There was snow in Chicago and rain in New York, but elsewhere the weather was clement enough to permit major league baseball its earliest start in history. The April games produced some June performances by old familiar names: Warren Spahn shut out Pittsburgh, and his colleague, Lew Burdette, beat them again the next day. Sam Jones, the sad one, defeated the sadder Cardinals, his teammates less than a month ago. Robin Roberts and Don Newcombe staged the season's first pitching duel, Roberts winning 2-1. Nellie Fox cracked off five hits on Opening Day, one of them a home run that won the game. There were good performances by younger, newer faces, too; Bob Anderson pitched the Cubs to victory over the Dodgers, Vada Pinson helped Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh on Opening Day, and George Anderson gave the Phils a win with a clutch single. These youngsters, and others, had won their jobs during the two-month training season which preceded Opening Day. Some of them were assured of jobs from the start. Others had to battle and hope. But none had the challenge, nor the opportunity, that faced a youthful outfielder named Gary Geiger of the Boston Red Sox. If he played well as the Red Sox barnstormed their way to an Opening Day rendezvous with the Yankees, Geiger would open the season in left field, substituting for the incomparable Ted Williams.
The Red Sox had spent the week before the opening of the season touring the steaming, dusty towns of Texas with the Chicago Cubs, making one-day stops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Victoria and Houston. They traveled in blasting heat, by bus and plane, playing cards, swapping bad jokes, reading newspapers and sleeping. Mostly sleeping. It was a hectic, uncomfortable trip; up early, bus to a ball park, play a game on a field often bumpy and covered with flowers, shower in cold water, dress in cramped, sticky quarters, and travel on, in the heat, to the next town.
Despite Ted Williams' publicized absence, the ball parks were filled, shirt-sleeved crowds in cowboy hats, string ties and ornamented boots. In the endless stretches beyond the short outfield fences, little Texans waited impatiently for home runs. Each day, when the lineups were announced over the public-address system, the big cheers were reserved for the Texas boys: Jim Busby, Pete Runnels and Murray Wall.
The hopscotch aspect of the tour, the constant pick-up-and-go, made the memory of days just past a bit hazy. Yesterday's hotel room, coffee shop and desk clerk fused with those of the day before, and the day before that. After one game, when the team had gathered in the bus, Tom Dowd, Boston's doughty little traveling secretary, was giving thought to where the team should dine prior to continuing on to Houston for the night.
April 20, 1959
"Why don't we eat back at the Robert Driscoll?" asked Jerry Casale, a cigar-smoking young pitcher from Brooklyn.
"You mean drive 100 miles, all the way back to Corpus Christi?" one of the players replied.
Casale looked astonished. "Oh, yeah, that's right," he said. "We're in Victoria. I forgot."
For Elijah (Pumpsie) Green, the first Negro to be included on the Red Sox roster, it was a bitter trip. Since he was not permitted to live in the hotels where the team was staying he roomed with the Negroes on the Cubs and therefore traveled with the Chicago team. ("I'm the foreign correspondent with the Chicago Cubs," he said wryly.) He looked nervous and unsure in the field. At Fort Worth, he threw an easy ground ball high over first base, allowing two runs to score. The next day, at Corpus Christi, he fumbled a double-play ball, finally picked it up and threw it into right field. The day after that, at Victoria, he learned that he was no longer a member of the Red Sox, that he was back in the minors.
BETTER FOR GARY
Life in Texas was considerably more pleasant for Gary Geiger, a lean, quiet youth who was the team standout during spring training. Geiger came to the Red Sox via Cleveland, via St. Louis, via Sand Ridge, Ill. (pop.: 125). The Cardinals signed him as a pitcher, age 17, two days after he graduated from high school and bundled him off to the depths of their farm system. He pitched for three years and although he won 20 games in the Pony League in 1955 it became apparent that the youngster could swing a bat left-handed better than he could throw a ball right-handed. He was transferred to the outfield.
"Musial came up that way," Gary was told.
"I know," he said. "Sand Ridge is just 80 miles south of St. Louis. I was always a Cardinal fan."
"Have you tried to pattern yourself after Musial?" he was asked.
"I guess you could say that," he replied.
During spring training with the Cardinals in 1957, Geiger's smooth swing and successful results made him the camp attraction. The Cardinals placed him in Triple A, with Rochester, but he hit only .223. Losing faith, St. Louis left him off their major league roster that winter and, to their surprise, he was drafted by Frank Lane of the Cleveland Indians. As a drafted player, he had to spend 1958 in the majors. Again he did not hit well and he sat on the bench for a large portion of the season. Last December, when Lane wanted Boston's center fielder Jimmy Piersall for his own, he offered the Red Sox Vic Wertz in return and, as a dividend, Gary Geiger. Boston accepted, and Geiger, at 21, was playing for his third major league organization.
"I was upset when I had to leave the Cardinals," says Geiger, "upset that they didn't think enough of me to put me on their roster. But this last trade, to Boston, was just fine."
It was as a dividend, a throw-in, that Geiger reported to spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona two months ago. Since he was an outfielder trying to make a team that had Ted Williams and Jackie Jensen as outfielders, plus four others with considerable major league experience, he had, it seemed, little hope of making the team this year. But when the exhibition games began, Geiger hit and kept hitting, better than anyone else on the Red Sox. Still, he might have been cut when the team broke camp had not Ted Williams injured his neck. With Williams out, left field was open, and Geiger had his chance to break into the starting lineup. His play in Texas on the way east to Opening Day would be decisive.
