Down through the years since 1920 the New York Yankees have won 24 American League pennants, six times bunching them in clusters of three or more in a row. In some circles this might be viewed with consternation. The American League, however, is not that kind of a circle. Outside of a few rugged souls like Frank Lane and Paul Richards and Al Lopez and Bill Veeck—whose dismay is only semiofficial—the fact that the Yankees are almost certain to win again in 1959, hands down, is hardly something to incite alarm.
In the National League, on the other hand, where the Milwaukee Braves have won the pennant for the past two years, there has been a great deal of bustle and scurrying about. The Pirates and Giants and Reds and Dodgers and Cards and Phillies—in fact, everyone but the Cubs, who were so happy with their fifth-place tie last year that they hesitate to rock the boat—have been trading away, one with the other, in an attempt to land on top of the heap. For in the National League, where no one has won three straight since the Cardinals in the war years of 1942-44, domination is a nasty word. It is long past time, they figure over there, to knock off the Braves.
And so the stage is set for the 1959 season. The American League has a new president (Joe Cronin), a new club owner (Veeck), new general managers at Boston (Bucky Harris), Detroit (Rick Ferrell) and Baltimore (Lee MacPhail)—and the same old Yankees. The American League has something else that the National does not—all the ingredients for a miracle. That is what it will probably take to beat New York this year.
The White Sox remain a good ball club and they still have Al Lopez, who has never finished lower than second. They can run like the dickens and field and throw and the Chicago pitching figures to be good, although certainly no better than before. But they hit only singles and not enough of those, and you don't beat the Yankees without scoring runs.
Boston has hitting—although perhaps they depend too much on Ted Williams and Vic Wertz—and a pitching staff that has been impressive this spring. But the Red Sox are slow and they can't field a lick. Detroit lacks power. Cleveland is hurting in the infield and may have traded away too much pitching in an attempt to patch it up. Baltimore can't hit, Kansas City has only one outstanding big league hitter, Bob Cerv, and Washington is Washington.
The Yankees staggered through the last few months of '58, but compared to the others, their stagger has a way of looking like an all-out run. Without making a move all winter, they may be the most improved team in the American League. With Whitey Ford and Don Larsen throwing hard again, that is all it will take.
In the National League, there should be a whale of a pennant race. Maybe the Braves will win, for they still have the best pitching staff in sight and a world of power in Henry Aaron, Wes Covington, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock. But the Braves are going to miss Red Schoendienst, and this is a matter of quiet inspiration as well as physical ability. Mel Roach could do the job at second base, but Roach is now another in a long line of near-disastrous Milwaukee knee injuries, and no one knows when he will be able to return. The Braves may even send him down to play his way back into shape and try to get by for a while with what is left. But without a good second baseman in the absence of Schoendienst and Roach, and with Johnny Logan on his last legs at short, the Braves will be weak down the middle—and this is where pennants are lost as well as won.
Who can beat them? Well, the Giants, for one, now that they have added Jack Sanford and Sam Jones to a pitching staff which seemed to be the one major weakness in sight last year. There is no question that the Giants have the most impressive set of young muscles in the league, with Mays, Cepeda, Brandt, Spencer, Alou, Wagner and the rest, plus a tight defense and spirit and speed to match.
The Pirates too, appear perfectly capable of finishing first, with the best-balanced lineup around. This, too, is a hungry young team, and it proved in the second half of the '58 season that it could win. With an outstanding defense, very fine pitching and enough sharp hitting to get by, all the Pirates lack is power.
The Dodgers have moved in the right field fence at the Coliseum—which shouldn't hurt Duke Snider a bit—their defense is sound and the lineup is full of hitters. With that young pitching staff almost certain to improve, Los Angeles is not going to finish anywhere near seventh again.
The Reds, who lack only pitching to look good at every position, will be tough, too, and there are days when the Cardinals and Cubs and Phillies can beat anybody. Last year Philadelphia finished 23 games out of first place, which is the second closest eighth-place finish in the history of baseball.
Both leagues will be fun in 1959 because of the presence of some new faces; not brand-new, exactly, but new enough that they will be watched very closely by everyone for the first time. Excluding those still-young but proven athletes like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks and Henry Aaron, who are already in the superstar class, the list of outstanding young players is a long one. The American League has only Rocky Colavito, who could be one of the game's great power hitters, and perhaps the new Yankee catcher, Elston Howard. But the National League is loaded with youngsters who have played enough to establish themselves as the big stars of the future. Some of these are Bob Skinner and Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates, Harry Anderson of the Phils, Orlando Cepeda of the Giants, Ken Boyer and Joe Cunningham of the Cardinals and Wes Covington of the Braves.
There are some old faces that are about to disappear, too. Neither Ted Williams nor Stan Musial looks too good this spring and perhaps this is the last we will see of these two great hitters as regulars in the lineup. Sal Maglie is apparently through. Yogi Berra has lost his job and will be a part-time player. Virgil Trucks is unwanted. Larry Doby is a question mark. Vic Wertz has come back before but he is older now and it will be tough. It is always sad to see the truly good ones fade away.
Since spring training began and the ballplayers took some of the type away from the front offices, there has been less talk than before in the councils of the mighty about three leagues or two 10-team leagues. But cities like Minneapolis and Houston and Toronto—and New York—are still talking, incessantly, and the talk will grow louder as the minor leagues lose fans, more and more, to the telecasts of major league games. Expansion is coming and the season of 1959 may show that it should come right now.
It is time for a new season, and 1959 should be a good season. The National League could have a pennant race that baseball fans will talk about for years to come. They will talk about the American League pennant race even longer—if someone can just beat the Yankees. Maybe they will. It's a funny game—and a good one. They call it baseball.