Once There Were Willie, Stan and Babe

And this may be the year another magic name pops up to join the roster of great ones, rising from and obscuring the problems besetting the harassed men who run baseball
April 08, 1963

Friends, are you concerned with the problems tormenting the managers and general managers of the 20 major league teams as they wheel and turn and come into line for the 1963 season?

Do you—if you favor the St. Louis Cardinals—feel a cold chill race up and down your spine when you try to figure out what Johnny Keane can possibly do if young Ray Sadecki doesn't win 14 or 15 games this year, as Johnny and the Cardinals, with simple, trusting faith, assume that he will?

Do you pace back and forth with Johnny Pesky and the Boston Red Sox, wondering whether Dick Stuart and Roman Mejias can possibly hit Fenway Park's left-field wall often enough this year to make all that determined trading look good? Do you fidget and fuss with Joe L. Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who traded away three-fourths of a world championship infield and a good part of his hitting power and two first-class relief pitchers in order to strengthen the Pirate defense, which didn't seem to need strengthening in the first place? Are you worried about Al Lopez and Ed Short, manager and general manager of the Chicago White Sox, who every couple of years clean out the attic and do over the kitchen and change the decor in the living room—from speed to power to pitching to fielding—and yet seem to keep sliding farther and farther from the top of the league?

Are these the ones you're fretting about, friends? Or is it Charlie Finley? Walter Alston? George Weiss? The Milwaukee Braves? The Los Angeles Angels? Is it that flat-footed firstbaseman of yours? That nonthinking center fielder? Friends, if you're following baseball this year, there's a problem somewhere that's yours—yours and the team you hold close to your bosom. If you're not sure what your worry is, read on. In the 20 specially prepared scouting reports that follow, the nagging problem gnawing at your team is spelled out, isolated, held up to the light for you to see. You can lose sleep over your team with no trouble at all. Even if you're a New York Yankee fan. (No? Well then, what about the bullpen? And are you sure Pepitone can do the job at first?)

Some people, of course, don't give an old resin bag for problems. They feel that's the manager's worry, or the general manager's. They admit that problems—and their solution or lack thereof—are part of the fun of following baseball, but they argue that it's even more fun to simply wait and see what unbelievable thing is going to happen next. They haven't the slightest idea right now what it will be this year, but they know it will be something and it will be unforgettable.

It might be as bizarre as Bo Belinsky and his big mouth and his five straight wins and his no-hit, no-run game and his ducktail haircut (not that they particularly care for ducktail haircuts, but what a refreshing sight Bo's magnificently flowing locks were after those acres and acres of flattop crew cuts). Everybody tried to stifle Bo, sit on him, shut him up, smooth him out until he was indistinguishable from the rest of the ballplayers around. But in the end the only one who could stop Belinsky was Belinsky himself, and he achieved that by losing his touch as a pitcher for a while. As long as he was winning, Bo was fine, it difficult. When he started to lose he was merely difficult.

Belinsky points up something that is a vital characteristic of baseball. He stands out because he is an individual, and baseball needs individuals. Baseball is not a team game—at least, not in the sense that football is. A football player like Terry Baker shines in a game because of his extraordinary skills, but what he is able to accomplish depends to a large degree on his team. In baseball, on the other hand, a Walter Johnson or an Ernie Banks can do almost as much with a last-place club as with a pennant winner. A football team must be drilled and trained to perfection; it must operate as a unit; it must be controlled and directed in all phases of its activity by a shrewd and dominant leader. It is like a Roman army, whereas a baseball team is more like one of the barbarian hordes that overran Rome as the empire collapsed; it is a collection of individuals banded together for a common purpose; it has a leader whom the individuals follow, but the individuals can operate effectively without the leader.

Imagine the Green Bay Packers without Vince Lombardi or his staff for an entire season. The precision and strength and winning ways of the Packers could not be maintained without the constant and attentive leadership of a forceful and brilliant head coach. Now imagine the New York Yankees without Ralph Houk and his coaches. Would you want to bet that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry and Tom Tresh and all the rest couldn't play together without a manager? Of course, the problems of discipline and player evaluation and morale would eventually undermine even the Yankees, but in a seven-game World Series would you give odds that a Yankee team without a manager would lose?

It's the individual who makes baseball, the individual player and the individual feat, sometimes an obscure individual feat. Bill Rigney. Manager of the Year last season with the Los Angeles Angels, talked with enthusiasm recently about a play his young catcher, Bob Rodgers, made last summer. "We were playing in New York," Rigney said, "and we had them tied in extra innings. The game went 12 in all, and we did eventually get beat. But in the 11th, the Yankees had the bases loaded with one out, so we pulled the infield in to cut off the run at the plate. Bill Skowron was on second for the Yankees and as the ball was pitched he came halfway down the line behind Joe Koppe, our shortstop. Bobby Richardson was up for the Yanks, and he topped a bounder right to Koppe. Joe threw the ball to Rodgers for the force at home plate and I was thinking already—who's their next hitter?—because I knew we weren't going to double Richardson at first. And then Rodgers threw the ball to third and forced Skowron, and we were out of the inning.

