What are you going to do about those Yankees? On June 6 they seemed to be in serious trouble. Mickey Mantle had run into the center field fence the night before, breaking his foot. Bill Stafford and Stan Williams, two of the starting pitchers, were dismal flops. Luis Arroyo, the pennant-saving relief pitcher of 1961, had a sore arm and was useless. Tony Kubek was out of the lineup with an injured leg. Baltimore had wrested first place away from New York and, with Mantle out, the Orioles were in perfect position to fulfill that American League dream: winning the pennant from the Yankees. And if Baltimore could not do it, maybe Chicago could, or the powerful Minnesota Twins, who were just beginning to wake up and play ball, or the surprising Boston Red Sox.
Now, almost two months later, Mantle is still out of action, Arroyo is gone, Stafford and Williams have yet to reestablish themselves as pitchers, Roger Maris has been only a part-time star, but the Yankees have opened up one of the biggest midseason leads in the history of the game. Baltimore and Chicago and Minnesota and Boston have played very well, really, and are wrapped up in a tightly competitive knot—several thousand miles behind. The Yankees stand alone, a band of heroes whose names someday will ring down the corridors of glory along with Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio.
What names? What names, indeed! Is it possible that you have never heard of Linz and Bright and Blanchard and Bouton and Downing and Hamilton and Reniff and Lopez?
True, the names are not Babe Linz or Larruping Lou Bright or Jolting Joe Blanchard, but these men and their companions in anonymity are the players who are winning the pennant for New York, the ones who are tipping the balance. A few familiar names have earned headlines—Whitey Ford is having a normal, sensational year—but essentially the difference between the Yankees and the rest of the league has been the reserves. Who in the world are they? Where did they come from?
August 4, 1963
Well, Steve Hamilton came from the Washington Senators. He had a 3-8 record last year, and when the Yankees sent Jim Coates to the Senators for Hamilton it seemed like another of baseball's classic nothing-for-nothing trades. But Hamilton, a 6-foot-7-inch stringbean (The Skinny Monster, he is called by Stan Williams) who once played pro basketball for the Minneapolis Lakers, has turned into the best left-handed relief pitcher in the league. They say that ballplayers change when they put on a Yankee uniform, but Ralph Houk, the Yankee manager, said the other day, "We knew he could get left-handers out as well as anybody in the league. He did it to us last year. But we got a bonus in Hamilton—he's smart and he works hard and he's learned to get the righthanders out, too."
Hamilton is intelligent—he holds a master's degree in education from More-head State in Kentucky—and he has both competitive guts and an awareness of the excitement that baseball can provide. Recently he was called into a game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and no one out. He struck out three straight batters and walked off the field to tumultuous applause. Later he said, "My knees started to rattle when I walked back to the dugout, it wasn't a really tense situation—we had a 7-0 lead—but it feels pretty good to strike out the side with the bases loaded." He was complimented for acknowledging the applause of the crowd by tipping his cap. "If it had happened in the ninth inning instead of the eighth," he said, grinning, "I'd have taken the cap off and waved it." Shades of the nonchalant Yankees of yesteryear!
Harry Bright is one of those camouflaged players. He has been in professional ball since 1946 and he has been in the majors since 1958, with one side trip back to the minors, but no one knows what he looks like. Harry played for Fond du Lac, Twin Falls, Independence, Houma, Miami, Sioux Falls, Clovis, Topeka, Janesville, Memphis, Buffalo, Little Rock, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Washington and Cincinnati before joining New York. He has caught, played all four infield positions and the outfield, and one year he even pitched a little. With the Yankees he has hit often and with power. He was platooned with Joe Pepitone, the All-Star first baseman, when Joe ran into a bit of trouble hitting left-handers. Later, when injuries to Tony Kubek and Phil Linz made it necessary for Cletis Boyer to move from third base to shortstop, Harry filled in at third.
How did the Yankees know that Bright would turn out to be such a useful ballplayer? "We wanted a right-handed hitter," said Houk. "Bright's record shows that he's always been a good hitter. He hit 17 home runs last year for Washington. We wanted someone who could play first base, if we needed him to. Harry played a lot of games at first last year. He was available, and we got him."
