The business of having a public figure throw out the first ball at a baseball game really began in 1910 at Washington, D.C., and it is just barely possible that it neared its end at Washington, D.C. in 1956.
The President of the United States, a legitimate sportsman who golfs and fishes a good deal more than most men his age and who has honest memories of being a whale of a baseball and football player in his youth, is also a sound practicing politician who knows that a man in public office must defer to the public that bestows that office. Three years ago, in his first spring as President, Ike Eisenhower blandly announced that he intended to forgo chilly Washington's Opening Day and instead would fly down to sunny Georgia and play golf. A roar of indignant protest allegedly arose and the President, aided by a fortunate break in the weather that caused postponement of the opening game he could not attend, wasted no time in hurrying back North and into Griffith Stadium in time for the old first-ball routine.
The lesson was not wasted. This year Ike was there—on a cold, gray, rainy day—for the fourth straight time.
But if he wants to chance a break with tradition next year (assuming he is still in residence in the Executive Mansion), Ike will have a sound argument or two to support his own personal preference for participant sports over spectator sports. For, from a coldly political point of view, things didn't go too well at Griffith Stadium last week.
To begin with, when Ike threw out the First Ball for the first time (only the naive believe that a First Ball can be thrown out but once) and Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees recovered it and brought the treasured souvenir back to the presidential box for the presidential autograph (only the very naive believe that a First Ball is actually used in the game), the President addressed it to "Joe" McDougald, a widely publicized slip that brought nudges and winks from the baseball bloc.
Then, when he threw out a First Ball for the second time, to satisfy the frantic demands of what seemed to be several thousand photographers, all of whom had apparently taken precisely the same picture just five minutes before, and autographed the second First Ball for a second lucky baseballer, a booming voice from the grandstand seats behind him yelled down: "That's enough politics. Let's play baseball now."
It was an irreverent remark and not really fair. In such weather, a politician-not-a-sportsman would have stayed at the game for no more than four or five innings and then quietly departed. Ike stuck it out, rooting for the Washington Senators till the last man was out in the ninth and the Senators had lost 10-4. But nevertheless the voice from the crowd expressed a feeling, or a groundswell, if you will, that seems to be spreading through grandstands all over the country and which could presage a change—baseball, that is, not political.
For instance, two days later when the Brooklyn Dodgers began their bizarre experiment in out-of-town home games in Jersey City, Mayor Bernard Berry (who threw out the First Ball five times, very likely a new modern major league record) was the target of similar impatience, much more pungently put.
Mayor Berry, after amiably throwing the ball this way and that for the photographers, was prevailed upon to pose just once more, this time with his arm cocked in the classic ready-to-throw position.
"Hold it!" the cameramen cried, resetting focuses. "Hold it!"
Mayor Berry held it. Interminably, as flash bulbs popped and the crowd waited, he held it.
"For the love of Pete," a raucous Jersey voice finally complained. "Throw the ball and let's get the hell on with the game!"
It is not the man, you understand, nor his politics (Berry is a Democrat), but the hidebound tradition that is the target. After all these years this creature of publicity man and camera has become, for the chilled fan in the grandstand, at least, a crashing bore.
But bore or not, last week it went on once again all over the baseball map. Eventually, the last wobbling throw wavered onto the field, the last flash bulb popped, the last smiling face and upraised arm was captured on film for the edification of the reading (and voting) public. And the baseball season at long last was actually under way.
It started on a strangely familiar note. The manager of the New York Giants got into a furious, red-necked squabble with an umpire, just like last year, but instead of the New York Giant manager being the tough, brassy Leo Durocher, of whom such things were expected, it was the bespectacled, supposedly gentle Bill Rigney. The crowd, anticipating a sedate, rather quiet afternoon, watched the blazing argument in openmouthed surprise and wondered whether Leo would be missed much this year after all.
Bobby Bragan said he thought Leo would be missed. Some cynics thought the outspoken new manager of the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates was making noises for the sake of the box office (a lively feud is good business), but whatever the reason for his comments no one could deny that Bobby was interesting. Bragan said the Giants without Durocher were just another team, without Willie Mays were an eighth-place club, and that in any event his Pirates (who were eighth last year) had a good chance this season to finish ahead of the Giants (who were third in 1955).
Bragan also said his team would be hot stuff defensively, that while they might not score many runs, neither would they give many away. The Pirates promptly lost two games to the despised Giants as a result of sloppy fielding, and Bragan just as promptly began to lay about him with heavy fines. A bright note in the murky Pittsburgh atmosphere was some remarkably fine pitching, notably by 25-year-old Bob Friend and 24-year-old Ronnie Kline.
