You will remember that last week when we left you the Yankees had just lost the pennant. Yogi Berra had half turned around at the plate and had stared, numb with frustration and a feeling of impending doom, after a wild pitch that Whitey Ford, a small boy, had just flung past him.
Don Mossi, an Indian of doleful mien, had been immensely cheered by the wild pitch, the resultant Indian run and a tumbling catch by Hoot Evers for the last out of the game, and had walked over to third base to shake hands with Al Rosen and to wait there for Evers, trotting in from the outfield. Evers, you will recall, was suspected of bringing the pennant in with him.
Well, he didn't. George Armstrong Custer, portrayed by a veteran actor named Casey Stengel, was playing possum at that Little Big Horn in The Bronx. After the Indians left, he rose and looked around. He passed out band-aids and coffee, rallied his troops and began once again to chase after the redskins. Now, a week later, it is the band of Indians that lies massacred and dying, and it is Custer Stengel who has snatched the pennant and is riding away toward the World Series.
How did this ever happen? Particularly since the Clevelands had gone into Griffith Stadium two days after they had tomahawked the Yankees and had smacked down their most persistent hecklers, Charley Dressen's Washington Senators, in both ends of a double-header. On Wednesday morning the Indians had a solid lead and the season had only 10 days to go.
How did it happen? A man in distant California, fellow named Ned Cronin, works for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "If Casey Stengel didn't have a stubborn streak in him as wide as a mule's caboose, he would realize that Dame Fortune...had long since decided the American League pennant never would be run up the Yankee Stadium flagpole.... But Casey...hasn't got sense enough to quit."
Sure enough, Casey didn't. He hung on, playing them, as they say, one at a time. He beat the Tigers, beat them again, beat the Red Sox, beat them again, and then again. And the Indians responded to this by folding up like an old, old buffalo robe. They lost to the Senators, lost to the Tigers, lost to the Tigers, lost to the Tigers.
And so, Sunday night, there were the Yankees two games ahead. They'd gained four games in one week's time in a league where for two solid months a half-game lead had seemed big and a full-game lead had sounded like a runaway.
How did it happen? For the Indians it was to a considerable extent the decline and fall of Ray Narleski. Here was the most valuable player in the Indians' fight to hold first place, a fast-balling relief pitcher who day after day trudged in from the bullpen to the mound, all business, chin jutting out and head bobbing, looking like his nickname, Bronko, ready to stick a rally down the enemy's throat. He had become a legend in Cleveland and a terror around the league. But that night in Washington, that Wednesday, he couldn't hold the Senators. He lost, the first time he'd lost all season.
When a pitcher as good as Narleski fails, it shakes a team's confidence, particularly a weak-hitting team like the Indians (last week, in seven of the eight games they played from Sunday through Sunday, the Indians had averaged 1.9 runs per game).
There was a Wagnerian Tightness in Narleski's utter collapse in the last game against the Tigers on Sunday, when he came in to stop a rally and literally could not get anybody out. The Tigers scored six runs and the Indians' gods were falling all around them.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra, two broad-shouldered tough guys. Until this season Bauer had been primarily a two-platoon player under Stengel, playing against left-handed pitching, but benched against right-handers. Bauer resented this and never bothered to hide his dislike of Stengel's methods. "No," he said to a question put to him by a teen-ager on Howard Cosell's All-League Clubhouse radio show, "I don't really dislike Mr. Stengel." He paused, then grinned and went on blandly, "But whenever I bat against a right-handed pitcher, I guess it's Stengel I see out there on the mound."
Last Friday night the Red Sox had the Yankees beaten 4-3 with one out in the ninth, Bauer up. Ellis Kinder, the aged right-hander who was pitching for Boston, apparently resembled Stengel. At any rate Bauer swung viciously and clouted a home run, tying the game. A moment later Yogi Berra hit another to win it. The Yankees were in first place.
Sunday the Yankees scored their winning run against the Red Sox on a succession of extraordinary luck. Bauer lifted a weak little foul, but Boston Second Baseman Billy Goodman ran too close to First Baseman Norm Zauchin, causing him to shy away and drop the ball. Bauer then hit a Baltimore chop that Willard Nixon, the pitcher, tipped with his glove but was unable to hold, and Bauer was safe at first. After a walk that loaded the bases, Gil McDougald hit another little bleeder along the third-base line. He was out at first when Ted Lepcio made a lovely pickup and throw, but the runner on third scored. Scored on a dropped foul and two squibs that didn't get off the infield grass.
"Yankee luck," growled the diehards, and maybe it was. But Bauer's home run and Berra's home run on Friday and the catch Elston Howard made diving into the left-field stands on Saturday and the play Shortstop Jerry Coleman made going to his left on Sunday—they were not luck. The heart bleeds for Cleveland and Al Lopez, a good man and a good manager, but the mind has to recognize, finally, the skills and talents of a better team.
And so, we leave you, with the Yankees clutching the pennant and the Indians flying off the cliff toward the jagged rocks below. Nothing can save them now.
But maybe we'd better wait until next week's chapter to be sure.