"Baseball is a game of inches. The minute he hit it I knew it was gone. Over the long haul the breaks have a tendency to even out. Pitching is still the name of the game. You can't steal first base. It's a trade that should help both clubs. We're going to keep right on playing them one at a time. Our attendance would have been much higher, but we had a rainy spring. He still has trouble with the breaking pitch. Over the last two months we had the best record in the league. The players today just aren't as colorful as they used to be. The team that could win it all is the team with the fewest injuries. They'll go as far as their pitching will take them. Please enclose 25¢ extra for postage and handling. The only thing wrong with baseball is the people who run it. In this game every game is a big game."
Baseball, thank goodness, remains a game of honest, immutable clichés; a game of magnificent and significant rituals; a game that promotes endless arguments and comparisons and almost passionate loyalties. This week major league baseball begins again, with all its grace and faults and pitchman's promises, but this time it seems to offer a little more to look forward to than usual and quite a bit more for passionate loyalists to worry about. Will Sandy Koufax be able to pitch well enough often enough? Can Whitey Ford possibly do as well as he did last year? What about Mantle's legs, Aaron's ankle, Freehan's back, Clemente's thigh, Hunt's finger and what about the back-to-back back injuries to Wine and Amaro?
Can you possibly imagine a season in which the Mets might move up while the Yankees move down, in which Dick Stuart and Bo Belinsky play in the same town on the same team and in which, at long last, knishes will be served in the Baltimore ball park? Can you imagine a ninth-place team like Houston having $3 million in ticket sales in the bank before the first pitch is thrown and a $31 million greenhouse to throw that first pitch in? How about the lame ducks? How many will come out to see the Milanta-Atwaukee Braves this year, and what will the Angels draw in Chavez Ravine before they flee attendance-poor (for them) Los Angeles to attendance-rich (they hope) Anaheim? Where is Anaheim?
On the 43 pages beginning with page 52 are detailed scouting reports on all 20 major league teams. They indicate that the St. Louis Cardinals, seemingly strengthened over the winter, will become the first team in eight years to repeat as National League champions. They imply something else, too—that the American League is now closing in on the National in overall balance and that it is no longer correct to think of it in terms of the New York Yankees rampant upon a field of midgets. The reports say that Manager Al Lopez and his Chicago White Sox will take the Yankees this year. If that sounds like an old, tired story, remember, Captain Ahab finally did catch that white whale (even though he lost the Series).
Beyond the ups and downs and hithers and thithers of teams, one trend seems certain to assert itself early this year. The hitters are going to heavier bats, and the thin-handled "buggy whips" that have been so popular for the last decade or so appear to be on the way out. Three years ago the average weight of bats ordered by major-leaguers from Hillerich & Bradsby, the Louisville bat manufacturers, was only 31 ounces. This year the average weight moved up to 33 ounces. More significantly—since ballplayers are as fad-conscious as teen-agers—the big hitters are leading the way. Henry Aaron of the Braves is switching from a 30-ounce bat to the thicker-handled 33-ounce model pictured above. Willie Mays, Tony Oliva, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews have ordered heavier bats, too. Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente, two of the most consistent high-average hitters in the majors, are keeping the same heavy models (39 ounces for Cepeda, 36 for Clemente) that have worked so well for them in the past.
The swing to heavier bats is apparently an indication that "intelligent" hitting is coming back into baseball. When a player uses a heavier bat it means ordinarily that he is trying to cut down on his swing and that he is going for singles and doubles rather than home runs. The theory was that light bats were easier to hit home runs with—which is true. But everybody took up light bats and everybody hit home runs, so much so that the once climactic baseball hit degenerated, despite the manufactured excitement of Veeckian scoreboards, into a ho-hum affair. Last season it may have reached its ultimate—or nadir—when Felix Mantilla, a lightly regarded career utility man, hit 30 home runs for the Red Sox. Felix had hit only 35 in all his eight previous major league seasons, and when he can hit 30 in one season, even if 19 of them were over Boston's short left-field wall, then the home run is no longer an impressive thing, not in publicity, not in salary talks, not in any way. The Minnesota Twins hit 221 home runs and yet finished a snug sixth, partly because of a terrible infield and a less than perfect pitching staff but also because the Twins seemed incapable of hitting a ball to the right side when there was a runner on second base. Harmon Killebrew, for instance, hit 49 home runs but he left 148 base runners stranded on second and third. The base runners that the Twins could not advance piecemeal from second base to third and on across home plate may be the reason why Minnesota lost 38 one-run games, most in the league, why they won only seven of 21 extra-inning games and why they finished sixth instead of first.
Dick Sisler, forthright manager of the Cincinnati Reds, said, "We lost the damn pennant last year because we didn't hit intelligently. We had it won, and then we got shut out twice. Just one intelligently hit ball in any of several different situations would have won the pennant for us. We had six runners reach third base with less than two outs in that 16-inning game with the Pirates the last week of the season and we couldn't produce a damn fly ball to score one of those runners. We got beat 1-0, and no 1-0 game in all the years I have been in baseball was ever more frustrating. This year we have worked and worked at intelligent hitting. A simple ground ball to the right side with a runner on second base moves a runner closer to home and that's what players are supposed to do, not swing from their tails and go for a homer."
"It's hard to explain that to some players," said Al Lopez. 'They think the harder a pitcher throws, the harder they should swing. But that trend may be changing. Guys like Johnny Callison of the Phillies may set the pace. Callison has gone to a 40-ounce bat, and he chokes up a couple of inches on the handle. He told me he's hitting the ball so well it scares him."
Harry Walker, the new manager of the Pirates and a serious student of hitting, said, "The new parks are going to force the hitters to change. It seems as though every city is building a new ball park, and the trend is toward big ones, like Dodger Stadium. The big parks won't hurt the real power hitters, like Aaron and Mays and Mantle, but the little fellows who hit 15 or so and bat .260 might drop to three or four a season. Then they'll have to learn to poke out more base hits if they want to stick around."
Along with home run hitters looking for singles, and all the injuries, and the idea of the White Sox being favored over the Yanks, there are a few other things you must get straight in your mind as this season begins: 1) Howie Pollet, who was the pitching coach of the World Champion Cardinals, is now the pitching coach of the Houston whatchamacallits, and 2) Cot Deal, who was the pitching coach of the whatchamacallits, is now the pitching coach of the American League Champion Yankees, and 3) Joe Becker, who was the pitching coach of the World Champion Dodgers in 1963, is now the pitching coach of the Cardinals, and 4) Johnny Sain, who was the pitching coach of the World Champion Yankees of 1962, is now the pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins, and 5) Alvin Dark, who managed the San Francisco Giants in 1964, is now a coach with the Chicago Cubs, and 6) Red Schoendienst, who was a coach under Johnny Keane, is now the Cardinal manager, because 7) Keane went to the Yankees, while 8) Yogi Berra, who managed the Yankees to the pennant last year, is now a coach with the Mets, and 9) 'tis brillig, and the slithy toves do gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Thus the year begins. Make sure there's enough beer in the icebox, Harry. Better call the man and have him come in to check the vertical hold on the television. And when you send your check in for those tickets to the Fourth of July doubleheader, don't forget to add 25¢ extra for postage and handling. You can't win 'em all.