It has been the cruel habit of the New York Yankees to create the illusion that there is a close pennant race in the American League when common sense says there isn't. For the past two seasons the Yanks have brought off this accomplishment subtly, even artistically, allowing the Baltimore Orioles, then the Detroit Tigers, to think they had a good shot at the pennant before chewing them to bits in September inside a well-crowded Yankee Stadium.
But this year the job of creating an American League pennant race to rival the typically hot race in the National League has been one that would have taxed the resources of a Barnum, or even a David Merrick. After weathering a storm of early-season misfortunes, among them injuries to Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Luis Arroyo and the loss of Tony Kubek to the Army—misfortunes that should have provided some competitor ample time to romp ahead—the Yankees nonetheless found themselves in August with a six-game lead over Los Angeles, seven over Minnesota and an even more embarrassing lead over the "serious" contenders—Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland. This wouldn't do at all.
When most of August had passed and still no team had made a serious challenge, the Yankees appeared to take matters into their own hands. They lost eight out of 10 games, including three doubleheaders in six days, a feat worthy of the New York Mets. When the rubble was cleared away it could be seen that the Yankees had backed to within two games of Minnesota and three of Los Angeles. With September just ahead and the Angels coming into Yankee Stadium for a four-game series beginning on Labor Day, the American League, courtesy of the kindly old Yankees, had itself a pennant race after all.
Of course, no one truly believes that the Yankees have arranged to make it close. Talk to the team about its slump and you hear a story of fatigue, crowded schedules, law of averages and, yes, poor performance. Other American League managers, whistling in the light, were talking about the Yankee nose dive and attaching to it all sorts of significance, most of it self-serving. Al Lopez predicted the Twins would win, but pointed happily to the surge of his own White Sox. Baltimore's Billy Hitchcock thought it was quite possible for the Yankees to lose, and Cleveland's Mel McGaha agreed. Sam Mele thought his Twins had stronger pitching than the Yankees and that this would lead the team to victory. L.A.'s Bill Rigney, just out of the hospital after a severe case of gastritis, the price of managing a contender, praised his scrappy Angels and predicted they could do it. Rival players, however, weren't convinced. Jackie Brandt of Baltimore spoke for most of the scarred old pros when he said: "If the Yankees had to they could win 10 games in a row. They win when they have to. They're not going to blow anything."
Brandt may be right, but it is a fact that the Yankees, while undoubtedly better than any other team in the American League, are not nearly as strong as they were a year ago (see box). Mickey Mantle, since returning to the lineup in June after a month-long injury, has been carrying on gamely, but there are days when even the TV viewers can see how much his legs still hurt. He has hit under .250 since mid-July. Roger Maris has hit only 31 home runs, good but not Ruthian, and his batting average is down. The fans are on him, and he has reciprocated their attentions with a few meaningful gestures of his own. "I'm just counting the days till the season's over," Maris said recently. "I'm ready to write the whole thing off." Other Yankee power hitters like John Blanchard, Moose Skowron and Yogi Berra have also fallen on evil days. Only Bobby Richardson, the slick second baseman, has hit consistently for the Yankees, and his hits are singles.
But if the hitting is sad, the pitching is sadder. Ralph Terry, a 20-game winner this year, has been strong, although he still carries with him that vulnerability to the home run. Whitey Ford is only a pale version of his '61 self, when he wound up 25-4. Marshall Bridges, in relief, has filled the Luis Arroyo gap, and Bill Stafford has been passable. But beyond that, the Yankees have been scrambling. Appearing on the mound in recent games has been a cluster of misfits ranging from the ghost of Bob Turley to a youngster named Jim Bouton who is so raw that in one game he threw his glove at a dribbler up the third-base line to knock it into foul territory. No wonder that Ryne Duren, the fast-balling ex-Yankee reliever who is now with the Angels, said wishfully a short while ago: "Down the stretch pitching always tells the story, and their pitching doesn't look so hot. They could be in real trouble."
