The leading hitter in the American League is Manny Jimenez. Manny who? You know. Manuel Emilio Jimenez. The rookie outfielder with the Athletics.
O.K., so you don't know. But then, hardly anyone does—hardly anyone, that is, outside of Kansas City and San Pedro de Macoris, Manny's home town in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, standing alone in his dim-lit limelight and quaintly kicking his right foot forward every time the ball is pitched (the way Mel Ott used to do), Manny Jimenez has been batting in the upper .300s since the season opened and is enjoying himself immensely. Strong of wrist, sharp of eye and perplexing to pitchers and fielders, he can pretty much hit where he pleases, and if a .398 average took a tumble last week when he went 0 for 10, Manny ate heartily, slept late and didn't worry. Behind him already were nine home runs and 30 RBIs.
Manny Jimenez is a cheerful young man of 22 who has a quantity of self-confidence of the noncorrosive variety ("He thinks he's always been a very good ballplayer," an interpreter explains). He laughs easily and often, with a squeaky, toothy giggle. In Kansas City he gets the biggest hands the smallest crowds in the league can give him, and it is obvious they like his style even if they hang up on his name. Some locals call him Jimen-nez, as in jiminez cricket. His teammates just call him mayonnaise, which sounds about right. A few wise guys talk funny to the poor fellow. "It look like rain, no?" one will say, and Manny is puzzled.
A rookie's way up to the majors might be compared to a Fourth of July skyrocket. It climbs high in the night trailing telltale sparks, but when it really goes off—snap, crackle, pop—everybody, including the rookie, sucks in his breath, surprised as can be. Manny Jimenez is an exception; he is not surprised. He has been watching his rise in baseball with satisfaction, he says, since he was 6 years old.
Manny is the fifth child in a family of five boys and five girls. His father was a laborer in a sugar mill when Manny was born and is a warehouse foreman for a sand company now. His mother was and is exclusively a mother, and she is not beyond an occasional yank on her wandering son's ear no matter how big he has become. "I almost get in a bad fight with a pitcher in Austin two years ago," says Manny, "and my mother read it in the paper at home." A scolding, you-better-watch-your-manners-young-man letter came the next day. Manny's father, when he had the chance, took more direct measures to discipline the boy, especially during those grammar school days when Manny fell into the habit of excusing himself from the classroom two hours ahead of everybody else by jumping out a window. His aim was to play baseball, and the whippings he got deterred him not a bit. In fact, he quit school altogether after the eighth grade despite his father's fury. (Truth to tell, the elder Jimenez has since relaxed. "I send money home and he don't hit me now," says Manny, winking furiously.)
For the next three years Jimenez worked at a sugar mill ($1.45 a day for wiping machines) and served a tour of duty with the Dominican air force (assignment: play ball). In 1957, because he felt he deserved to play "with the other good players," he signed a contract with the Milwaukee Braves, who threw in a $500 bonus in the spirit of Pan-American friendship. Manny accumulated a .316 batting average during his five years in the Braves' farm system, but his future wasn't exactly coming up roses. "They tell me you always be a Triple A ballplayer," Manny gleefully recollects.
The Athletics, of course, didn't see it that way; they couldn't afford to. Kansas City needed an offense and needed one badly at the end of last season, and as part of a general overhaul (13 of last year's players are elsewhere today), Jimenez was obtained in a trade. "Too many guys were standing around watching the third strike go under their noses," Vice-president and General Manager Pat Friday says, "and we saw in Manny somebody who at least would take his swings. Furthermore, we knew he had guts. The Pacific Coast League pitchers hit him 17 times last year, back and front, and he never showed any fear. Naturally, they had their reason. Manny was the best hitter in that league, too."
The rumors that preceded Jimenez to the Athletics' spring-training camp—that he was slow dropping back and would sometimes throw to the wrong base—checked out when he got there. (Once an exceptionally fast runner, he lost his speed after breaking his left leg in a base-line slide in 1958.) On top of that, he reported to Manager Hank Bauer at a happy and blubbery 210 pounds. Fending off one of those Pacific Coast League pitchers late last summer, Manny had broken his left wrist and, unable to play winter ball, had simply hung around his home growing fat. "I guess you'd say we had a kind of mediocre ballplayer on our hands," says Bauer, trying to make it sound nice.
Bauer took personal charge. He taught Jimenez a better way to drop back for deep flies. He sharpened his sense of the game and he forced the rubber-suited rookie to run and pick up balls off the ground by the hour. "I never saw a man work so hard in spring training in my life," says an Athletic front-office man. "I've yet to see him butcher a play since he got here," says a Kansas City baseball writer. ("He never see me play third base," says Manny, recalling an experiment made on him when he played for Jacksonville in 1959. "Whoosh, right through the legs every time.")
Nobody expects Jimenez to keep up his hot streak throughout the season. "I know I'm pretty good, but I don't think this good," says Manny, for the first time disarmingly modest. "I just hope to stay over .300."
Manny's other hope is that American League pitchers eventually let up on his person. Since 1957 he has been hit by 55 pitched balls, six of them this year. (The one that broke his wrist was supposed to go into his ear but he blocked it.) He's not afraid, he says, just weary. Bauer says it happens because of Manny's little preswing kick that leaves him too solidly planted to move back. Manny has a more interesting notion. "The pitcher don't hit Mickey Mantle because everybody know him and like him and they get mad at the pitcher. Someday soon I hope they get mad when the pitcher hit Manny Jimenez."