Charlie Metro, who coaches for the Chicago White Sox, is a shade under 6 feet tall. He didn't feel that big back in 1947-49, when he managed would-be New York Yankees in outposts like Bisbee, Ariz. and Twin Falls, Idaho. "It seemed in those days like I always was the smallest guy in uniform," he says. "But I've been scouting the minor leagues the last two years and the Yanks have about the same size players now as anybody else."
He was not suggesting that the Yanks looked like kids, as some of them acted in that airport wassail two weeks ago. Metro has spent too many years on the road to raise an eyebrow when a ballplayer raises a glass. And didn't General Manager Ralph Houk imply that they were free to get stoned as long as they didn't make a public issue of it?
Metro meant that the Yankees in battle array are suddenly no larger than life, and they are strange to behold in their present humble estate: just another good baseball team, certainly much better than their current second-division standing, but debilitated by age, crippled by injury and vulnerable to attack because their unwonted uncertainty makes them prone to manual and cerebral error.
The Yankees, like a fine old horse going on class and guts, may struggle home in third place, as they did after stumbling starts in 1940 and again in 1959. They could even, by a stretch of the imagination, win the pennant and the season would be saved. But the era—29 pennants and 20 World Championships in 44 years—would still be over. The Yankees will win again, maybe next year, but probably never again will they, or any team, dominate. Send not to ask what happened to the Yankees. It has happened to baseball.
June 20, 1965
"Once they could go to Newark for players," says Tommy Henrich. "Now they look to Columbus, Ga., so-called Double-A." Look, perhaps, but they do not find. Horace Clarke, Ray Barker and Doc Edwards, the incomplete ballplayers the Yankees used to foist off on the have-nots, are the reinforcements of 1965. There is no wave of the future, like the Rizzutos, Lindells, Billy Johnsons and Ernie Bonhams waiting in the wings when they had that bad season in 1940, or the Boutons, Pepitones and Treshes laboring in the vineyards in 1959.
"They need four or five new men," says Ed Lopat, "and they just don't have them."
There's something else the Yankees no longer have. It has been fashionable expertise over the years to point out the Yanks' snug defense, their bench, the crafty pitching and the overall team effort. "When one guy was down," says Bill Skowron, who played on seven Yankee pennant winners before he was traded in 1962, "a couple of others would pick him up. But we was never as banged up as they are this year." They was never without a superstar, either. Lou Gehrig minded the store in the brief hiatus between Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle (see cover) arrived the year DiMaggio was finishing up. In baseball they call it "the big guy," and the Yankees have always had one, at least since 1920.
"I ain't underrating Elston Howard," says Billy Martin, "but there were years they wouldn't have won the pennant with five Howards if they didn't have Mickey." Mantle, the one-man orthopedic ward, is even more a symbol of the Yankees in crisis than he was in their predominance. He plays on, on agonized legs that would keep a clerk in bed, and the opposition wonders how. "He's hurting worse than ever," says John Blanchard, banished by the Yankees to Kansas City, "but he won't admit it."
"I don't see how the heck he can keep going," says Baltimore's Norm Siebern, another ex-Yankee. "It has to be his last year," an American League manager concluded after watching the 33-year-old Mantle for the first time this season. "He can't go on that way."
Following the Yankees these days is like watching a cowboys and Indians movie in which the bugle sounds but the cavalry never quite arrives. It is superstar time, but there is no superstar. "All they need," says Indians' Manager Birdie Tebbetts, in magnificent understatement, "is one great player. If there isn't anyone, then the Yankees have to worry."
"The next Yankee star," says Johnny Johnson, director of the Yankee farm system, "is Roger Repoz. There's no question about that." And no question, therefore, that the Yankees have to worry. Repoz, a left-handed outfielder playing in Toledo, will be 25 in August. He is hitting over .300 and has some power (23 home runs at Columbus last year) but hardly seems cast in a heroic mold. Had he even threatened to be a star, the Yankees could have used him in May, when Mantle and Roger Maris were incapacitated.
"Their farm system isn't what it used to be," says Orioles' Manager Hank Bauer. "They used to go right to a farm club when they were in trouble."
"Well, we don't have the quality of player we used to have," Johnson admits. "But neither does anyone else, because it just isn't there anymore. For one thing, we find kids are getting married younger, some of them at 18. They give baseball a year or two shot, and if they haven't made the big leagues by then they want to quit; their wives are putting pressure on them to make more money. Before the war not very many people went to college. Now almost everybody does, or everybody who's able. Baseball isn't much in college, so very few get to play and the others lose interest, or find other interests. They find out there's better money in industry. They all want security, or their wives do."
