The Yankees. Ah, the Yankees! The Babe, Iron Man Lou and Joe D., Whitey and the Scooter and Mickey and Yogi. Monuments in center field in the great Stadium. Pennants that came in waves. The lordly Yankees in their pinstripe uniforms, always worn with the top button unbuttoned. Late summer trades for insurance. Mel Allen. The cry was "Break 'em up." But as baseball goes, all that was generations ago.
Last Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium after Bobby Murcer hit a three-run homer to lead New York to its sixth victory in a row and 22nd in its last 33 games, the organist could contain himself no longer; he boomed out It Seems Like Old Times. It was like old times. The Yankees were in first place, seemingly out from beneath the large rock that had obscured them since 1964. In the bars and supermarkets, on the trains and subways of the nation's largest city, people were talking more about the Yankees than about the Mets. That hadn't happened in—well, it had almost never happened. Pitching Coach Jim Turner, who has spent 51 consecutive years in a pro baseball uniform, more than any man in history, said, "It's so good to walk out there before a game and see so many people with notebooks, microphones and cameras interested in us again."
Not since they won their last pennant nine years ago had the Yankees been in first place this "late" in a season. One of their players, 24-year-old Ron Blomberg, was hitting .408 to lead the world in batting. Statisticians announced that not in a quarter of a century had anyone been hitting above .400 at this stage. The two who had last done it were named Ted Williams and Stan Musial. "Wow!" said Blomberg, learning of this, "those guys could hit."
The team that Blomberg is playing with can hit, too. Especially when it must. Already this year the Yankees have won six games by coming from behind in the seventh inning or later. "Just about the entire difference between our team now and in the last couple of seasons," said Manager Ralph Houk, "is the hitting. It's fun to sit back and see our hitters do their job."
Houk was seated in his office last Wednesday evening after the Yankees had moved into first place by half a game, his stockinged feet crossed and a can of beer on his desk. He waggled an unlit cigar in his right hand. Two photographers came in and asked him if he'd mind lighting the cigar and leaning back in his swivel chair. "It's been so long since anyone asked me for my picture after a game," said Houk, "that I probably can't even remember how to pose." He remembered, all right.
The Yankees have a new pride in themselves this season, a sense of no longer being the No. 2 team in a city that in recent years endured them primarily by stifling yawns. For a long time during their dark ages the biggest news they made was when they fired an announcer, but not now. The Yankees of 1973 are interesting in themselves. Playing in poor or threatening weather over much of last week, they drew 148,084 people to a Stadium that has received reams of bad publicity—muggings, poor parking, etc.—and is about to be renovated.
Three weeks ago the Yanks went on a spending spree and bought two pitchers to help them win in this, their 50th year at their Stadium. Sudden Sam McDowell was extracted from the San Francisco Giants for $150,000 cash and Pat Dobson came from the Atlanta Braves for minor league players. All of a sudden, New York had a potentially strong pitching staff in a division notably short of quality arms. By adding McDowell (now 2-0 as a Yankee) and Dobson (2-1) to Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson, General Manager Lee MacPhail had stockpiled four men who had won 20 games at one time or another in the major leagues. Facing a schedule that forced them to play 24 games with no days off in the next three weeks, the Yankees could actually boast of six starting pitchers, George Medich and Steve Kline being the other two. "It's a situation you have to feel good about," said Houk. But feeling good costs money. By adding McDowell and Dobson the Yankees also hiked their player payroll to nearly $1.2 million.
Houk's six starters are pitching to one of the best catchers in baseball, Thurman Munson, who made it to the Yankees in 1969 with fewer than 100 games beneath his chest protector in the minors. In his rookie season Munson hit .302 and last year had more game-winning hits than any player on the club. This season he has scored more runs than anyone except Graig Nettles and Murcer and has driven in 33 runs, compared to 46 during all of last year.
No team has gotten as much run production from its designated hitters as New York. The DHs, most notably Jim Ray Hart, have driven home 44 runs, second only to Murcer's 47. Hart was purchased from the Giants in April in order to prevent a steady diet of lefthanders from minimizing the team's left-handed power: Murcer, Blomberg, Nettles and Matty Alou.
From the point of view of their gate, the new Yankees are a team with considerable personality and color, instead of the faceless mélanges of the recent past. The zaniest combination of this or many years—the one involving Peterson, Mike Kekich, their wives, children and dogs—was disbanded when Kekich was dealt off to Cleveland. But the Yankees still have a pair of Latin brothers in Matty and Felipe Alou; a Jewish wonder in Blomberg (who pronounces his name "Bloomberg"); an outstanding third baseman in Nettles, who came from Cleveland in the off-season and is reaching base nearly 50% of the time; and a proven batter in Murcer, who is not only hitting for distance and average but is scoring runs and driving them in. Then there is Sparky Lyle, who has already saved more games by himself (19) than any other entire bullpen in the league. Lindy McDaniel, still going strong at 37, again resembles the McDaniel of 1970 who saved 29 games with his fork ball. And there is Medich, a 24-year-old righthander who has pitched well despite only 16 major-league starts. Medich is a med student at the University of Pittsburgh and his presence on the team reminds Yankee fans of Dr. Bobby Brown, the third baseman/heart specialist who played so well for them in the '40s and '50s. Medich's nickname, of course, is Doc.
