!A year ago this week they were saying that here was one of the great Yankee teams of all time. Without the power of the old Ruth-Gehrig-Dickey clubs, the 1958 New Yorkers appeared to have everything else: superb pitching in matchless depth; sharp, timely hilling; searing speed on the bases, and a defense that was as tight as a drum. By the end of the first five weeks of play they had won 23 games and lost only five; already they led the second-place Indians by 8½ games, and day by day, with an effortless, deadly precision, the Yankees were pulling further away. Soon it became a rout, one of the most lopsided runaways baseball has ever seen.
Today the Yankees are stumbling along in the second division, playing less than .500 ball, and only an even more horrendous start by the Detroit Tigers has prevented them from dipping into the cellar. Not for almost 20 years has a Yankee team begun the season so slowly and almost never has one looked so bad. The pitching has been erratic, the old Yankee power flashes only in brief, unproductive bursts and the fabled defense is coming apart at the seams.
For the rest of the American League, with the possible exception of poor old Detroit, it has been a wonderful spring. Ball parks in Cleveland and Chicago, in Kansas City and Baltimore, even in Washington, have begun to rock with the enthusiasm of fans who have finally found something to cheer about in the way their own teams are playing ball. Once these same people turned out only in the feeble hope that the Yankees might lose. Today they crowd into the stands with a bubbling, infectious conviction that the Yankees will lose. And lose the Yankees have—again and again and again.
Naturally, the big question which everyone asks is why do the Yankees lose? What is wrong? And, in an attempt to find out, people have also been asking smaller, specific questions. Here are the answers.
ARE THEY TOO WELL FED?
There is an old theory in baseball, dredged up at the drop of a World Series share, that wealth and success breed only complacency. The truth is that ballplayers, even good ones, don't make that much money. The Yankees are normal, greedy human beings like anyone else, and the more they get the more they want. This applies to dollars as well as to pennants.
In addition, behind every high-salaried Yankee there is a young, low-salaried Yankee just itching to take his place. The regulars know this and they remind each other of it constantly. The story of what happened to Wally Pipp is a classic in the Yankee clubhouse: he took a day off because of a headache and came back to find Lou Gehrig standing in his place. By the time Gehrig left, Wally Pipp had a long, gray beard.
And, finally, neither Casey Stengel nor George Weiss will put up for an instant with complacency. The Yankees have traded away ballplayers before who didn't seem to really care about winning, and if necessary they will do so again. This is not, however, a problem which causes the front office much concern. The Yankee players have a great deal of pride, and they are perhaps the worst losers in baseball. They just like to win.
HOW ABOUT THE LAME AND HALT?
The Yankee sick list this spring has read like a Who's Who at Bellevue. Out with flu for varying lengths of time have been Mickey Mantle, Ryne Duren, Andy Carey, Tom Sturdivant, John Blanchard, Marv Throne-berry, Jim Coates and Cletis Boyer. Elston Howard, Gil McDougald and Hank Bauer missed a few games with minor injuries, Mantle was out for more than a week with a broken finger, and Bill Skowron, who was playing with a corset wrapped around his aching back to begin with, pulled a leg muscle which really put him on the shelf.
Yet the Yankees have been little or no worse off than most of the other teams in the league. The Red Sox went through a mass virus attack. The White Sox struggled through an epidemic, too. And Washington was hit almost as hard as the Yankees.
As for the injuries, McDougald, Howard and Bauer were not out long enough to make any great difference. The Yankees lost with Mantle on the bench, true. They also lost before he was hurt and they have been losing since his return. Perhaps the toughest break was the absence of Skowron, who led the team in home runs, hitting and runs batted in. Yet the Yankees weren't winning with Skowron either.
In the past Stengel has had to go along with more damaging injuries than this and still the Yankees won. Being sick or hurt a little is not enough of an excuse in itself.
IS BERRA WASHED UP?
Berra is only 34 but he has been a big league catcher now for 14 years and has caught more than 1,600 big league games. It is time that he was getting tired. He does not react quite so quickly behind the plate as he once did, and he does not throw so well. Still, the Yankees are not worried about his catching. He will do an adequate job if given a chance to rest, and there is a topflight replacement in Howard.
But neither Howard nor anyone else can replace Yogi at the plate, where the squat, homely little man with the big heart long ago became a legend: the most dangerous late-inning hitter in all baseball. At times Berra still shows flashes of his old ripping power. But he has hit only .251 and .266 for the past two seasons and for most of this one he has been hitting even less. He has yet to break up a ball game. Against right-hand pitching, particularly in Yankee Stadium, he may still be the deadliest of clutch hitters. There was a time, however, when he was better than anybody, in any situation, anywhere.
The Yankees are missing his bat.
WHAT IS WRONG ON THE FIELD?
One would think, to look at the results of Yankee games in a rather casual way, that the pitchers are throwing only home runs these days and that no one on the ball club can stop a ground ball. This is only partially correct. Some days the pitchers do very well, some days one wonders how they found their way into the ball park. This has led Stengel to call his 1959 crew "my Jekyll and Hyde pitching staff."
