In the beginning it was spring, and the world was wonderful. From the front office of the Detroit Tigers came the word: "Surrounded by an air of earnest enthusiasm and optimism, the Detroit Tigers go into spring training at Lakeland with but one idea in mind—to give the New York Yankees a run for the American League pennant in 1957."
Then it was August, and the world tasted like sixth place. Whoever heard of the Baltimore Orioles? But they, and not the Yankees, were the team Detroit was desperately trying to catch at one point. And the prize was not a pennant but possibly only fifth place.
What in the world had happened to the Tigers? It must be remembered that it was not only their own front office which rated them so high. Casey Stengel had said during the winter: "We gotta watch out for those Tigers. They'll have a real shot at it." The Associated Press poll of baseball writers had the Tigers as a solid second behind the Yankees. Conservatives warned that they might finish as low as third, but others, remembering Detroit's brilliant play over the last half of the 1956 season, felt that they might, with a little bit of luck, actually steal the pennant away from New York.
After all, in 1956 the Tigers had won 37 of their last 54 games and had gained seven full games on the Yanks in that last third of the season. The Tigers based their dreams of the future on that finish and these individual performances of the season past:
August 18, 1957
Al Kaline batted .314, with 27 home runs and 128 runs batted in.
Charley Maxwell batted .326, with 28 home runs and 87 runs batted in.
Harvey Kuenn batted .332, with 12 home runs and 88 runs batted in.
Ray Boone batted .308, with 25 home runs and 81 runs batted in.
Frank Lary won 21 games, 17 of his victories coming after July 1.
Billy Hoeft won 20 games.
Here was a team with four solid .300 hitters, two solid 20-game winners and a galaxy of less-publicized but highly capable players. The only common criticism leveled at the Tigers was that they tended to be a lethargic team. Detroit front-office officials moved to remedy this one flaw. They dismissed easy-going Bucky Harris as manager, hired in his place the little-known but dynamic Jack Tighe and sat back to enjoy the season.
Nothing happened, except trouble. The Tigers started out poorly and wallowed along in the middle of the standings until June. Then they won five straight victories and moved into third, 5½ games behind the league leaders. But they promptly lost 10 of their next 13 to subside into their cozy, familiar .500 neighborhood. Throughout July they stumbled along, and on August 2, after 100 games, they were still at .500, with 50 won, 50 lost.
Bravely, the Detroit front office waved a cheerful flag. They remarked that though the 1957 Tigers seemed disappointing, it should be remembered that in 1956 after 100 games the Tigers were 10 games under .500. Another garrison finish like last year's would move Detroit well up into the first division. Buoyed up by this display of confidence, the Tigers promptly lost five of their next six games and fell into sixth place.
The question persists: What's wrong with the Tigers?
The answer lies in the fact that the four "solid .300 hitters" are all batting under .300, from 30 to 80 points under last year's averages. The two "solid 20-game winners" had won only seven games between them with two-thirds of the season gone—but despite their failure Detroit's pitching has actually been the salvation of the team. Paul Foytack, Jim Bunning and Duke Maas have picked up most of the slack left by Lary and Hoeft and the staff has allowed far fewer runs this year than last.
No, the blame lies not on arms but on bats. The woeful decline in hitting, and specifically power hitting (with two-thirds of the season gone, for example, Slugger Al Kaline had hit only six home runs), is reflected in the number of runs scored. Last season only the World Champion Yankees scored more runs than Detroit. This year only the eighth-place Kansas City Athletics have scored fewer.
Why aren't the hitters hitting? Well, injuries have admittedly hampered Boone and Maxwell (who has been the only consistent home run threat), but the minor hurts nagging at Kuenn and Kaline are not enough in themselves to explain their decline. Some say Kaline has been trying to pull every pitch into the left field seats. Knowing this, the pitchers keep the ball outside where it's impossible for Kaline (whose forte is Musial-like grace rather than Kluszewski-like muscle) to pull. As a result, he pops up harmlessly to the outfield. Others, however, insist Kaline has become too concerned with avoiding strikeouts and has cut down on his power in order to "protect" the plate. The statistics seem to bear this out. Kaline's strikeout rate is half what it was last year, but as a result he is getting far fewer bases on balls and, naturally, very few long run-scoring hits.
