One of them digs graves during the cold winter months in Massachusetts, and dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup. Another had a nervous ulcer at the age of 26, yet eats hot dogs after games with everything on them but the resin bag. A third wears a low number on the back of his Yankee uniform, occupies the locker only recently vacated by Mickey Charles Mantle and, his teammates say, has a face that resembles a lemon. A fourth wears the red, white and blue cap of the new Montreal Expos and tries to forget the frustrations of 10 years spent in minor league towns from Artesia to Winnipeg. The New York Mets have one named—depending upon your powers of concentration—Amos Otis or Otis Amos and regard him as an "untouchable," and the Los Angeles Dodgers believe they have finally found that someone who will be able to do by himself what a committee of 35 has proved unable to do collectively in a decade. And—sh, be quiet about this—in Chicago the White Sox think they may have one who can even hit an official American League ball autographed by Joseph Cronin beyond the infield.
It is possible that the arrival of these seven—all of them third basemen—had, like Harvey at the side of Elwood P. Dowd, gone virtually unnoticed. It is impossible to believe, after two weeks of the 1969 baseball season, that they are unnoticed any longer. The seven—Rich Hebner of the Pirates, Bobby Etheridge of the Giants, Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, Coco Laboy of the Expos, Amos Otis of the Mets, Bill Sudakis of the Dodgers and Bill Melton of the White Sox—have opened the season in either spectacular or controversial fashion, and they represent the biggest influx of new players at one position in 100 years.
The most publicized, and perhaps the best, is Bill Sudakis of the Dodgers, who, after it looked like he was to go 0 for April, returned to Dodger Stadium late last week and slid on his belly, belted extra-base hits and drew from Roger Craig, a coach with the San Diego Padres, a rave notice. "Sudakis," said Craig, "has more guts than any man I've ever played with, against or coached." And Roger Craig is not a man known to blow smoke rings.
The most consistent of these new third basemen has been Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, who was tied for the league lead last week in homers, hits, runs batted in and drawing reporters to his locker. Murcer, 22, comes from Oklahoma, just as Mantle did, and he was signed by Yankee Scout Tom Greenwade, the same man who signed Mantle 20 years ago. He has excellent speed, bunts well enough to fool the opposition and knows enough to keep the top button of his uniform blouse unbuttoned. It is a tradition with all Yankee stars.
"I was given uniform No. 1," he says, "after it had been laid aside for two years following Bobby Richardson's retirement. Richardson asked me if I would like to wear it. Mantle was asked who he wanted to have his locker and when he picked me I was dumfounded. The low number and this locker mean something to me. But there never will be anybody half as good as Mickey Mantle."
By starting the season with a seven-game hitting streak Murcer quickly won the hearts of Yankee fans, and his every appearance at the plate brought louder and louder applause. He may become the one to turn Yankee Stadium, a structure that has attracted so much bad luck since 1965, into a Fun House.
The arrival of Coco Laboy was certainly the least publicized event in the launching of the expansion Expos. When the team was formed last August, Laboy was the 57th of 60 players picked in the expansion pool. During 10 years in the minor league organization of the St. Louis Cardinals, Laboy put together some fine seasons, including 1968, when he hit 44 doubles, knocked in 100 runs and batted .292 with pennant-winning Tulsa. But the Cardinals have always seemed to have somebody ahead of him at third. First it was Ken Boyer, then Ed Spiezio, who was fantastic in spring training, and Phil Gagliano, who had been given a large bonus, and Mike Shannon, who moved to third after Roger Maris came to St. Louis in a trade.
Thus Laboy stayed in the minors until the Expos drafted him. "We had good reports on him," says Montreal Manager Gene Mauch. "Several times when I was managing the Phillies I talked to Tony Taylor about Laboy. Before we went to the draft meetings I talked to Tony again."
