This week marks the end of the beginning of the 1956 major league season, the end of that first round of play in which each club is supposed to meet every other team in its league at least once.
This week, then, is like that moment at a party just after all the guests have been introduced to one another. Now they sit and look across at the people they have just met and wonder just how real that glittering diamond necklace actually is and whether that graying chap with the bristly mustache is actually a top-rung executive at Consolidated Millionaires or just another handsome face with naught behind it. It is a time, in other words, for appraisal. What have we seen and where do we go from here?
For one thing, we've seen some miserable weather. The Milwaukee Braves went one solid seven-day week without appearing on the ball field, in a two-week period played just three times and in all were rained or snowed or chilled out of nine of their first 18 games. In Milwaukee, where capacity crowds are the rule and a 30,000 turnout is described as disappointing, turnstiles turned slowly as the intelligent citizens of the community remained at home, where they were probably chopping up furniture and old baseball bats to feed the furnaces.
The Chicago White Sox did almost as well, with all of two games played in one 10-day period and five of their first 12 games postponed. This was not entirely to the bad, as the White Sox held first place through one gameless stretch and fell back to second only when they resumed play. Jungle Jim Rivera, the happy-happy-fella Chicago outfielder, was able to catch 16 movies during the rainy season.
In those games that were squeezed in between weather reports, one very obvious fact developed. The Brooklyn Dodgers were not going to win 22 of their first 24 games, as they did last year when they pulled out to an immediate and insurmountable lead.
This was quite intelligently forecast by just about everyone. ("For one thing, buddy," said the optimistic managers of the other seven clubs in the National League, "those Dodgers aren't going to break from the barrier the way they did in '55, you know. We got a chance.") The inference was that the immutable laws of chance, to which baseball bends an obedient knee, would prevail and stop the Dodgers.
And so they did. The Dodgers lost two of their first nine games. But that left Brooklyn with a 7-2 record, which is a rather impressive way to start any season. More than that, the Dodgers, who were said to be miserably weak in the pitching staff, came up with six complete games in that nine-game bloc, including the last five in a row.
The other managers in the National League lost sleep thinking about Walter Alston and all that pitching rushing the Dodgers out ahead again to another runaway.
But then another set of laws of chance set in, holding that a weak pitching staff could not provide consistently good pitching. Things were evened up nicely as Brooklyn's next seven starting pitchers failed to finish. The Dodgers lost six of those seven games and fell back into the mundane neighborhood of .500.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Redlegs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the two real have-not clubs in the National League so far as pitching is concerned, unleashed their tremendous hitting power, won games they had to win and found themselves scrambling around first place with Milwaukee's rained-on Braves. The Cardinals led the majors in team batting average by nearly 30 points, and the Redlegs led in home runs (they had nearly twice as many as any other National League club).
In the American League, the White Sox, finally forced to play, slid slowly down in the standings under the dead weight of woeful hitting that produced just 35 runs in its first 12 games, by far the worst batting record in either league. The Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, between them, had scored more runs than the entire fleet-footed White Sox squad.
Mantle, of course, was the most valuable player in baseball through the opening round of games and by far the most exciting. Hampered by a tender hamstring muscle in his thigh, he nevertheless played in every one of the Yankees' games and, more than that, played up to the marvelous potential that has been freely predicted for him ever since he first arrived in the major leagues five seasons ago. He fielded beautifully, ranging far and wide in the outfield and making strong, accurate throws that intimidated and often caught base runners.
But it was Mantle's hitting that generated the intense excitement. He drove out long, amazingly long home runs, followed them with perfectly placed bunts, smacked line-drive doubles, beat out infield hits, raced around to score from first base on singles. He was hitting well over .400 and led his league in batting percentage, hits, runs, runs batted in, home runs and in having his home-run pace compared to that of Babe Ruth in Ruth's record 60-homer season in 1927. (Ruth had six homers in his first 16 games, Mantle nine. Ruth hit his ninth in his 29th game.)
And so, as the White Sox despite good pitching sank under the pressure of poor hitting, the Yankees despite generally mediocre pitching (except for the redoubtable Whitey Ford, who won his first four starts) rose with the lift of their hitting.
The pattern seemed clear, at least for the moment. In the National League it was a free-for-all. In the American it was New York against the world.
The Tigers rapped 77 hits in 7 games, a resounding pace of 11 per game, yet lost 5 of the 7 and fell into last place.... Cardinal Pitchers Poholsky (8 IP), Collum (1/3) and Kinder (2/3) joined to pitch rare three-man shutout (2-0) over Braves.... Orioles' Bill Wight went 5 innings against Indians, lost. His record: 4 starts, total of 8 innings pitched, 4 losses.