Someday people may talk of the Great Yankee Slump, that brief period in the history of the American League when the mice whipped the cat. It began, they may remember, on August 9, 1958 when the New York Yankees, leading the league by 16½ games, lost a game to the Boston Red Sox 9-6. It ended on June 7, 1960 when the Yankees defeated the Chicago White Sox 5-2. They beat the White Sox again the next day and the next, then won two games from Cleveland, two from Kansas City and four more from Chicago. Last week they continued to win—two games from Detroit, two from Cleveland. The Yankees had won 15 out of 19 games and were in first place. The Great Slump was over, the cat was on the prowl, and the mice of the league were looking for a place to hide.
That period between August of 1958 and June of 1960 was one of almost continuous pain for the Yankees. They lost 25 of their last 44 games in 1958, and although they won the pennant, their fourth in a row, and the World Series, they were sick and they knew it. The spring of 1959 brought no improvement. The Yankees fell to last place in May and eventually finished a poor third with a record of 79 games won, 75 games lost. This season the Yankees lost 20 of their first 41 games—making 120 losses in 239 games—and they floundered in fourth place. And then, without warning, they snapped out of it.
There are many reasons for the Yankee resurgence. "Tell them we started winning when the old man got back," said one player sarcastically (a majority of the Yankee players dislike Casey Stengel). Nonetheless, it is true that the team started winning the day Stengel returned after a week's illness.
A more concrete reason is the powerful and timely hitting of Mickey Mantle. "When he hits we move," said Pitcher Art Ditmar. Mantle, in the worst slump of his up-and-down career in April and May, cracked out of it in early June. During the three weeks of the Yankee rampage Mantle hit well over .400, with 18 runs batted in and eight home runs.
July 3, 1960
One Mantle home run in particular gave the Yankees a lift. Having just beaten the White Sox three times, the Yankees were playing the Indians at Yankee Stadium. At one point they led 3-1, but Cleveland fought back to make it 3-2 and then 3-3. Left-hander Dick Stigman, relieving for the Indians, was setting the Yankees down in order. ("He bothers us," says Stengel.) Mantle led off the eighth inning and took a strike. Then he swung foolishly and missed for strike two. He swung again at the third pitch and lined it into the left-field seats for a home run and, as it turned out, the victory.
Then there is Hector Lopez, who has been hitting well in the No. 2 spot, just in front of Mantle. His defensive play has improved too, although he is still a liability in left field. In Detroit he went back slowly for a line drive, jumped too soon and nearly was hit by the ball, which went for a double. Eventually the runner scored, and Detroit led 1-0. A few innings later Lopez hit a sharp single to left center, scoring a man from third and tying the score at 1-1. "You see," said Leonard Shecter of the New York Post, "Hector giveth and Hector taketh away."
But, good as Mantle and Lopez have been lately, it is extremely doubtful that the Yankees would be in first place were it not for their new right fielder, Roger Maris. As one New York writer said: "It is true that Mantle is mainly responsible for moving the team from fourth place to first. But if it weren't for Roger's strong hitting all season the Yankees might have been in sixth or seventh when Mantle got hot."
Maris opened the season against the Red Sox with two home runs, a double and a single, and he has not been below .320 since. Currently he leads the league with 22 home runs and 58 runs batted in. He has also fielded well. In Cleveland last week he made a leaping backhand catch of a ball just as it was falling over the fence for what would have been a grand-slam home run. It saved the game for the Yankees.
Roger Maris is 25 and powerfully built. He came to the Yankees from Kansas City last winter in a trade in which the Yankees gave away, among others, Hank Bauer, an old favorite at Yankee Stadium. "For the first few games Fused to hear guys yelling for Bauer," Maris said recently, "but not much any more."
This is Maris' fourth major league season. With both Cleveland and Kansas City he displayed flashes of promise, but misfortune—one year an appendectomy, another year some broken ribs—kept him from the big year. He gives some credit for his fast start this season to the good-hitting Yankees who surround him in the batting order—Mantle before him, Skowron (before he was hurt), Berra or Howard after him.
