The most amazing thing about this year's amazing American League race is the fact that the Chicago White Sox, who haven't finished first since 1919, are going to win the pennant. Yes, this year. A month ago this was a remote possibility at best, for everyone knew that the White Sox would fold when the hot, humid days of summer rolled around.
Well, summer, hot and humid, has been here for some time now, but the White Sox haven't folded. Instead, they are roaring along in first place, with Cleveland the only challenger left. The old devil Yankees are a fatal dozen games behind.
The pennant-chasing White Sox are an anachronism in this era of power batting. Of the 20 teams that have won major league pennants in the last decade, all but one led or were among the leaders in team home runs. The White Sox are different. They are dead last in hitting home runs, and only Baltimore and Washington have scored less often. Lacking home run hitters, the Sox laboriously squeeze out their runs, one by one, and then rely on pitching and defense to hold off the opposition. This formula has worked well for Chicago this year, because the pitching has been sound and the defense, particularly around second base, has been superb.
An example of this defensive genius is pictured above. The White Sox were leading the Yankees 2-1 in the ninth inning. Suddenly the Yankees rallied. With one out Yogi Berra singled and went to third on Norm Siebern's base hit. It was a typical, old-fashioned, break-your-heart Yankee rally. Manager Al Lopez called in Relief Pitcher Gerry Staley, and the game waited on this fine edge of tension while Staley trudged in from the bullpen.
When action resumed, Staley threw just one pitch. Hector Lopez hit a sharp grounder to Chicago Second Baseman Nelson Fox who flipped it to Shortstop Luis Aparicio who tossed it on to first base. Double play. Game over. White Sox win.
"The double play is doing the job for Chicago," says George Kell, the Detroit Tiger broadcaster and former All-Star third baseman. "Here is a club trying to win on pitching and defense and little power. Their double-play combination of Fox and Aparicio is the most important factor in Chicago's strength. They are the best in baseball. Chicago could hardly win without them."
Second Baseman Jacob Nelson Fox is a small man. So is Shortstop Luis Ernesto Aparicio. Fox chews tobacco when playing ball. So does Aparicio. Both are polite, intelligent baseball players who save their money and are good to their families.
But don't be fooled by this, nor by their engaging grins and casual pose on this week's cover. Certainly no one in the American League is. When Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio put on their baseball uniforms they rarely stand around and smile benignly at their opponents.
Fox is a tough, aggressive self-made ballplayer. He became a highly skilled major leaguer only after years of hard work. He would swallow his tobacco whole if it meant winning a ball game. Aparicio had all of the skills from the start. Three seasons in the majors have given him the self-assurance of experience and much of Fox's competitive drive.
"Nellie Fox isn't real fast, and he doesn't have a great arm," says White Sox Manager Al Lopez. "He doesn't have good hands. No, wait a minute. He never bobbles a ball. I'd say he does have a good glove hand. He works hard, and he knows the hitters as well as anyone in the league. The big thing with Fox is that he anticipates where the ball is going."
Fox is not a smooth, deft second baseman in the Lajoie mold. Everything he does is the result of many long hours of practice, not natural talent. He has become an outstanding second baseman. "I'm no ballet dancer," says Fox. "But I know we still get our share of double plays."
Nellie also gets his share of putouts and assists. No other second baseman in the American League has made as many putouts over the last seven seasons. In three of the last four years Fox made the most assists, too.
"Fox doesn't run from any base runner," says Kell. "He gets hit more than anybody in the league while making the double play at second. If it's Hank Bauer versus Fox and there's a collision Fox gets up. He's tough.
"He's always played next to good men at short. He had Carrasquel and now Aparicio. He's come a long way with those fellows. If he hadn't played next to men like them, I don't think he'd be the second baseman he is. And he's one of the four or five best I've seen."
SO YOUNG, SO QUICK
Luis Aparicio is too young and hasn't been around long enough to be called the best shortstop ever. He's got plenty of time for that. But right now, he has no equal in baseball.
