If you have not yet seen this year's New York Yankees play, the suggestion is made that you do so—via box office or cathode-ray tube—at once, or at any rate before the 1958 season passes forever into Taylor Spink's Baseball Guide and Record Book. For there is good reason to believe that this Yankee team is a rare prize for the baseball connoisseur: it may well be the best Yankee team that ever played ball, better than the best Joe McCarthy ever managed, better even (oh, sacrilege!) than Miller Huggins' heroic buckoes of 1927.
Joe Cronin of the Boston Red Sox, who has been in the major leagues as a player, a manager and an executive for more than 30 years, insists in his quiet but positive way that baseball is better played now than it was 20 and 30 years ago. "The fielding is better than it used to be," Cronin says. "The pitchers are better. The hitters are smarter. The players know more about the game; they're taught more about it; they're trained better. It's definitely a better game."
The argument that puts this team of Mantle and Berra, Turley and Ford, McDougald and Kubek, Howard and Bauer and Slaughter and Skowron and Duren above the great Yankee teams of the past is based on that assumption—that the game is better, more efficiently played today—and on the impression the Yankees make as a squad of 25 highly talented players, rather than as a team of eight men plus a pitcher or two.
There is an extraordinary breadth of ability on this team, so much so that slumps and injuries that would throw a lesser team completely off stride (as Herb Score's injuries have toppled Cleveland, and the early-season failure of one or two pitchers ruined Chicago's pennant dream) are absorbed by the Yankees almost without notice. There is depth—which means, simply, that the Yankees have more good players than anyone else—and there is startling versatility.
There is no key player, other than Mantle, who despite his low average this year is still the most feared hitter in baseball. Berra, the best catcher in the league, fell off in his hitting; Howard, whom some call the second-best catcher in the league, took up the slack. When Skowron, the best first baseman in the league, was hurt, Howard filled in there, too, and at other times he played the outfield. McDougald, the best shortstop in the league last year, moved to second this season to make room for young Tony Kubek; now there is a school of thought that says Gil McDougald is the best second baseman in the league and that Kubek may be even better at short than McDougald.
The team is leading the major leagues in runs scored. Its pitching is by far the best in the majors. And Baltimore's Paul Richards, whose baseball teachings always stress pitching and fielding, says the 1958 Yankees are the best defensive team he's ever seen.
The strongest praise for the Yankees comes from the also-rans in the American League, that frustrated group of can't-win-for-losing ball clubs that may well end up further behind in this pennant race than any other losing group of American Leaguers in baseball history. (The 1927 Yankees won by 19 games, the 1936 Yanks by 19½, the record. This year's team led by 17 games on Aug. 2, and though that margin was well pared in the last two weeks, the Yankees have five full weeks of the season left to experiment with.)
Now, of course, it sounds like a clear case of self-justification for the defeated to blame their plight not on their own weakness but on the victor's strength. But Bill Norman, manager of the Detroit Tigers, who made a most determined run at the Yankees in June, when they beat the New Yorkers six successive times, argues: "The Yankees are responsible for what's happening in this league. From what I've seen they're one of the best teams ever put together."
Norman might be remembering June 22, when the Yankees turned on the tormenting Tigers, scored six runs in the first inning and crushed Detroit 15-0, as if to say, "Now stop bothering me. I warned you."
The Tigers tried again, beating the Yankees 12-5 on July 15. That was, apparently, the last goad the Yankees would accept. They whacked the Tigers five straight times; the last three games were by scores of 13-3, 16-4 and 10-7, all before the home folks in Detroit.
This detail is to a purpose, to illustrate the effect the Yankees had on a potentially good team. Riding on that first wonderful surge against New York, Detroit had come from six games under .500 to an even keel, but, after the Yankees had finished smothering them in Detroit, the Tigers collapsed. They lost 10 of 12 games in all, fell from second place to seventh and were further below .500 than they were before they first snarled at Casey Stengel.
