MARIS GRAND SLAM—FIRST OF '57—BEATS TIGERS IN 11 INNINGS
CIMOLI, FLOP OF '56, SMASH HIT AS DODGERS WIN OPENER
ROOKIE SMITH SLUGS CARDS TO RUNAWAY VICTORY OVER REDLEGS
It is one of the sad truths of baseball that the youngster who buds in the spring frequently never blossoms at all. Sometimes he just wilts. But this year's crop began to break out all over once the major league season got under way. It is still far too early for complete returns, of course, but first results would indicate that the 1957 harvest of young ballplayers could be the best in years.
April 28, 1957
The Cleveland Indians, for example, can't help but be pleased over the major league debut of Roger Maris. A crew-cut blond with the build and movements of an All-America halfback, Maris came up from Indianapolis, was handed a glove and told to go to work in left field. Batting against Chicago's Billy Pierce—one of the best left-handed pitchers in a league replete with good left-handed pitchers—the left-hand hitting Maris singled three times in the opening game and scored a run. In the 11th inning of the next game, against Detroit, Maris delivered the first bases-loaded home run of the 1957 major league season, and the Indians won 8-3.
For years Brooklyn has been known as the only city of 3 million people in the world without a mayor, a daily newspaper or a left fielder. Now Brooklyn has a left fielder, and after the opening victory over Philadelphia he might have won a few votes for mayor, too. His name is Gino Cimoli. Last year, up with the Dodgers for the first time, he stayed around all season in a rather inactive capacity, playing an occasional late inning on defense because of his fielding ability and great arm but seldom getting a chance to hit. In fact all season Gino had only four hits. In his first two 1957 games he equaled that milestone. After first hitting two singles, Cimoli beat the Phils in the 12th inning with a home run; two days later he singled his first time up and scored as the Dodgers went on to beat the Pirates 6-1.
St. Louis hoped it might patch up a glaring deficiency in center field with 22-year-old Bobby Gene Smith. In the opener against Cincinnati, Smith hit a two-run homer and a single as the Cards won 13-4. On Thursday they lost to the Cubs (10-2 on a four-hitter by Chicago's 21-year-old sophomore, Moe Drabowsky) but Smith got the only extra-base hit, a double, and scored one of the runs.
The Phillies lost their first two but it wasn't the fault of Bob Bowman; a rookie right fielder, he had five hits. It was the fault of Rookie First Baseman Ed Bouchee, however, that the Phillies finally won their third. The husky young slugger, after warming up with a double and a triple in the two opening losses, sparked a 6-5 victory over the Giants with two singles, a double and a home run in four at bats. What beat the Phils in the second game was a three-run homer by Gail Harris, a springtime wonder for three years whom the Giants finally decided to give a real chance at first base.
There were others. Jim Landis, for example, has taken over an outfield spot for the White Sox with authority; he batted .400 as the Sox swept their first three games. Carl Powis, a rookie right fielder for the Orioles, drove in the winning run to beat Washington 7-6 in 11 innings on opening day. And all around the league the youngsters were playing good baseball—all of them, that is, except the young man who may be the best of the lot. His name was Tony Kubek and he wasn't playing for anybody. He was sitting on the Yankee bench.
There is little doubt in anyone's mind, however, that Anthony Christopher Kubek Jr. of the Milwaukee Kubeks will play a lot of baseball before the 1957 season is over. He will play for the simple reason that he is too good to ride anyone's bench, even the Yankees'. Where the others have won jobs because their ball clubs needed someone to fill those jobs, Tony Kubek has won a job where there was really none to start with.
A big (6 feet 3 inches, 190 pounds), rangy youngster with blond hair and blue eyes set in a strong Polish face, he came to the Yankee rookie school at St. Petersburg with glowing credentials. In three seasons of organized baseball, Tony had never hit under .331.
He played shortstop for a while until McDougald was ready, and then he helped out Slaughter in left one day, and when Mantle stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle, Kubek played center. And wherever he played he did a good job; he caught the ball and he made the throws, he ran the bases and he hit. When the Yankees finally returned home to start the 1957 pennant race, it was discovered that young Tony Kubek had played in more spring games (33), had more at bats (129), made more hits (34), scored more runs (14) and batted in more runs (17) than anyone on the roster. It was quite apparent that a 20-year-old left-hand hitting rookie named Tony Kubek had won a starting job as the left fielder of the World Champion New York Yankees. Except that on opening day Elston Howard was in left and Tony Kubek sat on the bench. Someone had forgotten to notify Stengel.
