On a raw andwindy afternoon last week in Florida, Gene Freese, the regular third basemanfor the National League champion Cincinnati Reds, came to bat in an intrasquadgame and hit a looping single to right. When the outfielder booted the ball,Freese raced toward second. He started to slide as the throw came in, thenchanged his mind and tried to stay on his feet. But the spikes of his rightshoe caught in the hard ground, spinning his body around so that he was facingfirst base while his foot was still facing second. Freese screamed and fellheavily near the bag as players rushed toward him from all parts of the field.He lay on his back, his hands clasped tight to his head. "Oh, my God, myGod," he sobbed. "It's broke. I broke the God damn ankle. Oh, no,no."
The next fewmoments were a horror of confusion. The team trainer cut the sock on Freese'sright foot, revealing an ugly purple lump. Freese was in great pain, and someplayers knelt beside him trying to comfort him with soft words. Others milledabout the outer rim of the circle, swearing or kicking at the ground. "Damnhalfhearted slide," said Frank Robinson, the star of the team. "Whenyou slide, you got to slide all the way."
A group ofteammates picked up Freese tenderly and bore him back to the clubhouse, wherethey set him down on a table in the trainer's room to await an ambulance.Someone lit a cigarette and placed it between Freese's lips. Drops of sweatrolled off his forehead; the trainer wiped it clean with a wet towel. ManagerFred Hutchinson came in looking grim, dragging angrily on a cigarette.
"Feelingsick?" he asked Freese softly. Freese opened his eyes. "No," hesaid. Then he closed his eyes again. Hutchinson said nothing more. He stared atthe two gray ice packs that had been placed on Freese's ankle to slow theswelling. He continued to stand there, silently staring at the ankle. The roomwas quiet except for the muted voice of a reporter somewhere in the dressingroom, asking a telephone operator to get him a line to Cincinnati. Hutchinsondidn't move or shift his gaze.
March 19, 1962
What Hutchinsonmust have been seeing beyond the ice packs, beyond the shattered right ankle ofhis third baseman, was the end of the season before it had begun. In thewell-balanced National League, in which four different teams have won pennantsin the last four seasons, the loss of one player can be enough to send a teamfrom first place to sixth. Such was Pittsburgh's misfortune last year.Champions in 1960, the Pirates lost their big winner, Vernon Law, when hedeveloped arm trouble, and they finished sixth. Perhaps they might not have wonagain even if Law had been sound, but without him they never had a chance. Now,with Freese hurt, a Cincinnati sportswriter paraphrased Charley Dressen'sfamous remark about the New York Giants and said, "The Reds isdead."
Gene Freese maynot have been as vital to Cincinnati in 1961 as Vern Law was to Pittsburgh in1960, but he was an important member of a team that needed top performancesfrom almost everyone in the lineup in order to win the pennant. To be sure, hehad some oddball tendencies. One day, having hit a meaningless home run, heskipped and danced around the bases in imitation of Bill Mazeroski's famousWorld Series-winning home run.
Freese broughtwith him from the American League a reputation as a scatter arm, but firstbaseman Gordy Coleman, himself a sketchy fielder, insists Freese didn't makemany poor throws. "The nice thing about the bad throws he did make is thatthey were over my head," Coleman said. "Some guys are always skippingthem into your shins." When Coleman roomed with Freese, it was a team jokethat there was no use calling their room because both of them had such badhands they wouldn't be able to pick up the phone.
But ManagerHutchinson insists that Freese was a good fielder for Cincinnati. As a hitter,the record shows Freese hit 26 home runs, and one of them was the single mostimportant hit of the season for the Reds. The Los Angeles Dodgers had won thefirst two games of a four-game series in late August, to move within 1½ gamesof the first-place Reds. In the third game, the first of a Sundaydouble-header, the Dodgers had a 5—1 lead with two out in the seventh inning.It was apparent the Dodgers were about to sweep the series and take over firstplace. But with two out and two runners on base, Freese hit a home run and theReds were back in the game 5-4. Freese had reversed the momentum, and now theReds had it. They scored two more runs to win the game, won the next gameeasily, and were never seriously threatened again.
Now Freese, heroof the Reds' pennant drive, lay in agony on a table. It was the second blow toFred Hutchinson's plans to get the team off to a fine start in spring training.The first was the prolonged holdout of Pitcher Joey Jay, a 21-game winner lastseason. Of the two events, it is possible that Jay's holdout may have a moredamaging effect over the course of the season.
The holdoutbegan in routine fashion, with Jay requesting a lot more money than GeneralManager Bill DeWitt was willing to offer. For a while Jay had the sympathy ofhis teammates, allies against a common enemy: the front office. Then Jaystartled everyone by offering to buy his own contract from the Reds for$150,000—an almost unprecedented move. DeWitt promptly rejected it, but thedamage had been done. If Jay's offer was sincere, he was saying that he didn'twant to play for Cincinnati. If the offer was insincere, he was just seekingpublicity. In either case he lost the sympathy and support of manyteammates.
As Jay continuedto hold out at his home in Lutz, near Tampa, he wrung all publicity possibleout of the impasse. When he announced he might quit baseball to attend to hisoil wells in West Virginia, the public learned that he did, indeed, have oilwells in West Virginia. There were stories about his chicken farm in Lutz, andpictures were published showing him running through his orange grove. One daywhen a reporter asked the Reds' publicity man, Hank Zureick, if there was anynews about the Jay situation, Zureick replied tartly: "All the word comesfrom Jay. He's got a regular press headquarters in Lutz." Frank Robinson,kidding with Vada Pinson, said, "Guess we know what to do next year."He may have been only half joking.