The Cleveland Indians, too, felt the morale-breaking strength of this team. The Indians were gay when they came into New York in July, and were even gayer when they beat the Yankees 12-2 in the first of a five-game series. The next day the Yankees beat the Indians in a double-header, beat them 11-3 the day after that and then humiliated them 10—0 in the final game of the series. The Indians lost 11 of 14 games before they shook out of their stupor.
This was Norman's point and the cardinal attribute of the 1958 Yankees: they crush every challenge, they don't allow an opposition party time to organize.
In the beginning, when the race by its very newness was close, they were overwhelming. They won 25 of their first 31 games to open a huge nine-game lead. Seven times they shut out their opponents in that first 31-game sprint, and eight other times they held them to one run. Of the six games they lost, three were by one run, another by two. Only once were they soundly defeated. Later, after their June letdown, when first the Red Sox and then the Tigers and then the Indians made faintly threatening noises, the Yankees again roused themselves. In a five-week drive, they won 24 and lost eight, sent their rivals spinning and more than doubled their already substantial lead. When they surge again after their August doldrums (their seven-and-10 record from Aug. 3 through Aug. 17 paralleled the earlier recession—six wins and nine losses—that slowed them temporarily in June), a record 20-game margin by the end of the season will be within clear reach, especially if the other clubs, demoralized by the Yankees, continue to flounder.
Then, if Joe Cronin is right and the Yankees demonstrate that they are by far the best team in their league and probably in baseball, who is to say that this beautifully balanced squad is not the greatest Yankee team of all?
THERE ARE OTHERS
Well, Casey Stengel for one says this isn't even his best Yankee team, though he won't say which team was. Casey, who fears creeping complacency in his men the way a gardener fears crab grass in his lawn, may have been using a psychological spur to rouse his players who on occasion do seem slightly bored by it all.
George Weiss, the Yankees' general manager, won't say this is the best team and he won't say it isn't. He admits a fondness, however, for the 1947 and 1949 Yankee teams, preseason underdogs, who fused into pennant-winning teams and played with far more fire and dash than this year's superefficient model.
Sportswriters who cover the Yankees say emphatically that this year's club cannot compare with the Yankees of the past. They talk of 1923 and 1932 and 1941, but highest praise ultimately focuses on the Yankees of 1927, 1936 and 1953.
The 1927 Yankees have been called the greatest of all time more often than any other club in the annals of baseball. There is much to support this claim, though long years of retelling stories have left a rich patina of legend over the facts. For instance, legend insists the team was packed with explosive out-of-the-park hitters from the top of the batting order to the bottom. This is simply not true. The fence-busting power of the 1927 Yankees was concentrated in the really fabulous performances of Babe Ruth, who hit 60 home runs, and Lou Gehrig, who hit 47. These totals are impressive today, but in 1927 they were almost unbelievable. Ruth hit more home runs by himself than any other club in the league did as a team. Ruth was first in the league with homers, Gehrig second and teammate Tony Lazzeri third, with 18. Only five other men in the league hit more than 10 home runs. To dominate as overwhelmingly today, Ruth would have to hit 139 home runs and Gehrig 111.
Of the others, Meusel, Combs and Lazzeri were excellent hitters, but Koenig and Dugan were only ordinary, and the catchers (there were three) were weak. The pitching, concentrated almost entirely in six men (including the great relief pitcher, Wiley Moore), was the best in the league.
But it may cause raised eyebrows to realize that such journeymen as Gazella, Wera, Durst, Thomas, Paschal, Giard, Grabowski, More-hart and Collins made up almost 40% of that great team's roster.
The 1936 club had much more of a top-to-bottom slugging lineup than the 1927 Yanks. Seven regulars hit home runs in double figures, the club set a new major league team record of 182 homers (24 more than in 1927) and it scored more than 1,000 runs (90 more than in 1927). This was the team of Gehrig, Lazzeri, Crosetti and Rolfe, of Dickey, of Ruffing, Gomez, Pearson and Murphy. The pitching was deep and extremely effective, Dickey hit .362, and Gehrig won the Most Valuable Player award, but the key man was Joe DiMaggio, in his rookie year. An outstanding fielder with a magnificent arm, a powerful batter and a great base runner, DiMaggio established the tone of the McCarthy-era Yankees: a quiet but brilliant all-round efficiency.