Whether Casey really held him out of the early games (Tony didn't start the second or third games of the season at Boston, either) because he was trying to break the boy in slowly or because of other, more involved Stengelian strategy, no one will ever know. The ways of Casey Stengel can sometimes be strange indeed. But all you have to do to find out what Casey thinks of this new rookie of his is to ask him; the next thing you have to worry about is how to turn him off.
"Mantle and Berra are outstanding on this ball club," the Yankee manager says, "but you might say he can do everything about as well as any of the other fellows I got. He can hit and field and throw and he can run and he's alert out there and he's only 20. He hit over .330 every place he's been and if he can hit .300 up here, that's good enough. If I didn't have that McDougald at shortstop, he'd be my shortstop but I got McDougald so he's gonna play left field. Now that's a tough spot in Yankee Stadium but he can do it and if he just doesn't worry about this being the Yankees and play like he did every place else he'll be my left fielder."
So Kubek is going to be the left fielder of the Yankees—when Casey gets around to it. If there are any other doubts, all you have to do is know more about Tony Kubek. The first major league baseball game he ever saw was in Yankee Stadium, the only team he was ever really interested in playing for was the Yankees, and the first uniform he ever pulled on after signing a professional baseball contract was a Yankee uniform. It has been used before with other people but if ever a young man was born to be a Yankee, it was Tony Kubek.
"It's something," he says in his quiet way, "that you only dream about. Now it's all come true."
His father (the name is pronounced Koo-beck) was a ballplayer, too, and hit .357 for Milwaukee of the American Association in 1931, five years before Tony was born. The elder Kubek, despite his hitting and speed, couldn't throw and never reached the big leagues but he always had ambitions for his only son and taught him what he knew; although careful not to push young Tony into the game, Tony Sr. was just as careful to see that the opportunity for Tony Jr. to play baseball was always there—if he wanted to. Tony Jr. wanted to.
"I guess I was always playing baseball some place," he says. "It's about all I remember wanting to do."
It is a baseball family, and only once did Jennie Kubek ever forbid her son to go out to play ball. She doesn't remember why now, but on that occasion she locked him in the attic; a few minutes later, looking out the window, she saw first a baseball glove and then a bat come down on a string. Figuring that the next thing down the string would be Tony, she let him out.
But in addition to baseball, Tony also played football (all-city and second string all-state), basketball (all-city) and ran track, setting school records in both the high and low hurdles. When he graduated from Milwaukee's Bay View High in 1953 at the age of 16 the college recruiters were packed so deep around the Kubek front porch that the baseball scouts had a tough time muscling in.
"I guess," says Tony, "that if I had gone any place to play football, it would have been Notre Dame. But I wanted to play baseball."
He had won a trip the summer before to New York to play in the annual Hearst Sandlot Game, and it was there that Tony not only saw his first big league game but there that the big league scouts also saw Tony. During the next year and a half, he talked to representatives of the Red Sox, Indians, Giants, Braves and half a dozen others. But once Tony worked out with the Yankees, no other club had a chance.
So that December, barely past his 17th birthday, Tony Kubek signed a contract and became a Yankee—more or less. Each spring he reported to the rookie school at St. Petersburg, where Stengel and the Yankee coaches, particularly Frankie Crosetti, would give him guidance and teach this valuable young man the things he should know. And each spring, out he would go to the bush leagues to learn, the only way one ever really learns, to be a ballplayer. It was evident that he was learning fast. At Owensboro in the Class D Kitty League in 1954 Tony hit .344. At Quincy in the Class B Three-I League in 1955 Tony hit .334. And last year at Denver, bothered half the season by a hairline fracture in one foot and looking most of the time like a scared kid who couldn't really believe he was playing Triple-A ball, he hit .331, made the all-star team and, at 19, became the youngest Rookie of the Year in the history of the American Association. This spring there just wasn't any place left for him to go—even if there wasn't a spot for him, he had to become a Yankee.
Tony Kubek believes Stengel is a great manager, but it is Crosetti, the slick Yankee shortstop of the '30s and '40s, who has helped Tony most.
"He's taught me just about everything I know," Kubek says. "How to play my position, all the little inside things; how to run the bases and how to slide. All of that. But everybody has been good about helping me. Bauer has helped me a lot in the outfield and when I play alongside Mickey, he gives me tips on the hitters.