In the first game, in Dallas, Geiger didn't play. The next day he did and got a hit, a topped ground ball which he beat out. That night, standing around the outside of the Statler-Hilton in Dallas, some of the players were kidding Geiger about the hit.
"That's all right," said Geiger. "Sam Jethroe used to pick up a lot of hits like that."
"Yeah," said Haywood Sullivan, the 6-foot 4-inch catcher, "but where is Jethroe today?"
"He had three years in the majors," answered Geiger. "If I get three years in the majors I'll consider myself lucky."
The next morning, a Monday, the team flew to Corpus Christi, 350 miles to the south. The hostess on the chartered Braniff plane said, "Welcome, Chicago White Sox," and of course got a loud reaction. Gary played gin rummy with his friend, Herb Moford, a pitcher from Kentucky. Jackie Jensen, who isn't happy in planes, spent much of the trip in the cockpit, a cure recommended by one of the pilots.
Geiger wasn't feeling well before the game in Corpus. His stomach ached, he said, so he was not in the starting lineup. A number of the players were ailing, a virus it was thought, and Gary was afraid that he was getting it. Nevertheless, he pinch-hit in the fifth inning and singled sharply to center. He felt better. That night he and three other players ate at a Mexican restaurant, took a walk to the bay and then back to the hotel. In his room Gary ordered a "snack," a salad and a grilled cheese sandwich, and watched the Academy-Award show on television.
On Tuesday, two days before the trip to New York, the team traveled north to Victoria by bus. Gary, feeling poorly again, slept part of the way. Two seats behind him, Dave Sisler, pitcher and Princeton graduate, spent the two hours discussing pension plans, his own bad eyesight and spring training without Ted Williams.
"There's excitement in the exhibition games when he's around. All of us know that the fans in the small towns have come out to see Williams get a hit. He usually bats only twice in exhibition games. He stands up there and the fans get excited and we can feel their excitement. The question is, will he give the fans their hit? It's uncanny how often he does. That particular excitement is missing this spring."
The game in Victoria lasted 11 innings. Gary Geiger played them all and played them well. In the fifth he almost hit a three-run homer. The ball took off, high and deep. Right Fielder Lee Walls went back to the fence and looked up. But the strong wind took hold of the ball and kept it in the playing field, so much so that Walls finally had to charge forward. The ball fell safely for a single. Defensively Geiger glided over the ground making his plays. Once, when a runner threatened to tag up and advance on a long fly ball, Geiger caught the ball and threw a strike to second, driving the runner back.
After the game there was another long bus ride, this one to Houston. At first the bus was hot, then, as the air conditioning came on, it was drafty. Jim Busby, feverish and coughing fitfully, sprawled across two seats, trying to sleep. Geiger, sitting beside Moford, slept and talked baseball. It was a miserable three hours and it was not surprising to learn, the next morning, that several of the other players, Frank Malzone and Ike Delock among them, had come down with the bug.
The game in Houston was to be at night, so Gary slept late, then spent the day eating, having his short hair cut even shorter, seeing a movie, Green Mansions, with Moford (they thought it was awful) and dressing in his room for the game As it turned out, the game was called off because of rain, the first rain, incidentally, the players had seen in 45 days. That night Manager Mike Higgins announced his starting lineup for Opening Day. If a right-hander started for the Yankees, Gary Geiger would be in left field for Boston. Casey Stengel announced that Bob Turley, his star right-hander, would be the Yankees' pitcher. Gary Geiger had made it.
Thursday morning, the entire team, except Jensen (who was traveling by train), gathered at the airport in Houston for the plane to take them to New York. Spring training had lasted seven weeks and the players were eager to get going. As the plane left the ground, Vic Wertz gazed out the window and murmured, "Good-by, Texas, thank God."
Six hours later, Gary Geiger, from Sand Ridge, Ill. (pop.: 125), was in the biggest city in the world. The Sox stayed at the Commodore. "What a lousy place this is," complained one player. "No television in the room. You have to order it special."
Friday, Opening Day, was a meteorological mess. Heavy rains canceled the game. The next day was better, but not good enough. The team went to the Stadium and got into uniform. Geiger wandered out to the dugout, sat on the bench and watched the rain form puddles on the red pebble path that encircles the field.
"Big, isn't it?" said someone, pointing toward the outfield.
"Uh huh," Geiger replied.
"You nervous?" he was asked.
"Uh huh," he answered.
The rain never ceased, and once again Opening Day was postponed. It began to look as though Gary Geiger would be deprived of his chance to open in Yankee Stadium.
Like many small-town boys who find themselves in the big city, Gary stuck reasonably close to the hotel during the two rainy days. He ate in nearby restaurants and spent the rest of the time watching television (specially ordered) in his room.
Finally, on Sunday, he got to play his game in Yankee Stadium. Gone was the blasting Texas heat, gone were the string ties and ornamented boots, and, of course, gone were the Chicago Cubs. The temperature was in the 30s, the fans wore overcoats and huddled in blankets, and the Yankees...well, the Yankees hadn't changed a bit. They beat the Red Sox 3-2 on a late-inning home run. Pitcher Bob Turley gave up only two hits in the game. Gary batted three times and went out three times, the last a strikeout. He did throw Hank Bauer out at third base to stop one Yankee threat.
Summer may find Gary Geiger, like so many spring hopes, back in the minors, getting needed experience. But even so, it is something, at 22, to have opened the season playing in place of Ted Williams in Yankee Stadium.