Casey Stengel's 1953 team was a far more jumbled group of players, geared, naturally, to the 25-man-squad platoon-style baseball that Casey had popularized after his return to the majors in 1949. Woodling, Mantle, Bauer and Noren were the outfielders, yet none played more than 126 games. Eight different men played shortstop at different times, and John Mize, ostensibly a first baseman, appeared in 66 games as a pinch hitter without having to use his first baseman's mitt. The major strength of the team was its pitching, with Whitey Ford returned from service and Allie Reynolds, the big man of the famous Reynolds-Raschi-Lopat triumvirate, operating out of the bullpen with devastating success the greater part of the year. These were the Yankees who beat the best Brooklyn Dodger team of all time in the World Series. They are the only team ever to win a fifth straight pennant and a fifth straight world championship.
Yet despite all—despite '27 and '36 and '53—who will swear that '58 is not the best of all?
1927 Front: Dutch Ruether, p; Joe Dugan, 3b; Ben Paschal, of; Ben Bengough, c; Myles Thomas, p; Mike Gazella, 3b; Ray Morehart, 2b; Ed Bennet, bat boy. Middle: Bob Shawkey, p; Joe Giard, p; John Grabowski, c; Charlie O'Leary, coach; Miller Huggins; Fletcher, coach; Herb Pennock, p; Jules Wera, 3b; Pat Collins, c. Back: Lou Gehrig, 1b; Bob Meusel, If; Babe Ruth, rf; Wiley Moore, p; George Pipgras, p; Earle Combs, cf; Miller; Waite Hoyt, p; Tony Lazzeri, 2b; Mark Koenig, ss; Urban Shocker, p; Cedric Durst, of; Doc Woods, trainer.
1936 Front: Lefty Gomez, p; Pat Malone, p; Red Rolfe, 3b; Bill Dickey, c; Myril Hoag, of; Don Heffner, if; Arndt Jorgens, c; Ted Kleinhans, p; Roy Johnson, of. Second row: Doc Painter, trainer; Mark Roth, secretary; Arthur Fletcher, coach; Earle Combs, coach; John Schulte, coach; George Weiss, farm director; Colonel Ruppert, owner; Joe McCarthy; W. Hershberger, c; V. Tamulis, p; Joe DiMaggio, cf; Lou Gehrig, 1b; Frank Crosetti, ss; F. Wattenberg. Third row: Joe Glenn, c; John Broaca, p; H. Walker; Kemp Wicker, p; Monte Pearson, p; Tony Lazzeri, 2b; N. Richardson, if; Bump Hadley, p. Back: Jack Saltzgaver, if; George Selkirk, rf; Waller Brown, p; Charlie Ruffing, p; Steve Sundra, p; John Murphy, p; Dixie Walker, of; S. Chandler, p. (Hershberger, Tamulis, H. Walker, Richardson and Chandler did not play with Yanks during regular season. Ben Chapman, cf, not in picture, was traded for Jake Powell, If, soon after the season began.)
1953 Front: Art Schallock, p; Whitey Ford, p; Billy Martin, 2b; Phil Rizzuto, ss; Yogi Berra, c; Steve Kraly, p; Frank Crosetti, coach; Casey Stengel; Bill Dickey, coach; Jim Turner, coach; Gil McDougald, 3b; Irv Noren, of; Gene Woodling, If; Charlie Silvera, c. Middle: Gus Mauch, trainer; Jim McDonald, p; Willie Miranda, ss; Jerry Coleman, 2b; Bob Kuzava, p; Bill Miller, p; Tom Gorman, p; Bill Renna, of; Gus Triandos, c; Vic Raschi, p. Back: John Mize, 1b; Ed Lopat, p; Andy Carey, 3b; Mickey Mantle, cf; Hank Bauer, rf; Ralph Houk, c; John Sain, p; Don Bollweg, 1b; Allie Reynolds, p; Joe Collins, 1b. Bat boys J. Carrieri and I. Manzidelis are in foreground.