"These days," says Joe Brown, general manager of the Pirates, "everybody is security-conscious. A boy takes a job and his first question is, 'What is your pension plan?' Five years in the big leagues and you can get a pension. The boys are all aware of that, so they don't care any more whether they play for the Yankees; they just want five years in the big leagues and the pension."
So the times have changed baseball. But shouldn't the computer-efficient Yankees, with the most money, claiming the most refined farm system and the most discerning scouts, have been affected least of any club in baseball? "In running a ball club," says Cleveland Indians' General Manager Gabe Paul, "we all make mistakes. And sometimes it takes a long time to catch up. An awful long time."
The concept of strategic error by Yankee management is either difficult to assimilate or just plain funny, depending on your point of view. But Yankee haters do not fully appreciate the situation unless they recognize the two exquisite ironies that have helped reduce the mighty Yankees to the embarrassment of parity in the flesh market with such upstart organizations as the Los Angeles Angels and (ooh, do we worry!) the New York Mets. ("Parity" with the Mets may be a compliment to the Yankees. The Nielsen television ratings for the first three weeks of May had the Mets running in front of the Yanks, 443,000 sets to 270,000. Nobody pays attention to the TV ratings except sponsors, but Shea Stadium attendance—387,000 ahead of the Yankees—continues to exhibit live evidence of New York's interest. The Mets must be doing something right.)
First irony: the Yankees overestimated their own prestige and tripped over their own dignity in haughtily abstaining from the vulgar rat race for bonus players in the late 1950s. This policy, as suggested by Gabe Paul, may have set the Yankees back five years ("an awful long time") in the heightening competition for diminishing talent.
Second irony: the new free-agent draft and the unrestricted draft of minor-leaguers (the best bonus rule the other owners could think of as a defense against the under-the-table ethics they were using on each other) punishes the Yankees for what they hadn't done in the first irony.
"We never went in big for bonus boys," says Johnny Johnson, and he says it proudly. Then, angrily: "The free-agent draft was aimed at us, and the Dodgers—the teams with money. The unrestricted draft will hurt even more; it takes away our strong suit, scouting." Bitterly: "They say this rule is a great leveler. We'll see how they like it. We'll see if legislation can win pennants." Determinedly: "But we'll live with it. We'll get the edge, the way we always have: with superior scouting."
"The myth," says Birdie Tebbetts, a Yankee chaser for a good part of the past 30 years, "is that you put a Yankee uniform on a player and he becomes great. But you have to put the right player in the uniform, and the Yankees are having trouble getting that kind of player, because the other clubs are building themselves up."
The Clark Kent theory of the Yankee uniform has been shattered, but Tebbetts is late with his conclusion. There came a time in the late 1950s when it was not so great to be young and a Yankee; you got a pinstripe uniform and all the tradition you could eat, but the other kids were getting money—important money.
"The Yankees didn't feel it was necessary for them to compete in the bonus situation," Gabe Paul says. "During that period they didn't produce the reservoir of talent they might have. Then, when they got to where they felt they might go into the bonus market, it was too late. That vicious first-year rule was in, and it precluded a buildup of talent by any club."
The first-year rule was another clumsy attempt to curb bonus cheating. It allowed teams to sign bonus players, but required that they be kept on the roster of the parent club for the first year or be subject to draft. For the next three years they could be optioned to the minor leagues, like other players.
The rules passed at the major league meeting last December are even more restrictive. Next to last in the reverse order of the free-agent draft, the Yankees had the 19th choice, 39th, 57th, etc. In a bumper crop of college kids, there might be two dozen really worth signing, which would give the Yankees one.
Next December comes the unrestricted draft of minor-leaguers. Of the 154 players the Yankees had under contract before the free-agent draft on June 7, plus "about" 40 to come, they can "protect" exactly 40 by naming them to the "big" (major league) roster. The rest would be subject to draft. If Yankee scouting was as good as Johnson insists it still is, their farms would be sharecroppers in the service of 19 other big-league teams. The Yankees, of course, could pick over the other teams' multitude of rejects, hoping that they, too, would be good scouts.
The free-agent draft probably won't last long, not because Dodger President Walter O'Malley has pronounced it socialistic (i.e., not beneficial to O'Malley), but because it is very likely unconstitutional. Baseball's reserve clause, binding players to one team for life, has always been of dubious constitutionality, but at least kids used to have a choice of which team they'd be bound to. With the free-agent draft, if No. 1 choice Rick Monday of Arizona State didn't like the money Kansas City offered him, he didn't have to take it. He didn't have to play, either. He could sue, of course, and somebody's daddy will.
