Left field in Yankee Stadium is a lovely, sunlit expanse of green grass surrounded by neatly painted fences and inhabited by people who catch fly balls on top of their heads. Time was when it was best remembered for more heroic feats. During the 1947 World Series, Al Gionfriddo unofficially laid claim to world records in both the 50-yard dash and running high jump while refusing Joe DiMaggio a home run out there. A small but otherwise undistinguished individual named Sandy Amoros saved another World Series with a memorable catch and throw in the same vicinity. Still later, Wes Covington, who had been unable to outguess a fly ball all year in Milwaukee's County Stadium, moved into the big ball park in the Bronx, robbed Bobby Shantz of a game-winning hit with a sparkling backhand stop along the foul line, and gained a sudden reputation as a fielding sensation. It was a place where such part-time employees as Irv Noren, Johnny Hopp, Bob Cerv, Enos Slaughter, Elston Howard and Tony Kubek could be counted on to perform in an emergency without endangering their lives, and where such resident journeymen as Charlie Keller, Johnny Lindell and Gene Woodling could hold down a good job for years, able to pick up their pay checks and go home at night to sleep the sleep of the pure. But no more, not since Norm Siebern butchered a succession of fly balls out there in the World Series of 1958. Now the Yankees wouldn't trust Willie Mays to play left field. After a while, Willie probably wouldn't trust himself.
In the freshening season of 1960, Casey Stengel has already tried four men, launching them like a kamikaze director, with a kiss on the cheek, a ceremonial bow and a tear in the eye, certain that none will return. Some of them haven't. Roger Maris, the muscular young cousin from Kansas City, tried it first, playing left field with dispatch throughout the Florida training season only to be struck by an attack of ague the moment he ventured forth into Yankee Stadium. Since this occurred during the final exhibition series, Maris has yet to appear in an official league contest in left field; he was immediately returned to right, his old position.
Hector Lopez, who had been playing in right, was thrust into the breach. It being a well-known fact that Lopez cannot catch a baseball in a basket, regardless of where he plays, this sudden maneuver was explained away by Stengel as one designed not to weaken two positions. Anyway, it half worked. To give Lopez his due, it might have worked all the way except that the first time he misplayed a pop fly into a triple, Casey panicked and replaced him with a rookie named Ken Hunt. Throughout a short but impressive minor league outfielding career and during his infrequent opportunities in spring training, Hunt looked like Joe DiMaggio. It took just one game in left field in Yankee Stadium to make him look like a vegetable. When the Yankees left for a brief trip to Baltimore, the new left fielder was Yogi Berra. When they came back to New York, Hunt was out there again. Presumably, Berra was too valuable to risk.
There is no doubt that Yankee Stadium has a tough left field, quite likely the toughest in the majors, perhaps the toughest anywhere. It is situated in a general northeast-southwest direction, with home plate backing up on the Harlem River and center field pointing out toward Connecticut. This leaves the left fielder gazing into an area occupied by a few pigeons, an occasional airliner and, more and more as the game progresses, by that horrible monster, the sun. During the early spring and late fall, when the sun is down low in the southwest in the late innings, conditions are extremely bad.
But all ball parks are occasionally infiltrated by sun. The great evil in Yankee Stadium is haze. Because of the big crowds and the three-tiered grandstand that loops closely around the infield and the way the fans tend to pack into the seats nearest that loop, the cigarette and cigar smoke hangs in a solid blanket over the field near home plate, turning the area into a dazzling, almost impenetrable wall of translucent light. Because the sun is off to their left, the right fielder and center fielder do not notice the haze too much. But in left, where the doomed man gets the glare right in the eyes, it is blinding. "High flies aren't so bad," says Charlie Keller. "It's those low ones that get you. Sometimes, on a low line drive, you don't see the ball for seconds. Eventually, I guess I learned to play it by sound."
AN OBSTACLE COURSE
"That foul line out there is rough, too," says Woodling. "It fades away. Then you have to learn to play a ball off that low railing. And there's a place they store a hose out there; the ground there has ridges this high. The best way to play left field in Yankee Stadium is to make friends with your pitchers and get 'em to pitch all righthanders outside."
Strangely enough, however, neither Keller nor Woodling was ever benched for defensive inabilities. The sun has not changed its position through the years. Baseball fans smoke no more these days. Visiting ballplayers admit that left field in the Stadium is difficult, but they continue to rob Yankees of base hits. And the kind of winds that howl off San Francisco Bay, for example, or out of Lake Michigan, seldom rise from the Harlem River. "The wind," says Keller, "is not a factor."
It is becoming more and more apparent, every day, that the problem of playing left field in Yankee Stadium is—for Yankee players, at any rate—a psychological one more than anything else. And it is easy to point to the exact game when the horror arose: October 5, 1958, the day when Norm Siebern failed to catch those fly balls. His misplays cost the Yankees a World Series game against Milwaukee, and eventually they cost Siebern his job. Up until then he had been all right; never outstanding, but at least all right. From that moment his life was miserable. Fans yelled unkindnesses from the stands. Kids closed their autograph books when he appeared, and 10 Norm Siebern bubble-gum cards wouldn't get you one Bobby Del Greco. Opposing ballplayers kidded his ears red, and sportswriters, running out of stories, could always get Siebern to say a few words about playing Yankee Stadium's left field.
HE JUST BOOTED 'EM
To Siebern's credit, he never made an alibi, either for his World Series failures or for those which dogged him the following year. "I'm just a lousy fielder," he would say. "I just booted 'em." From a .300 hitter, he dropped off to .271, was traded to Kansas City, became a first baseman, and this year will probably hit .450, which will serve Yankee Stadium right.
But although Siebern has rid himself of the plague, by moving, the Yankees have been infected from head to toe. Howard, who once performed adequately, sometimes sensationally, in left field, wants no part of it any more. "I'm a catcher," he says, which may not be the real reason. Tony Kubek, perhaps the best left fielder the Yankees have had, insists that he is a shortstop. Mention the two awful words to Moose Skowron and he laughs. Andy Carey, who could be the next finger in the dike, has been working out in left under duress. Casey Stengel only growls.
"Somebody," he says, "has got to play out there."
New York writers, psychologists all, await, pencils poised.
BRIGHT HAZE AND DARK SHADOW
Left field in Yankee Stadium is difficult to play because of direct sunlight, dazzling haze and deep, deep shadows (see drawing), which creep across the field as the game progresses. Past and present Yankees who have played the Stadium left field at one time or another have their own ideas about it (below), but none of them like it.
"High flies aren't bad. Low ones get you. I played it by sound."
"Ask your pitchers to pitch all right-handers on the outside."
"It's only a tough field in the fall. It's all part of the game."
"I'm a lousy fielder. I just booted 'em."
(1955—)"I don't want any of it. I'm a catcher."