Generally, however, Stengel defends the pitchers, and so do the figures. The team earned run average is a respectable if not very exciting 3.36. Both Ford and Turley have done good jobs. On occasion, so have Art Ditmar and Bobby Shantz and Don Larsen. Even Duren, the relief hero of 1958 but a frustrated man who has appeared in only one winning game this year, has been throwing just as hard and about as effectively as ever before. Duren's trouble is that he has had to work too often and too long.
The defense hasn't been helping much, either. At Washington one night, Richardson made a bad throw on a double-play ball that cost Turley a three-hit game. Against Cleveland, Kubek, who had been fielding like a flash for days, booted two balls in one inning and the Indians won. Baltimore won the second game of a double-header when Siebern made a bad play in left field. Richardson made two errors one night at shortstop against the White Sox. Howard was no real help at first base. Berra, who set a record for catchers by playing errorless ball in 148 consecutive games, made an error in each of the next two. And Saturday, against Chicago, with two out in the ninth inning and the Yankees ahead 3-2, Mantle misplayed a fly ball by Nellie Fox into a three-base error that eventually cost the Yankees the game.
But despite the erratic pitching and the erratic play afield, the real villain in the Yankee slump has been the hitting. It hasn't been erratic, just bad all the time.
There isn't a Yankee in the league's top 10. The only regular above .300 is Skowron and he is barely above .300, besides which he has been on the bench. Mantle can't get going, Siebern has slumped, Howard fell off, McDougald isn't driving in runs, Kubek is hovering around .250 and the rest are worse. The Yankees, who practically invented the thing, are seventh in the league in home runs, seventh in hits, seventh in doubles, last in runs scored. And the big inning, once a Yankee trademark, has ceased to exist.
At first Stengel said, "We're just not hitting."
Then he said, "We're swinging at low bad pitches," and, "We can't find the holes," and, "Their fellas pitch us so we can't pull."
Finally Casey figured it out. "Those other fellas have brought in some new pitchers. Everybody has a couple who can win. The pitching all through this league has got to be stronger."
WHERE ARE THE FRESH TROOPS?
The Yankee farm system is still one of the best in baseball—but no longer does it rank as the only good one around. There are those who say the Braves have outdistanced the Yankees now, and perhaps the Reds and Dodgers are ahead, too, and others, like Baltimore and Cleveland, are gaining fast. The Yankees sign a lot of good-looking youngsters, but no longer do they have a corner on the market.
Partly because of this, partly because of other factors which even baseball men themselves do not clearly understand, the Yankees have run into one of those strange periods of nonproductivity which occasionally strike even the best farm system. Neither this year nor last has Stengel come up with a rookie able to play regularly—long one of the secrets of Yankee success.
Even those youngsters who have managed to make the club in recent years, either as regulars or part-time players, lack the old, frightening Yankee look. Kubek has all the ability to become a great ballplayer, but he has shown almost no power, he has yet to prove that he is in the image of such Yankee shortstops as Crosetti and Rizzuto, and now people are not so sure. Siebern appears to be one of the good hitters, but he has trouble with the left-hand curve ball and his fielding is very poor. Richardson sometimes looks like a magician with a glove; at other times he errs badly, and at bat he packs no punch. Throne-berry was never an accomplished fielder; in the minors he hit home runs, in the majors he only strikes out. Lumpe, a graceful, skilled in-fielder, does not scare too many opponents with his bat. And the Yankees have not produced a consistent winning pitcher of their own since Whitey Ford.
This shortage of outstanding talent is also reflected on the bench. Where once the Yankees were able to deal off their surplus youngsters for an older player, a Mize or a Slaughter, who could give them specialized help, they do not have that kind of outstanding surplus any more.
STENGEL: A GENIUS OR A CLOWN?
Against the Indians one night Casey brought in a left-hander, Shantz, to pitch to two right-hand power hitters, Minoso and Colavito, who between them had driven in 193 runs the year before. Later, with left-hand hitters coming up, he took out Shantz, brought in Zack Monroe, a right-hander, and lost the game. As it turned out, Casey meant to bring in a right-hander all right, but not Monroe. "The fella I wanted was Coates," he admitted the next day. "The signals to the bullpen got mixed up."
He put Blanchard in to play right field one night, saw the young catcher battle fly balls for his life, admitted later, "I had him in the wrong spot. I found out he used to play some in left field, not right."
He also used Throneberry out there when Bauer was hurt, a gesture which left Frank Lane all choked up. "When he plays Throneberry in right field," said Lane, "he's doing us a big favor."
All of this has been seized upon with delight by Casey's critics to prove that Stengel can't manage a lick. He has just been lucky all these years. Perhaps it is a normal reaction. Stengel is easy to second-guess because he does make unusual moves with his athletes, and when these jewels of Stengelian strategy backfire they do so with a loud report. It is also just about the first time in years that his opponents have had such a good chance to have so much fun at Casey's expense.
