Pretend that one year everything went wrong for the Yankees: sore arms, broken bones, pulled muscles and, oh, say, a bullet wound. That would finish the Yankees, right? Wrong. It all happened last year and the Yankees won the pennant more easily than at any time in the past 16 years.
Astonishingly, almost all of the Yankee hitters slumped last year. Even Joe Pepitone, in a fine first season as a regular (.271 BA, 27 HRs), did little more than equal Bill Skowron's 1962 performance. Elston Howard (.287) hit more homers (28) and made MVP, but his RBIs fell off. Three of the starting lineup—Tom Tresh, Bobby Richardson and Clete Boyer—were all down in three important categories—average, RBIs and runs scored, and Shortstop Tony Kubek hit only .257, worst of his career. Kubek, a lead-off man who has never received enough walks, drew only 34 last year. Indeed, it was only the two big men—Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris—who hit as expected, but injuries kept them out of the lineup a large part of the season. Mantle felt good this spring, but it was not long before a bone bruise became his first official injury of the season. The bruise in itself was minor, but it was a solemn reminder that at any time this marvelous athlete may end up in the hospital instead of center field. Otherwise the Yankees are all healthy. Maris looks and feels just fine now. Pepitone is carrying more weight, but carrying it well, and both he and Tresh are capable of more power. There should be more good years than bad ones, and to push the starters, there are still Johnny Blanchard (a left-handed hitter) and Hector Lopez (a right-handed hitter) on the bench. Gone only is Manager Yogi Berra's clutch bat.
Since things should, logically, go well for a change, the Yankees are letting the kids take care of themselves. In the Bronx version of Lord of the Flies, Larry Berra becomes manager and young Ed Ford becomes pitching coach. Ford's job should be the tougher, for he will also continue to pitch—a dual role that places him squarely in double jeopardy. So far, though, the fears have only been for his pitching. Will Coach Ford, trying to get, say, AI Downing out of a slump, end up getting Pitcher Ford into one? If so, the Yanks will have lost a big gamble. The winningest-percentage pitcher of all time (199-78, .718 with a 2.78 ERA), Ford, 35, seems to be getting better and had perhaps his finest all-round season last year, when he was 24-7 with a 2.74 ERA. Johnny Sain, his predecessor as coach, wishes Ford all the best. "Whitey is a good friend," Sain says. "I felt I influenced him a little, and I learned a tremendous lot from him. The players respect him. I've never heard of a pitching coach who takes his turn, but Whitey should come as close to adapting himself as anyone I know." Ford's own fears are minimal, and, in fact, he thinks the most difficult time will have been in spring training. At Fort Lauderdale the transition from Coach Ford to Pitcher Ford was as smooth as Clark Kent to Superman—just the matter of taking off his watch. To be a good pitching coach, Ford has the credentials—brains and his own good assortment of learned pitches. Ford has also done a good job of extracurricular coaching in the past. He has not been the type to press his knowledge upon others but, when asked, he proved most helpful. "When I talk pitching with Whitey," says Steve Hamilton—a reliever who has a master's degree and teaches a course in "baseball techniques" at Morehead State (Ky.) College—"I don't do much talking. I listen." The Yanks have good listeners and good pitchers for Whitey; seven of them, besides Ford himself, have won at least 13 games in a season. Off last year's record the two fast-ball kids, Jim Bouton (21-7, 2.53) and Al Downing (13-5, 2.56 after being recalled June 6) look solid. Ralph Terry (17-15, 3.22) makes the best fourth starter in the league. Terry staggered a bit when he lost his hard curve last year but thinks he found the key to getting it back in, of all places, the World Series bullpen. Another reclamation project is Bill Stafford, who showed up fat and happy last spring, then hurt his arm in his first start and wasn't of much use after that. Down 29 pounds, Stafford looks fit to snap back. Then there is also Rollie Sheldon, 15-1 as a rookie in 1960. Since then, as his control mysteriously evaporated, Sheldon faded back to the minors. After spring training this year he was shipped out again, but he may be back to press the incumbents. And don't forget Stan Williams (9-8, 3.21, which is not too bad) or Bud Daley, now apparently cured by a bone-chip-removal operation. Both can start or relieve long. The short bullpen is good, complete and young with chubby right-hander Hal Reniff and lanky lefty Hamilton. There is no Luis Arroyo or even a Marshall Bridges (the one who was shot in the leg), but a big rookie named Pete Mikkelsen was 11-6 and 1.47 at Augusta and may turn out to be the sleeper that usually pops up in the Yankee camp.
April 13, 1964
"Look, we have 50 guys," Yogi says proudly, in his own way of referring to the team's versatility. Indeed, it is the Yankees' depth afield that is most impressive—especially if someone should get hurt in the midst of the pennant race. Everybody can play everywhere, and reasonably well, too. With Phil Linz and Harry Bright, the Yankees have an extremely versatile one-two utility punch, and even a rookie candidate like Pedro Gonzales can play infield or outfield. The starters all rank high. As an outfield, Mantle, Maris and Tresh can all run, all catch and all throw—which is all there is to playing the outfield. With Pepitone improving at first, the Yankee infield has become the best in baseball. Howard is a fine defensive catcher, and Blanchard should improve now that he can concentrate on catching without having to moonlight in the outfield.
The Yankees are solid in every way. The pennant should be a breeze for Yogi and pal Whitey.