Taylor, a fine student of baseball, says. "I've known Laboy for three years. I knew when I first saw him that he could make the major leagues. He and I both played with San Juan. He'd play third and I'd play second. Then we'd switch. He could play first, too. I know he is a good ballplayer and a smart one. He is the kind of player Mauch likes. He wants to play every day and. is a 100% player. He got his nickname because he drank a lot of cocoa in Puerto Rico. He is going to surprise a lot of people. I hope he doesn't surprise a lot of Phillies."
In his first game against the Phillies last week Laboy was 4 for 5 and hiked his batting average to third best in the league, .417. But that was no surprise. Laboy had already made himself known with a three-run homer that gave the Expos an 11-10 victory in their very first game. By the end of last week only Henry Aaron of Atlanta, off to one of his finest starts, had more hits.
Pittsburgh's Richie Hebner had 'he dubious pleasure of opening 'he season against the Cards' Bob Gibson. "I was 1 for 3," he says, "and the hit didn't make the infield even though I swung as hard as I could. Gibson tried to pick it up but couldn't get it." On his first fielding play Hebner made an error. "I was nervous for a couple of hours before the game," he says. During the first two weeks of the season Hebner started three double plays at third base and, basically a line-drive hitter, had a batting average of .357 even though Manager Larry Shepard was platooning him against certain left-handed pitchers. But Shepard knows that it is difficult for rookies to break into the majors and can appreciate what Hebner is going through. "That Hebner," he says, "is amazing. God bless him."
If the similarity of the Murcer and Mantle backgrounds seems striking, Hebner's with Pie Traynor, Pittsburgh's greatest third baseman, is no less so. They were born 10 miles apart. Only 21, Hebner works in the winter for his father in a cemetery, digging graves. One day when father suggested that he was digging a bit shallow, the son said, "Haven't any of them come up yet, have they?"
A superlative high school athlete, Hebner won varsity letters for four straight years in baseball, football and hockey. He turned down a $10,000 offer from the Boston Bruins to play hockey and accepted instead $38,000 from the Pirates to play baseball. In his second game of the season Hebner tried chewing tobacco. At bat in the fourth inning he stepped out of the batter's box and spat on the ground. Plate Umpire Ed Vargo cautioned him. "Hey, kid, if you're going to do an) spittin', do ii in the dugout. This is big league."
The situation for Amos Otis—that is the correct order of his names—is different from that of the other third basemen because he did not open the season at third. Manager Gil Hodges felt that so much pressure had been built up around the 22-year-old player that it would be better to ease him into the lineup out of town. Every time this winter the Mets talked trade with other teams they wanted Otis thrown into the deal. Negotiations stopped right there. The Mets were not about to give up a man who could play third base as well as the outfield and who might, in fact, become the team's regular centerfielder if Tommie Agee again fails as a hitter. Hodges was starting Otis in center last week.
One of the three Mets from Mobile, Ala., Otis earned his reputation despite an indifferent batting record of .274 in his three most recent minor league seasons. It was a "strong" .274, though, as last year when he had 70 runs batted in, 15 homers and 21 stolen bases at Jacksonville. He is so fast that in the first game he started he got two infield hits on ground balls, one of which would have been an out with almost any other player.
San Francisco's Bobby Etheridge got a hit on Opening Day, but he also made an error and was accused, of misplaying another ball. The next day be suffered a groin injury and had to come out of the lineup, which was no help to the Giants, who, like Los Angeles, have had their problems at third. Jim Davenport, the best at the position, is 35 years old and has had Etheridge's same trouble with ulcers. Although not particularly big for a third baseman, Etheridge never hit lower than .278 in five minor league seasons. He is a line-drive hitter who once knocked home 107 runs at Fresno. Because of his injury he was still out of the lineup last week, but he is expected back shortly.
Like Murcer and Etheridge, Bill Melton is not, strictly speaking, a rookie. He came to bat last season 19 times too often to qualify in 1969 (Murcer has 16 at bats too many, Etheridge 25 and Sudakis just makes it under the 90 at-bat limit), but at 23 he is the boy White Sox Manager Al Lopez is counting on to drive home the few runs he needs to support what should be another good Chicago pitching staff. This spring Melton was one of the most productive hitters in training as he led Chicago in five offensive categories. He batted .341, had 14 extra-base hits, five homers and knocked in 23 runs.
