O'Malley's Screen is still there, in Los Angeles, and batters are still lofting chip shots over and against it (especially Frank Thomas of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who hit five home runs last week during the Pirates' first visit to the Coliseum), but if you can drag your eyes away from that strange left field for a moment, there are a few other notes from baseball worth your attention.
The 1958 season moved into May, and the situation was very strange. The first were last and the last first, the famous were obscure and names no one knew were in the headlines. Washington and Kansas City, accustomed to fighting for last place, vied instead for second. The St. Louis Cardinals, a strong second choice for the National League pennant if their hero, Stan Musial, could hold up, watched Musial sustain a .500-plus batting average and slid deeper and deeper into last place as they watched.
The Chicago White Sox and the Boston Red Sox were appraised by Casey Stengel as the strongest challengers to his New York Yankees' hold on the American League championship, and there the two Sox, White and Red, unmatching but side by side, were at the bottom of the American League race, as far away from the Yankees as they could get. In the National League the world champion Milwaukee Braves had started well, and then, possibly embarrassed by the second-division clubs keeping them company in the first division, stumbled politely and fell back. Up on top were the Giants, the Pirates and, of all people, the Chicago Cubs. Way down, barely above the Cardinals, were the Los Angeles Dodgers, the club of right-handed hitters, unable to take advantage of their screen, patently designed to help a right-handed-hitting ball club.
Earlier reports from Southern California insisted that the Screen Writers' Guild had had nothing whatever to do with the Saga of Left Field, which was strictly a Metro-Dodger-O'Malley production, but it was 1-10, out and out, as the horse-race people say, that Hollywood writers had more than a little to do with the major league script in the other towns around the leagues. How else to explain the bizarre twists that baseball's early-season story line had taken? This was straight Hollywood. You could almost hear the story conferences:
May 11, 1958
"Let's do things in the American League a little different this year, Freddie. Lay off that Mantle-Williams bit. It's been done to death. Dig up a new face."
The new face was dug up: a broad, big-chinned face belonging to Robert Henry Cerv, a 32-year-old outfielder with—who? Kansas City? Wonderful! The old rags-to-riches routine! Cerv's qualifications were ideal. Between trips to the minors he had spent six years as a part-time bench warmer with the New York Yankees, watching Mickey Mantle rise to stardom. Then he was traded off to the Kansas City Athletics, strictly a nothing. But give a smart screen writer his head and you come up with Cerv The Home Run Hitter, kicking Kansas City off to a flamboyant start with wallop after wallop into the distant outfield seats.
When the Kansas Citys went into Yankee Stadium for their first series of the season against the Yankees they were in second place, the New Yorkers' closest challengers. And there, on the scoreboard atop the outfield wall, a few yards southeast of Mickey Mantle's center-field stomping grounds, there, under the label League Leaders, was Bob Cerv's name: first in home runs, first in runs batted in. And there was Mantle, batting a feeble .279. Oh, just perfect. Naturally, on his very first time at bat in Yankee Stadium, Cerv hit a large home run, high and far to left field.
There were other story conferences:
"Let's jazz up the National League a little. What about those Chicago Cubs? Last place? Rewrite the script. Put them first. Never mind Milwaukee. I know all about Milwaukee. Let's have Milwaukee in first place and then the Cubs beat them three straight times to take the league lead. Who's going too far? Use your imagination, Freddie. You got to do these things right. Now, let's see. Milwaukee has this big lead in this one game and then the Cubs score six runs in a dramatic seventh-inning rally to tie the score. And then they win it with a home run in the last of the ninth. You don't like that, Freddie? So quit. Go ahead. This is the way I'm writing it. Now, we need a star, a sensation, a big home run hitter, leading the league. Ernie Banks? No, he's been done before. Here, Walls. Lee Walls. I don't care how many he hit all last year. Six? Is that all? Great! He'll be sensational. Have him hit nine in the first two, three weeks of the season. Now get this script in shape and send it off to Chicago."