While the Yankees have been feeling and looking a bit fragile this year, Minnesota and Los Angeles, the two unexpected challengers, have been superb. Minnesota, the stronger of the two, has been helped by its surprise young players, Infielders Bernie Allen and Rich Rollins and Pitchers Jim Kaat and Jack Kralick. Los Angeles has got more than the maximum out of what on paper appears to be a team made up of dead sparrows and pieces of string. One of last year's expansion teams built with castoffs and recruits, the Angels have made General Manager Fred Haney and Manager Bill Rigney look like magicians, an accusation never in previous years hurled at either.
Yet, as well as these two teams had played, the pennant race, if there ever really was one, appeared to be over in early August. After hanging doggedly on to the Yankees' heels through the early summer, the Twins and Angels fell back as the Yankees won 23 out of 29 games to build up their six-and-a-half-game lead. At no time this season had the Yankees been more cheerful and confident of winning the pennant than on August 13th when they took to the road. The team was winning, Ford was pitching well and Mantle was feeling better. And Tony Kubek had returned from the Army, giving Ralph Houk the delightful problem of what to do with two good shortstops, Kubek and rookie Tom Tresh. It promised to be a tough road trip—17 games in 14 days—but there was no reason to suspect that it would be a disaster.
The Twins won the first of a four-game series when the Yankees played giveaway. Howard tried to go from first to second on a fly ball and was thrown out, killing a rally. Maris got hit by a Mantle base hit and that stopped an even more promising rally. Tresh messed up an important double play ball; Bud Daley, in relief, walked three men, and finally Kubek lost a line drive in the lights, letting three runs score. Manager Houk was philosophical. "We're lucky Tony wasn't hit in the face by that drive," he said. A manager with a fat lead can afford to be kind.
The Yankees snapped back to win the next two games, but tossed away the finale on walks and a bloop hit. They continued their sloppy play in Kansas City, losing three out of five games, and then sat down to listen to an inspirational closed-door pep talk by Houk. Properly inspired (or perhaps shaken), the Yankees won two straight games in Los Angeles and were enjoying a fat lead in the third game when Ralph Terry started giving up home runs. The game went 13 innings, Houk had to use four pitchers, and the Yankees still lost. The team left the Coast at 10:30 at night and arrived exhausted and angry in Baltimore at 6:30 in the morning to face the nightmarish task of playing five games in 48 hours.
"If we can get back to Yankee Stadium from Baltimore with as big a lead as we have now," Houk told Leonard Koppett of the New York Post, "I'll feel we're pretty well set for the rest of the season." As it turned out, the Yankees were lucky to get back alive. They lost all five.
After the final loss, different Yankees had different things to say. "We had a good safe lead coming into Baltimore," Bobby Richardson said. "We felt that even if we just split, we'd be all right. That isn't bearing down enough." Someone suggested to Ralph Houk that the six-game losing streak might indicate a trend. Houk bristled. "I wouldn't go betting too damn much money against us the rest of the way," he said. Only Whitey Ford, who had just lost a tough game, managed to keep his sense of humor. "It seems we've been on the road for three months," he said. "We'll be okay as soon as we get home to mamma."
Curiously, the Yankees' lead didn't shrink as much as it might have during the consecutive losses, because neither Minnesota nor Los Angeles could win consistently. The Yankee lead was still three games when they returned home to the Stadium. But neither the Stadium—nor mamma—halted their decline. They split four games with Cleveland, and the lead was pared to two over the Twins, three over the Angels. At week's end the Yankee lead was still a slim one, just about the right size to guarantee a full house at the Stadium when Los Angeles moved into New York for the big four-game series.
Even so, it seemed impossible that the Yankees could lose the pennant to either the Twins or the Angels. Of the three teams, the Yankees have the softest September schedule, and they are the undisputed world champions at the sport of winning-the-ones-you-need. "Let's see how those other guys act when they really get a chance," said Yogi Berra. The Yankees probably will win, just as they always win. Someday they're going to play it too close and get clipped—but not this year.
YANKEES 1962 vs. YANKEES 1961
The Yankees are leading the American League, but they are not as strong as last year. As the chart indicates, many key Yankees are not matching their 1961 performances. The players who are slumping are shaded in gray.
1961 DALEY (KC-NY)