John Blanchard didn't come from anyplace. At 30, he is a veteran of 13 seasons as Yankee property, the first eight of which were spent in the minors or in military service. Blanchard was an outfielder at the start of his career, but the Yankees converted him into a catcher. With Yogi Berra and Elston Howard around, this tended to slow his rise to the majors, and he did not make it to New York until 1959. Even then he played sparingly until Ralph Houk succeeded Casey Stengel as manager. Under Houk, Blanchard got to play more, and he hit 34 home runs in two seasons. But this year he had played rarely and was hitting poorly (.135) until he took over in right field early in July after Roger Maris was injured. Then, in the space of three weeks, he hit six home runs, drove in 16 runs and batted .346. His hot streak ended abruptly one morning last week when he phoned Tony Kubek, who lives close by, and said, "I think I'm sick. Would you drive me to the hospital?" The self-diagnosis was correct: he had acute bronchitis, bordering on bronchial pneumonia, and was immediately hospitalized. But by this time Maris, known around the Yankee clubhouse as "Blanchard's replacement," was ready to play again.
Hector Lopez is another supernumerary who has been carrying a Yankee spear for a long time. Hector comes from Panama and first played organized baseball in Canada (he had been playing for a beer company team in Panama City when a friend named Picou told him he could get him a job in the Provincial League in Quebec). The Athletics spotted him there, and a few years later he became one of the many players who traveled the Kansas City-Yankee shuttle. He had been an infielder with Kansas City but not a terribly good one, and after a shot at third base with New York he was switched to the outfield. He made some bad plays there, too, and earned a reputation as a butcher, but he has since developed into a steady, if unspectacular, outfielder. He is a strong right-handed hitter with a particular knack for hitting to right field, a technique he learned when he played for the beer company, where the prevailing wind was toward right. Like so many players on the Yankee bench, Lopez would be a regular with most teams, but he is content to stay where he is, picking up a delicious World Series check every autumn.
Jim Bouton, Al Downing and Hal Reniff are pitchers out of the Yankee farm system. Bouton is a college man (Western Michigan) who enjoys art, designs jewelry and paints in his spare time. His effete tastes stop there. Teammates call him The Bulldog because he has a squeezed-together face, like Herbert Hoover, and because of his toughness and tenacity on the mound. Last year, as a rookie, Bouton's record was mediocre, but this season he was the Yankees' best relief pitcher until the failure of Williams and Stafford forced Houk to use him as a starter. He was an instant success, but on June 6, the night after Mantle was hurt, Bouton was hit full in the face by a line drive and was led off the field, dripping blood. A similar, though more serious, accident had destroyed Herb Score's career, and many wondered how long Bouton would be out of action and whether he would be gun-shy when he returned. The Bulldog was back almost immediately and has now won 13 games.
The same day that Bouton was hurt the Yankees sent Luis Arroyo to the minors and brought up Downing, a comparatively tiny left-hander who looks about 12 years old. Downing had a small try with the Yankees a season or two back without signal success, but Yogi Berra (who has turned out to be a superb fill-in himself this year, after being semiretired to the venerable position of player-coach) gave the world notice that Downing would be back, and Berra spoke with a catcher's wisdom.
Downing has turned out to be startlingly good. He throws so hard that he strikes out opponents at the rate of almost 11 per game. He gives up very few hits and twice has had a no-hitter as late as the seventh inning. Sportswriters make notes on all his pitches when he starts a game because they think he is the type who might pop up with a perfect game. Downing is from Trenton, N.J., and in high school was president of his class for three years in a row.
Reniff (his name sounds like something spelled backwards) is a blond butterball who came up to the Yankees in the middle of the 1961 season and pitched very effectively in relief. Then he went into service for six months, came out in perfect physical condition, lean and hard, and promptly hurt his arm. He pitched only 10 innings all last year. This season, round and fully packed again, he is back in the groove. When Bouton became a starter, the right-handed Reniff became the No. 1 relief man.
Phil Linz is tall and thin and wears glasses and has a self-deprecatory sense of humor. He is the sort of major leaguer you feel you could have been just as good as if only you had kept in shape. But Linz is deceptive. He won the batting championship of the Carolina League in 1960 and the batting championship of the Texas League in 1961, and in two seasons as a reserve with the Yankees he is batting .285. He is extremely versatile, both on the field and in conversation. He filled in at right field when both Maris and Tresh were out with injuries ("Babe Ruth, Al Kaline and me," he said. "All right fielders, all from Baltimore"). He filled in at second base when Bobby Richardson was ill with German measles ("Are you afraid of catching them?" he was asked. "I don't catch them," said Linz. "I'm German. I give them"). He filled in at shortstop when Tony Kubek was injured ("I am a regular irregular," Linz said).
Regular irregulars, spear carriers, bench—call them what you will. But the Yankees nobody knows have moved their illustrious team out of reach of the rest of the league. One New York sports-writer wrote last week that perhaps it was time to cover Yankee games as a critic-might, looking upon them as presentations of the performing arts instead of as contests. He was joking, of course, but no one heard the rest of the American League laugh.