There was some remarkably fine pitching in other quarters, too. On the third day of the season, Tom Brewer of the Boston Red Sox pitched a two-hitter against Baltimore as the Sox swept the three-game series. That same day in Chicago left-handed Herb Score of the Cleveland Indians and left-handed Jack Harshman of the Chicago White Sox also pitched two-hitters, and against each other. Score struck out 10 men and had a no-hitter through seven innings, but he was wild and in the seventh walked Minnie Minoso, threw a wild pitch that enabled Minoso to scamper to third, gave up a long fly by Larry Doby that scored Minnie, and lost a heartbreaking game 1-0.
That same day in Detroit, little (5 feet 6¼ inches) Bobby Shantz of the Kansas City Athletics made his 1956 debut and gave up just five hits as he beat the Tigers 4-1. The performance was immensely cheering to the wildly partisan citizens of Kansas City, who have been rooting for Bobby to shrug off a disabling sore arm and return to his Most Valuable Player form of 1952, when he won 24 games. Kansas Citians had even more to cheer about two days later when Shantz's teammate Art Ditmar gave up just one hit, a single, as the A's routed the Chicago White Sox 15-1. The victory was particularly sweet, since just a year earlier the White Sox had crushed the A's 29-6.
Good pitching cropped up all over the place, some of it, like Herb Score's, unrewarded. On Opening Day in Detroit, when charcoal fires burned under the dugout bench to fight off the chill, and batsmen, waiting their turns at bat, held hot water bottles in their hands, young Frank Lary of the Tigers took the hill against Kansas City. Last year Lary, who won 14 games, lost 15, and seven of those defeats were by one run. On Opening Day this year he pitched a fine game. He gave up only six hits and two runs and personally contributed an inside-the-park home run, capped by a headlong slide over home plate. The result? It seemed like old times: Lary lost by one run, 2-1.
It seemed like old times, too, for the Phillies and the White Sox, but more pleasantly so. Their aces, big Robin Roberts for the Phils and small Billy Pierce for the White Sox, each gained two victories the first week. Pierce won 2-1 and 3-0, a glittering start for this stylish left-hander.
Lew Burdette, one of the pitchers the Milwaukee Braves are counting on to have a big year if the Braves are to vie for the pennant, started off the season with a shutout. And Sam (Toothpick) Jones of the Chicago Cubs, whose blazing curve and questionable control make him probably the most respected pitcher in the circuit as far as National League hitters are concerned, picked up a victory his first time out.
Pitching was the big story almost every place in baseball the opening week and when the season's first big series began—the three-game set in Yankee Stadium between the American League champions, the New York Yankees, and their most exciting challengers, the Boston Red Sox—it was felt that pitching would be the big story there, too. After the first game, in which chunky, muscular Whitey Ford stopped the Sox cold, 7-1, it seemed certain to be. Bob Turley and Don Larsen were on deck for New York for the last two games, and Boston had brilliant young George Susce and steady Frank Sullivan to throw back at them.
WEAKNESS AND STRENGTH
But Susce and Sullivan had nothing, and the Yankees ran up huge leads in both games, 8-0 in the first and 6-1 in the second. Neither Turley nor Larsen, however, was able to conserve these extravagant advantages. In both games the Red Sox scrambled back, on Saturday actually taking the lead at 10-9 and on Sunday tying the score at 6-6. They had found and exploited the one Yankee weakness: pitching.
But they failed miserably to contain the Yankee strength: hitting, the kind of hitting that ignores batting percentages and concentrates on scoring runs. After the Sox had gone ahead 10-9 in the eighth inning of the Saturday game, a leather-lunged anti-Yankee New Yorker in the left-field stands yelled at the Bostons: "Don't stop now! One run isn't enough! Berra is first up next inning!"
But the Red Sox did stop and, sure enough, they did need more runs. For almost inevitably Yogi Berra, whom Paul Richards calls the best late-inning hitter in baseball, led off the bottom of the eighth with a home run and tied the score. The pressure of Yankee power broke through after him, and New York turned what could have been a humiliating defeat into a telling, if disorderly 14-10 triumph.
Much the same thing happened the next day. The Red Sox fought back to tie the score in the top of the sixth, but in the seventh a Yankee single was followed by a jarring Red Sox error and suddenly there were two men on base with Mickey Mantle (see page 26) and Berra coming one after the other to the plate.
Once again, the Red Sox waited like condemned men for the executioners to throw the switch. It was thrown. Mantle doubled for two runs, Berra homered for two more. The game broke wide open and New York went on to win 13-6.
Boston's opening three-game winning streak had been neutralized. The Yankees had won the first battle of Bull Run. This weekend the two clubs meet again in Boston and this time the Red Sox have no choice. They have to win. Defeat is oblivion.