New York began the season as the favorite to win the East Division championship but got off to a horrendous start by losing its first four games by a combined score of 32-14. "It shocked us," says Blomberg, "but we knew we were better than that and we are proving it now." At 24 Blomberg has a delightful wit, a charming smile and an awful time hitting lefthanders. Counting spring training, he has managed only three hits in 53 bats against lefties, which is why Houk now stoutly declines to let him bat against them at all—whatever the game situation.
Naturally, the letters pile up on Houk's desk asking why he doesn't play Blomberg every day. "You would be amazed at how many of them there are, and how many stories are written about what a fool I am not to play Ronnie against lefties," says Houk. "But I'd be foolish to take a chance of losing a ball game by doing it." Blomberg wants to hit against lefthanders but realizes the position he is in. "I'm young enough," he says, "and there is time for me to learn. When the season ended last year I went down to the Florida Instructional League to hit lefties and to learn more about playing first base. Well, there weren't that many left-handed pitchers down there, but I sure did get a chance to field a lot of ground balls."
Blomberg is known as a prodigious eater, capable of consuming a couple of ordinary meals at a sitting or one five-pound roast. He is also a first baseman of unusual capacities, most of them negative. Once this year all he had to do to complete a triple play was catch a ball at first base. He juggled the throw. "First time I ever had a chance to even see a triple play and I blew it," he said.
As a youngster in Atlanta, where he grew up a Yankee fan, Blomberg was dropped from one Little League team because his fielding was so bad. Next day, using a different name, he went to another tryout, made the team and finished the season with a .989 batting average. He learned to hit by picking berries off a bush in front of his house, tossing them up in the air and hitting them with a stick. "But there was nobody to hit berries to me so I didn't become a good fielder," he says.
When the Yankees won their last pennant in 1964 their image was so inflated by all the years of spectacular success, it was generally accepted that somebody's grandmother could manage them. Caught up in a fierce four-team pennant chase all during the season, the team, under Berra, took command in September by winning 11 straight. It was New York's 14th pennant in 16 years. That August it was announced that the Columbia Broadcasting System was buying the Yankees from co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb for $13.2 million. The association was a near disaster from the outset. Shea Stadium had opened next door to the World's Fair in 1964 and the Mets were drawing more than 1,700,000 to the new ball park on their way to a 10th-place finish as well as a third consecutive season in which they would lose 100 games or more. Met attendance was nearly half a million higher with a last-place team than the Yankees with an exciting first-place team involved all summer in a pennant race.
Bobby Murcer was signed in June of 1964. Like Mantle, Murcer was from Oklahoma and, like Mantle, he was signed by scout Tom Greenwade. What swung him to the Yankees, he says, "was the idea that you would get a World Series check every year. You could just about bank on that. But when I came up in 1965 it was like I was some kind of an omen. The World Series supply for the Yankees had dried up."
Murcer joined the team as a shortstop and failed. Actually, his chances of living up to advance billing verged on the impossible. He was constantly being compared to his idol, Mantle. "It was tough going," he says now. By the end of 1966 he had a total of only 33 games in the majors. He lost 1967 and 1968 to the service, and when he came out for 1969 the Yankees were clearly a struggling club.
In 1969, of course, the Mets won the World Series while the Yankees finished fifth. The Mets by then were pulling more than two million a year and the Yankees barely a million.
"Some of us went through some rough times together," Murcer recalls, "but we learned about each other. In 1970 we finished second and last year we were in the race until very late. We just didn't have enough good players to win it."
Murcer is right about that, but there is an important difference between the 1970 and '72 performances. Houk had to keep his foot on the accelerator all of 1970 lest he lose sight of the Baltimore Orioles going around a curve in the distance. But last year the Yankees were in the race because Detroit and Boston played so-so and Baltimore just plain flopped. By the start of this year, the Yankees looked like a first-place team in a weak division.
Murcer tends to be critical of himself. "I'm hitting so bad," he said the other day, "that I've broken 12 bats in 15 games. I even went and got one that was made in 1965 and broke it the first time up." Notwithstanding, he had his batting average up to .285 and was a source of joy to the Yankees' new owners. In the off-season, George Steinbrenner and a group that came largely from Cleveland bought the Yankees from CBS. Steinbrenner watched his Pinstripes move last week and was pleased. So was Murcer. "I have a feeling about this team," he said, "a feeling that all the bad things are in the past, that we can win just like the Yankees are supposed to."