It was often said years ago that a ballplayer who changed from conventional baseball apparel into the pinstripe flannels of the New York Yankees automatically underwent a metamorphosis comparable to that regularly experienced by Clark Kent in the telephone booth. Mild-mannered banjo hitters were suddenly transformed into sluggers more powerful than a locomotive, cracker-armed has-beens discovered they could throw a pitch faster than a speeding bullet, palsied veterans were able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Such were the magical properties of the old Yankee raiment.
Alas, in recent years the enchanted regalia has done little more for its wearers than rags off the rack at the local discount store. The repugnant green and gold ensemble of the world champions from Oakland is more enhancing. But the Yankees under their tradition-conscious president, Gabe Paul, are anxious to restore the legend of the uniforms, and so it was that when the team's new right-fielder, Bobby Bonds, slipped on the pinstripes last Friday for the first time before a regular-season home game, an expectant hush fell over the Shea Stadium clubhouse. The fit was just right—a little snug about the shoulders, perhaps—and the garment pleasantly emphasized the wearer's lean muscularity. Bonds examined himself in a mirror as others awaited his opinion.
"I look funny," he said finally. "I don't look like a Yankee at all. Some people look like Yankees, and some don't. Elston Howard over there does," he said, gesturing toward the former All-Star catcher, now a coach. "Even Alex Johnson does. But Walt Williams looks like a Chicago White Sock and I still look like a San Francisco Giant. I know Willie Mays never looked like a Met. This uniform looks funny on me."
As if to compound the blasphemy, Bonds proceeded that afternoon to strike out with the bases full of potential winning runs. And his even more celebrated fellow San Francisco Bay Area refugee, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, fresh out of the clown suits favored by his previous employer, threw two home-run pitches and lost his first start as a Yankee. The pinstripes proved as beneficial to Hunter and Bonds as sackcloth.
April 20, 1975
But even after their opening loss to Cleveland and the home-opener defeat by Detroit, both by 5-3 scores, and yet another loss to Detroit on Saturday, the Yankees remained the glamour team of the season's first week. The acquisition of Hunter from the A's, at a cost of $3.75 million, and Bonds from the Giants, at the cost of Bobby Murcer, were the two most spectacular player transactions of the off season. And it is yet possible the two Bay Area migrants will lead the Yankees to a division, league or even World Series championship.
The Yankees have not achieved a championship of any sort since 1964. But Bonds gives them the speed and power they have lacked since the decline and eventual departure of Mickey Mantle, and Hunter, last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, is a pitcher reminiscent of Ruffing, Chandler, Reynolds, Raschi and Ford.
So amid heavy competition for publicity, the Yankees occupied center stage as the curtain went up. That they were upstaged by Frank Robinson's dramatic debut as the first black manager and by Hank Aaron's sentimental return to Milwaukee, or even by Tony Conigliaro's somewhat less affecting return to Boston was incidental. Besides, the Yankees at least had a hand in Robinson's history-making, and they were peripherally involved in two other significant developments of the week: the A's discovery of a possible successor to Hunter in 20-year-old Mike Norris, a shutout winner in his first start, and Murcer's slam-bang beginning as a Giant—six hits, four for extra bases, in his first three games.
Bonds, uncomfortable though he may have been in his new clothes, remained supremely confident. On the cold morning of Opening Day in Cleveland, he stood at the batting cage musing on his prospects. Bonds did not, for him, have a good season in 1974 and he did not have a good spring. He regarded neither circumstance as foreboding.
"I don't feel I'm in a pressure situation," he said, massaging his bat. "I felt more pressure in spring training than I do now. People in Florida, my teammates especially, expected me to show a lot of power, and I suppose I went out there trying to prove to them that I could hit the ball out of the park. I tried to impress everybody down there. I was pressing. I was tight. Look, I was traded for a good ballplayer, somebody they respected here. I wanted to earn that kind of respect. I couldn't relax. Then I finally realized that I didn't have to prove anything. It's all there in the record. I've hit 186 home runs and I've stolen 263 bases in seven seasons. All I have to do is use the ability God gave me. So I finally relaxed. And that's the way I feel now that the season's starting."
