Sometimes pennants are not won in July. Sometimes baseball teams labor and sweat on into late September, and muscles tire and stomachs hurt and the shadows grow long and cold over the grandstand before the game is won, the game that means it's all over, it's in the bag, the pennant's on ice.
The New York Yankees, however, won this year's American League pennant last week under a hot sun and a sultry sky in midsummer. There still remained almost a half season of play for the Yankees and for their only serious challengers, and you could hear the hoary warnings that the old ball game isn't over till the last out in the ninth, and, "I'll believe they've won the pennant the day they clinch it, and not before." But do not be misled. The false modesty of the victors and the false hopes of the vanquished won't alter a thing. Barring a miracle (and who ever heard of 1951?) the pennant race is over, no sudden losing streak or winning splurge from now through that last Sunday in September is going to change the American League entry in the 1956 World Series.
It may seem dull, a little later on, to have the pennant race over so early, but now, in July, it's vastly exciting. There are few teams in the history of major league competition who won a pennant more dramatically than this year's Yankees. Consider.
In June everyone was saying that New York was running away with first place. As the Yankees headed west on June 15 they had a drab two weeks behind them—five victories and seven defeats—but they had lost only a game and a half of their lead and they were still five full games in front. In the west they swept three straight games from Cleveland and three straight from Detroit. They bowled into Chicago in style, like an American Army Corps in World War II moving into an undefended occupied town, all-conquering, cheerful, supremely confident.
July 22, 1956
But in Chicago were the White Sox, who refused to believe the Yankees had the pennant sewed up. They had been playing good ball. Their pitchers had been doing beautifully all season, and their hitters had shrugged off a disabling early slump. Now, with the addition of Pitcher Jim Wilson and Outfielder-First Baseman Dave Philley, the Sox knew they were a good, solid ball club. Other teams might grow pale when the Yankees came to town, but the White Sox waited in confident ambush in Comiskey Park.
They beat the Yankees four straight times. They walloped them Friday and Saturday and twice Sunday and turned the pennant race inside out in the most stunning upheaval of the season. They moved to within one game and only four small percentage points of first place, and they dragged third-place Cleveland to within 4½ games and fourth-place Boston to 7½. Baseball fans everywhere were thrilled: here was a brand-new pennant race. Excitement spread with electric speed through the baseball-loving element in the population. It's a farfetched picture, " admittedly, but it was something like the reaction to the Poznan riots in Poland: someone had rebelled against the galling Yankee yoke, and perhaps now a new day was at hand.
But, like Poznan, it wasn't. It was magnificent, this Chicago uprising, but it was only a gesture. And it backfired. It turned the cheerful, confident Yankees into a grim, ruthless, retaliatory band of marauders. A sour Yogi Berra looked up at a reporter after the fourth straight Chicago triumph and grunted, "So what? They ain't gonna win the pennant."
The Yankees, agreeing to a man with Berra, went looking for every victory they could find. They leveled Kansas City three nights running; they shelled Washington three times in four games; they raced through Baltimore; they steam-rollered Boston twice in three games; they swung back to Washington and mopped up the Senators again, three straight times. They rested three days at All-Star time, and then they returned to the wars.
The Cleveland Indians, who had won 16 of the 20 games they played after the Yankees had beaten them three straight that time in mid-June, came into Yankee Stadium still mired in third place but still hoping, still fighting. They were to be followed into the stadium by the Chicago White Sox, who, too, were still hoping, still fighting. Successive sweeps in New York by the Indians and the White Sox could snarl the race beautifully, but it turned out the sweeping was to be done by the Stengel broom.
The Yankees spotted the Indians a 3-1 lead on the first day and then battered their way back to win 9-5.
The next night in Yankee Stadium, before the second Cleveland-New York game, Broadcaster Red Barber asked a Cleveland sportswriter about the Indians' chances. "They're all through," the writer said flatly. "They haven't a chance. All they'll do from here on in is play out the schedule."
That night the Indians lost again, 10-0.
On Saturday the Indians tried a third time. They took a 3-0 lead, lost it, fell behind by a run and then tied the score in the ninth. But in the 10th, with the bases loaded, the Yankees' Billy Martin hit a sharp single into left for the winning run. On the scoreboard in center field the White Sox-Red Sox final score was outlined in lights: Boston had four runs, eight hits, one error; Chicago had no hits, no runs, no errors. It was more than a beating the veteran Mel Parnell had given them. The White Sox were the first club to be at the wrong end of a no-hitter at Fenway Park in 30 years. It was Chicago's sixth successive defeat. Coming at this particular point, it spelled humiliation and heralded the crash of pennant hopes.
The next day, Sunday, was the last gasp. Cleveland limped out of Yankee Stadium and up to Fenway Park, only to split two games with the Red Sox, causing both teams to lose ground. In New York the White Sox met the Yankees in a double-header. Chicago lost the first game 2-1. In the second they opened up a 3-0 lead, but the Yankees, as always, scrambled back to tie it up. The White Sox held on, fought back, even as the Indians had a day earlier, and in the top of the 10th went ahead 5-4. But in the last of the 10th Jim Wilson walked Mickey Mantle, walked Yogi Berra and, after a sacrifice, walked Joe Collins, to load the bases. He struck out Andy Carey, but then, off the endless Yankee bench, came Hank Bauer to pinch-hit. It was a strange situation, because no one seemed to doubt the outcome. If Wilson managed to get Bauer out and save the game it would be an upset, pure and simple.
He didn't. Bauer chopped a grounder into left, two runs scored, the Yankees won the game and the double-header, and for all practical purposes the pennant race was over.