"I'm getting better pitches to hit than I did at Kansas City last year," Maris said last week in Detroit. "You hear people say it's easier to hit when you're on a bad ball club. Don't believe it. Pitchers throwing against second-division teams are generally loose. The ball is really moving. Once in a while in batting practice you'll see a pitcher with great stuff. That's because he knows he doesn't have to get anybody out, so he's relaxed. But a pitcher facing a team like the Yankees is likely to be in tight situations, which makes it tougher on him."
Batting directly after Mantle does present one problem, however. In Detroit, Mantle hit a home run off Frank Lary. When Maris got up, the first pitch was way inside, forcing him back from the plate. A few innings later Mantle hit another home run off Lary. This time the first pitch to Maris was directly over the top of his head. "I don't mind it," said Maris, "but I do think the umpire might have warned Lary after that second pitch." (Mantle, incidentally, is also frequently thrown at, but with him it is his legs. Knowing Mantle has a bad right knee, it is standard procedure with American League pitchers to make him skip rope periodically.)
On the base paths, Maris resembles a good college halfback. He is fast, especially when going from first to third, and he is rough. Shortstop Chi-co Fernandez of the Tigers, about to throw to first to complete a double play, was suddenly confronted with the vision of the 200-pound Maris bearing down on him. Fernandez was so anxious to evacuate the area, he threw wildly, allowing a Yankee runner to score.
Off the field, Maris presents, to the public at least, a quiet, serious, almost grim personality. He is polite, modest and friendly, but reveals little of himself or his feelings in a conversation. He is happy to be with the Yankees, but does not like New York City, which he considers too big. ("Don't ever let anybody tell you they don't like coming to a team like the Yankees," says Roger's roommate, Bob Cerv, who also came from Kansas City. "The Yankees are over the tracks and up the hill.") Roger's wife and two children are still living in Kansas City because she is pregnant. "Perhaps I'll bring them East next year," he said, and then added with a slight smile, "unless my wife's pregnant again, which she probably will be." In the meantime Roger is looking forward to this year's first All-Star Game, which will be played in Kansas City. He is a sure bet to make the team.
As Maris and Mantle devastated the western teams with their hitting, the press began to link the two names in the tradition of Ruth and Gehrig. "The buzz-saw team," one Detroit writer called them. "Double M for Murder," said another. Mel Allen, reaching, called them "the gold dust twins" on one occasion and "those magical marvels, Mantle and Maris" on another. Casey Stengel provided the most succinct description. "The fella in right does the job if the other fella doesn't," Casey said.
Of course other Yankees have been doing the job too. Kent Hadley came off the bench, replacing the injured Moose Skowron, and hit home runs his first two times up. (The Yankees immediately started referring to Skowron as Wally Pipp, the Yankee first baseman who in 1925 let a fellow named Gehrig take over one day.) Tony Kubek also hit two home runs in a game to beat Cleveland, while Cletis Boyer and Bobby Richardson have been fielding excellently at third and second. Maris and Cerv credit the Yankee pitching for the team's hot streak.
Need that pitching
"At Kansas City," said Cerv, "we had some good hitting teams, but no pitching. You need it to win. Ditmar and Coates have been good, and now Ford and Turley look like they're ready to win."
Ditmar, who after a slow start won four straight games, praises the hitting. "Im pitching the same as I did earlier in the season, but now I'm getting runs."
A few hours later Ditmar was on the mound, trying to hold on to a 3-2 lead. He got out of the seventh inning, but he was tired and the Tigers were closing in. Then, leading off the Yankee eighth, Lopez tripled, Mantle doubled and Maris, on a 3-0 pitch, hit a towering home run. With three swings the Yankees had wrapped up another game. It was just like old times, and the Yankees looked like the Damn Yankees again.