And he stepped into the batter's box and hit a ball over the left-field fence. He looked back, smiling, saying wordlessly, "See what I mean?"
Bonds not only gives the Yankees home runs, he gives them stolen bases—his 41 steals were only a dozen fewer than the entire Yankee team had in 1974—and he brings a right-hand bat into a lineup previously overbalanced with lefty swingers.
"The other teams won't be so eager to start lefthanders against us this year," says Coach Howard. "Last year we saw them all, even second-liners up from Triple A."
With Bonds there to scare off the southpaws, Manager Bill Virdon will be able to make freer use of Ron Blomberg, his left-hand hitting DH, who has averaged .329 and .311 the past two seasons playing almost exclusively against right-handers. "I gotta, be selfish about it," says Blomberg of the Bonds acquisition. "I'm gonna play more."
For his part, Hunter fleshes out a pitching staff that already includes 19-game winners George (Doc) Medich and Pat Dobson. No matter that all three were shellacked in their first starts of 1975. They are proven talent.
"If you want to start building a ball club, you do it with pitching and catching, and that's where we have the pluses," says Virdon, a tactician who looks as primly responsible as a junior high school principal. "You have another plus when you can add a man like Hunter to your staff without giving up anything." By "anything" it is assumed he meant human beings, the Yankees having given up a considerable something beyond the corporeal for the A's 25-game winner.
Hunter was held out of the season's opener in Cleveland, ostensibly because Medich had earned the pitching honors, but actually because Hunter would be the superior drawing card at home. The Indians did not require the Catfish to lure 56,204 spectators into their creaking stadium; they had Manager Robinson. He did not fail them, hitting a homer off Medich in his first at bat. Medich, not Hunter, will be the footnote to that moment of history.
The Yankees were idle for two days before they opened at home. On Wednesday they practiced at Shea Stadium; on Thursday they rested. Bonds and Hunter, meanwhile, were privileged to familiarize themselves with the Big Apple. Hunter is a relatively uncomplicated, agreeably straightforward individual who savors the unusual prospect of playing before spectators in such abundance that he is not on a first-name basis with all of them. At Oakland he was scarcely seen, except during the World Series. He had remarked to one writer that he could stand blindfolded in the middle of the Oakland Coliseum and identify every spectator by the sound of his voice.
He was also pleased that someone other than Charles O. Finley would be managing him. "It will be nice," he said after the Wednesday workout, "to know that the lineup will be made out three hours before a game instead of three minutes," a reference to Finley's penchant for telephonically inserting last-minute changes in his manager's batting order.
Though he does not always publicly exult in his legal triumph over his old master, he is not exactly shy about discussing it. A baseball arbitrator and the courts ruled that Finley failed to meet his contractual obligations to Hunter, which freed the pitcher to negotiate baseball's richest contract. "The man just didn't pay me, that's all," says Hunter. "And there's nothing he can do about it, though he's gonna try everything. Can't blame him for that." The New York press has made much of the paradox of a North Carolina farm boy becoming the recipient of so much big-city largesse, but Hunter has steadfastly resisted all efforts to undersophisticate him. He is not the down-home anecdotist the New York media might wish him to be, responding to even the silliest inquiries with almost grave dignity, tempered only slightly by country wit. The mythmakers will be obliged to look elsewhere for their Park Avenue hillbilly.
Bonds may have more potential as a media darling. He is a complex person, a garrulous charmer much of the time, whose reputation in San Francisco as a Sybarite was at least partially unmerited. Now that he is a New Yorker of sorts, he prefers to regard himself as a small-town lad rendered vertiginous by the Manhattan merry-go-round.
