You feel this more in the North than you do in the sun country, but one day late in the winter you hear a voice over the radio. You may be driving a car through slush at the time, with bags of groceries on the floor in front and a bunch of kids in mufflers and galoshes playing Davy Crockett and Mike Fink on the back seat. You don't mind. You're used to your lot. Slush and muddy galoshes are a way of life. Then the car radio, which you have turned on haphazardly, warms up and a familiar voice says, "Two away now. Musial down off third. Cards lead 2-0. The pitch. It's in there! Strike one."
It is the somewhat droning, some-what nasal voice of your favorite baseball announcer, broadcasting a spring training game from Florida. Last summer you cursed him out when he failed for an inning and a half to mention the score of a game you had tuned in on late. But now, in the slush, you love him. His voice is the promised kiss of springtime. It is the voice of the turtle, heralding the return of baseball to the land.
At that moment the baseball fan, like the crocus, pokes his head up through the snow and starts to live again. It is hard to explain, to those who do not understand, how large a role baseball plays in the warm-weather life of the average American male. They know about Eating Hotdogs in the Bleachers, or Getting Out the Old Mitt and Throwing a Few. But they do not know that this, like the flag raising at Iwo Jima, is only a small part of the whole. Actually, most baseball fans attend only a handful of games each season, and the get-out-the-old-mitt school is limited in practice to a small, if vigorous, few.
No, to your average, balding, loose-bellied, sedentary American male, baseball is something to read about, to talk about, to listen to on radio, to watch on television. It occupies an extraordinarily large part of his time. He listens to baseball over the radio while he works in the garden or lolls on the beach. He reads about it in the morning paper the next day. He talks about it at the office. He reads about it in the afternoon newspaper. He talks more about it that night. It is not an obsession. It does not interfere with his business or with his relations with his family or with his bowling or his church-going or his duties as a citizen. But it is always with him. He can visit a funeral parlor, be properly and sincerely sympathetic to the bereaved relatives and depart, feeling the weight of death and the fleeting quality of life. Outside, after a while, someone will say, "Did you see what Kaline did yesterday?" And instantly he is immersed in life again, engrossed in baseball. He knows what Kaline did yesterday, and he knows why it was extraordinary. He knows, further, the possible effect it could have on the pennant race, that continuing drama of the baseball year. He is fascinated.
Why? Because baseball is a game of limitless dramatic possibility, an incredible melodrama, a constant theater of delight, the great American divertissement, a flamboyant and continuing drama bound by certain hard unities: nine innings, three outs, one pennant. Within these unities baseball presents a variety as endless as the waves of the ocean, as intricate as a fugue by Bach.
The voice in the slush awakens the baseball fan to these things, alerts him to an anticipation of the new season, revives the annual excitement of wonder: What will happen this year?
Now, with Opening Day 1956 just a week from Tuesday, what will happen this year? Another Bobby Thomson? Another Bobby Shantz? Another Billy Klaus?
No one knows. But while you are waiting and watching, you might keep an eye out for these things:
Watch the Yankees' pitching staff. In Florida everyone seemed to agree that the Yankees were just too good, that they were "too strong in too many places." But the Yankees, like Achilles, were dipped in the River Styx for strength and they were held by the heel. Their heel is their pitching staff. It was pitching that failed New York in the World Series after the immense depth of bench strength had absorbed most of the stunning loss of Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer.
This season watch the pitching staff. See if Whitey Ford and Bob Turley and Tommy Byrne are all consistent winners again and whether Don Larsen and Mickey McDermott are ready to back them up. More important, watch Stengel's secondary pitching and his bullpen. He always seems to come up with strength there. If he can't do it this year, all the Mantles and the Berras in the world may not save him.
If the Yankees do falter because of their pitching, the Boston Red Sox are the popular choice to look them in the eye and pass them, because they are young and full of ginger. But Ted Williams is their big man, and he is old and full of bitterness. If the Red Sox are to be a pennant team in 1956, they will have to lean as much on their rich young pitching as on their rich old Williams. If names like Brewer and Kiely and Susce begin to hit the headlines regularly, then maybe the Red Sox will indeed become everybody's team this year.
