Unlike anyone else in baseball, Leon Wagner of the Los Angeles Angels came into July hitting .351. He had 19 home runs and 57 runs batted in, and for the second year in succession he was named starting left fielder on the American League All-Star team. He seemed to have a good shot at winning the triple crown—batting average, home runs and runs batted in—and then he slumped.
It was like the fall of Icarus. All through July he went downward and downward. He lost 50 points from his batting average, hit two home runs in 31 games, batted across only a handful of runs and staggered into August with only one thing unshaken—his confidence. He knew what was causing the slump.
"They won't pitch to me," he complained cheerfully. "They won't throw me any strikes. They never throw me a strike. Nobody's hitting behind me and the pitchers don't mind putting me on base. They just as soon walk me. They throw that ball up here and down there and out there and every place except over the plate. I like to hit. Tin a bad-ball hitter and I go for those pitches. I'm not a scientific hitter—you know, like Ted Williams. I'll swing at anything. Those pitchers know it.
"You take that Whitey Ford of the Yankees. He's a con man. He throws a fast ball up over my head and then a curve way outside and then another curve that hits the dirt in front of the plate. People say, 'Wow, he's wild.' Wild? He ain't wild. He's a con man. He knows I like to swing, and he's trying to get me chasing those bad pitches. Then it's 3 and 0, and he knows I'm taking all the way—zoop, right down the middle. Then he throws that curve over on the outside corner. And I take it. Where am I going to hit it? Left field at Yankee Stadium? Too much room out there. So now it's 3 and 2 and he throws one of those curves low and out and I got to swing at it. Sometimes he'll throw a bad pitch on purpose on 3 and 2—he doesn't care if he walks me, and most of the time he knows I'll swing at it."
Bill Rigney, manager of the Angels, said, "Don't talk to me about Leon Wagner. I'd like to shoot him. He keeps telling me that they won't throw him strikes. I said to him, 'Wag, if they don't throw the ball over the plate to you, what do you think you ought to do about it? If you took those bad pitches instead of swinging at them, you know what would happen? You'd be on first base and a single might move you to third and a fly ball might score you and we'd have a run we could use. And if we win, you know what they're going to say? They're going to say it's those damn bases on balls.' I told him, 'Leon, if you walk in the first inning and walk in the third and fly out in the sixth you can still get a home run in the eighth and you've gone one for two and your batting average will go up.' Then they'd start pitching to him again. Three games, that's all. Three games and they'd start putting that ball over the plate."
But Wagner said, "I get tired standing around first base. Running down to second all the time on those double plays.
"And they keep throwing those good pitchers at me. That's all I see is those good pitchers. Them and left-handers. Every time there's a man on base and I come up, there they are, waving a lefthander in from the bullpen. But I like that. That means they think I'm good.
"I tell you, it takes a good hitter to hit any pitcher this year. That new strike zone has changed things. That new strike zone has made it for those raggedy pitchers, the guys who are always around the edges, like Robin Roberts. I don't believe I've seen a pitch this year that was in last year's strike zone. It's up here or out there. That strike zone is wider, too, as well as higher. They're giving them that pitch out there."
Wherever the strike zone is, Wagner remains the breezy, talkative man he has always been. Even the plight of this year's Angels hasn't changed him. (Last season the band of happy Angels finished third; this year, with the flamboyant Bo Belinsky gone and First Baseman Lee Thomas in a season-long batting slump, they are struggling to stay as high as seventh.) "We got a nice ball club," he says of the Angels. "We got Polacks on this club and we got Germans and we got Italians—we call them Dagos—and we got Puerto Ricans and we got Negroes—we call us spooks—and we got all kinds. Everybody calls everybody else names, and we get along pretty good. We got a special section in the back of the team bus and when you goof up you got to sit back there. Anybody. Rigney manage bad—'Rigney, back of the bus for you.' We have a lot of fun. Rigney calls me Daddy Wag. Can you imagine that? A manager calling me Daddy Wag?"
I am what I am
"We kid around a lot, but I want them to know I'm a Negro. That's very important to me. A man is Polish or Italian, he's proud to be Polish or Italian. Well, I'm a Negro, and I'm proud to be a Negro. I want them to know I'm proud. Whatever I can do I want to do. Some of the towns around this league aren't too good. You go in one place and it's all right, and you go in the place next door and they say, 'Sorry. We don't serve colored.' That's no good. You go out with your wife and you take her to a place, you don't like to be embarrassed. If they say to a man, you can't come in here because you're drunk, or you can't come in here because you're not dressed right, that's O.K. But say, 'We don't want you in here because you're colored,' that's no good. Some places you go in and you're a ballplayer and they know it, they say, 'Fine, you're welcome here.' And they couldn't treat you better. But you're colored and you're not a ballplayer, you can't get into some of those places.
"There's a lot of things. Like, well, pitchers don't throw at me much. They don't have to because I'm a bad-ball hitter. I'm not digging in for that good pitch over the plate. But they sure throw at other colored players. It must be a custom. See a colored player and throw at him. Even some of our own pitchers, on this team. One day against Kansas City our guy goes right past Siebern and Lumpe and Causey and Cimoli and all them. Who does he throw at? Eddie Charles. I said, 'Hey, why don't you throw at them white cats once in a while? They go down, too, you know.' "
WAGNER GETS READY TO TAKE HIS CUTS