The Yankees, after losing those four games in Chicago three weeks earlier, had won 17 of their next 19 games. They had extended their lead from four percentage points to 124, and their lead in games from a puny one to an overwhelming 10½.
What is the magic that explains this Yankee surge? Is it simply that the American League is so poorly stocked with player talent that one well-balanced club can tear it apart? And that in the National League the Yankees would be just another team?
One of the Yankee-chasing American League managers laughed at that. "I don't really know the National League at all," he said, "but I can tell you this. If the Yankees were in it, they'd be in first place there too."
The reason? "Talent!" the American Leaguer yelled. "The players. They got 'em and they get 'em. Stengel's got players on his bench who'd make a better team than some of the teams we have in the majors right now. How do they get them? They have good people and they work hard. And they have prestige: that Yankee name, those" World Series' checks. You take a boy has a chance to sign—for the same deal—with two or three different clubs and one of them's the Yankees. Who's he going to sign with? Us? You're darn right he isn't! It's the Yankees! Damn, no wonder they're so tough to beat."
Specifically, the Yankees have such as Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. There was a story around last week that other Yankee players were beginning to resent the publicity that Mantle has attracted this year. A veteran Yankee player hooted. "Listen," he said. "He's DiMaggio. He's the big man. Everybody on this club roots for him. Mantle and Berra, they're making money for all of us."
Specifically, the Yankees have surprisingly competent pitching, not so good perhaps as Cleveland's historic staff, but better, the knowing say, than Chicago's and probably better than Boston's. The magic here, again, is depth.
Specifically, the Yankees have a museum collection of superb fielding infielders: Gil McDougald, Andy Carey, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Phil Rizzuto and Billy Hunter. Specifically, the Yankees have, after Mantle and Berra and the infielders, an in-the-game-and-out squad of fine power hitters who are neither regulars nor substitutes: Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Irv Noren, Bob Cerv, Norm Siebern, Joe Collins, Bill Skowron. They, more than anything else, are the hallmark of Casey Stengel's Yankees, the backbone of his platoon system.
Stengel has revolutionized baseball 'since he took over as manager of the Yankees in 1949 by using the players on his bench not as replacements in an emergency but as extra troops to be held in reserve in each game until the proper time comes to commit them. Most of the other clubs in major league baseball have begun to recognize the ^advantages of this system, but many of them still can't seem to get shed of the old idea that if you have two good third basemen (or whatever) you keep one and trade the other for a pitcher. Stengel hangs on to both. If he gets a third he may put him into a trade for 'the pitcher, but, on the other hand, he may hang on to all three.
The result is that Stengel right now has 13 topflight major league infielders and outfielders to juggle in and out around Mantle and Berra. Each feels he is good enough to be a rightful regular, and when he finds himself in the lineup he plays his skillful, daring, opportunistic heart out to prove his real worth to Stengel. Casey observes the man's abilities and how he utilizes them, makes a few mental notes and 'several thousand oral ones. Then, when he wants a player who can hit a ground ball to the right side with one out and a man on third base, he knows whether to use, say, Noren or Collins against a pitcher who tends to keep the ball low, say, or high.
Last week's pennant-cinching games were sharp evidence of this. Martin, Collins and Noren were among those on the bench in Saturday's game against Cleveland. In the eighth inning, after Bob Lemon had relieved Herb Score, the Yankees received an unexpected break when Al Rosen errored on what should have been a third-out grounder. Stengel, when he finds his foot in the door, wastes no time in exploiting his advantage. He threw in Collins and Noren to bat for Bauer and Carey. Both worked bases on balls on the 3 and 2 count, to force across the run that gave the Yankees the lead. The Indians tied the score in the ninth, but Martin, who went into the game as a fielding replacement for Carey, won it in the 10th. The next day, in the first game of the double-header with Chicago, Carey and Bauer were back in the lineup, and Carey drove in the winning runs. In the second game Bauer was on the bench again, but in the 10th inning, called on to pinch-hit, he delivered the game-winning hit.
"Depth!" American Leaguers insist whenever they discuss the Yankees. "Depth. Bench strength. Reserves."
Whatever it's called, the magic in it has wrapped up for Casey Stengel his seventh pennant in eight seasons, even though the victory-greedy old fellow will have to wait till September to take formal possession.
Most of the excitement of pennant chasing in 1956 has been supplied by the tense National League race. At the halfway point the Milwaukee Braves unscrambled the standings momentarily to gain the biggest lead of the season for any one team (two games). But the league lead has already changed hands 16 times among five different teams. Until the end of June the first four clubs were never more than three games apart.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, surprise team of the league, found out how fast you can move around in this tight situation. It took them only 11 days to go from fifth to first place and a breathtaking three days to go back to fifth. The St. Louis Cardinals were never more than three games away from the lead until three weeks ago, but at the halfway point they seemed to be dropping out of the race.
Milwaukee has been the most consistent contender. Except for a brief two-week slump that dropped them sharply to fifth place (they needed just two days to move back to first) they have been either first or second all season long. The Redlegs, handling first place like a sloppy catcher, have had the lead four times but have quickly dropped it each time. And always lurking dangerously in the background were the erratic Brooklyn Dodgers.
The National League race has been thrown wide open this season by Brooklyn's inability to maintain last year's sizzling pace. A year ago the Dodgers had won 59 games and lost but 27. They were 11½ games ahead, and the pennant race was long since settled. At the same time, the Chicago Cubs had played far over their head and all other potential opposition was effectively stifled. This year the World Champions have won 16 fewer games and lost nine more and are five games away from the lead. With the Cubs playing at a more normal level, every other Dodger challenger, except the Giants, has picked up on last year's pace.