It is unfortunate that ballplayers do not arrive in the big leagues neatly packaged in tin cans, with all the specifications on the back label and a tag saying "Do not open until 1959" on top. Had this happened to Vada Edward Pinson Jr., the stripling center fielder of the Cincinnati Reds would be well on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year by now.
Pinson was too good for his own good. Opened up a year too soon, at the age of 19, he went to bat 96 times last season, thereby disqualifying himself from being a 1959 rookie by some six times at bat. The six surplus appearances were acquired in two brief trips to the majors, one at the beginning of the season and the other at the tail end, while most of Pinson's summer was spent whaling the daylights out of pitching in the Pacific Coast League. But a rule is a rule and this one, passed by the baseball writers one day two years ago while waiting for the soda fountain to open, says Pinson is no rookie. He should worry; for a fellow who isn't a rookie Vada Pinson is the doggondest rookie baseball has seen in years.
He is the only member of the Reds to have played in every game. He is batting .334, third-best in the National League. He has scored more runs than any player in either league; he has more doubles and more triples. Only Henry Aaron has more hits. All this has Cincinnati fans howling like happy banshees and opposing pitchers turning red around the ears.
Vada is so trim that he appears frail, but he has muscles that don't show from the stands. He is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds, and he has whacked 16 homers and batted in 73 runs. Fred Hutchinson, the Cincinnati manager, says Pinson hasn't yet learned to get a good jump on the pitchers. Still, Vada has stolen 17 bases. And in center field he is leading the league in putouts, a department owned lock, stock and barrel by Richie Ashburn of the Phils for nine of the last 10 years.
"That Vada," says Frank Robinson, "is making a joke out of this game."
Pinson is modest, pleasant and almost embarrassingly polite. He has delicate features, sparkling teeth and a pair of soulful brown eyes. He never talks back to his elders or loses his money shooting craps or spits on the dugout steps or takes a snooze on hot days in center field. All he does is play baseball.
Opposing players, who are seldom impressed by headlines and minor league averages and batting-practice home runs, hesitate to elect any new whiz kid to the Hall of Fame until he has been around the league a couple of times. But Pinson has been around the league now half a dozen times, and no one has yet found anything they can do about him. Except go ahead and mark up the ballots.
At the plate, where Pinson hits left-handed, his swing is just like Vada: smooth and compact. He stands in the middle of the box, takes a short, controlled stride, and the bat comes around in a short, controlled arc. If the pitch is in where he wants it, he pulls sharply to right; if the pitch is away, he goes to center or left. He has not allowed himself to become hypnotized by the home run.
Vada Pinson is so good that he is almost boring. Except that he can run. Boy, how Vada Pinson can run.
"Don't too many run much faster," says Hutchinson.
Where Luis Aparicio scurries like a rabbit and Al Kaline moves with a long, deceptive lope, Pinson just flows. His gait resembles the controlled smoothness of Mickey Mantle more than anything else, although he lacks Mantle's pistonlike power.
He goes down to first in a fraction over three seconds; if the ball bounces twice he's there. From first to third he really steams, taking off at the crack of the bat as if launched from a slingshot, flitting past second, his path marked by little puffs of dust which seem to hang, marveling, in the air. He turns singles into doubles and makes stand-up triples out of base hits that would send most ballplayers sliding frantically into second on the seat of their pants.
"Sometimes," says Wally Moses, the veteran Cincinnati coach, "he'll take that turn at first and keep right on going, and I'll think, 'Boy, you're out. They've got you dead this time.' But he always makes it. Nobody ever throws him out."
WHAT A SET OF WHEELS!
"He kids me about my leg hits," says Frank Robinson, who rooms with Pinson and big-brothers him and occasionally likes to just sit and watch the kid play. "Man, I'm hitting .315 and if they took all my leg hits away, I'd still be hitting .315. But if I had those wheels of his, I'd be hitting .350."
In the outfield Pinson is something of a cross between a peach basket and a jet intercepter. As Casey Stengel used to say about Mickey Mantle, "He outruns fly balls."
It was his dazzling speed that got Pinson into this nonrookie rookie status in the first place. He bewitched Birdie Tebbetts, then Cincinnati manager, at the Reds' spring training camp at Tampa in 1958.