"Sure I'd still rather play shortstop. There's more to keep you busy there. And I know more about it. I'm having a little trouble with my throws—I've got to learn to get more height on them, to arch them a little. I keep wanting to throw everything on a line, like I did in the infield, and you can't do that out there. But everything else seems to be all right. The main thing is, I want to play. I'd rather be the left fielder for the Yankees," he grins, "than the shortstop at Denver."
Determination and line drives
For those who envision all great Yankee players in the old thunderous tradition of Gehrig and Ruth and Di-Maggio—or in the equally thunderous image of a newer Yankee named Mantle—Kubek will be a disappointment. He doesn't hit many home runs despite his size and strength; in fact, of all players in baseball today, Tony comes closest to resembling a left-hand hitting Harvey Kuenn. He has an excellent eye at the plate, what Bill Dickey calls "quick hands on the bat" and great determination. He is a young man who has come to play baseball and he intends to play it.
He is so quiet and sometimes so bashful that it is hard to realize there is a young man named Tony Kubek around. Says one of the Denver officials, "He never even dated a girl here all last year and though he claimed he had dates back in Milwaukee, I don't think any of the other players believed it."
But on the ball field, when the occasion arises, Tony Kubek can be a pretty rough young man indeed. He goes into second base like a runaway truck, was fined $25 once last year for starting a fight and on another occasion startled everyone by tangling with one of baseball's noisiest citizens, Eddie Stanky. Stanky, then managing Minneapolis, came charging out of the dugout one night into the middle of a violent rhubarb, began to squawk, and even after things had quieted down every place else was still standing out in the middle of the diamond squawking. At which point, Tony yelled from his shortstop position: "Oh, get off the field, you little termite." As the Denver ballplayers exploded, the peppery Stanky whirled around in astonishment and with pure reflex action yelled back: "Listen, you, you better learn to play shortstop before you tell me how to manage." But somehow his heart wasn't in it. When Kubek said, "If you want to make something of it, step across that line." Stanky just took one more amazed stare, shook his head sadly and walked slowly back into his dugout. Tony's delighted teammates could talk of nothing else for days; Tony still gets embarrassed when he thinks about it.
There is little danger, however, that Tony Kubek will turn into a Billy Martin or a Whitey Ford. He says "sir" to anyone even a few months his senior and almost caused a New York sportswriter to think he'd ended up in the wrong place when one day at Yankee Stadium Tony called him "Mister." "My God," the writer said, "that's the first time in my life a ballplayer ever called me Mister."
Yet the kid is a ballplayer. All he wants now is a chance to play ball so that he can prove it.
Not all the kudos of the opening week of baseball belonged to the youngsters. In Chicago 36-year-old Warren Spahn, who has won over 200 games during his 11-year career, started Milwaukee toward its widely predicted pennant by defeating the Cubs 4-1 and followed with a second victory five days later. In Brooklyn, Sal Maglie, who was born 20 days after the U.S. entered World War I, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, many of whom barely remember World War II. Yet the first perfect performance of the fresh season came from an oldster who already wears more laurels than any other active player: 36-year-old Stan Musial.
It was a warm, murky day, and visibility was poor as the St. Louis Cardinals opened the season in Cincinnati. To quiet their abdominal butterflies the younger Cardinals clowned around before the game, and one of the jokes was to ask Stan Musial, who was about to start his 16th opener, if he was nervous. Musial just grinned and let his bat answer for him.
In the first inning with one out and Al Dark on second, Stan faced Redleg Starter Johnny Klippstein. The pitcher fired a low fast ball, and Musial drove it to right-center field for a run-scoring double. When he came to bat in the third inning, the Crosley Field lights had been turned on. Don Blasingame was on third, and two were out. This time Klippstein solved the Musial problem by walking him. Two innings later there was one out, and Dark was on first base. Klippstein tried another low fast ball and again Musial doubled to right center.
By the sixth inning, Klippstein had departed in favor of Left-hander Don Gross. There was one out, Blasingame was on second and the ever-present Dark on first. Gross tried a curve, and Musial stroked it into right field.
The Cardinals were well ahead when Musial came to bat for the last time with Hersh Freeman on the mound and, sure enough, Dark on first. Freeman tried a high fast ball. Musial sent it skipping through the infield for his fourth hit. That left Musial just 215 hits short of a lifetime mark of 3,000 which only seven players in history have reached.