Hoffmeister's trick knee is like he never hurt it at all, Fink's sore arm is as good as two years ago when he won 20 games, McShane, the fat catcher, has been dieting all winter and looks like a million. Add it all up, pal, let just a couple of those rookies come through, give us half a break with the pitching, and doesn't it figure we're up there—maybe all the way?
This is the make-believe world of baseball's spring training, and this week in the camps of 16 major league clubs (four in Arizona, 12 in Florida) it was being created all over again. Regardless of how the clubs finished in 1955, there was nothing but high optimism everywhere—even in the camps of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Senators, last year's tailenders. Listening to the talk, a man might conclude that the second division had been abolished by an act of Congress. Nobody expected to finish there.
It happens every springtime, and nobody exposed to it can resist it. Like a farm boy watching the circus posters being plastered on the barn, baseball men begin to feel the excitement long before the big show starts. They feel it in handling a thousand details of arrangement, all the tremendous trifles that must be dealt with before the curtain rises.
Take the St. Louis Cardinals, first club to pitch camp with enough big leaguers on hand to make it more than a rookie school. One recent afternoon Frank Lane, the Cards' new general manager, stood staring out the window of his Busch Stadium office in St. Louis' at the last vestige of the winter's biggest snowstorm. An observer might decide, from the scowl on Lane's face, that he was hatching in his mind one of the spectacular trades for which he is celebrated. The observer would be in error. For in a moment Lane turned and, in the crisp, crackling delivery he reserves for his more positive declarations, he dictated the following telegram:
E. C. ROBISON, CHAIRMAN
ST. PETERSBURG BASEBALL COMMITTEE
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA
AM VERY MUCH DISTURBED TO LEARN THAT CLUBHOUSE STILL WITHOUT HEAT. JUST WHAT CAN WE DO TO PROVIDE HEATING NECESSARY TO PREVENT HAVING LOT OF PLAYERS COMING UP WITH COLDS? CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHY HEATING CANNOT BE PROVIDED AS NECESSARY. AM ALSO CONCERNED ABOUT OPEN SPACE BETWEEN SCOREBOARD AND PALM TREES RIGHT CENTER FIELD FENCE WHICH SHOULD HAVE GREEN CANVAS AS BATTER'S BACKGROUND AS PREVIOUSLY DISCUSSED. APPRECIATE ANYTHING YOU CAN DO, ROBBY. ARRIVING LATE SATURDAY NIGHT BUT 40 PLAYERS WILL BE IN EARLY SUNDAY MORNING. REGARDS.
FRANK C. LANE
The fever was beginning to mount elsewhere. That evening as he was about to sit down to dinner at his home in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, Leo Ward, traveling secretary of the Cardinals, was called to the telephone to take a call from Texarkana, Texas. The following conversation ensued:
"Mr. Ward, this is Charlie Purtle?"
"Charlie Purtle the pitcher? With Ardmore in the Sooner State League? You wrote me a letter to report at St. Petersburg?"
"Oh yes, Charlie, how are you? What can I do for you?"
"Mr. Ward, would it be all right for me to take my wife and the baby to camp?"
"Oh, sure, Charlie, that will be all right."
"Well, now, how much money would I get, Mr. Ward?"
"Your salary doesn't start until the season opens, Charlie, but you'll get expense money while you're in training."
"How much would that be, Mr. Ward?"
"Well, Charlie, you get $6 a day for meals and $25 a week for incidentals. Do you plan to live at the hotel?"
"We thought we'd live in a motel, Mr. Ward."
"Then you'd get $4.50 a day allowance for housing, Charlie. In your case, it adds up to $98.50 a week, Charlie."
"Oh, yeah. Well, then we'll just drive to camp and look for a motel, and shall I call you when I get there, Mr. Ward?"
"Do that, Charlie."
"Okay. I sure do thank you, Mr. Ward."
Putting down the phone, Ward checked his records to refresh his memory and read that Charles Ray Purtle, pitcher, born Sept. 5, 1935, height 6 feet, weight 170, had won 22 games, lost 11, with Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1955, was scheduled this year to advance to Allentown, Pa. in the Class A Eastern League.
Back at the ball park, Butch Yatkeman, the clubhouse man who started with the Cardinals as batboy 30 years ago, saw the last of the trunks containing uniforms and other equipment (the players furnish only their gloves and shoes) loaded on the trucks and started for Union Station, along with medical supplies packed by Trainer Bob Bauman. Then both Yatkeman and Bauman went home to start packing their own bags.