Perhaps not even Hollywood would buy it, but there it was. The Chicago Cubs, imprecise apples of Phil Wrigley's precision-loving eye, did beat the Milwaukee Braves three straight times to take the league lead, did score six runs in a dramatic seventh-inning rally to tie the score, did win on a home run in the last of the ninth. And Lee Walls (responding perfectly on cue) did hit nine home runs in the first two or three weeks of the season. The Cubs were out on top of the National League, looking for the moment like a solid ball team, with strong pitchers and powerful hitters and fine-looking rookies.
And there, on the South Side of Chicago, were the White Sox, wondering what had happened, wondering why they were last. The world was upside down.
For all its crazy, mixed-up personality, the National League race was both amusing and exciting. It's always fun to have the lightly regarded clubs set the early pace. Even if the big fellows come on later to set things straight, everyone has had some fun for at least a little while.
But the American League situation, mixed up too, was a tragedy of sorts. For ahead of everything, de-pressingly so, were the Yankees, and no one was seriously challenging them. There was little excitement in the American League, and crowds were, for the most part, small. To pessimists the American League race had been decided in the first dozen games.
The White Sox crept eastward, bewildered. They had lost eight of their first 11 games. They met the Orioles in Baltimore and lost again, 3-2. The next night they were winning behind Jim Wilson, one of their important starting pitchers, when the weak-hitting Orioles mounted a small late-inning rally. Al Lopez, the desperate White Sox manager, did not hesitate. He called in his best pitcher, Billy Pierce, to relieve Wilson. Pierce allowed one run but then he held on and the White Sox squeezed through. It was their second victory in 12 days. Next night in Washington they lost again.
What had happened to the White Sox? "They aren't getting pitching," said Bobby Bragan of the Cleveland Indians, "and they need it. They aren't going to score much."
Lopez disagreed on both counts.
"Our pitching has been all right," he said. "We haven't been hitting. That's all. We'll be all right. We'll start to score runs."
Statistical research failed to support Lopez' argument. Certainly the White Sox, with a team batting average of .217, were not hitting. But dramatic evidence of the failure of the Chicago pitching is shown by comparing the White Sox with the New York Yankees. No one has been criticizing New York's batting too much, though the Yankee sluggers had certainly not been clouting the ball with their usual authority (Mickey Mantle was well below .300 and Yogi Berra below .200). After all, the Yankees had won 10 games and lost only four and were in first place with a convincing lead, whereas the White Sox had won only four and lost 10 and were dead last. But if the Yankee batters had been playing behind the White Sox pitching game for game, the Yankee team record would have sagged to four wins and nine losses (one game would have been tied). And, conversely, if the weak Chicago batters had had the tight Yankee pitching, the White Sox record would be 10 and 4 instead of 4 and 10!
No doubt about it. The White Sox pitching, supposedly the central cord of strength in this imbalanced team, was sagging. Someone pointed out to Jack Tighe, the Detroit Tiger manager, that Chicago pitchers like Dick Donovan and Pierce and Early Wynn had been losing heartbreakers, pitching well for six and seven innings only to lose out by a run in the eighth or ninth. Tighe was unimpressed. "I thought pitching like that was supposed to hold up in the eighth and ninth innings," he said.
The White Sox, highly regarded by many people before the season began, look now like a twin of the Baltimore Orioles. Neither team can hit. Both have fine defense. Both have, or fondly hope to have, excellent pitching. The White Sox have the more impressive name pitchers, but Baltimore seems a bit steadier through its entire staff. The two teams appear surprisingly even. This may come as a blow to White Sox fans, who know that they finished second last year, while the Orioles finished fifth.
Just above the White Sox at the bottom of the league were the Red Sox, proud owners of Ted Williams and a great spring training record. Once spring training was out of the way, the Red Sox lost seven of their first eight regular season games and nine of their first 12, including five defeats at the hands of the supposedly undistinguished Washington Senators, who finished last in 1957. This was more or less inexplicable, save for the old saw: "We just ain't hitting." This, of course, was true. The Red Sox scored only 15 runs in their first seven games. Then, when they started to hit a little, their pitching went sour; over the next eight games Red Sox pitchers gave up 6½ runs a game. Even a Ted Williams in full stride couldn't overcome that handicap, and Williams, batting under .200, was well short of full stride.