"I couldn't believe it. I thought, how could he force Skowron at third when Skowron was already halfway to third when the ball was hit? Well, Skowron had stopped behind Koppe and didn't break for third until Joe fielded the ball and threw to the plate, because he didn't want Koppe to see him and tag him before he threw home. Rodgers saw Skowron stop—I think he must have been the only person in the ball park who did—and he didn't hesitate a second. He threw the ball to Eddie Yost and we had a double play, short to home to third. Yost said to me later, 'I was so surprised I caught the ball right here, at my belt buckle. I thought, what's he throwing it to me for?' " Rigney shook his head. "That's a rare thing in a young player—that instant reflex to do the right thing. Yogi Berra had it. And this kid Rodgers has it, too."

There it is: only one play, one little out, in a long summer of thousands of plays and thousands of outs—but it was an instant of time that was imbedded in memory, something to keep as a collector's item. There will be more collector's items to savor this year, and there will be ballplayers to watch (cherished antiques like Musial and Spahn, for instance) and—best of all—new ballplayers to discover.

Exactly a dozen years ago this May, the Giants brought up a 20-year-old kid named Mays, who played the outfield the way boys play it in their wildest and most imaginative daydreams. The Giants went on to win that year (that pennant race was more than a collector's item; it was the Mona Lisa), but late in May they were still trying to shake off a deadly early-season slump. Willie joined the club in Philadelphia and went to bat 12 straight times without a hit. In his first game in the Polo Grounds, the Giants faced the Braves and Warren Spahn. In the top of the first inning the Braves scored three runs, and in the bottom of the first Spahn put out the first two Giants like a man stepping on ants. Then Willie came up and hit a huge home run onto the roof in left field.

It was his first big-league hit, and the crowd, depressed because they knew they weren't going to beat Spahn that night (and they didn't), leaped up and roared and cheered as though Willie had just won the World Series. It was a strange, tingly thing to be a part of, because all that the crowd was saying, really, was, "Welcome, Willie, we've been waiting all our lives for you." For the next two months, or until the Giants began to move after the Dodgers in earnest, about all anybody who followed the Giants talked about was Willie. His dismal early batting average rose steadily as Willie went on the first of his many batting tears and went as high as .316 at one point, though he finished the season at .274.

Well, that's the point. A Willie Mays is something that can happen only once. But he did happen. And so did Bob Feller in 1936, and Ted Williams in 1939, and Stan Musial in 1941. (Bob Broeg, the St. Louis sportswriter who was working for a Boston paper that year, said he talked to Casey Stengel in Boston late in the 1941 season after Casey had returned with his Braves from a road trip, during which they played against Musial, a brand-new rookie, for the first time. The Cardinals had been bringing up superb young players for two or three seasons as they built their magnificent team of the early '40s. "How did the Cards look?" asked Broeg, who had read a little about Musial. Casey glanced at him. "They got another one," he said, in one of the shortest bits of Stengelese on record. Broeg knew at once what Casey meant, and so, now in retrospect, do we.) Babe Ruth happened in 1915 and Joe DiMaggio in 1936 and, right now, fidgeting around a hotel room waiting for the season to begin, there might be such a one again. Maybe Bailey of Pittsburgh, or Harper of Cincinnati, or Ward of the White Sox, or Mathews of the Cubs.

Or there might be a man for the season—a Belinsky, a Roger Maris, a Ewell Blackwell. This might be the year a Dale Long hits a homer a game for eight games, or a Joe DiMaggio hits in 56 straight, or a Johnny Vander Meer pitches two consecutive no-hitters. Or the St. Louis Cardinals might come from 10 games back in August to win the National League pennant from the Dodgers and go on to rack up the Yankees, four games to one, in the World Series, as they did in 1942. And listen, friend, a team like the 1914 Boston Braves might come raging up like a nova for one unforgettable run at glory, to win the pennant and the Series in four straight and then subside again into obscurity.

Or take the Mets. You can't expect them to be Shakespearean clowns again. They could do the same act, except that it won't, be funny the second time around. But suppose the Mets pull an Angels! Think of the odds you could have had a year ago if you had bet on the Los Angeles Angels to finish third. Just imagine the Mets finishing third! Just imagine.

Friends, it will be fun watching.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)