If 1961 was the year of the home run, and 1962 the year of the malfunctioning index finger, 1963 may well be the year of the rookie. Everybody is excited. Why, just the other day President Kennedy asked Washington's George Selkirk: "How about that Maryland boy?"
"Mr. President," Selkirk says he said, "he's been just wonderful and definitely will be at first base for us when we open this season."
The "Maryland boy" happens to be Tom Brown, a swift young man who just last fall was making a name for himself by running back punts and kickoffs at the University of Maryland. Not that major league scouts are especially interested in runbacks, but Tom Brown also managed to hit college pitching for a .449 average last year, and that was good enough for a $20,000 bonus from the Senators.
A 22-year-old outfielder-first baseman, Brown was scheduled for some minor league honing. "You may find Double-A ball a little fast," Senator Manager Mickey Vernon told him early this year. But in spring training, Vernon used the switch-hitting Brown on first, and the rookie hit better than anyone else on the team (.312) and fielded his position with more flair and agility than any other first baseman in Florida. At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Brown runs with halfback speed and uses the drag bunt with great effectiveness. "But I feel he may have to develop a more aggressive swing to be a power hitter," says Joe Branzell, the Washington scout who signed Brown.
Pittsburgh's answer to anybody's rookie is Bob Bailey (above), the third baseman who just two years ago was shuffling at the high school prom. If one were to believe Bailey's press clippings, he would enter the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown by midseason. At 20, Bailey could retire on the $175,000 bonus he got from the Pirates. "I saw him in the minors [Columbus] last year," says Yankee Scout Johnny Neun, "and my report on him was: "one of the finest right-handed batters I've seen come to the majors. And he has a good glove.' "
Such words must have been very reassuring for the Pirates, especially after Bailey's first season in the minors two years ago. Pirate officials took a look at his record and nearly had heart failure: batting average .220 and 27 errors in 71 games at shortstop. But he moved to third, learned about a curve ball, and the Pirates are waiting.
Cleveland's rookie Vic Davalillo looks like a mistake. He's a tiny fellow (5 feet 7, 147 pounds), his cheeks are hollow, his eyes are deep-set and his hat rests on his protruding ears. Take a look at his record and you discover the mistake goes the other way. By trade Davalillo is a left-handed pitcher, and he spent four minor league years trying to prove it. But last year the little Venezuelan turned outfielder and everyone laughed—right up to the time opposing pitchers let go of the ball. Standing with his back foot planted far away from the plate, he whaled away at International League pitching to the tune of .346 with 296 total bases.
Davalillo not only is a fine hitter, he is a wildly exciting center fielder, a position that he plays with unabashed enthusiasm. Very fast (he beat Matty Alou in a 100-meter match race), Davalillo gets a quick start on any ball hit his way. If the Venezuelan center fielder has a weakness, it is going back on fly balls. "I like to run in," he says, frowning at his Spanish-English dictionary.
At the beginning of last season the Cincinnati Reds were figured for dead when Third Baseman Gene Freese broke his ankle on a grim March day. This year Freese is still a question, but nobody around Fountain Square seems to care. Coming to the varsity is Tommy Harper, a quiet young fellow of 22 for whom the horns have been blowing long and loud this past winter. A lot of fans have been led to believe the swift right-handed hitter is the rookie of the season. Last year Harper had a high old time in the Pacific Coast League. He hit .333, led the league in runs and walks, and chipped in 26 home runs. He also struck out 207 times in his two full minor league seasons. "He takes too many third strikes," says Red Manager Freddie Hutchinson, "but I'll tell you something: he'll play for my team." And the reason he will play is partly because of his defensive capabilities. But even in the field Harper poses a problem—a very nice one. Quick as a mongoose and owning an extremely strong throwing arm, he has all the requisites of a third baseman, but his range in the outfield ranks with that of Vada Pinson. Problem: Where to play him? Other managers wish they had such problems.
If ever there was a bumper crop of rookie third basemen, this is it. The White Sox's Pete Ward may be the worst-fielding and best-hitting of the lot. It was the lefty-hitting infielder who touched off the most significant trade of the winter. The White Sox gave the Orioles Luis Aparicio, Al Smith and Dean Stone for Ward, Dave Nicholson, Ron Hansen and Hoyt Wilhelm. "But Ward was the key player in the trade for us," says White Sox Manager Al Lopez.
"Ward was the key player," echoes Baltimore General Manager Lee MacPhail. "We hated to let him go." Son of one of the roughest hockey players of his day (Jim Ward, who played wing for the Montreal Maroons 25 years ago), young Peter is a swashbuckling chip off the old blockbuster. Four times so far he has been fined for violating rules or for basic indiscretions. He has trouble with plane schedules and umpires. And he can find any number of ways to maltreat a ground ball. But the White Sox won't care a bit if Ward just follows his minor-league hitting form. Last year he hit Triple-A pitching for a .328 average.
A great ploy for the Los Angeles Dodgers is to bring some agile young man to spring camp and tell him the second-base job is all his. Then when the dust has settled the job is not his at all. It is old Junior Gilliam's. But this year the Dodgers swear they have found the one. He is Nate Oliver, known as Pee Wee, a slight young rookie with tremendous speed (second only to Willie Davis on the varsity), good reflexes, a fine batting eye and a beautiful baritone voice—all necessary to make it big with the Dodgers. Junior Gilliam, look out.