The New York Yankees were 103,849 behind last season's attendance after their first 11 home games this year. The best team in baseball, playing in the largest city in the country, was a box-office flop. Crowds were so small in Yankee Stadium that visiting ballplayers asked, "Where is everybody?"
It was a good question. The Yankees would certainly like to know the answer to it.
Granted the weather has been abnormally bad (at one point the Yankees did not play a game for a week because of rain). And certainly for some people it's too much trouble and needless expense to make the journey to the Stadium when they can stay at home and see baseball on television. But neither one is reason enough to account for so many of those newly painted seats at Yankee Stadium remaining empty.
A better answer seems to be that Yankee baseball is having trouble competing with all the other forms of entertainment available in New York. By winning so consistently, the Yankees' show-business appeal has become nil. It's the same old act, year in and year out. People go to a ball park for the spectacle, the competition, the excitement of baseball. This year in Yankee Stadium the spectacle is missing (Mickey Mantle isn't hitting his show-stopping home runs), there is no competition (just look at the American League standings) and no real excitement (the Yankees always win). So, why go all the way to The Bronx when there's plenty going on in Times Square?
Even when there's a chance for some excitement, the Yankees fail to get into the spirit of things. Two weeks ago the Washington Senators, of all teams, rewrote their last-place lines and came into Yankee Stadium a half game out of first place. But it was the familiar routine again. The Yankees slapped down the Senators three straight times.
Then last week the Baltimore Orioles, a far more legitimate challenger to the Yankees, came into New York riding high in third place. Here was a good team, a solid team. The Orioles played their special close-to-the-vest brand of baseball (good pitching, tight defense) and held the Yanks to four runs in the two-game series. But the Yankees played that way too, only better, and the Orioles didn't score any runs at all.
The Yankees simply stifled them, just as they are smothering the American League. Possibly someone will make a run at them later on. But right now, despite a stalled batting attack, the Yankees are so much better than anyone else that the 1958 American League pennant race is just about over.
It's a shame, too, because the rest of the teams behind the Yankees are putting on a wonderful battle royal. Without the New York Yankees, the league would be locked in a tremendously exciting struggle for the pennant (see box).
Out in front of the No-Yankee League are the Orioles. It may jar some people to realize that Baltimore is that good a team. It just doesn't sound right. But the progress of the Orioles in the few years, they have been in the league has been so steady that no one thinks of them any more as the descendants of the hapless St. Louis Browns. Indeed, they have improved so much that a comparison to the famous team that originally bore the name "Baltimore Orioles" is more apt. The new Orioles are not the rough, tough swaggering crew of great ballplayers the old Orioles were but, like the old Orioles, they are smart, alert, driving, opportunistic.
"This is exciting baseball this club plays," says veteran center fielder Jim Busby. "We're always in a game. The fans like it a lot. Every game is close, and they can't help but get a kick out of it."
"Every time we play the White Sox these last few years it seems one of us wins by one run," says Coach Al Vincent. "In fact, you could say that about most of the games we play."
The fans in Baltimore do love the close games (Memorial Stadium is attracting more people than Yankee Stadium this year). At times the Baltimore crowds rival the more famous Milwaukee rooters in enthusiasm and loud cheering.
And no wonder. In 10 of the 14 games played at home this season, the Orioles held the opposition to two runs or less. Baltimore took nine of those 10 games, and usually scored barely enough runs to win. In only one of the four games that they lost at home were they completely out of the game.
Last year Baltimore's fielding was second in the league and the pitching staff had the third-best earned run average. "We are improved again this year," says Manager Paul Richards. "I'd have to say we are just a little bit closer to the kind of team I want. A team that can force the other guy to make a mistake.
"Our pressing job from the beginning at Baltimore has been to prepare the ball club for the moment when a really great player would come along to stick in the middle of the lineup. It's our responsibility right now to supply the supporting cast. That means a formidable defense and good pitching, alertness and know-how on the part of the entire club. We have finally come to the point where we are respectable, with a chance to win any given game we play. Within a year or two, I think our club will be at the point where the big guy, whoever he is, can set us off."
One of the reasons this has been a happy season for Baltimore fans is 21-year-old third baseman Brooks Robinson, who may develop into the big player Richards has been readying his team for. Lean and loose with quick reflexes, Robinson has been hitting well this spring. But he generates even more excitement in the field, as he crouches, waiting for the batter to hit. It almost seems as if he is daring the batter to hit the ball to him.
"He's great, one of the best I've seen," says Cleveland Manager Bobby Bragan. Others have said the same thing after watching Robinson jack-knife to his left for an impossible grounder and then throw a man out at the plate while sprawled on the ground (he did it against the Yankees), or chase a pop foul down the left-field line and reach it with one hand while tumbling to the ground to save a ball game (he did it against the White Sox).