There was nothing, of course, to stop the Yankees from loading their checkbook and charging into the bonus battle of the 1950s. Nothing, that is, except policy, and policy is a big thing with the Yankees. When the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles were bestowing financial independence on pimpled youth from coast to coast, the Yanks contented themselves with a Frank Leja here and a Tom Carroll there; nobody could say they weren't paying any bonuses. But the emphasis was on the farm system. It had always produced before and, damn it, it always would. Ed Barrow, general manager until 1946, had planted the seeds, but George Weiss, his chief farmer, had cultivated and harvested them. Weiss was now the general manager and the farm system was his policy.
Weiss is the president of the Mets now, but with a couple of drinks aboard he probably wouldn't talk about Ron Swoboda, or even about the Yankees. He'd tell you about the good old days in Newark. They were great old days, hard to imagine if you weren't around then and hard to forget if you were. Hank Bauer wasn't around. "There is just no way," he said last week, "to replace guys like Mantle, Maris and Howard." Al Lopez was around. "It wasn't long ago," he says, "when the Yankees not only had the best team in this league, but the best two teams in the minors." The Yankees of 1938—perhaps not the strongest team of all time but certainly the strongest organization—never needed help. But if they had had to replace Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich and Bill Dickey, Weiss could have sent Jimmy Gleeson (.310), Charlie Keller (.365) and Buddy Rosar (.387) across the Hudson River from Newark. At Kansas City, with a pitcher like Ernie Bonham and a second-base combination like Eddie Miller and Eddie Joost, the Yankees had still another farm team that would have been much more than the Mets could handle. The Millers, Joosts, Merrill Mays and Joe Beggses, big-leaguers all, were peddled away, because the Yankees literally had more players than they knew what to do with. The ultimate refinement of the farm system had been attained; it worked perfectly. It was enough to congeal a man's thinking.
But it was 1938, in a nation emerging from a Depression. Minor league pay was a pittance, but it beat the CCC camps and it was easier to swing a bat than an ax. "The Yankees used to keep a player in the minors for as many years as necessary," says Billy Martin. "You can't do that anymore." The rules won't let you, and neither will the player.
It was a little harder to keep them down on the farm after World War II, when the G.I. Bill of Rights began to convert second basemen into certified public accountants. Within a few more years television took over. Watching Joe DiMaggio in the living room became more attractive, or at least easier, than paying to see Double-A baseball (which was Double-A by then only because the classifications had been raised). Minor leagues began to fold.
Still the Yankee system worked. The Bobby Browns and Hank Bauers were followed by Gil McDougalds and Andy Careys. The cast kept changing, but there was always somebody to do the job. "When I was with them," says Martin, "we had a better team on the bench than other clubs had on the field."
To keep that kind of bench, of course, it was frequently necessary to take the rubber band off the bankroll. Johnny Mize and Johnny Hopp came in handy, and Johnny Sain was worth two pennants. But nobody could see any diminution of the farm system because they kept coming: Richardson and Kubek, Tresh and Bouton. Strange names kept creeping in from time to time: Dickson, DeMaestri, Hale. But nobody paid much attention until this year, when suddenly there just wasn't anybody.
American League managers, including Lopez, run and hide in an iffy thicket when asked if they think the Yanks can scramble back into the race this year. "Everybody's brave when those guys are in the hospital," says Bill Rigney of the Angels. "I want to hear that kind of talk when they get out."
"When those guys get well," says Bauer, "they'll be heard from."
"They never cried for us," says Sam Mele of the Minnesota Twins, "and you can bet your tail we're not crying for them. Give them a healthy Mantle, Maris and Howard and they're still the team to beat."
On the other hand, Ed Short, White Sox general manager, who writes the lyrics for Lopez' annual the-Yankees-can-be-had song, sees long-range troubles for the Yankees. "We have six or seven guys at Indianapolis who could help us if we get in trouble," he says. "I doubt that the Yankees could get that kind of help from their farm system." Short points out that White Sox farm clubs, and Baltimore's as well, have finished higher in the standings the past few years than the Yankees', but Johnson says such comparisons have no validity. He and Ralph Houk insist that the Yankees have "our share" of talent in the minors, even though it is not readily evident.
"Two of our clubs are leading their leagues," Johnson argues. "But standings don't mean much because some teams have a lot of older guys on the way down, like Tom Umphlett, playing in the Southern League. We have the youngest average age in that league. We emphasize youth. We like to win, but the purpose of the system is to develop prospects."