"Aparicio is so quick," says Al Lopez, and his eyes light up as he says it. "Getting the ball, throwing it, pivoting. He makes all of the moves and he makes them so quickly. And he's just coming into his own. Why, Luis is still growing. He's still learning to play the hitters. He'll be even better."
Aparicio has a strong, accurate arm. He goes to his right, deep in the hole at short, better than anyone else around. Lean and slight, he moves with the fluid grace of a matador making his most difficult passes.
"He gets into high gear in two steps, that's why he's so good," says Casey Stengel. "He can cover 25 yards for ya. He goes to his left after he's already gone to his right. Is he good? They ain't trading him, are they? I'd like to get him. Damn right."
In his three seasons in the majors Aparicio has averaged 462 assists a year, by far the highest in the majors. Twice he led the league in putouts.
"It's the shortstop who makes a double-play combination," says Nellie Fox. "It doesn't matter how good the second baseman is. It all depends on how fast the shortstop gets the ball away, how he gets it to the second baseman.
"That's the main thing about Luis. He charges the ball so fast. He has such quick reflexes and hands. He's so fast-moving. He gets the ball away so quickly on the double play."
Ballplayers, who usually ration their compliments carefully, are extravagant in their praise of Fox and Aparicio. "They're the best," says Bobby Richardson, the second baseman of the New York Yankees. "They work together so smoothly. Fox and Aparicio seem to know each other perfectly. That comes only from playing together over a good period of time."
Where there's a fine double-play combination chances are the pitching will be strong, too. Chicago has the best staff in the league.
"A good double-play combination makes a pitching staff," says Billy Pierce, the White Sox ace. "It sure is nice to see Fox and Aparicio behind me when I'm on the mound. Pitchers kid about having an 'atom' ball that goes right at their infielders. Well, with those two guys, you only have to get a batter to hit a ball near them. You know they'll get it. And when you have two like them that can hit, too, that's so much the better."
Aparicio, as leadoff man, and Fox, batting second, are the main sparks of the limited White Sox offense. "They just play to get those two little guys on base," says Casey.
Fox won't hit home runs, but he won't strike out either. With his big bat choked part way up the handle, he guards the plate like a welterweight ready to jab his opponent senseless. If a pitch is outside he punches it to left. If it's inside he slashes it to right. When it's over the middle of the plate he lines it to center. He gets a lot of hits this way. The last two seasons he had the most in the league. He has the most this year, too.
Aparicio doesn't get as many hits as Fox. Who does? But he is on base all the time. This year he has learned to meet the pitch and to wait for walks. On base, as in the field, Aparicio has no equal. He's the most exciting base runner in the league. He leads the majors in stolen bases. He has for the three seasons he's been in the league. "Give him a walk," mutters the harassed Casey Stengel, "and you might as well figure it's a double. He's gonna be on second on the next pitch."
But, for all their skill at getting on base and scoring runs, it is in the field that Fox and Aparicio render their most valuable service.
"The prettiest sight in baseball to a manager," says Al Lopez, "is the double play. It means two outs instead of one. It's as simple as that. You seldom win a pennant without good strength up the middle."
Phil Rizzuto, the former Yankee shortstop, is even more emphatic. "There are no exceptions. You can't win the pennant without a good double-play combination."
Few teams have. World Series history is alive with the names of adroit double-play makers.
Half a century ago the Chicago Cubs dominated the National League. On that remarkable team were two scrappy infielders, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers. One day Franklin P. Adams, then on the old New York Evening Mail, wrote eight unforgotten lines of verse: "These are the saddest of possible words:/ 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.'/ Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,/'Tinker to Evers to Chance.' /Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,/ Making a Giant hit into a double—/ Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:/ 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.' "
Tinker and Evers became the most famous double-play unit that ever lived. They were good, all right. The Cubs couldn't have won four pennants without them. But Tinker and Evers couldn't come close to today's double-play men. The style of play has changed. The art of making the double play has increased tremendously in technique and in speed of execution.
Joe Tinker said, many years after the combination had been broken up: "Evers was fast, had a great pair of hands and was smart as a whip. We set double-play records that have been long since broken. But what made us famous was the fact that we played together for so long." That and an eight-line ditty.
