The San Francisco giants are optimistic, officially so. Mr. Chubby Feeney, the genial Dartmouther who handles much of the Giants' front-office detail for his uncle Horace Stoneham, is the source of this intelligence.
Mr. Feeney sits in the bleachers out along the left field foul line in Phoenix Municipal Stadium, somewhat behind a long, handsome cigar and slightly under a flamboyant upswept straw hat of quasi-Mexican parentage. He gazes soulfully at the four dozen Giants and near-Giants disporting themselves on the playing field and with a note of sincerity lending a slight throb to his voice says, "I know this: we'll finish ahead of the Dodgers."
Mr. Feeney's eyes are blue and, at times, innocent. At such times it is entirely possible to accept both the throb and the sincerity. The Giants to finish ahead of the Los Angeles Brooklyns! Is it really so much to ask? Chubby and his uncle (and, they hope, the city of San Francisco) will wait patiently for the pennant, will even forgo the first division for another year, if only this season, California's debut in the majors, the Giants can beat out the Dodgers.
Feeney waves his cigar grandly and explains the simple basis of his optimism: the Dodgers are an old club, going down, whereas the Giants are a young club, coming up.
March 24, 1958
Young, Mr. Feeney? The Giants' spring training roster listed such as Bobby Thomson, Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, Hank Sauer, Marv Grissom, Dusty Rhodes, Ray Katt, Ray Jablonski. Thomson started with the Giants in 1946, Lockman in 1945, Mueller in 1948. Sauer is 39 years old this month; Grissom, 40. Rhodes has been trying now for six full seasons to blossom into a regular outfielder, without success. He and Katt and Jablonski are yesterday's rookies of promise, now fading veterans in their 30s, still on the short side of success.
Age in itself is no tragedy, of course, nor is modest ability. But there is a distinct possibility that Giant hopes for even a third successive sixth-place finish might rest to a sobering degree on these past-tense players. The Giants have a center fielder (whose name escapes memory for the moment) and a good shortstop, Daryl Spencer. They have a variety of athletes who can play second base without falling down. They have fair pitching. And they have a fine little second-string catcher in Valmy Thomas, the only Virgin Islander in the major leagues.
Beyond that, they have age. Mr. Feeney?
Mr. Feeney is undaunted. He is a young man, as front-office people go, and his eye is on the young men in camp, the phalanx of youth, the raw, handsome rookies with the hot bats, sticky gloves and extravagant endorsements. These are children next to the oldtimers on the roster, but the Giants would love to go with these bright children. "Sixth place isn't very good," says Chub Feeney. "We might as well gamble."
The gamble is concentrated on four of these youngsters. None has played so much as an inning of major league ball, and indeed only two of them are on the Giants' major league roster at the moment. Yet all are good winter-book long shots to be in the starting lineup on April 15.
There are other youngsters around, some of them quite impressive, but attention in Phoenix constantly focuses down to these four: Bob Schmidt, a tall, rangy catcher who had the first-string job won last year before he injured himself; Jim Davenport, a lean, wiry, unflamboyant third baseman who is everybody's sleeper because he looks so much like a ballplayer; Willie Kirkland, a left-handed-hitting outfielder who was plain awful early in training but whose pedigree (35 homers a year in the minors, 128 runs batted in) is awfully good; and, finally, Orlando Cepeda, a right-handed-hitting first baseman from Puerto Rico who is Item One in the Giants' Category of Hope.
Cepeda is only 20, but he has three full years of professional experience behind him, with successive minor-league batting averages of .393, .355 and .309, this last made at 19 with Class AAA Minneapolis. He is powerfully built, agile and quick, a good first baseman, a hitter who cocks his bat far back and high up and wings it into a pitch. He runs well and slides with abandon. He is so young, so unproved, so impressive.
Memory cautions one to recall the absolutely marvelous young players the Giants have had in springs past. Surely you remember Johnny Rucker? Or Clint Hartung? Bill Ayers? Or, for that matter, Andre Rodgers, who just last March was the greatest shortstop in the major leagues?
Yet hope is part of the lifeblood of baseball. Going into a new town, a good town, a knowing town, it is far better for the Giants to gamble on hope than to cosy mediocrity close to the vest.
And, who knows, perhaps this blend of youth and age—coupled with the presence of the fair pitching and that center fielder (Willie Mays, that's the name)—will give the Giants sufficient balance, sufficient depth, to turn them into a consistent, pleasing ball club. Perhaps even to the point—oh, rapture—of beating out that club from Los Angeles.
Mr. Feeney waves his cigar optimistically and agrees.