First you must find the prospects, and there, in Gabe Paul's opinion, is where the Yankees were hurt most in the past decade. "The death of men like Paul Krichell, Joe Devine and Bob Connery would hurt any organization," he says. "They were great scouts, and scouts make you a genius or a bum. If the Yankees had had those men during that period when they were not in the big-bonus competition they might have come through it all right. They have a great tradition, a great heritage, but how much it means depends on the scout and his selling ability. It's a plus, but it takes a good man to bring it home. Their good scouts took advantage of it."
There is one area in which Paul believes the Yankees have improved: ownership. "I voted for the sale to CBS," he says, "frankly because I thought they would be easier to get along with than the previous administration. I thought they would vote for things that would be good for the game, not just the Yankees. I don't think CBS, from a public-relations standpoint, can afford to take positions the Yankees have taken over the years. The Yankees just didn't contribute to the betterment of the game when they had great opportunities to do so."
Except for enemy runners commiserating with Yankee infielders in small-talk visits on the bases, Paul's condolence for the departed scouts is the only sympathy the Yankees get. American Leaguers haven't yet become accustomed to life-sized Yankees, but they think they're going to like it that way.
"The poor Yankees," says Tebbetts. "Everybody asks whether the Yankees can come back. Where have they gone? Here's the big difference: there are no more patsies in this league. So now the Yankees have to play stand-up baseball. They have to look us in the eye."
"Nothing happened to them that hasn't happened to any other club," says Charlie Metro. "A lot of guys got old at once. I don't know whether it was the change in management or what, but I said three or four years ago that the Yankees didn't have the material they used to have in the minors. The power isn't there any more. They're going to have to scrounge for a run, like the rest of us. They don't scare you anymore."
Then Metro looks across the batting cage at the pinstripe suits and adds, "They do frighten you a little, though."
"Scare," says Webster's, is less dignified than "frighten." The era is ended, but the dignity lingers on. Except, occasionally, in an airport bar.
New order came to baseball in 1921, when Miller Huggins managed the Yankees to their first pennant. He won five more and three world championships, before his death in 1929, to set the standard of an era.
New horizons for baseball were established by Babe Ruth, who was built for Yankee Stadium and vice versa. The man who made home runs fashionable watches his historic No. 60 go into the seats.
Defensive skill, as exemplified by the 1926 infield of Gehrig (lb), Tony Lazzeri (2b), Mark Koenig (ss), and Joe Dugan (3b), has always gone hand in hand with the Yankees' power hitting and pitching superiority. Now, with the offense sputtering and the pitching thin, the defense is more essential to the Yankees than ever before.
Eclipsed first by Ruth (crossing plate) and then Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig (4) was a supernumerary superstar, the kind capable of "carrying" a team the way the Yankees badly need to be carried today.
"Pushbutton" manager, they called Joe McCarthy in the 1930s, when the Yankees overwhelmed the league and made it seem easy. When "too many" Yanks were named to the 1943 All-Stars, he benched them all—and won anyway.
McCarthy's Yankees overwhelmed the National League, too. Below, Joe Gordon (summoned from the farm system when Lazzeri slowed up) slides home to score in the humiliating sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1939 World Series.
Joe DiMaggio (left), as nearly flawless as a baseball player has ever been, triples against the Cleveland Indians. The Indians stopped DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, but not until it had regenerated the Yankees after their unaccountable third-place "collapse" of the year before.
The back of the Wheaties box in 1937 displayed the high kick of Lefty Gomez (left) shown with Red Ruffing as they prepared to whip the Giants again in the World Series. Gomez didn't last as long with the Yankees as Ruffing did, but the Spud Chandlers and Ernie Bonhams were on the way up.
"What good is it," Casey Stengel still asks, "if you don't have the players that can execute?" He applied his then-new platoon system to the injury-ridden Yanks of 1949, his first season as manager, and they executed splendid-Joyously (right) they celebrated their pennant-clinching victory over the Red Sox on the final day of the season. Stengel would win nine more pennants and seven World Series before he was "too old."
Joe Gordon could be replaced, so he was traded in 1946 for Allie Reynolds (below), who pitched the Yankees to six pennants and an unprecedented five consecutive world championships. Reynolds is giving the double-O sign for his two no-hitters during 1951.
A pitcher like Don Larsen (right) might be a 20-game loser in Baltimore, but the pinstriped suit made him a winner. He acknowledges greetings from exuberant Yogi Berra after the ultimate: a perfect game against the Brooklyn D√≤dgers in the 1956 World Series.