Be alert, too, for Minnie Minoso. Everyone realizes that Larry Doby must hit if the Chicago White Sox are to threaten for the pennant, and George Kell must hold together and this young Luis Aparicio must be able to play short as well as his advance notices insist he can. But worry about broad-shouldered Minnie. He didn't hit well last year and he isn't hitting well this spring. If Minoso is in trouble, the White Sox don't stand a chance. But if he is the Minnie of old, and if all the other White Sox ifs turn out favorably, Chicago has the best chance of anyone of beating out the Yankees.
Study the Indians and appreciate how good their pitching is, but realize, too, that their pitching won't be any better this year than it has been in the past. And then note that over the past seven seasons the Indians have won 89, 92, 93, 93, 92, 111 and 93 games, a remarkably consistent record except for their extraordinary pennant year in 1954. It is not likely that the Indians will win more than 92 or 93, and that is not enough for a pennant.
But if good pitching may not be enough to win a pennant, poor pitching is almost certainly enough to lose one. The Brooklyn Dodgers, like the Yankees, looked wonderful in Florida with their great wealth of young players, and they too are a big favorite to win again.
Pitching was really the Dodgers' strength last year, and it was expected to be even stronger this season. But you might study the reports on all the ailing pitching arms in Brooklyn and wonder if an aging ball team like the Dodgers can hold up if its pitching lets down. Manager Walter Alston says he isn't worried. His team will score runs. It's the pitching that'll win or lose. But an old team can get tired awfully fast and lose games on listlessness it would have won on drive a few years earlier. Watch the Dodger pitching. If it fails, see if cracks don't develop in other parts of the team structure.
As you examine the Dodgers' pitching problems, train an associated eye on the second-base difficulties of the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Giants, the principal challengers to Brooklyn's leadership.
If you seriously intend to challenge for a pennant nowadays you need a second baseman who can make the double play, because the double play has become the chief defensive weapon in baseball (which it was not before the development of the home-run-hitting buggy whip bat) and the second baseman its chief architect. But at the start of spring training neither the challenging Braves nor the challenging Giants had the second baseman that, ideally, they should have had.
Study the situation as the season goes along and see if either team has solved its problem. See if Danny O'Connell can give Milwaukee pennant-winning performance at second base or if Manager Bill Rigney of the Giants has found the man he needs to play the position crisply and smartly. Keep a close eye on second base. It could be the focal point of the pennant race in the National League.
For the rest, see in the AL whether the Tigers can find not only pitching depth but a second baseman too, and if in the NL the Redlegs and the Cardinals can locate the pitching they need to cash their hitting and fielding strength. Try to figure out what magic Manager Mayo Smith of the Phils will use to improve his run-of-the-mill team and how the managers of the other clubs can keep interest up in the face of daily defeat.
But most of all, watch and wonder and wait for another Willie Mays to appear, or another Hal Newhouser or another Dizzy Dean.
What's that fellow's name on the Cardinals? Mizell?
OPENING DAY APRIL 17
Regular season gets under way
CUT-DOWN DAY MAY 18
Rosters must be cut to 25 men
END OF TRADING JUNE 15
No more trades after this date
ALL-STAR GAME JULY 10
This year in Washington, D.C.
ROSTER EXPANSION SEPT. 1
Rosters can be increased to 40
CLOSING DAY SEPT. 30
Last games of regular season
WORLD SERIES BEGINS OCT. 3
In park of National League champs
NEXT 16 PAGES: SCOUTING REPORTS
The baseball expert is a person who does not necessarily know any more about baseball than the next fellow but who is in a position to find out. In an effort to keep its readers on the sunny side of expertise, SI recently sent observers through desert cactus and tropical palmetto to sun-baked spring-training fields in Arizona and Florida. There they made a firsthand survey of each of the 16 major league teams. Here, in 16 pages, is a distillation of their report, an analysis of the strength, weakness, problems and hopes of each of the teams.
SI readers are invited to keep these preseason estimates at hand for comparison with the year's outcome—and surprises.