The annual Major League All-Star Game, traditional time for fun and frolic at the midway point in the pennant races, is going to be twice as traditional in 1959. Praised for 25 years as a wonderful exhibition on the one hand, and condemned as a silly exhibition on the other hand, it has suddenly become a wonderfully silly exhibition with two hands. Both of them are being held out for the public entertainment dollar.
Which, of course, is the idea. Operating on the theory that anything good, when doubled, is twice as good—and ignoring the possibility that something good, when cut in two, might not be even half so good—the players have elected to hold two All-Star games this summer. Act I takes place in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field next Tuesday. Act II moves into the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 3. The cast in both cases will be approximately the same. The beneficiaries will be identical.
It is nice that baseball fans on the West Coast are having the opportunity to see all the big stars perform now instead of awaiting their regular turn, which, in the normal course of events, might not come around until 1963 or 1972 or whenever Walter O'Malley gets all the tin cans and lawyers cleaned out of Chavez Ravine. But that is not why Act II is being introduced. The fans can look, out for themselves. The motive is frankly financial.
From the proceeds of the Los Angeles show, the players expect to collect almost a quarter-million dollars to help pay off indebtedness on their pension plan. The club owners realize nothing from this double feature except that it helps get the players off their necks when the time comes to split up the World Series radio and television loot. So everyone is happy. More or less. It is not certain now whether a third game will be scheduled to decide a 1959 All-Star champion should the National and American League squads split the first two games but, happily, there is an open date in both leagues on the third Thursday after Labor Day. This should do nicely, since the World Series will still be almost a week away.
This has all been settled for quite some time now, however, and anyone who objects to the idea of a second All-Star Game can stay away from the television set on August 3. Certainly the first game—that's the old one—looks as exciting as ever, and it couldn't have come at a better time, right in the middle of two hectic pennant races. The National League is used to this sort of thing, but the American League could stand a rest.
Not for years has there been such a scramble among five teams fighting for the lead and perhaps never have all eight teams been so closely bunched going into July. For two decades kings of the hill, the Yankees were clobbered often and early, fell into the cellar and are still struggling to get back up. Cleveland, off to an incredible start, has managed to hang on tenaciously. Baltimore, a have-not for years, now has, particularly pitching. Detroit lost 13 of its first 15 games, but now the Tigers are battling for the lead, too. And Chicago, perhaps the soundest team of all except that it can't hit home runs, keeps rattling around from first to fifth and stirring things up. This may be the year, says Frank Lane, when nobody wins the pennant.
The American League is winning something else, however. Fans. The Indians are up almost a quarter of a million in attendance over 1958 and the spectacle of the Yankees wallowing in the depths has already sent 160,000 extra paying customers pouring into the big stadium in The Bronx. Washington, too is doing very well; the Senators may not win any pennants but as long as they continue to attack league home run records, the crowds will come. As a matter of fact, the attendance of every team in the league has increased, with the exception of Detroit, which is now fast recovering from that miserable start, and Boston, which has not only been losing but losing without Ted Williams.
If this has been an American League year, however, the All-Star Game (Act I) should turn out to be close and exciting down to the last out. Almost never have two teams been selected which seem so nearly equal in ability. In fact, they are almost identical.
Eddie Mathews and Harmon Killebrew, the two home run leaders, will be playing opposite each other at third base. Johnny Temple and Nellie Fox are the same type competitor, whether at second or on the bases or at bat. Willie Mays and Al Kaline are vastly gifted center fielders, and each swings a big bat. Wally Moon and Minnie Minoso are alikes in left field, and the catchers, Del Crandall and Gus Triandos, have a general resemblance in their abilities. Bill Skowron and Orlando Cepeda, the rival first basemen, are big and strong and drive in a lot of runs. If there is an edge, it is slight and belongs to the National League.
Henry Aaron is having a phenomenal year and must be considered superior to powerful Rocky Colavito in right field. Aaron's 208 All-Star votes led the balloting in both leagues. As a matter of fact, 208 was all the votes he could get; under the rules his own teammates weren't allowed to vote for him and everyone else did. Ernie Banks, because of his great hitting ability, is far more dangerous than the little fielding wizard, Luis Aparicio, at short. And the National League bench, where Manager Fred Haney can call on hitters like Smoky Burgess, Bill White (who lost out to Moon in the closest balloting on either squad), Ken Boyer, Joe Cunningham, Vada Pinson (the sensational youngster who was dealt something of an injustice by being passed over for Mays) and Frank Robinson, is apparently superior to anything Casey Stengel's American Leaguers can produce. Stengel's best are Mickey Mantle, a surprise second choice to Kaline, and Harvey Kuenn, the league batting leader who narrowly lost out to Colavito.
Each team is missing a man. Their names are Ted Williams and Stan Musial and this will be the first All-Star Game in 20 years in which one or the other—and usually both—has not appeared in the starting lineup. Since the two managers have the privilege of naming the balance of the two squads behind the poll winners, and since Haney and Stengel can be sentimental men, both Williams and Musial are almost certain to be selected and eventually get to play—or at least pinch-hit. But with their absence from the starting lineups another era in baseball seems to have passed.
With or without Williams and Musial, however, the outcome, as usual, will probably depend upon pitching. The National League can't help but be tough, with a pitching staff selected from a group which includes Pittsburgh's amazing little relief star, Roy Face, Johnny Antonelli of the Giants, Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, Don Newcombe of the Reds, Lew Bur-dette and Warren Spahn of the Braves and Vinegar Bend Mizell of the Cardinals. Together, these seven have already won 69 games.
Stengel's pitching potential is not quite so impressive. He has Hoyt Wilhelm, Baltimore's knuckle-ball man, and Early Wynn of the White Sox. The rest of the staff will have to come from among Cal McLish and Herb Score of the Indians, Frank Lary of Detroit, Bud Daley of Kansas City and his own Ryne Duren and Whitey Ford. Each is winning, none is having a great year. At the moment Wynn looks like the only potential 20-game winner in the league.
The National League pitching looks better. Maybe this means the National League will win.
Actually, hardly anyone cares. The fun is in watching the game's superstars perform. Aaron, with his deadly, wrist-popping swing. And Mays, tormenting the pitchers and blazing, capless, around the bases. Aparicio and Fox, working their magic at second. Colavito and Cepeda, Killebrew and Mathews, Banks and Skowron, all swinging for the fences. The wobbly flutter of Wilhelm's knuckle ball and the quick-breaking fork ball with which Face has already won 12 games. The determination of Early Wynn and the sizzling speed of Drysdale. Mickey Mantle coming up to pinch-hit in the clutch.
That is why they have an All-Star Game. Not for pension funds. The old one was always a wonderful and entertaining performance. Let's hope Act II doesn't dilute the show.