As the days of September dwindled down to a precious few, the distances separating American League pennant contenders dwindled too. In prospect is the sort of agonizing finish the National League used to specialize in.
Any of three teams could win. The New York Yankees, with the personality of a steel blade, were experienced, powerful and confident, and in first place. The Chicago White Sox, winners in 1959, were in third, old and tired, yet convinced they remembered how it was done. But in second place, surprisingly, stood the Baltimore Orioles, until this year a solid second-division favorite.
The Orioles had been carried close to the top by a talented group of pink-cheeked players who were too young to be called men, too old to be called cub scouts. Nearly everyone outside of New York and Chicago wanted to see them win. For a while last week, after they swept three games from the Yankees to assume a fragile lead over the astonished league, it seemed that they might.
Nevertheless, as they left on a road trip—to Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit and, this week, New York—a good many people asked this question: Could the Orioles survive the pressure that comes with leading, a pressure even greater for a young team than the role of pursuer? The Baltimore pitching staff is almost incredibly young—four starting pitchers are 21, one is 22. Would the pressure make them wild? All four members of the starting infield played in the minor leagues last year, three of them for the entire season. Under pressure would they revert to minor league plays? Those who believed so watched and waited.
Trouble—but not the kind that develops from pressure—struck the Orioles before they got to Cleveland. Third Baseman Brooks Robinson, whom some people consider the most valuable player in the league this season, had remained in Baltimore with infectious tonsillitis. Although he was to fly to Cleveland before game time, there was some doubt that he would play. Gene Woodling, at 38 (a few people over 23 are allowed on the Orioles) the team's best clutch hitter, had pulled a groin muscle. He was limping around badly and was not expected to play.
Manager Paul Richards arrived at the park at 6:15 after a day on the golf course. ("That's his life," said a Baltimore man. "Golf and baseball.") Richards entered the dressing room, removed his coat and tie, then called to his ponderous catcher, Gus Triandos. "Gus," he said, "get Milton and come over here."
Milton is Miltiades Stergios Papastedgios Jr., or Milt Pappas, one of the young pitchers born in the vintage year of 1939. Pappas, plump and cocky, was to pitch that Wednesday night. Sitting in a huddle, Richards, Triandos and Pappas discussed how to pitch to the Cleveland hitters.
Meanwhile Brooks Robinson arrived from Baltimore, dressed, went out on the field and played a game of pepper, then announced he felt well enough to play. Woodling, too, said he would give it a try.
Despite the fact that the Orioles were leading the league, only a few thousand fans watched the game, and they were almost lost in the vast stadium. Pappas was jolted for a single and double by the first two hitters, and the Indians were quickly ahead 2-0. From there on Pappas was strong, but the Orioles wasted several scoring chances and lost the game 3-2.
Who was on first?
Late in the game the Orioles committed a mistake that cost them the game. With Baltimore behind 3-1 in the ninth inning, 40-year-old pinch hitter Dave Philley drew a walk, putting runners on first and second with one out. Philley, eager to break up a double play, took a long lead—too long a lead. Vic Power, the Indians' marvelous first baseman, moved stealthily in behind him, took the pitcher's throw and Philley was out. Jackie Brandt followed with a double to score a run, but the game ended when Woodling hit a vicious liner that was caught in right field.
Five minutes after the final out, Richards was dressed and gone. "That makes my job tough," said a Baltimore writer as he watched Richards leave. "Know what he's going to do? He's going to eat a bowl of corn flakes and go to bed. That's what he does after every night game. Eat corn flakes."
The Baltimore dressing room was silent. Philley sat unmoving in front of his locker.
The scoreboard had shown that the Yankee game in Chicago was scoreless in the third inning. Later the Orioles learned that the Yankees had won. Their lead had been cut to a half game.
The next evening, before the game, Richards explained his abrupt departure the night before. "At times like that," he said quietly, "you're apt to say unnecessary things. It was best to get out quick. Besides, a manager's job is, basically, getting his team ready for the next game, not yelling about the last one."
Robinson said he felt pretty good, no more temperature, no pain in the glands in his neck. But he said that several times during the game the night before he had felt light-footed and perhaps because of it he missed a line drive he thought he should have caught.
"I hope he's all right," said a Baltimore writer. "He's been to us what Dick Groat is to the Pirates."
Jack Fisher, another chubby 21-year-old, started the second game for Baltimore. For six innings neither team could score. Then, before a man was out in the seventh, the Orioles scored six times, three on a home run by the ailing Woodling, who limped noticeably around the bases. Baltimore won 9-0. It was Fisher's third straight shutout.
The Baltimore clubhouse after the game was a merry place. There was beer and pizza and happiness. As members of the Cleveland press filed in to wish Richards good luck, he told them to let him know if they needed Series tickets. He also told them to beat the Yankees in the double-header scheduled that Sunday.
Things got worse the next afternoon. Woodling hurt too much to play. Robinson, though he would not admit it, looked tired from his recent illness and went hitless for the third straight day. The game went into extra innings, tied at 2-2. In the 11th, Baltimore loaded the bases with one out. The man on third was Triandos, perhaps the slowest runner in the league. The situation screeched for a pinch runner, yet Manager Richards sent none in. The batter, Al Pilarcik, hit a drive to right field, near the line. Chicago's Al Smith raced over, caught the ball on the run, turned and threw to the plate. The lumbering Triandos was out.
A minute later Jim Landis hit a home run, and the Orioles had lost. Bill Veeck's scoreboard, which already showed that the Yankees had won, exploded its shower of fireworks. The Orioles trudged off the field to the sound of sirens and rockets, a second-place ball club.
But on Sunday in Kansas City the Orioles snapped back and won 4-0. Steve Barber, 21 of course, threw the shutout. Dave Philley atoned for his base-running sin earlier in the week by driving in three runs. In Chicago, however, the White Sox took two games from Boston, gaining ground on the Orioles. And in Cleveland the Yankees won their double-header to increase their lead to a full game. The Yankees had now won four straight, and it began to seem that if anybody was going to stop them it would have to be the young Orioles themselves. They will get their chance this week.