All those people standing on their heads trying to make sense out of the American League pennant race should come on down right now. To do otherwise is not only to miss a whale of a lot of fun but also to risk the possibility of having to remain inverted all year. The way things are going, it could happen.
The Cleveland Indians are heading for the Hall of Fame, en masse. The Athletics and Orioles do not look anything at all like the Athletics and Orioles. In Washington it is rumored that Harmon Killebrew is really Joe Hardy and that Mr. Applegate has bought a season box in Griffith Stadium. The White Sox still can't hit home runs—after all, this is only a small miracle that is taking place—but the pitching is superb, the defense a thing of wizardry and the Sox are winning. Boston is having trouble, but without Ted Williams what can you expect? And in all the uproar the Yankees and Tigers, who were supposed to finish one-two on top of the heap, hardly puffing, are seven-eight down at the bottom, gasping for air.
In the first month of play some strange things have happened. Washington, in one stretch, won seven of nine games. Kansas City won eight out of 10 after a bad start. And Baltimore had a streak, too, winning nine of 11. But it was the poor old Tigers who had the biggest streak: 15 losses in 17 games. Only their ability to beat the poor old Yankees (they won a double-header on Sunday) kept the Tigers from dropping out of the league altogether.
Yet the most startling development of all involved the Indians and the Yankees, the one because they looked so much better than anyone else, the other because they looked so bad.
May 10, 1959
In spring training the Indians appeared incapable of beating anyone (SI, March 30). Larry Doby, an outfielder, was at first base; Vic Power, a first baseman, was at third; and Woody Held, who was not a shortstop, was at short. The pitching staff was built around Herb Score, whose health was in doubt; Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, who appeared to have enough to do just carrying 33 years and that name around without having to win games in the bargain; Gary Bell, a 22-year-old with less than one year of big league experience; James (Mudcat) Grant, who wasn't even there, being temporarily employed by the U.S. Army; and little else.
WIN, WIN, WIN
Yet once the season began, the Indians won and won and won some more. They took six in a row and 10 of their first 11 before dropping three to Chicago. Held hit five home runs in the first seven games and was apparently well on his way to replacing Ruth in the record books until sidelined by an injured hand. George Strickland, who didn't even play baseball in 1958, largely because of a .223 lifetime batting average, apparently found that the rest did him good. He became a terror at the plate. The pitching was terrific, and the defense, worst in the league a year ago, was suddenly the very best. As a matter of fact, the Indians led both major leagues in just about everything: home runs, run production, fielding average, batting average, and all manner of pitching statistics. And, of course, in games won.
What happened is simple enough to see now. Manager Joe Gordon put Power back on first base. Held, who is a good third baseman, went to third. And Strickland, always a fine shortstop, stepped in to play short. With Billy Martin at second, it was a good, tight infield.
Then the pitching came around just right. Score was healthy. A little wild, but healthy, and therefore very tough. McLish, improving with age, was even tougher. Bell won a couple of games. Don Ferrarese, who hadn't really been counted on for much, won a couple, too. And Dick Brodowski, a failure of some note with both Boston and Washington several years ago and a one-game winner with Cleveland last season, turned out to be a real magician in relief. He didn't give up an earned run in his first five games.
Maybe the Indians were playing over their heads. So Held wasn't a Babe Ruth nor Strickland a Honus Wagner. Who cared? The Indians were winning, and in Cleveland that was all that mattered.
So the Indians, hitting home runs by the handful, pitching like beautiful machines, stealing base hits away from the opposition time after time, began to get their old fans back. Into the great stadium on Lake Erie came the people who had been staying away in droves the last few years, anxious to get a look at this new Cinderella team. While other teams in both leagues were losing customers to the cruel early-season weather, the Cleveland fans just shivered and watched and cheered like mad. It was too much fun to miss.
By the end of three weeks the Indians had drawn twice as many fans as they had at the same point last year, and last weekend, when the Yankees came to town, they drew even more. For this is what everyone had been waiting to see.
SECOND IS NOWHERE
Cleveland is the only team besides the Yankees to have won an American League pennant in the last 12 seasons, finishing first in 1948 and 1954. But on five other occasions, they finished second to the hated rivals from New York, and now nothing is important to the Cleveland fan except victory. Second place is no better than fourth or sixth, and they know that there is only one true test. Can we beat the Yankees'? As New York moved into town last Friday, there were an awful lot of them who remained unconvinced.
"Sure, they're hot," said a Cleveland taxi driver. "Some of these boobs around here are already talking about the World Series. Well, I'll tell you how I feel. They don't convince me until they beat New York."
So, maybe he's convinced now. The Indians beat New York.
For seven innings of the first game of the two-game series, on Friday night, Art Ditmar of the Yankees and Calvin Coolidge etc. McLish were almost perfect. Cal McLish permitted no runs and but three scattered singles. Ditmar gave up only one hit, but this was Rocky Colavito's home run over the leftfield fence. The fans, and there were 36,682 of them, second biggest crowd of the entire American League season, almost tore the place apart. In Cleveland they love Rocky Colavito, and now that the big, handsome kid from The Bronx was hitting home runs again they loved him even more.
He should have hit two. The Yankees tied it in the ninth on Bill Skowron's double—Jim Piersall tried to make a game-ending shoestring catch and missed—and a single by Yogi Berra. And in the top of the 10th, behaving like all the Yankee teams of old, they scored again. Tony Kubek drove in the run after Bobby Richardson had singled and Hank Bauer had walked.
But this wasn't the same folding Indian team of old. In the last of the 10th, against Bobby Shantz and then Zack Monroe, they put runners on first and third with two out.
Joe Gordon looked down his bench.
"Can you hit this guy?" he asked Tito Francona.
"Sure," said Tito. "The last time I batted against him I did."
This time he did, too. He took one pitch, wide, and then hit a slider 17 rows up into the right-field stands. The Indians won 4-2.
"We wanted to win this one 1-0," said McLish, "but now I'm glad we didn't. Coming from behind against the Yankees gives you a big lift."
On Saturday the Indians didn't need Francona, but they used Colavito again (he hit his fifth home run of the year) and Power (he hit his fourth) and Martin, who hit his third. With Score pitching a six-hitter and striking out 13, the Indians won 5-2 and led the Yankees, who had lost seven out of eight, by 5½ games. They also led the White Sox and Athletics and Orioles, but the Yankees are the ones that count.
"I feel better now," said General Manager Frank Lane. "I was a little worried about those two games."
As any practiced hedger can tell you, it is a little early to bury the Yankees, who have a most discouraging habit of showing up in time to lead the dancing at their own wake. Yet the fact remains that since July 26 of last year—with time out for the World Series, of course—this has not been a good Yankee team.
In that period they have actually played less than .500 ball, winning 40 games and losing 45, and that includes the Series. The pitching this year has been good. But the famed Yankee defense has been shoddy, and the awesome Yankee attack just hasn't been there at all. The big inning is gone, the one-run victories are missing, the extra-inning conquests have disappeared. In one 10-day period the Yankees couldn't come up with one single inning in which they were able to score more than two runs; they lost six one-run games while winning but two, and after going into extra innings five times they emerged with but one victory. To put it briefly, the Yankees looked awful.
"It ain't my pitchin' I'm worried about," growled Stengel, as he left Cleveland to take his Yankees on to Detroit (where they were promptly humiliated by Charley Maxwell and the aroused Tigers in both ends of a double-header). "I just need some runs."
Of course, he also needs to worry about what to do to catch those wild Indians. Or, maybe, what to do to stay ahead of those Tigers.