Not since the first inning of last year's World Series had a situation been so perfect for the use of "Ole Lightning." The Detroit Tigers were in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium last Friday night to play the world-champion Orioles, and over 20,000 people ignored the cold to go out and watch. The Tigers built a quick two-run lead in the top of the first, and as the Orioles came to bat in the bottom of the inning the word carried up and down the dugout: "Lightning time! Need a little lightning!"
Ever since the beginning of last season, First Inning Lightning has been Baltimore's trademark—as the Dodgers found out in the first inning of the first game of the World Series. The Orioles' ability to score early and often devastates the opposition and leaves it resembling a man trying to run in four feet of water. Naturally, then, Curt Blefary hit a grand-slam home run in the bottom of the first, the Orioles won and Baltimore fans thrust their chests out with pride, because their team was in first place. Yet it really didn't mean too much. In the wacky first three weeks of the American League pennant race the Orioles, just like everybody else, got a chance to look down from first place one day and up from sixth the next. They threw a no-hitter at Detroit on Sunday, for instance, and lost, which seemed normal enough in this wild race.
By last Sunday evening every team in the league, except for Washington and Minnesota, had either led or shared the lead, and at one point the gap between first and sixth was a thin half game. The Boston Red Sox, of all people, played a 15-inning game and won and marched into first themselves, and the city of Boston got so excited that a man maintained that the messages going out from the Old North Church read, "One by Petrocelli and two by Conigliaro."
Now the race moves into May, a month that could be critical for the entire American League. This weekend the Orioles go to Tiger Stadium to play Detroit again, and then they meet the White Sox. After that, the Baltimore schedule for the month looks very much like the one the Orioles had last June when they pulled away from the league (to cost it thousands in gate receipts when the pennant race disappeared for good in July), and unless the Yankees and Red Sox have truly improved Baltimore could tear things apart again.
It may not happen, of course. Boston looks as if it might be taking baseball seriously under new Manager Dick Williams, who forced the team through a strenuous spring-training period, unhesitatingly benched a few stars and decided to use left-handed pitchers, a practice which his predecessors often failed to do either because they did not have good ones or because they were afraid to expose what good ones they did have to the short green fence in Fenway Park. The Yankees are looking livelier. Instead of worrying about a set lineup, Manager Ralph Houk has been using almost every player in the roster to fill defensive gaps, while trying to get the most out of Mickey Mantle and what little other offensive thrust he has. Good showings by Whitey Ford and Al Downing have been encouraging, because the Yankees were woefully weak in left-handed pitching the last two seasons.
So let us watch as the Orioles try to untangle themselves from the Red Sox and the Yankees. (They should have little trouble with Washington, which does not seem to be improved at all except when the Senators play Minnesota. Another discouraging note is at Cleveland, where the Indians, despite fine pitching, are having problems at the gate again. After an Opening Day crowd of 26,000, Cleveland attracted only 9,000 for a Sunday doubleheader and averaged 4,450 for its other games. The weather was hardly good, but, even so, 4,450 looks like the perfect average attendance needed to send a franchise someplace else.)
May is going to be very important for the Kansas City Athletics, too, as they try to prove that they belong in the first division. Kansas City spends most of the month, 20 games worth, at home, and the A's are supposed to be able to win at home because the high, distant outfield fences give solace and confidence to Manager Alvin Dark's young pitching staff. And California plays two-thirds of its games at home in May. In April, playing two-thirds of their games away, the Angels flew up into first place themselves for a time. The Twins, so promising before the season and so dismal since then, must rally in May—if they are to rally at all—since they have no games with Baltimore and Detroit, though they do have five with the White Sox.
That may be the rub. For, of all the teams currently involved in the hot American League race, Chicago is the one for whom the month of May could be most critical. The White Sox have got to use the month to their advantage, a thing they certainly did not do last year when the club tumbled into Sink City. That terrible month destroyed Chicago's season, and the team failed to draw a million people to Comiskey Park for the second time in 16 years.
A year ago at this time the White Sox looked like the genuine contenders everyone expected them to be. The team had rolled through spring training with the best record in the majors and had been particularly impressive in exhibitions against American League teams, winning 10 of 11 games. Although Cleveland and Baltimore had both jumped off to spectacular starts, the Sox also played excellently and entered May only 2½ games out of first place. Then everything went bad. Facing a brutal schedule, including games against Baltimore, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Boston and their old nemesis, the Yankees, Chicago won only nine of 27 games and toppled to seventh place. Though the schedule is just as tough this May, the White Sox say things will be different.
