Crucial series, like Christmas advertising and gin and tonics, seem to get started earlier every year. And despite the scheduled evidence of almost half a season still to go, last week's three-game series between the Yankees and Orioles was as bona fide crucial as the month of July has ever produced.
To begin with, the American League seems blessed with that happy rarity, a real pennant race. Of course the American League has been visited with mirages in July before, but these particular Orioles look more substantial, somehow. Contributing further to the atmosphere of cruciality was the knowledge that the two league leaders would meet in only two more series all year. They will be completely through with each other seven weeks before the season ends. And the White Sox—the third team in the race—play their last games with the other two contenders in August also. The American League would have scheduled Halley's Comet at high noon.
Actually, any Baltimore-New York series has taken on distinction in recent years, for the Orioles are the only team in the league even remotely approaching the status of a Yankee nemesis. Since 1959 the Orioles have been 54-55 with the Yankees, and no other team is close to that record. Even during two second-division seasons, they continued to give the Yankees a hard time while being tough on hardly anybody else. This year, although they lost two of the three games last week, they still lead the Yankees 6-5, and the play has been typically tight. Until the Orioles beat the Yankees 6-1 on Thursday, no game had been decided by more than three runs—and half of them by one. Each team had scored 36 runs.
Though others have recognized Baltimore's special talent for staying with the Yankees, the oddsmakers are apparently not ready to concede. They have established New York the favorite in every game the two teams have played this season, making the Orioles the juiciest overlay around. The fans, however, who know a good series when they see it coming, turned out 100,000 strong at Yankee Stadium for last week's three games. This was far beyond Yankee expectations; indeed, it was beginning to appear doubtful that anything could bring people back from the sideshow the Mets are putting on out by the World's Fair. ("Hurry, hurry, hurry! See the passed balls! See the players collide! See the man pitch an absolutely perfect game! See the teams play 23 innings!") Last week's crowds were even more impressive than the numbers indicate. The series took place in the middle of the week in competition with the Republican Convention (free) on TV. Only one of the games was at night; one was in the afternoon, the last a 6 o'clock Suburban Night game. The night game attracted 25% of the TV audience, rated as high as 20.8 and far outdrew Huntley-Brinkley.
At Yankee Stadium everything seemed Octoberish except the humidity. The play was outstanding, the fans tremendously excited and the players tense. Yankee Third Baseman Clete Boyer said he did not recall his team being so keyed up in three years. A few Baltimore banners were unfurled in the stands, and, though every visiting team in New York attracts Yankee-haters of its own, support for the Orioles was unusually large. When the P.A. announcer began a ticket pitch, "The league-leading Orioles...," the loud cheers and boos suggested that he had nominated Baltimore to lead the league. The press box was more crowded than usual and included a group that came up from Philadelphia to examine the team the Phillies would play in the fall. When the Phillies lost their sixth of seven games on Wednesday, the Philadelphians promptly returned home.
One good indication of the present Yankee-Oriole status is the fact that the players refuse to say anything uncomplimentary about each other. This is the result of the new sporting philosophy that if you do say something negative about the opposition, the rival manager or coach will read it in the paper, put the clipping on the clubhouse wall and thus turn his indifferent forces into veritable tigers. In Baltimore last month, after the Orioles beat the Yankees, a Baltimore sportswriter overheard Elston Howard mutter, "Those lucky so-and-sos." Publication of the remark caused almost as much consternation among the Yankees as losing the game. Yankee Manager Yogi Berra just winces and smiles when asked to comment about the occasionally caustic Baltimore fans. When a reporter asked Oriole Manager Hank Bauer if he thought the Yankees had choked after a loss, Bauer gulped and then suggested that the young man go down to the Yankee clubhouse and ask them and "see what they do to you."
The Orioles are particularly respectful of the Yankees because their leaders—President Lee MacPhail, Bauer and Coaches Billy Hunter and Gene Woodling—are all ex-Yankees. Presumably this came about on the theory that if you can't beat 'em, get 'em to join you, and it does provide an added fillip to the competition.
Though Yogi Berra is already thinking ahead to the crucial August series with the Orioles and White Sox, last week's series was his most important yet as a manager, and he prepared for it even more than Bauer did. The Oriole manager refused to upset his pitching rotation, but Berra held out Left-hander Al Downing for an extra day so that he could start the first game against the Orioles. Berra has managed so far mostly by the book. Bauer himself says, "He looks like he goes by the percentages, the same as most of us." But Yogi is his own man. "I don't know if I am patterning myself after anybody—Stengel or Houk or anybody. I'm just myself," he says. "Ralph never interferes. He just told me what to expect and left me alone. He told me, 'You're going to see a lot of things a little different than before.' You know, like I can't hang around with the players anymore. Oh, maybe just breakfast or something like that."
The Yankee players think Berra has done a good job in getting the most out of each of them. "Houk would make you feel like a million with just a pat on the back," Infielder Phil Linz says. "Yogi will joke with you and get the same result." Berra is basically an extremely friendly person and has hardly changed just because he has his own office and only eats breakfast with the players.