Two days later Yatkeman, Bauman, Ward and Ned Mitchell, a railroad man, were having breakfast together at the Morrison Cafeteria in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Ward was saying carefully: "I've got the feeling that this ball club can go all the way. I've got the same feeling I had in 1942 when we were 10½ games behind in August and then went all the way to win."
After breakfast Ward went to Al Lang Field, the ball park named for the former mayor of St. Petersburg who is known as "Florida's father of spring training" (he persuaded Branch Rickey to bring the St. Louis Browns to Florida in 1914). Ward looked up John Blair, the clubhouse man and grounds-keeper, and was assured that a new gas heater was being installed. Blair added that Al Lang himself was out in center field with E. C. Robison, the baseball chairman, and Boyd Hill, the superintendent of parks, discussing the open space in the center field wall that Frank Lane had sent the wire about. Ward went to join them.
As Ward approached, Al Lang, now 85 and bearing a strong resemblance to his friend, the late Connie Mack, turned and saw him and let out a whoop. "Oh, my," he cried, "who left the gate open! Look who got in!"
Ward walked up and said, "I don't want any trouble with you this year, Uncle Al!"
Lang quickly applied a headlock to Ward and began mussing his hair. "Oh, my," he exclaimed, "look at that bald spot! Oh, ain't his hair coming out lovely though!"
Freeing himself, Ward greeted the others and then turned back to Al Lang: "What's going to be done about the open space up there?"
Before Robison or Hill could say anything, Lang exploded: "Oh, what a lot of bunk! I never heard of any good hitters complaining about that open space. Nobody complains but the Alibi Ikes who can't hit the size of their hats! Those are the guys who keep complaining about little things like that. Now look here, Leo, when we built this park I gave my solemn word to the people of this neighborhood that we'd do nothing to obstruct their view of the water. No canvas can go up there if I'm going to keep my word."
Ward put his hands on his hips and looked at Lang. "Uncle Al," he said, "I heard you gave $100,000 to the orphanage here last week."
Lang hung his head.
"And I thought," Ward went on, "that you had reformed. But I see that you're just as ornery as ever."
Lang raised his head happily and declared: "Yes, I am!"
The amenities concluded, the four men got down to cases and Superintendent of Parks Hill agreed to transplant some trees that would close in the gap that worried Frank Lane and at the same time preserve Al Lang's promise to the neighbors.
Ward went back to the Bainbridge Hotel and ordered the refrigerator in room 218, the press room, stocked with cold cuts, cheese and Budweiser beer. Then he took possession of suite 312 for the Cardinal offices and hired a local girl as secretary and put her to work preparing the first expense checks that would be distributed to the players after the first workout.
Later in the afternoon the phone rang in Ward's room. The caller was Charlie Purtle, the pitcher from Texarkana. He had arrived, found a motel, didn't know exactly where it was. He put the landlady on the phone, and she gave the street address and also said that the Purtles were a fine young couple and that she would take good care of them. Ward thanked her very much.
Next morning, spring training day minus one, Ward was having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop when a tall, broad-shouldered man with curly black hair walked slowly up to the table. He looked like perfect casting for a western movie hero. He introduced himself to Ward as Fred Hutchinson. This was the new Cardinal manager, the onetime Detroit pitcher (and manager) who had won the Pacific Coast League pennant at Seattle last year. Hutchinson accepted Ward's invitation to sit down and have a cup of coffee and then he inquired about the heater and the open space in center field. Ward reassured him on both points.
Meanwhile, at the clubhouse, Butch Yatkeman finished distributing uniforms in the lockers and placed a carton of Beechnut chewing gum on the desk in Manager Hutchinson's office. Then he posted a mimeographed roster which listed among the players "Gussie Busch [the club owner], outfielder. 1955 club—Pestalozzi." Pestalozzi is a street in St. Louis on which a number of the Anheuser-Busch brewery buildings stand.
That evening, outside Hotel Bainbridge, it suddenly seemed that everybody was there: coaches Johnny Hopp, Terry Moore and Bill Posedel; Billy Jurges, the great infielder retained as a special instructor; Walker Cooper, the catcher of the famous brother team, on the active list at 41; Joe Mathes, the chief scout; Walter Shannon, supervisor of minor league personnel; confident big leaguers like Ken Boyer laughing it up and slapping a coach on the back; deferential bushers standing around and taking it all big. There was speculation over a cloudy sky that could provide a dreadful anticlimax by postponing the first workout.
