It is one of the accepted axioms of baseball life in the bad-team towns like Kansas City, Boston and Washington that when the old bus keeps breaking down the easiest thing to do is shoot the driver. Last week the once-proud, stable and well-organized New York Yankees pulled the trigger for the second time in just 19 months. After a horrendous start in which the Yankees lost 16 of their first 20 games and found themselves in tenth (yep, tenth) place in the American League, Johnny Keane was fired as manager and replaced by the man who had hired him in October of 1964, General Manager Ralph Houk. The interesting part of the matter lies not in the fact that the Yankees flew Keane 3,000 miles to Anaheim, Calif. to fire him instead of doing it a few days earlier in New York, but in the obvious desperation of the once self-assured Yankee management. "We simply must make a change," was the official explanation for Keane's dismissal.
The firing of Keane and the attendant demotion of Houk—he is, after all, no longer general manager—ordered by Yankee President Dan Topping, forces genuine baseball fans to sit back, take several deep breaths and chuckle. The Yankees have been guilty of many things in the past. They have been cold, arrogant and ruthless. They have been correctly accused of forcing their advantages by muscling little people around. But last week they were guilty of the one thing nobody ever imagined them capable of: panic. Once upon a time the New York Yankees looked down upon a world in which the words "simply must" were always spoken by others in baseball but never by themselves.
Houk, who has a four-year contract estimated at $70,000 a year, is an excellent manager and probably a more inspiring one than Keane, but this does not mean that Keane was a bad manager. Johnny Keane, unfortunately, was merely the guy who was driving the old bus when it broke down—the one that Houk was unable to repair in his three years as chief mechanic.
Now that Houk is back in charge he faces exactly the same problems that Keane did in that 1) the true talent in the New York farm system is still young and not yet ready to play in the major leagues and 2) in any trade negotiations, the Yankees must deal off the top of the deck and try to shed some of their aging, high-salaried performers in return for untried material.
No longer does the pinstriped Yankee uniform intimidate the opposition. Some people maintain that as far back as 1963, when Houk last managed and lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight games, the Yankee dynasty was at an end. Several other teams in the league have since gone out and built strong farm systems and paid high bonuses to make themselves respectable, and Houk's detractors maintain that his biggest mistake as general manager was his failure to sign Rick Reichardt (he lost him to the California Angels). A Reichardt today might be the answer to many of the Yankee problems, for he hits with power, plays the outfield and possesses the star quality that could put the Yankees back in business.
On his returning to active managing, Houk suggested that the Yankees could still win the pennant—but if he is capable of bringing the team back as far as the first division he will have done a remarkable job. No team in the American League has ever been as far behind as the Yankees were last week—12 games—and won a pennant. Realistically, therefore, Houk's chances of finishing first are nil.
The Yankee management, fans, Houk and Keane alike came out of spring training with high hopes that this year's team would be able to shrug off last year's injuries and rise to the top of the American League standings again. At worst they assumed that the club would be a contender throughout the season. But the problems of 1965 lingered and even multiplied. Mickey Mantle had trouble batting left-handed, and Roger Maris played uninspired ball. In other Yankee times a bugle would sound and some spear-carrier would trot out of the dugout, hit .420 for two weeks, pick fly balls off the fences and drive other contending teams crazy. But the bugle that sounded and went unheard in 1965 produced the same result during the first month of this season. Desperate measures were tried. Tom Tresh, one of the best left fielders the Yankees have ever had, was shifted to third base. Third Baseman Clete Boyer was made shortstop. Nothing helped. During those first 20 games the Yankees were pitiable. The depths to which they had sunk were painfully advertised in the series with the Indians in Yankee Stadium last week.
For eight innings of the opening game, Cleveland's Luis Tiant, a right-handed pitcher with sad brown eyes and a sharp chin, had huffed and puffed through rain and cold to arrive at the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead and the top of the Yankee batting order awaiting him. If you respect history even slightly you know exactly what fate awaited Luis Tiant at that point. With two on and two out Tiant threw a bad pitch to Joe Pepitone. Joe's eyes resembled two saucers as he swung his bat, and well, you know how history handles that situation. The ball goes for a home run, the Yankees win, and the stake is forever buried in Luis Tiant's proud Cuban heart. Not this time, however. The ball did go into the stands, but went foul by inches. Pepitone stood near first base with his fists clenched and his eyes raised toward heaven. Among the few printable words Tiant heard Pepitone say were, "Give me another chance!" Cleveland did. Pepitone hit a fly ball, and the Indian infield and outfield, between which there is a Stone Age communication system, converged. Go back to history and...wrong again. The ball did not drop, because even though infielders and outfielders rammed into each other, Leon Wagner, of all people, held onto it.