Tebbetts, who delighted in entertaining the visiting press with stories of his ballplayers, found himself running out of stories. He had to find someone new to talk about or face a fate worse than finishing last, which in this case meant losing his audience to Casey Stengel, who always had a bushel of interesting rookies for wintering journalists to write about in the Yankee camp across the bay at St. Pete. So he turned to Pinson, a kid who had hit .367 and stolen 53 bases at Visalia the year before, leading the Class C California League in just about everything but peanut sales.
Birdie was honest from the start. "Pinson's not ready," he said, "and we're not going to keep him, but he gives us something to talk about."
Pinson did. He hit .364 in spring training, stole bases and covered center field like a circus tent. He almost broke Tebbetts' heart.
"How in the world," said Birdie, "can I send him down where he belongs as long as he plays like that? He does a lot of things wrong, but he outruns his mistakes."
So Pinson stuck with the Reds for a couple of weeks after the season began, hitting a bases-loaded home run in his second big league game and doing well in the field. But eventually his inexperience began to show. His average dropped off badly, and the Reds, with a clear conscience, sent him down. At Seattle he hit .343 and stole 37 bases.
That Pinson's tremendous performance this season seems to have escaped detection by the headline writers is due to several factors. First, since he does not qualify technically as a rookie, the reams of copy annually expended in covering those first-year marvels have passed him by. Second, with a Henry Aaron in the league, one does not take much notice of a mere .330 hitter. And, finally, despite the hitting of Pinson and Robinson and Johnny Temple and Gus Bell, the good hit-no pitch Reds have hardly been hot on the trail of a pennant.
Still, it has been an experience to watch him. He was named to the All-Star team, although picked second behind Willie Mays, and his consistency has been remarkable. Only a short slump in midseason, when it was evident that Pinson was getting tired, has slowed him down.
"He needed that break at All-Star time," says Wally Moses. "He was pooped. It's been hot, and all he does is run. He's on base all the time, and he works like a dog in center field. Those fellows on each side of him don't cover too much ground."
Is Pinson tired of running?
"Well, not tired exactly," he says. "I'd just rather hit."
Appreciative as Pinson is of his gifts, he prefers to conserve them. At McClymonds High in Oakland, California—which also produced Frank Robinson—he played only baseball, passing up basketball and football and track.
"The coaches wanted me to go out for football," he says, "but I never could see any sense in carrying all that heavy stuff around on your back. I tried basketball awhile, but all you do there is run up and down the floor. And track, well, that interferes with baseball. And besides, I guess nobody really knew I could run very fast."
Pinson was a pitcher and occasional first baseman in the spring and played a trumpet the rest of the year around. He has since given up pitching and playing first base, and the trumpet is back home on a shelf.
"Bobby Mattick—he signed Robinson and Curt Flood, who is with the Cards now, and a bunch more boys around that area—told me I should be an outfielder. So mostly I've played in the outfield. I pitched one game at the end of my second year in pro ball. Lost it in relief. I don't care about pitching any more."
BARGAIN DAY FOR THE REDS
"The Reds were the only team after me big. Some others talked to me, but Cincinnati was the only one offered me any money. And I liked Mattick, the way he treated me, and Robinson was with Cincinnati; so when I graduated I signed up with the Reds." They gave him $2,000.
"I've been very fortunate. Wally Moses has helped me a lot, and my old high school coach, George Powles, helped me most of all. He still works with me in the off season. That's about all I do all year round is work on baseball. You know, bunting and things like that. I just go up and knock on his door and say 'Hey, Coach,' and he comes out and helps me. Always been like that."
In the off season, Pinson, an only child, lives with his family back in Oakland, where his father is a stevedore. "I guess that's where I get my strength," he says, the muscles rippling across his chest and back and up and down his powerful arms. "But I don't go looking for those home runs. I just try to hit the ball where it's pitched. If it goes out, fine. If not, I'll take what I can get."
Vada Pinson won't get to be Rookie of the Year because of a rule. He won't win the batting championship because of Henry Aaron. He won't win a Most Valuable Player award this year, either, because the Reds are going nowhere. But all Vada Pinson has to do is keep on swinging and running. First thing you know he'll have a trophy case full of batting championship and Most Valuable Player awards, and one day Vada Pinson will discover that he has been turned into a plaque on the wall at Cooperstown, the first left-handed trumpet player in Baseball's Hall of Fame.
How can you stop a guy who outruns his mistakes?