"I'm like a penny in a stack of nickels here," he said last week. "I got lost trying to find my way home last night. What kind of place is this where you can't even find your own house? My home in the Bay Area is in San Carlos, only about 20 miles from San Francisco. It's small and quiet. Here, you have to run across the street or get hit by a taxicab. I hope I don't lose my speed."
Both Bonds and Hunter were generously received by the crowd of 26,212 that paid to attend the home opener in Shea Stadium on a crisp afternoon. New York Governor Hugh Carey was there, and so were Mayor Abe Beame and former Mayor John Lindsay, as well as Toots Shor, Robert Merrill, Roy Cohn, some antiwar protesters and a white chicken that appeared on the screen behind home plate in the eighth inning, provoking an outbreak of bad gags and labored symbolism in the press box. Bonds was cheered by the fans as he emerged from the dugout, and Hunter received a standing ovation as he jogged in from the right-field bullpen.
Hunter struck out the first man he faced, Detroit Centerfielder Ron LeFlore, the fans acclaiming his every pitch. But the next hitter, Gary Sutherland, singled to left, and the next, Willie Horton, stroked a long home run into the left-field bullpen. Hunter is one of baseball's premier home-run pitchers. He sometimes speaks of homers as if he had hit them instead of pitched them. After he surrendered one in last year's World Series, he remarked afterward that there were probably a few people in the stands who had not seen him pitch a home run before, so he felt he owed them one. The crowd, then, was not distressed by such a common occurrence. Hunter was cheered again when he retired the side.
Bonds, too, was hailed when he first came to bat, even though he had gone hitless in four at bats and struck out twice in Cleveland. This time he doubled off the glove of Detroit Third Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, scoring Alex Johnson from first. He himself scored the tying run when Bob Oliver hit a ball to left field that Dan Meyer lost in the sun. Bonds singled in the third inning, but was thrown out on his first American League stolen-base attempt.
It was downhill for both newcomers after that. Hunter pitched another homer in the sixth, a three-run cannon shot by Nate Colbert that won the game for Detroit; Bonds struck out with the bases loaded in the seventh and ended the game by forcing a base runner.
Bonds and Hunter were seemingly unmoved by these minor calamities. Bonds allowed as how the New York fans were so sophisticated they recognized he would have both good days and bad. Hunter was as unflappable as ever before press hordes of World Series magnitude, although he ruefully acknowledged that he was so eager to ingratiate himself with his new constituency that he pitched foolishly.
"I was a little nervous," he said. "I was trying to rush things, to put too much on my curveball, to throw too hard. It was just too much do or die."
Gabe Paul, meanwhile, repaired to the Yankee offices, which are across Roosevelt Avenue from Shea Stadium, occupying space in the Quonset-like New York City Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administration Building. The offices are profoundly un-Yankeeish, although the walls leading to Paul's quarters are lined with photographs of Yankee championship teams, generations of identically attired, cross-armed, solemn athletic dignitaries—Ruth and Gehrig and Huggins, DiMaggio and Dickey and McCarthy, Mantle and Maris and Stengel. It is an impressive visual history, and one can almost see Bonds and Hunter and Virdon joining this royal procession.
Paul himself is an unregal presence, a pleasant, quiet, dough-faced man who, though a Yankee for little more than a year, is imbued with team tradition. He eagerly anticipates the 1976 opening of the new Yankee Stadium, an edifice that will preserve some of the old lore.
"We don't want to do away with tradition here," he said, measuring his words. "We know the Yankees stand for class. We think we have it now. We think we have a winning team. And the one tradition we are most anxious to reestablish is winning. You know, it's easy to have class when you are winning and you have the wherewithal."
The tradition is always there, preserved, if nowhere else, in those pinstripe suits. But after three straight losses, there seemed to be some loose threads. Then on Sunday, Medich returned to shut out the Tigers 6-0 in the first game of a doubleheader. The Tigers took the second 5-2, but a start had been made. The Yankees were looking, if not exactly impeccable, just a little more dapper.