He has long been pictured as a comedian, however, and that he is not. This funnyman image derives largely from his stubby, fireplug physique, his Goldwynish conflicts with grammar and his boyhood chum, Joe Garagiola, Berra's self-appointed Boswell. It is Garagiola who is the comic. He and Berra appeared together recently on the Tonight show, and Garagiola asked Berra to tell a few stories about the old times. Berra would start, talking casually and pleasantly. Then Garagiola would interrupt and tell the story his way, mostly about Berra—and boffo, all kinds of laughs. A lot of people undoubtedly turned off their sets and went to bed saying, "What a funny man that Yogi Berra is." People now are conditioned to mistake for wit what is no more than Berra's genuine warmth. He is fun, rather than funny.
He is also no dummy. Coach Jimmy Gleason has known Berra for 20 years. "When he puts these on," Gleason says, tapping his spikes with a fungo bat, "he becomes a very smart boy." Berra's catching experience has, of course, made him particularly adept at handling his pitchers, but he has also manipulated his bench well in the face of injuries and slumps. He has not altered established Yankee strategy, being smart enough not to argue with past Yankee success. But the team has failed to hit with its customary power this year so Berra has compensated by turning the Yankees loose on the bases. Against the Orioles, the Yankees managed only 15 singles and one double. It was base running—and particularly the uncertain legs of Mickey Mantle—that became the most important part of the New York offense.
In the opening game, after Bob Johnson's record sixth straight pinch hit for Baltimore had tied the score 3-3 in the seventh, Mantle singled with one out in the eighth. Berra lets Mantle run on his own, and when the count went to two and two on Roger Maris, Mantle broke. Maris hit a grounder to second, but Mantle already had eliminated any double-play opportunity. He then scored the winning run when Tom Tresh blooped a single to right.
Still to come, however, was what Berra called "the most exciting inning of the season," when the Orioles loaded the bases in the ninth. Yogi went out to talk to Downing once but stuck with him, and left-handed-hitting Norm Siebern flied out to end the game. Suppose, someone later asked, a right-hander had been up instead of Siebern. Would Yogi have taken Downing out? Berra looked up from his chair. He was sitting there, arms akimbo—one of his favorite managerial poses. "Might have," he said. Then, smiling, he pointed a finger at the reporter. He does not wag fingers. He just points them. "That didn't come up, though." Everybody laughed.
The next day Mantle opened the second inning with a single. Tresh walked. On the first pitch to Elston Howard, Mantle took off, beating the throw to third by a hair. He and Tresh then scored the game's only runs when Joe Pepitone singled. Mantle tried the steal because he thought the Orioles would be surprised (they were) and also because he was trying to avoid a double play. The Orioles made seven in the last two games during a series of spectacular fielding. Third Baseman Brooks Robinson was the Orioles' star afield, and Yankee Shortstop Tony Kubek saved Whitey Ford's second-game shutout with four outstanding plays. Second Baseman Bobby Richardson, who should know, said bluntly that it was the best game Kubek ever played. This in spite of the fact that the Yankee Stadium infield was brick-hard—except for a soggy half moon in front of the plate that was heavily watered to slow up any grounders coming off Ford's sinking pitches.
Because Whitey is doubling as the team's pitching coach this year there was a great deal of preseason speculation about a conflict of interest between Pitcher Ford and Coach Ford—and further, where did Manager Berra fit in here? The answers were neatly provided last week when Ford's hip started hurting whenever he threw a curve. He held on until, with two out in the ninth and a man on first, he called for Berra. Boog Powell was the Baltimore hitter, and he had, incidentally, poled a Ford pitch far into the upper deck only a few feet foul his first time up. Ford suggested that Berra relieve him with Steve Hamilton. Berra mused over Coach Ford's suggestion, then vetoed it. "Throw him sliders but keep them outside," he told Pitcher Ford. Powell hit the second slider to Richardson, and the Yankees were briefly back in first place. (Hamilton relieved the next evening and was bombed.)
The Orioles returned to first and to Baltimore the next night after Steve Barber pitched a four-hitter and hit the only home run of the series. The Oriole victory provided, as much as possible, a satisfactory series for all concerned: the home team won two of three, the visitors won the last game just when everyone was ready to write them off—and the pennant race too. Both teams then went into a three-week campaign against assorted also-rans before they meet again on August 7 back at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are already pushing tickets for that set. It will include the Old Timers Day Game that will feature, among other things, Yogi Berra and Hank Bauer wearing Yankee uniforms and playing on the same team.
Remembering the lessons of history—and admitting the possibility of another mirage—it is conceivable that the Yankees will have started to run away with things by then. It is also possible that Chicago, profiting from the addition of Moose Skowron, will have replaced Baltimore as the other top contender. But the August series will still be a dandy, because when the Orioles and Yankees play each other they play only one kind of baseball: superb.
After the second game, after Ford had shut out the Orioles, the reporters were clustered about Hank Bauer. There was very little to say, so finally someone suggested that Bauer ask a question himself. He was thinking mostly about Tony Kubek, but what he said was surely an appreciation of the brilliance shown in the field by all the Yankees and all the Orioles in this series. "Why," Hank Bauer asked, "did Doubleday put those fielders where they're at?"