Two weeks ago Willie Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers sprawled out on the thick blue padding that covers the dugout bench in Dodger Stadium and talked about a subject close to his heart—running. "I really love to spin my wheels," said Willie. "I believe it's possible for me to steal between 50 and 60 bases this season. That's about twice as many as I ever stole in one season in my life. Of course, I'm not going to say that I will steal that many, because too much depends on the breaks, my health and so on. But it would be possible. Real possible."
Back in 1960, when Willie came to the major leagues to play full time, he was considered the fastest man ever to play for the always fast Dodgers, the fastest man in the National League, the fastest man in baseball and one of the fastest men alive. Today he is still extremely fast and still the fastest Dodger, but he is no longer the fastest in the National League or even the fastest in Chavez Ravine.
This season there are runners all over the place in baseball, and many seem to be as fast—or as quick—as Willie Davis ever was. Chico Ruiz of the Cincinnati Reds is now probably the fastest in his league, and the whole Red team is now as fast as the Dodgers—if not faster.
The overall speed title may belong to Dick (Briefcase) Simpson of the Los Angeles Angels. Briefcase, a center fielder, plays the same position in the same ball park as Willie Davis, which should make for some fine comparative arguments before the season is finished.
"There is no doubt," says Manager Johnny Keane of the St. Louis Cardinals, "that teams are running more this year than in a long, long time, and they will continue to run. I believe that the whole idea of running was triggered by Maury Wills and Willie Davis two years ago when they stole 136 bases between them. For too long people in baseball had forgotten about running. It has always been one of the most important parts of the game, but it became the most neglected. Today many players do not even know themselves how fast they can run and 90% can still improve their running. We worked and worked this spring on our running, on the hit-and-run, on picking up the extra base. Baseball games are tighter today than ever before, and getting a little edge with speed has become tremendously important."
Just how important the little edge can be is shown by the fact that the three best teams in baseball last season—the Dodgers, Cards and Yankees—played in a total of 161 games that were decided by one run.
Says George Strickland, who is acting as manager of the Cleveland Indians until Birdie Tebbetts recovers from a heart attack, "The Dodgers made speed attractive. That's their whole attack and it is bound to have impressed everyone, whether they admit it or not. The club that is running is going to force other clubs into mistakes. The stolen base demoralizes a defense."
Pedro Ramos, the Cleveland right-hander, believes that the way the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series has convinced many managers in the American League that speed is the answer to Yankee power for them, too. Ramos, who in 1962 grandiloquently billed himself as the "fastest man in baseball" and got beaten by Briefcase Simpson in a 75-yard dash, has adopted a slogan for his teammates this season: "Go for Pedro." And the first-place Indians are really going.
Actually, many teams in the American League are turning to speed—stealing, bunting and using the hit-and-run more than ever before. The World Series lesson was not lost on the Yankees either. One of the first things Yogi Berra did this spring was tell his players that he intended to use more running, a definite departure from the managing techniques of Ralph Houk. In a game against the Baltimore Orioles last week the Yankees flashed their speed and won a big ball game with it. Mickey Mantle dragged a bunt single, Roger Maris—yes, Roger Maris—also dragged a bunt single and went to second by tagging up on a fly ball to center and Bobby Richardson stretched a single to a double. Each eventually scored in a 4-1 win.
"When you get men with speed thinking more about running, you open up the game," says Manager Bill Rigney of the Angels. "You worry the opposition to death. This causes that infinitesimal glance by fielders that often can result in a misjudged fly ball or in a man being half a step behind a ground ball." Even the Minnesota Twins, who usually rely on extra-base hits, are working for runs this way. Says Coach Floyd Baker, "We are trying to force the defense into having at least one player out of position on the hit-and-run."
While base stealing is up 55% in the American League and triples have risen another 45%, the National League is not far behind in these statistics. The Pittsburgh Pirates can attribute part of their early-season success to the hit-and-run—and playing the New York Mets seven times. "The Pirates were off and running almost every time I looked up," said Catcher Dick Bertell of the Cubs the other day. "The reason for it, I think, is that the pitchers had so much success last year that the hitters are out to bother them this year."
Third Baseman Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals says, "There are an awful lot of pitchers today who will never give you a home run ball. So you have to rattle them when you get on base." Early this season Boyer, who stole only one base all last year, got on against Don Drysdale of the Dodgers and took such long leads that he drew five throws to first. In addition to annoying a pitcher and spoiling his concentration, this can tire him. In the opening game of the season between the Giants and Braves, Henry Aaron kept waving his arms and shouting so much at first base that he forced Juan Marichal of the Giants into balking home the tying run.
All of this, of course, makes for more interesting baseball, both to play and to watch. But if speed isn't enough to bring a rise in attendance this year, that old standby, the home run, will. In the National League at least we may be in for a record season of slugging. Through the first two weeks there have been 97 home runs, almost a 50% increase over 1962, and no one really knows why. Fred Hutchinson of the Reds claims it has been caused by better weather this year in spring training. Says Hutch, "The hitters got off to a better start. They wanted to hit. In bad weather their hands get sore and they say to hell with it." Bob Kennedy of the Cubs maintains it is caused by the prevailing winds in Wrigley Field, where 22 have been hit, and Gene Mauch of the Phillies says that the batters have just adapted to the strike zone. Mauch says those "prevailing" Chicago winds prevail both ways and that his team lost nine homers in one game there when the winds prevailed in rather than out. "It pertains to something besides hitting and throwing the ball," says San Francisco Manager Alvin Dark, mysteriously, and refuses to explain. Since the Giants have hit 16 homers and the Cubs 17, you can take your choice.