Harvey Kuenn's trouble is different, say the diagnosticians. They hold that Harvey was deluded by the 12 home runs he hit last year, the first time in his career he reached double figures in homers. Of course, this was only four homers more than his previous one-season high of eight, but it sounded like a good deal more and got Harvey to thinking that he could hit even more home runs if he swung just a bit harder. Result: he no longer meets the ball with that clean, flat, vicious swing that sent line drives crackling to all fields. Now, as the pitcher throws, Kuenn takes a little extra hitch to get more power; in doing so he throws his timing off and fails to meet the ball cleanly.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains: the Tigers aren't hitting. They aren't scoring runs. They aren't winning. And Detroit isn't at all happy about it.
What's the remedy? Since time immemorial baseball owners have taken the easy way out in times of duress and have fired the manager. Why the manager? Because he is publicized as the leader of the team. If the team fails, it must be the manager's fault. Any fan can tell you that.
Last week in Detroit, for instance, there were two taxicab drivers. Each declared he was a dedicated Tiger fan. The Tuesday cab driver said the Tigers' troubles were Manager Jack Tighe's fault: "He's too soft on the players. They have it too easy. He ought to stir them up." The Wednesday cab driver also blamed Jack Tighe: "He's always bawling those guys out. How can they play ball? There's dissension on the club."
Ridiculous as each unsupported opinion may sound, it sometimes reaches the ears and affects the judgement of club owners. Arnold Johnson, the businessman who owns the Kansas City Athletics, fired Lou Boudreau because he felt Boudreau's personality was a prime reason for the precipitous decline in Kansas City attendance. Ignoring the possibility that the decline in attendance in Kansas City might be a normal reaction to a miserable eighth-place ball club (and apparently deciding not to explore the reasons why it was a miserable eighth-place ball club), Johnson exiled Boudreau from Kansas City.
Such tactics are not lost on managers. Kerby Farrell, the wizened, somewhat eccentric manager of the Cleveland Indians—who has been having troubles of his own this year—brought his Indians into Detroit last week just after Boudreau and Pittsburgh's Bobby Bragan had been fired. Both Boudreau and Bragan had been succeeded by their third base coaches.
Now, Farrell's third base coach is Eddie Stanky, and Tighe's is Billy Hitchcock. During batting practice Farrell sidled over to Tighe and in a conspiratorial whisper said: "Hey, did you hear about Boudreau? Did you hear about Bragan? Keep an eye on that Hitchcock. I'm watching Stanky every minute." Then, grinning at his own joke, he scuttled away.
Laughing, Tighe returned to the Tiger dugout, where he passed along Farrell's mot to the assembled baseball writers. Then, with mock disappointment, Tighe reproached one for a story in which he had said that the Detroit manager could not help but be aware of the fate of Bragan and Boudreau.
"Don't go putting ideas in their heads," Tighe said, grinning. "John Fetzer reads that stuff of yours."
Fetzer, of course, is chairman of the board of the Detroit club. Publicly, Fetzer and his associates say that the operation of the team is strictly the responsibility of General Manager John McHale, who succeeded former owner Walter O. (Spike) Briggs in that post this past April after Briggs was asked to resign. Actually, McHale and Fetzer both know that the feelings of all 11 men on the board of directors (which consists of the nine owners and two nonstockholding members) will prevail. If they panic—and it's easy for baseball men to panic—Tighe will be out of a job. If they are patient, realizing that Tighe is as new in his job as manager as they are in their job as clubowners or John McHale is in his job as general manager, the future may be bright after all.
For this is a new organization that should mature slowly, learning and improving as it goes. The team may be maturing the same way. It is a young team and certainly not as bad as it has appeared. Carping critics blame this year's failure on a succession of factors beyond the hitting: lack of aggressive team spirit, lack of speed, mediocre fielding, poor reserve strength, paucity of relief pitching, turmoil in the front office resulting from last year's sale of the club and this year's overhauling of front-office operations.
But while it is obvious that improvement in all these things is desirable and would certainly help to counteract the club's present difficulties, the fact remains that the mass hitting slump is the basic reason for Detroit's troubles. And hitting slumps have to end.
The cure for Detroit's troubles? Patience, fortitude, and the old Dodger recipe: "Wait till next year."