A NEW MANAGER SPEAKS
But the sun was shining in the morning and at 12 o'clock the uniformed players (Charlie Purtle of Texarkana wearing No. 81) sat on the benches in the clubhouse and listened to Manager Fred Hutchinson's low-pressure remarks. Apologizing for any names he might mispronounce, Hutchinson read off the roster (he had quite a bit of trouble with Dick Czekaj, a catcher) and then explained that there would be one three-hour workout a day. "Don't overdo it right away," he said, "and don't baby yourself either. You pitchers [Charlie Purtle sat up straight], go ahead and throw curve balls if you want. You're going to have sore arms anyway; might as well get it over with. Just remember, all of you, you're here for a reason." Hutchinson looked around and then turned to Trainer Bauman: "You got anything to say, Bob?"
Bauman got up and said. "Well, I'll just say this—don't neglect blisters. A little merthiolate on a blister today may prevent a bad infection later on. I guess that's all I've got to say right now."
Hutchinson then introduced his coaches and explained their assignments, and at 12:25 he said, "Well, let's go." The players filed out of the clubhouse and up the green walk over the bleacher wall and down onto the field. As their spikes dug into the grass, they broke into a trot and big league baseball's spring training was officially on for the 1956 season.
At home plate the sportswriters and club officials gathered around Frank Lane, the general manager, and after a minute 85-year-old Al Lang took a stance at the plate and shouted, "Oh, my, I'm ready right now—Frank Lane, you tell Schoendienst he'll have to move over; put me down for second base!" Then he suddenly clapped a hand to his forehead and cried, "Oh, I forgot! Don't you expect me to hit so good, Frank Lane! Oh, no, not until you get that open space fixed up in center field!"
"Pepper games!" yelled Fred Hutchinson suddenly, and the jogging players headed for the bats and balls. As the familiar sounds of wood on horse-hide rose over the field for the first time, somebody in the grandstand bit into the first hot dog of the spring season, and at home plate the group of privileged observers began to drift to the sidelines, and soon the familiar virus was at work on them. Somebody had the word that Red Schoendienst (due to report with Stan Musial and the rest of the regulars a little later) had been taking eye exercises all winter and now was enjoying perfect vision. Another had late information to the effect that Pitcher Frank Smith, bothered with a sore arm last year, was in such terrific shape that he could throw a ball through a wood plank, loosely speaking. How, exploded a club man, could you do anything but upgrade the pitching with Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell back from the service, and Harvey Haddix, just on the law of averages alone, due for a great year after a below-par 12-and-16 record in 1955? Just use a little plain arithmetic, demanded the Schoendienst eye man, and what have you got? You got great youngsters like Ken Boyer, Bill Virdon, Wally Moon and Alex Grammas with a year's, two years' major league experience behind them. On top of all that, you got a new manager who is bound to get the most out of his pitchers because he was a pitcher himself; you got a new general manager who's one of the smartest men in the business, look what he did with the White Sox—and, man, doesn't it begin to figure?
Frank Lane modestly withdrew to a spot of shade. Looking ruggedly youthful (at 60) in his sports jacket and open-collared shirt, he shook his head.
"I've got to fight it," he said slowly, "I'm just as vulnerable to the high spirits around a training camp as anybody else. But, as general manager of this club, I've got to be realistic and look at the hard facts. Now, some people have said that last season the Cardinals were the greatest seventh-place ball club in history. Well, maybe I'd rather have the lousiest first-place ball club in history."
He knelt down and pulled out a blade of grass and nibbled at it. He stood up and thrust his hands in his pockets and spoke more forcefully.
"We've got a great manager in Fred Hutchinson—I got another great manager out of Seattle in Paul Richards. I told Mr. Busch when I nominated Hutchinson, I said, 'Mr. Busch, you can be sure that any manager I pick will be the best man for Frank Lane.' That's the way I look at Fred Hutchinson.
"But, as I say, a general manager can't let himself be carried away. Of course, there's no point in glossing over the fact that we've got some terrific young talent here. Now, in the normal course of development, these boys are infinitely better for this season. But what I sense in this camp, to a degree that I've rarely seen in all my years in baseball, is an attitude, a great attitude. That's the big thing if you're playing ball, preaching a sermon or selling shoes. It's the attitude that counts."
He seemed to be breathing a little faster now.
"But I've got to be realistic, as I said. I don't want to let myself get carried away here in camp. I don't want to say we're going to beat out Brooklyn and Milwaukee."
The new boss of the best seventh-place club in history looked across the infield at the sun-drenched panorama of young athletes throwing and hitting and fielding against a background of gently swaying palm trees and the blue waters of Tampa Bay. He opened his mouth and almost blurted something. Then he caught himself and by a great effort forced himself to face the hard facts of the National League race for 1956:
"The Cardinals," said Frank Lane, the realist, "will finish third."