By last week all but the most obdurate—or self-confident—of the big boys had signed their new contracts. Soon millions of Americans would be streaming once again into the ball parks of their native land. On the other hand, millions of might-be fans would be staying languorously at home.
Through the winter, baseball's official thinkers have been reflecting as usual on the problem of these stay-at-homes. Maybe something should be done to speed up the game for them? The usual suggestions have been drawn up: cut down on the gab sessions at the pitcher's mound, move the bullpens closer to the diamond, etc. In a moment of inspiration last week Commissioner Ford Frick came close to the sensible truth. "Anything that will give the fans more action," said Frick, "that's what we need." He couldn't be righter.
What the fans will see at the baseball parks this year (unless there has been a change of habits over the winter) is the game known as "percentage baseball." You know the game; unhappily, it's one the majors have been playing in recent years. On the bench sits the directing brain, the manager, percentage possibilities clicking in his head like the tumblers in a slot machine or portable Univac. By a system of time-honored wigwags he issues his commands to the third-base coach. The third-base coach goes into his act, an intentionally baffling series of cap jerks, shirt pluckings, nose rubbings and thigh slaps which the batter—the supposed center of the game's action—has to step out of the batter's box to decode. Chances are that the signal, once decoded, says "Don't swing." You can watch it happen all summer: percentage baseball succeeds most frequently when the batter keeps his bat on his shoulder for the first three pitches.
Imagine, if you can, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby or George Sisler looking down at the third-base coach after every pitch to find out what he was expected to do next—and keeping his bat at shoulder arms because of calculations in the dugout. In the Babe's day they had to stretch ropes around the outfield at Sportsman's Park, St. Louis and elsewhere to accommodate standees of a Sunday. St. Louis fans, as just one instance, would pile out to watch Shucks Pruett throw his left-handed screwball toward the plate when the Babe was batting. We say "toward" because Pruett's offerings landed in front of the plate as often as not and it was wonderful what it did to the St. Louis ego to see the Bambino strike out under these circumstances. If Ruth were with the Yankees today he would get a base on balls every time he faced a Shucks Pruett, and the fans would be the poorer for it while the park would be emptier. No one has attracted the fans the way the Babe did, and no one is likely to do so as long as the modern strategist is running the show.
Mickey Mantle hasn't signed a new contract yet; he thinks he deserves more money. He does, too, and he deserves the chance to earn it under the rules the Babe and Hornsby and Sisler played by. The sight of a man as skillful as Mantle or any other able-bodied batter, fully armed and with 20-20 vision, standing at the plate doing nothing with his lethal Louisville but knocking nonexistent dirt from his spikes and using his magnificent eyesight only to peer down at third base for yet another don't-swing signal is the best reason that baseball has not yet thought of for those stay-at-homes. The saddest commentary on percentage baseball is the fact that the most colorful character in the big leagues today is not a great hitter or a great pitcher or a fabulous base-stealer but—of all things—a manager named Casey Stengel. Casey's "percentages" may win ball games, but we submit that they make unduly colorless automatons of Casey's expensive ballplayers.
The Yankees wonder why more people don't come to their games. Percentage baseball could be why. We repeat: give Mantle the money he wants, then let him earn it with his bat. He'll strike out a lot, but he may outdraw the great Ruth with his home runs.