Out in Arizona where the New York Giants are feverishly and the Cleveland Indians leisurely preparing for the 1956 pennant season, two facts—which everyone has known all along—areonce again being confirmed: the New York Giants still have the hottest player (Willie Mays) in baseball—and not much else; the Cleveland Indians still have the hottest pitching staff in baseball—and not much else.
Both teams, moreover, are in pursuit of similar solutions to what ails them. General Manager Henry Benjamin Greenberg of the Indians explained this one day last week. Comfortably naked in faded denim, scarlet bedroom slippers and a wristwatch, he cocked a shaggy, bony leg over the dugout steps, squinted up at the Tucson sun and tried to pick a pennant out of the golden Arizona sky.
"I think it's reasonable to expect we can do it," he said defensively. "In our last five seasons with the Yanks," he went on, engaging in some acrobatic arithmetic, "we've finished only a total of 10½ games behind them.
"We have to get away from the home-run-strikeout formula. We're going to change to a more continuous type of attack, be more of a hit-and-run-type ball team. Whenever you have a big power team and it doesn't hit, the fans complain because it looks lethargic. And so does the box score."
March 19, 1956
One hundred and twenty-five miles to the northwest in Phoenix, another man faced his problems. The Giants' rookie manager, Bill Rigney, affixed his old-fashioned, steel-rimmed glasses to his peeling nose, blinked nervously and said much the same thing. "I like a hit-and-run team, particularly one that can hit behind the runner," he said. "That's the kind of team we'll have."
Bill Rigney's words were brave. Of the two teams, the Giants' problem is certainly the more acute. "We have five or six positions open," cheerfully confided Owner Horace Stoneham. The number seems to loom more largely to the Giants' manager, galvanizing him into overfrantic activity. One of the sights and sounds of spring training this year is this highly keyed organism who has become the nerve center of the Giants dashing on the dead run all over the field as though there were only an hour or so in which to get the pennant contender that will topple Brooklyn. The tall, spare figure with the prematurely white and thinning hair seems to be everywhere—whipping fungos to infielders, shouting encouragement to batting-practice pitchers, anchoring pepper games and whooping up infield practice with the shrill intensity of a myna bird. Whatever the Giants do this year, it is clear they will do it at a breakneck pace.
The Giants' problem is essentially a league problem, Rigney admits. If the Dodgers get out of the gate as they did last year, the National League will be ready to start the World Series in July, before Manager Rigney has had time to figure out his starting lineup. This could be a clue to Rigney's rush. "The Giants' infield consists of Alvin Dark—and faith, hope and charity," said one off-the-record observer gloomily last week. Rigney, however, is no such pessimist. To him faith is personified by a smooth-swinging first baseman named Gail Harris; hope by a steady but not gaudy second sacker named Foster Castleman; while charity might be the long-baller Daryl Spencer, who gets 20 home runs out of a .208 batting average and has been taking dead aim on the telephone poles of Phoenix.
In the outfield Rigney confesses he is going to gamble on Dusty Rhodes. "I am going to see if he's as bad as everyone says he is," the manager undiplomatically announced last week. At that, Rhodes will have one plus in left field: he will have to play only half a field. On everything hit to left center he will have to be careful only not to get in Willie Mays's way. Don Mueller in right is the same old tap-tap hitter, who will get his 150 to 200 hits. Outfielder Bob Lennon hit 95 home runs in his last two minor league seasons, but Giant oracles say he may be another Bob Seeds, i.e., a bush league Babe Ruth in the bush leagues, a popout in the majors.
But where the Giants' camp seems somewhat frantic, over at the Indians' establishment in Tucson the atmosphere is easy-going and serene. Manager Al Lopez, a sunny, stable character with the perpetual grin of a man who has four aces up his sleeve, stands around unobtrusively like a cop on the lookout for pickpockets. On the field he seldom speaks above a whisper. He never goes to the whip, and if he wins it will be at a steady pace, not a drive.
The key to Cleveland will be the outcome of one of the winter's biggest trades, the one that saw Larry Doby go to the White Sox for Outfielder Jim Busby and Shortstop Chico Carrasquel, and forced the Indians to reconsider their patient, wait-for-the-big-inning attitude. The melancholy fact is that Doby habitually bats in more runs by himself than Carrasquel and Busby do together. And Hank Greenberg's hopeful anticipation that "Busby won't strike out as often," is not to the point at all. What is hoped is that the Spanish-speaking Carrasquel will be twice as effective a field with the Spanish-speaking Bobby Avila at his side; but there have been great double-play combinations who weren't even on speaking terms with each other—in any language. Basically, the pennant chances for Cleveland in 1956 depend not on the .239-hitting Jim Busby or on the freedom of expression of Chico Carrasquel but, as usual, on the stout right arms (and bodies to match) of Early Wynn and Mike Garcia, and the smoking fast balls of Bob Lemon and Herb Score.
Twenty-one pitchers turned out for the Cleveland camp this spring when the number of jobs open comes to exactly one. Staffers as usual will include the Big Three and Score, Feller and Houtteman, and the fireball relief artists, Don Mossi and Ray Narleski.
A FAMILIAR STORY: WILLIE MAYS
The in-a-hurry Giants and the take-your-time Indians opened their traditional spring-long exhibition series in Tucson before an overflow crowd Saturday, and in the typically ragged game that ensued (the Giants won 7-3), no rookie sent headlines humming across the wires to Cleveland or New York. Instead, it was a familiar story: Willie Mays hit two home runs to break up the ball game. But these homers came after young Herb Score had shut out the Giants with three walks and two strikeouts for three innings. Rhodes got two homers, too, but one hit a beer can held by a tree-sitter outside the park, and a myopic umpire called it a triple.
The Giants were delighted over their win (and over the victory that followed, 11-5, in Sunday's game), and in a way it was better for the tense Rigney, who wanted to win, to get it than for Lopez, who really didn't care. As the Giants' publicity man, Bill Goodrich, glowingly put it: "I'll tell you one thing: the Polo Grounds is going to see the happiest lot of characters it ever saw playing baseball in their lives." Which may turn out to be one of the more memorable statements of the season.