Jay finallysigned the day after the Freese accident, perhaps more than mere coincidence."We both gave a little," Jay and DeWitt announced in the time-honoredcliché of baseball bargaining. If the holdout created any bitterness, it willonly be revealed as the season progresses.
Some baseballmen feel that Old Master Fred Hutchinson can solve any kind of personal orpersonnel trouble. The story goes that when Hutchinson was managing the St.Louis Cardinals, Frank Lane, the general manager, and Gussie Busch, the clubowner, were both being openly critical of his decisions. Hutchinson calledBusch and Lane together, locked the door and, in effect, told them both to shutup or get a new manager. They shut up, and Hutchinson managed the Cards intosecond place. He is a big and sometimes fierce man, and there are those whobelieve that he frightened the Reds into winning the pennant.
"No,"said Jim Brosnan as he changed shirts in the dressing room during a recentworkout. "I've never been intimidated by Hutch's size. What I admire aboutthe man is his verbal acuity, his good choice of words." At that moment thelocker room boy hurried in from outdoors. "Skip's coming," he said.Brosnan quickly tucked in his shirt and grabbed his glove. "Excuse me,"he said. "He chewed somebody out yesterday for taking too much time."With that he hurried to the field.
Hutchinsonstarted the spring-training season very much aware that one of the pitfalls ofwinning a pennant is complacency, a natural letdown following a major andsuccessful effort. "It's hard to detect complacency in springtraining," he told a Cincinnati reporter last week. "Spring training isa time of physical conditioning. Complacency is a mental attitude and itdoesn't usually take hold until after the season has started. But we'llcertainly be watching for signs of it."
Hutchinson'smethod of handling his team varies from player to player. Last year GordyColeman showed a definite distaste for pop fouls near the first-base railing.Finally he missed one that cost a ball game, and Hutchinson let him have itright in front of the team. "Goddam it," he yelled, "catch thoseballs." Thereafter Coleman gave foul balls a better try, perhaps on thetheory that the railing was softer than Hutchinson. This spring Hutchinson,using a machine that shoots baseballs into the heavens, has been feedingColeman an endless supply of foul balls near the railing.
In late Augustof last year, Joey Jay was relieved in the first game of a doubleheader. Upset,he dressed and went home, even though there was a second game to be played andthe team was short of pitchers. Hutchinson waited until the next day, thenstrolled out across the outfield to where Jay was standing alone, shaggingflies. History does not record what Hutchinson said, but Jay went on to gainrecognition as one of Cincinnati's best pitchers as the team marched to thepennant.
"Hutch knowsjust the right approach with each player," said Coach Pete Whisenantrecently. Whisenant has a new lucky bat ready for the 1962 season, havingbroken a number of lucky bats during the disastrous World Series. "WithPinson," Whisenant said, "it's 'Vada, don't you think....' When Colemangets down on himself you have to remind him what a great hitter he is. You cankid Robinson. Kasko doesn't need anything. Jay has to be handled with kidgloves. Hutch knows how."
While Hutchinsoncan be tough with his players, he is also quick to defend them against outsidetrouble. Last year Jim O'Toole, Cincinnati's fine young left-hander, slid hardinto third base against Milwaukee, and in the next moment he and Eddie Mathewsof the Braves were grappling with each other. Hutchinson came yelling out ofthe dugout. Frank Thomas of the Braves tried to restrain him, but Hutchinsonbrushed Thomas aside and dove into the pile. Mathews was so surprised to seehim he could only say, "Gee, Hutch, gee." The fight was over.
Perhaps this iswhat frustrated Hutchinson as he stood staring down at the broken right ankleof Gene Freese. It was something he was powerless to do anything about. Hecouldn't chew it out nor could he defend it with his fists. All he could do waslook at it.
To replace thefallen Freese, Hutchinson must rely on one of three possibilities. First hewill try Cliff Cook, 25, who has made brief appearances with Cincinnati duringthe last three years. Cook hit .311 in the American Association last season andwon that league's Most Valuable Player award. This spring he held out briefly,finally agreed to terms by phone and left for Tampa just about the time Freeseslid into second. The next day, as he worked out at third base, Cook stumbledreaching for a ground ball and fell, not too gracefully. "Watch theankle," said Shortstop Eddie Kasko grimly. If Cook can play third atCincinnati as well as he did at Indianapolis, the Reds will miss only Freese'ssense of humor. If he fails, Kasko will shift to third and Leo Cardenas, a23-year-old Cuban who was a valued reserve infielder last year, will playshort. If that doesn't work, Frank Robinson will move in from right field tothird base. Robinson volunteered his services along with the hope thatHutchinson wouldn't have to take him up on it. Hutch probably felt the sameway.
The ambulancecame and took Freese away. The intra-squad game was resumed. An hour later,back in the clubhouse, General Manager DeWitt got a call from the clinic whereFreese had been taken. He whispered the news to Hutchinson, then read from aslip of paper to the others in the room. "The doctors say they are going tooperate immediately," DeWitt said. "The ankle is badly fractured andalso dislocated. They'll have to repair a lot of torn ligamentsinside."
The room wasstill. Finally one man said: "Once they put a cast on his ankle you'll besurprised how fast those ligaments can heal." No one answered. "Theyreally do," said the man. Again no one answered. Fred Hutchinson gave him along, hard look, then turned and walked out of the room.