But even before the series with Cleveland the Yankees had been consistently guilty of all the sins that American League teams of the past used to commit against them—wasting well-pitched games, dropping relays, falling in the outfield, letting fly balls drop that should have been caught. By the time the Indians had left town the Yankees had compiled a record against first-division teams in their own ballpark—dating from the start of the season in 1965—of 17-38. In enemy clubhouses and dugouts people were mocking the Yankees and so were the newspapers, radio and television stations.
Two weeks ago, for example, Harry Caray and Jack Buck, who announce the Cardinal games in St. Louis (where they have little to cheer about themselves), let the Yankees have it.
Caray: You know the Yankees are one and 10 and drew only 3,300 people today?
Buck: Break up the Yankees!
On the Tom Harmon Show on ABC you could hear, "The Yankee win streak was stopped at one straight as the Washington Senators beat New York two to nothing," and Bob Teague on NBC-TV followed one defeat with, "Even the weak teams in the American League are now strong enough to manhandle the Yankees." Frank Gifford, the former football Giant, announced over CBS one evening, "New York still has a baseball team in the cellar, and it is not the Mets." And Bill Veeck, the old Yankee-hater, looked at the Yankee situation wryly. "I know they can't be this bad," said Veeck, "because I've never been that lucky in my life."
The frustrations the Yankee team has endured this season have been both fascinating and horrible to watch. Keane stood one night last week watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice left-handed. As always, Keane was friendly and considerate, but he seemed to have aged tremendously since he left Gussie Busch with just a kiss of the hops 19 months ago. "You really can't believe the type of hitting slump we have been in," Keane said. "When we get men on base we just seem to leave them there." As Keane spoke, Mantle was having a bad turn in the batting cage. He was hitting the ball, but that old Mantle power was no longer there. He grimaced in pain, flipped his bat disgustedly to the ground and walked slowly to the clubhouse.
The quality of Yankee hitting is best demonstrated by the fact that during the first four weeks of the season a rookie, 22-year-old Roy White, led the team in every offensive category including home runs—three. (Mantle has hit none, Roger Maris and Elston Howard one apiece.)
Lately, Whitey Ford has been seen sitting in front of his locker, long after everyone else has left the clubhouse, staring at nothing in particular. Maris pops up with runners in scoring positions and hits his batting helmet with his fist like a handball player serving.
The fall of the team has been matched by the disappearance of Yankee fans. Attendance at Yankee Stadium last year dropped to a 20-year low of 1,213,552, and without the benefit of two "bat days," the annual Oldtimers Day, a "cap day," a Mickey Mantle day and three games transferred to New York from Baltimore because of late-season postponements, Yankee attendance would easily have dipped under one million. This season Yankee attendance is already down 23% from last year.
This year's spring training attendance provided the first severe shock for the American League. Partly because the Yankees did not come off a pennant-winning season but primarily because Mickey Mantle was unable to start most of the games, exhibition crowds dropped 50%. Already this season there are indications that New York is not going to be able to draw as it once did on the road because, contrary to popular belief for years, people do not really want to see the Yankees when they are bad. Last year, when Mantle was unable to play a series in Washington, the Senators noted a drop of 20,000. Says Dick Foster, the ticket manager of the California Angels: "Mantle can attract an extra 15 or 20,000. Yes, even on one leg and with only one arm."
There have been almost daily rumors that CBS, discouraged with the way its investment in baseball is turning out, is about to take active charge of the team. Dr. Frank Stanton, the president of the network, denies it. "The Yankees," he said the other day, "are Dan Topping's baby." (Last week Dan made his first baby, Dan Jr., the interim general manager.) It is, of course, wise for CBS to stay out and let baseball people run the Yankees, but if the team continues to lose and the crowds continue to thin the network is certain to step in to protect its investment. Currently the Yankees are trying hard to promote their product, and they are trying to get youngsters to go to Yankee Stadium. This season there will be bat, ball and cap days and nights for towns in nearby areas. But as everyone knows, winning is still the greatest stimulus to attendance. If the New York club continues to be as dismal as it looks right now, many people who buy season tickets to get a crack at World Series tickets will go elsewhere.
The trouble with the Yankees is not harmonica solos or fights in Fort Lauderdale or first basemen missing buses or a night on the town in the Newark Airport. Nor will the Yankee problem be solved by the replacement of Keane with Houk. As noted earlier, the problem lies in the fact that other farm systems are producing better players than the Yankee system—players who are ready now. The appointment of Houk as manager may rally the old Yankees briefly—indeed, they won their first two games for their old manager—but the days of victory are gone.