Robinson and outfielder Lennie Green are the first real dividends from Baltimore's ripening farm system. They give Oriole fans an intriguing glimpse of the future. But more typical of the team today is right fielder Al Pilarcik. An unknown quantity when Richards picked him up from Kansas City two years ago, Pilarcik is still an obscure name to most fans. But under Richards he has developed into a highly skilled ballplayer.
"Pilarcik is the key man in our outfield," says Richards, who uses all sorts of outfield combinations, depending upon the game situation. "He can field, run, throw, hit, run the bases. And he's young enough to be counted in our future program. He has the potential to be a big star."
As with Pilarcik, Richards spotted something in other players that no one else did. Billy Gardner, now one of the best second basemen in the league and the most valuable Oriole in 1957, was just a reserve infielder with the Giants, trying to hang onto a job. Gus Triandos couldn't make it with the Yankees, but he became a top-flight catcher for the Orioles.
First baseman Bob Boyd, a refugee from the White Sox, had the fourth-best batting average in the league last year. This season Richards salvaged Jim Marshall, an eight-year minor league veteran, from the White Sox chain and gave him a chance to play regularly. Marshall, a power hitter who can also run and field, has responded so well that Boyd is now sitting on the bench.
Good pitching, the cornerstone of the team Richards is building for the future, is abundant in Baltimore. Here, as elsewhere on the team, are players no one else wanted. Billy Loes was washed up at Brooklyn; at Baltimore he made the All-Star team. Connie Johnson, the big right-hander who couldn't find himself at Chicago, developed into one of the finest pitchers in the league. George Zuverink, a Tiger discard, is now a fine relief pitcher. So is Ken Lehman, another ex-Dodger. This year Jack Harshman, traded off by the White Sox, won his first five games and became an early-season surprise. Arnold Portocarrero, newly arrived from Kansas City, won twice in one week.
But perhaps more satisfying are the impressive youngsters who have bolstered the staff this year. Left-hander Billy O'Dell, the Orioles' first bonus baby, back in 1954, returned last season from two years in the Army to continue his education under Richards and Pitching Coach Harry Brecheen. Now he is the workhorse of the staff.
Nineteen-year-old Milt Pappas signed on late last season. This year, after only 11 innings of minor league experience, he's a starter. A brash, confident right-hander who throws a fast ball that jumps all over the plate when it comes in on a batter, Pappas is considered one of the top prospects in the organization. "If he ever learns to throw a curve," says Richards, "he'll be a great pitcher. He's going to be around here a long time."
From this assortment of raw youth and well-traveled veterans, Richards has pieced together the Orioles. Like Casey Stengel, he wanted players who could "execute," who could do things, who could take immediate advantage of an opportunity.
For example, on opening day against the Senators, in a close 2-1 game, the Orioles had Pilarcik on third base and Marshall on first. Marshall broke for second on the pitch to the batter. Pilareik stood with deceptive nonchalance off third until the Washington catcher threw to second. Then he sprinted for the plate. Although the shortstop cut off the catcher's throw and fired the ball back to the plate, it was too late and Pilareik had scored. It was a rare and exciting play, but there was no accident about it. Richards had his team practice it for a week in spring training in Arizona.
This, then, was the team that came into Yankee Stadium last week, winners of six of their last seven games, a good team eager to challenge the Yankees, a lively team that played the sharp, dramatic baseball needed to stimulate the Yankees' slumping attendance.
OH, THOSE YANKEES
The Oriole pitching was good and the Oriole defense perfect in the first game. But Don Larsen was on the mound for the Yankees, and no one scores against him, least of all the Orioles (in his first 23 innings this season, Larsen allowed not one run). True to their pattern of play, the Orioles were never very far out of the game, and they even had the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning. But they lost 3-0.
"They fight you all the way," said Casey Stengel admiringly. "They're always on your tail and always in a position to get a rally going. They're tough games to play with them, every one of them [five out of seven have been decided by one or two runs]. They just need some runs."
The next day Billy O'Dell set the first 10 Yankees down in order. Bob Turley matched him with shutout pitching. In the fourth inning Tony Kubek singled, went to second on a hit-and-run groundout and scored on Mickey Mantle's double. It was the only run O'Dell gave up. Otherwise the Oriole defense was sound and the pitching exceptional. But the Yankee defense made no mistakes at all, and Turley allowed no runs. The Orioles lost 1-0.
Paul Richards discussed the situation after the game: "If you play well enough, the other clubs will make a mistake eventually and give you the ball game. But the Yankees are a little reluctant to give the game away. They can wait, too. You might work hard to get one run, and then someone like Mantle comes up and, wham, there's your ball game. The only way to beat the Yankees is to get some muscle like Mantle, too."
Muscle or no muscle, Baltimore was last week the best team in the No-Yankee League. But in the American League, where it counts, New York stood alone. Looking at their attendance figures, one might even add, absolutely alone.
AMERICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS
NOTE: Somehow or other, all games played by the New York Yankees were left out of these standings. New York's 19-5 record includes six wins (one defeat) against Baltimore, four wins (one defeat) against Boston, and seven wins (two defeats) against Washington.