As for the Senators, nine of their first 13 games were decided by either one or two runs, and the Senators won seven of these close ones. Why? Good fortune, clutch hitting and some fine relief pitching. Good enough and clutch enough and fine enough to keep the Senators up ahead of Cleveland and Detroit, the two remaining pretenders to the Yankees' crown, who were milling about in the waist of the standings, neither failing badly like the Red Sox and White Sox nor playing over their heads like the Senators and Athletics. Actually, their performances, while not much better than mediocre so far as won-and-lost percentages were concerned, were nevertheless encouraging.
Bobby Bragan said of his Indians: "I'm pleasantly surprised with this club. We're doing real well."
Bragan waxed enthusiastic about Minnie Minoso, acquired from the White Sox in an off-season trade. "After Willie Mays, he's the most exciting player in the majors. He hit a home run against the White Sox in one game we won and afterward he said, 'I heet that for Lopez. I hear he needs power.' "
(Frank Lane, Cleveland's general manager, praised Minoso and needled the hit-hungry White Sox for letting him go. Asked if he would be satisfied with the White Sox as they are now, Lane said no. Asked why not, Lane replied, "I would never have traded Minoso.")
Bragan said he felt the White Sox simply did not have enough of a team to make a real fight for the pennant. "I'd rather have the Tigers for a run against the Yankees," he said. "Except there's no real depth on the Tigers."
As for the Tigers, Bragan's charge about the lack of depth may be true. But certainly the bench strength of the Detroit club is far deeper than it was last year. In 1957 Harvey Kuenn was the shortstop, and beyond him was nothing of major league quality. In 1958 Harvey Kuenn is the center fielder and Billy Martin is the shortstop. When Martin pulled a muscle in the back of his thigh and was forced to the bench, Manager Jack Tighe turned to Milt Boiling, who has been playing major league shortstop here and there since 1952. When Bolling then fell sick, Tighe reached a little further and tapped Reno Bertoia for shortstop, and Bertoia came through against the Yankees, no less, with a sparkling performance. And Kuenn was still behind him, in center field.
Martin and Kuenn, between them, have made the Tigers a much smarter-looking ball club. "Martin means a lot to us," said Tighe. "He's so alive. He's so much more than just another ballplayer. He's always doing things out there, aggressive things. He lifts the club up."
A listener asked if this were really so, that hardened professionals could be sparked to superior performances by a fiery personality like Martin's. Tighe nodded seriously. "Yes, they can," he insisted. "Especially if they've never had it before."
Mechanically, Martin is still a little crude at shortstop, not yet the thoroughly knowledgeable fielder he was at second. But each day, Tighe says, he learns more about his job. "He gets rid of the ball faster now; he knows that it's a long throw."
Kuenn, who moved to center field after five full seasons as in infielder, has been remarkable. "Actually," Tighe said, "he's a more natural center fielder than Martin is a shortstop. He just seems to know what to do. He's made some wonderful plays out there. And he's hitting. That's the big thing," Tighe grinned.
The Tigers have been hitting well as a team, too, leading the American League in averages. But power, the home run, has been lacking. In one stretch they hit one home run in 10 games. That rate, extended through 154 games, would give the Tigers all of 15 homers for the season. Tighe was hoping the drought would break, so the run at the Yankees could begin.
SAME OLD SCRIPT
But the New York won-and-lost record and the New York lead was ominous. The Yankees were fifth in scoring runs; they had been winning games on their splendid pitching and their eye-opening defensive play (in paradoxical proof of this, two of their four early-season defeats were traceable to damaging late-inning errors). The Yankees were still the class. When Bob Cerv and Kansas City came in to New York in second place, one inning showed the difference. Three squibbly little infield taps loaded the bases for the Yankees as the Athletics demonstrated how not to play the infield. Then Berra, his .192 average notwithstanding, reached out and poked a two-run single to center. Bill Skowron followed with a single to left, and before they had made one out in the ball game, the Yankees had all the runs they needed to win.
Hollywood had produced a perfect script for baseball's opening scenes, but the Yankees, used to the starring roles, were lens-hogging again.