When Eddie Collins and Jack Barry made up the middle of Connie Mack's "$100,000 infield," the Philadelphia Athletics won four pennants in five years (1910, '11, '13, '14). The two were outstanding in that period.
Frankie Frisch, as good a double-play man as he was a hitter, played alongside a succession of fine fielding shortstops in the '20s and '30s, and his teams generally won pennants. In 1922 and 1923 his shortstop partner on the New York Giants was Dave Bancroft, and in 1924 Travis Jackson. The Giants won each year. Then, with the St. Louis Cardinals, he teamed with Rabbit Maranville in 1928, Charlie Gelbert in 1930 and 1931 and, finally, Leo Durocher in 1934. These were all pennant-winning years for St. Louis.
The Chicago Cubs had the best double-play unit in the National League, year in and year out, during the '30s. Billy Jurges at short and Billy Herman at second were quick, smooth and far-ranging. The Cubs won three pennants with them. Knowing baseball men insist that Jurges and Herman were the best ever around second base. When the Dodgers got Herman in 1941 and put him alongside a young fielding whiz named Pee Wee Reese, Brooklyn won its first pennant in 21 years. Later Reese and Jackie Robinson formed a double-play partnership and the Dodgers won several more pennants.
Much of the success of the New York Yankees in the past revolved around their superb infield middlemen. Koenig and Lazzeri, Crosetti and Lazzeri, Crosetti and Gordon, Rizzuto and Gordon, Rizzuto and Coleman—these were among the finest of all time.
"Gordon and Coleman were the best second basemen I ever played with," says Rizzuto. "They both had strong wrists and a soft throw that was always in the right spot. They were acrobats and with those strong wrists they could throw from any position. As far as I'm concerned, the second baseman is the most important part of the double play. He has to get the ball going one way, pivot and throw in another direction and get out of the way of the base runner. Coleman and Gordon could do all of that better than anyone else."
In 1948, after Gordon joined up with Lou Boudreau, Cleveland's marvelous shortstop, the Indians won their first pennant in 28 years. "Boudreau and Gordon were the best ever," says Warren Brown, the distinguished Chicago newspaperman who has been watching double plays and double-play makers for 40 years.
Thirteen years ago, a youngster named Red Schoendienst joined with the graceful Marty Marion to form another outstanding, pennant-winning double-play combination for the St. Louis Cardinals. When Milwaukee got Schoendienst in 1957, he still made the double play better than anyone else in the league. The Braves won their first pennant. They won again the next season.
This year Schoendienst is getting over the effects of tuberculosis and is out of action. It hasn't been the same in Milwaukee without him. Seven different men have been tried at second base, and the Braves have not been able to hold on to the lead.
The New York Yankees, too, aren't as strong around second as they used to be, and this has contributed to their miseries this year. Bobby Richardson is a fine young second baseman who makes first-class plays day in and day out, but he hasn't played with Shortstop Gil McDougald long enough to realize his full potential. And McDougald, bothered by injuries, isn't quite the flawless infielder he was a few years ago.
If Milwaukee manages to get into the World Series, the Braves' makeshift second-base setup will be a rarity in Series annals. And the same holds true in the American League for the White Sox's chief rivals, the Cleveland Indians.
"If Cleveland wins the pennant," says George Kell, "they'll be an exception to the rule. The weakest part of that club is its double-play combination. A team could win without the good double-play, but it has to be lucky. Back in 1943 when I came up to the old Athletics, Mr. Mack used to take me aside and say, 'Look at that Crosetti. He'll never boot a ball when it means something, when a double play is necessary. He'll never get you in a jam.' I think that's the most important thing of all in a double-play combination. Pulling it off in the clutch."
The ability of Fox and Aparicio to do just that—make the big double play at the most propitious moment—is the biggest weapon the White Sox have in their drive to get into the World Series. No other team in the league has anything to compare with these two. Certainly they've helped a team with little power go a long, long way.