Had a casual baseball fan been asked last year to name the key players for the White Sox, he would have said Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Ron Hansen, Floyd Robinson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Smoky Burgess. Well, the Sox did not have Wilhelm at all in May, because he was out with a broken finger. Hansen stepped on a baseball, got a ruptured disk and was gone for the entire season. Ward suffered a hernia. Peters strained a muscle in his pitching arm. Floyd Robinson, who had batted .408 in April, hit a ball off his foot, and that was about the last thing he hit all year. Burgess, the fine pinch hitter, went 0 for 11, and John Romano, the catcher who was supposed to drive in runs, was out with the flu. Stretched over a full season, those injuries would have been enough to knock any contender out of a pennant race, and Chicago had them all in May.
The White Sox had to struggle to finish fourth, even though only Minnesota had a better record after the middle of the season. Yet, despite everything, Manager Eddie Stanky built a spectacular running attack that tripled Chicago's stolen-base total from the year before. The pennant-winning Go-Go Sox of 1959 stole 113 bases, but the Going Nowhere Sox of 1966 got 153; two players, Rookie of the Year Tommie Agee and Don Buford, accounted for 95 of those. This year the Sox are stealing bases again, and now Hansen is back in good health, Ward is driving in runs and Peters is pitching beautifully. This time the White Sox seem ready for May.
Among Stanky's big blessings is a pair of young outfielders who have been absolutely spectacular. It is vital for the White Sox to have good outfielders because of the size of Comiskey Park. In Agee and Ken Berry (see cover) they have two youngsters who can gallop into the gaps to stuff sure doubles and triples into their gloves. Agee, 24, surpassed virtually every one of his minor league figures when he reached the majors and Chicago got him in a complicated three-cornered trade with Kansas City and Cleveland before the 1965 season. During his first spring training with the Sox, Agee struck out 10 straight times, but Al Lopez, who was then managing, and General Manager Ed Short were impressed by his speed, the great catches he made and the way he resembled Willie Mays when he ran out from under his cap. They also thought they had a regular center fielder in Berry, a year older and a rookie himself. But, as the team came north from Florida, the problem of having two center fielders disappeared in the dust of Clark Griffith Park in Charlotte, N.C., when Agee slid headlong into a catcher and broke his hand for the third time in four years. Reluctantly, the White Sox sent him down to Indianapolis, where Agee hit only .226.
Berry showed that he could play center field extremely well, but he did not hit; in 157 games with the White Sox he batted only .218. "He's a fine outfielder," Mayo Smith, then a scout for the Yankees, had said in the spring, "but he can be pitched to. The pitchers can get him out by keeping everything on the outside of the plate."
So, in spring training of 1966, Agee shrugged off that minor league batting average and took over the center-field job. Berry, instead of sitting on the bench brooding, took an intense interest in watching the little things in the game. "What he went through," says Coach Kerby Farrell, "must have been discouraging, but he kept rooting for Agee from the bench. His whole attitude was tremendous." Early in the year Stanky used Berry mostly for defense, and he did not get a chance to start regularly until the season was almost a third over. Agee stayed in center, and Berry shifted between left and right depending on the ball park, and that's what they still do. "I do not believe that if a man is a good right fielder he must play right field all the time," Stanky says. "Berry is our best right fielder, but in Yankee Stadium I like to use him in left sometimes, because that's the tough field there. Either way, it's a thrill to watch Berry and Agee play in the outfield together, because both of them can catch balls that other outfielders wouldn't get close to."
Playing regularly, Berry learned to hit pitches on the outside of the plate, and his average rose to .271, second to Agee on the team. He also became a good hit-and-run man and a sound base runner. This spring Pete Ward said of Berry, "If I had to bet on a dark horse to win the batting championship, it would be Ken. That's how much he improved last year." Last week Berry was hitting .352.
As for Agee, he led the Sox in batting average (.273), RBIs (86), homers (22), triples, doubles, runs scored, times hit by pitcher, slugging percentage, total bases and torn sweat shirts and was second to Buford in stolen bases. He says, "Even though my statistics in the minors were not great, I knew that I could play in the major leagues. I knew that when the time came I'd be able to put everything together. I prefer to play center field because when the ball comes off the bat I can just go and get it. I don't have to worry so much about running into fences."
Some Chicago fans worry about Agee and Berry running into each other, but they work together smoothly in the outfield. They are usually close to one another in the batting order, too. One or the other of them always seems to be on base, which is good, since Berry and Agee are going to have to play vital roles for the White Sox this month if the team is to come out of May in pennant shape. Beyond Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroit there are eight games with Bill Rigney's California Angels, and that should be interesting. The other day Stanky said, "There are nice-guy managers, serious managers and television managers. The serious managers are like Alvin Dark and me. The television managers are guys like Bill Rigney."
Should be very interesting.