In a game against the Minnesota Twins he showed that he had something more than a good swing. A hard-hit ground ball took a bad hop, caromed off the left side of his face and carried out into left field. First up in the next half-inning, Melton stood on his feet just long enough to determine that Dean Chance's fastball was boring in at that same side of his face. Down he went and up came a cloud of dust with Melton right after it. He dug in and swung at the next pitch and—too bad for the story—struck out. Somehow, though, the bat ended up sailing through the air toward the pitcher's mound, where Chance had to dodge it. "I didn't mean to hit him," Chance said later. "The ball just got away from me."
"Sure," said Melton, "the bat just got away from me, too."
"At third," the old saying goes, "you either do or you don't," a truism with which almost anyone who has ever played baseball readily agrees. What is meant, of course, is that the position depends basically upon the reflexes of the man playing it and also his courage and willingness to dive for line drives or block hot grounders with his chest. Perhaps the best third baseman playing today is Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles. His ability to scramble to the line and stuff a potential double in his glove is unmatched, just as is his instinct for turning a sacrifice bunt into a forceout at second base. Only once in the last nine seasons has he dropped a pop fly in fair territory and that one came when somebody was climbing up his back. His home in Baltimore is decorated with enough Gold Gloves, the fielding award, to resemble a Japanese temple and he has been the American League's starting third baseman in the last 12 All-Star Games.
Robinson, though, did not begin as a third baseman. He moved there in 1955 after his first 40 games as a professional at York in the Piedmont League. "They [Baltimore Manager Paul Richards and York Manager George Staller] decided I didn't have the range to play second," says Brooks. "But I still think it would be easier for a third baseman to switch to second or shortstop than for a shortstop or second baseman to switch to third. The ball takes a little longer getting to short or second, but at third you've gotta take it as it comes and you develop faster hands.
"As far as I'm concerned it has to be easier playing third base up here than in the minors. They hit the ball just as hard in the minors, but the fields are better in the majors. When you're 18 years old, though, you never think about what the fields are like. You don't know any better and you're thinking about getting to the majors."
It is Robinson's contention that be can still improve on getting to balls hit to his backhand, but only a connoisseur would ever know that. "I guess the best third baseman I ever saw," he says, "was Clete Boyer, but I couldn't play the position like he does. He plays it the opposite way I do. Boyer stands almost in a full squat. If I ever bent down like that I'd never be able to get up in time. And Boyer doesn't reach for the ball until the last second. I get my glove down the moment the ball is hit."
In his early days with the Orioles, Robinson now admits, he often thought to himself, " 'What if I blow one?' That's what I was always thinking. I learned a few good lessons then. One day Minnie Minoso of the White Sox was on third, the ball was hit to me and Minnie gave me a great fake. He went about five feet, and I fired the ball to the plate. By that time Minnie was walking back to third. That taught me to make sure that the runner was going, or that he was far enough off to get caught in a rundown."
But even for the finest third basemen—like Robinson, Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs, Boyer of Atlanta and Don Wert of the Tigers—those terrible times still come up when a ball is hit so hard that no reflexive action is quick enough to cope with it. Robinson remembers an incident in 1968 when he was very glad he had not reacted faster. "Frank Howard of the Washington Senators," he says, "hit a line drive so hard it was only a blur. I jumped, and by the time I got to the top of my jump and twisted around, the ball was bouncing off the left-field wall. I didn't think anything about it then, but when I got back to the dugout I broke into a cold sweat. If I could have jumped any quicker, the ball might have hit me right in the face."
These seven youngsters, who all one day would like to be compared to a player with the third-base skills of Brooks Robinson, have made good beginnings. If they don't have their heads taken off by sizzling line drives sometime between now and October, this could be their vintage year, the year of the hot third basemen.