What most critics overlook is that Stengel is doing nothing much different from what he has been doing all along. "My players," he growled one day, "just ain't executing."
It is to Stengel's credit that he has retained his salty good humor throughout the long siege of defeats and refused to heap the blame on anyone else.
"Casey," said Gil McDougald, "is taking this very well."
He did run a television crew away from the dugout in obvious irritation one night in Kansas City ("I make my living here on this bench, not in the movies," he told them), but then Casey has never cared very much for television anyway. He refused to pose with Frank Lane for a photographer, but then Stengel has never shown any special fondness for Lane, either.
But in the clubhouse and on the bench, around his players and with the press, he has been the soul of sweetness and light. Daily the writers who cover the team edge toward the dressing room after the game, in hesitant trepidation and with a certain amount of dread. Inside they find Old Case waiting for them, sitting in some stage of undress, ready to talk around his cigarette with one gnarled leg crossed over the other.
"I wish," he told them after the club had run into an epidemic of one-run defeats, "that we could get in a one-sided game sometime. Even if we lose."
After the Yankees beat Kansas City one day 3-2 in 10 innings he said, "We beat them so bad they probably won't show up tomorrow night."
When Bill Norman was fired at Detroit, the day the Yankees lost their second straight to Cleveland, Stengel said, "I think maybe I'll go look up my contract and see how long I'm hired for."
And throughout he has refused to talk about trading any of his players. "They won me a World Series," he says, "and I want 'em. My big men ain't gonna keep not hittin' the way they have been."
The day Jimmie Dykes took over the Tigers, the new Detroit manager walked up to Stengel at home plate before the game. "Hello, Casey," said Dykes, "and what happened to the magic?"
Casey had no answer. But the answer is that Casey never really had any magic. He was never a genius—nor was he ever a buffoon. He was, and is, a sometimes irascible, usually funny, almost always very wise old man who has been around this game for nearly half a century and therefore knows more about it than anyone he has to manage against.
When his players "execute," he wins. When they don't, he loses. Right now they aren't executing very well.
IS THIS THE DAY OF RECKONING?
No one has seriously screamed, "Break up the Yankees!" for several years now. The reason is that the other clubs finally went out and did something about building themselves up instead. The rest of the American League, or at least parts of it, are actually beginning to catch up, unbelievable as this may sound.
Of the nine men in the starting lineup for the Yankees the day the 1955 season opened, seven of them are still on the team. On no other team in the league are there more than three. And the important thing is, not only are the newcomers different, they are better, too.
While New York has produced only Howard and Kubek and Siebern to play on a more or less regular basis in recent seasons, the other clubs have been coming up with boys like Rocky Colavito, Russ Nixon, Gary Bell, Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry at Cleveland; Luis Aparicio, Jim Landis, John Callison, Barry Latman and Bob Shaw at Chicago; Willie Tasby, Billy O'Dell, Jerry Walker and Milt Pappas at Baltimore; Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison at Washington; Roger Maris at Kansas City; Jim Bunning at Detroit. Not all of these were home-grown but the farm systems were at least producing the material needed to make deals.
The Yankees, of course, did not have to change so many faces because the ones they had were already good enough. Yet you cannot stand still, even with a winner, and in the long run this overabundance of material right on the Yankee roster began to work against them, too. With so many good ones, the Yankees simply couldn't find jobs for all their players. Some had to go. Now the ex-Yankees are coming back to haunt them.
Cleveland has Woodie Held, Vic Power and Billy Martin. Baltimore has Gus Triandos and Gene Wood-ling; Kansas City has Bob Cerv, Hal Smith, Bob Grim and Whitey Herzog; Boston has Jackie Jensen; Chicago has Sherm Lollar; Detroit has Lou Berberet. There are others, too. Not all of these could make the Yankee lineup but each has contributed a great deal to the club for which he plays.
"This is a much better league than it was a year ago," says Al Lopez of the White Sox. "Take Washington. They're getting good pitching and they have some young fellows in there doing a real good job. It's amazing what a couple of youngsters like Killebrew and Allison can do for a ball club. Sometimes a team will reach the point where all it takes is just one more player to make the difference. That's the point some of the teams in this league have reached now.
"I would say," says Lopez, "that some teams have already caught up."
Perhaps not everyone believes this or that the Yankees will stay down. Yankee fans, buoyed up by the almost insufferable assurance bred by years of Yankee success, are only worried, not downcast. In Las Vegas, the odds have never been worse than even money that the Yankees will win again. The season is a long one and, over 154 games, the good ones usually end up at the top. The Yankees have come from behind before.
Still, there is a difference this year. The Yankees, even when they win—and they do not win very often—have not played good ball. They have lost eight one-run games and five that went into extra innings.
"They are beating themselves," says Lopez, "and good ball clubs do not do that."
DESPITE GRIM COUNTENANCE, STENGEL HAS REMAINED SINGULARLY CALM AND GOOD-HUMORED THROUGHOUT YANKEE SLUMP