The note may have been written out of jealousy in June when the Yankees were being swamped in attendance 2 to 1 by the shabby, unneighborly Mets. It may have been written in shame late in August when the Yankees were a third-place team five full games from the league lead. But last week, even though the Yankees looked as if they were on the way to winning their 14th pennant in the last 16 years, the note was still clearly legible on the dirty canvas pad that softens the home team's bench at Yankee Stadium. It reads, "Everybody Loves a Loser."
No Yankee player will step forward and admit he wrote this intriguing message, yet one of them did. Several players will gladly come forward now, however, and admit to supplying the two-word epithet that has recently been printed below the original text. The true mystery of this note lies not in when it was written, or why or by whom. The mystery is that it was written by a Yankee for other Yankees to see when all Yankees are supposed to be incapable of harboring thoughts of losing.
And the solution to the mystery is that these 1964 Yankees are not the heroic stoics that tradition makes them out to be. In action, the 1964 Yankees have been a phenomenon of collective ineptitude. Their hitting has been bad, their fielding spotty, their base running ragged, their relief pitching brutal. Devout Yankee haters and dedicated Yankee fans alike will admit that since April this team has been playing some very un-Yankeelike baseball.
There were notable signs of improvement last week, but no matter how this year finally ends for the Yankees, it is indisputable that there are some remarkable differences between this and former New York teams. Although vast internal shuffles have brought a new manager, a new general manager, a new road secretary, a new concessionaire and even new owners, the basic difference is that the Yankees have acquired a warm, human image. This has occurred because they have been beaten and forced to scramble hard for victories against teams that former Yankee clubs were able to shrug off.
It has been a new set of Yankees—Jim Bouton, Phil Linz, Joe Pepitone, Al Downing, Mel Stottlemyre, Pedro Ramos—that has been carrying the team through its late drive, and these Yankees have never been through a pennant drive before. True enough, there is an old Yankee leading the new ones on, trying to ease the pressures, trying to contribute more than he is physically capable of contributing. That, of course, is Mickey Mantle, and he has played this season with a quiet valor that has inspired every member of the team, the new set and the old hands. "The thing about Mantle this year," says Relief Pitcher Steve Hamilton, "is that you know he is playing with injuries that are tremendously painful. It's agony for all of us to watch him stumble in the outfield and try to swing a bat. But in watching him you stop worrying about what's bothering you. You say to yourself, 'He's making $100,000 a year. He's famous and could retire right now just on his name. If he can do it, I can, too.' "
Mantle's sense of humor also has been a big factor. Time and again it has, by itself, lifted the whole team from mass dejection. "When Mantle says something that he thinks is funny," says Hamilton, "it always is. He waits for the right time. There are many players on this team with a sharper wit, but when Mickey says something, everybody laughs."
Last week First Baseman Joe Pepitone was standing in the dugout singing Funiculi, Funicula in Italian, and Yogi Berra was waving his hands like a conductor. A large group of Yankees stood by watching, and when Pepitone was through singing Yogi leaned back with a contented smile on his face. "Boys," said Mantle, "you have just witnessed the first American performance of the two Japanese Beatles." When Infielder Phil Linz, the man who has done more for the harmonica than anyone since Borrah Minevitch, was in the doghouse with Berra as well as General Manager Ralph Houk and Coach Frank Crosetti, it was Mantle who eased his mind about the whole harmonica incident. "Phil," Mantle said, "I read where you played Mary Had a Little Lamb after we lost all those games in Chicago. It could have been a lot worse. You could have played Happy Days Are Here Again."
These new Yankees act and live differently from the previously accepted Yankee patterns. There is, for example, the matter of the top button on the uniform blouse. If you are a Yankee, that button is supposed to remain unbuttoned, probably because the great Joe DiMaggio always kept his top button open. ("There was no significance or superstition behind it," says DiMaggio, "but if you look through the Yankee team pictures you'll see that it was always unbuttoned. I don't know why I did it.") Look at the top uniform button of the older Yankees today and you will see that Whitey Ford, Mantle, Elston Howard and Roger Maris still follow the tradition. But the new Yankees button that top button.
When Mickey Mantle came up to the Yankees in 1951, he shared an apartment above New York's famous Stage Delicatessen with teammates Hank Bauer and Johnny Hopp. ("I gave Mantle his first drink," says Bauer. "We had come back from the ball park and I asked him if he would like a drink. I put a bottle down on the table and went to get him a glass. When I looked back he had the bottle right up to his lips glubbing the stuff down. Just like a big farm kid from Oklahoma, I guess.") By contrast, Phil Linz, a Yankee of only three years, shares a four-and-one-half-room penthouse apartment on fashionable Beekman Place. Linz's bedroom is decorated in mauve, with subtle touches of periwinkle and contrasts of turquoise and white. The headboard of the king-sized bed is an eight-foot, wrought-iron old Italian arabesqued gate. "It's a sublet," says Linz. "We rented it from Julie Newmar." Among Julie Newmar's credits—aside from 39-23-39—are a movie called The Rookie and the part of Lola in a road company version of Damn Yankees.
The newer Yankees have discarded one more cherished tradition. In past years when the press entered the Yankee clubhouse after a losing game most of the players would race from the shower to the off-limits dressing room, dragging their towels behind them. By hiding out they avoided answering embarrassing questions. Today some of the older Yankees still do this, but the new ones stand by their dressing stalls like sentinels and answer all questions. "When I first came to the club," says 25-year-old Jim Bouton, "some of the older players took me aside and advised me to watch out for this sportswriter or that one. I said to heck with that, I'd make up my own mind. When I began to talk to reporters after games the older guys would walk by me making noises and gestures—indicating that I was a loudmouth. It embarrassed me. I belonged to the team and wanted to be part of it. Now I don't care what anyone says. I don't get on those guys who don't talk to reporters and I don't want anybody on me because I do talk to them. I have as much right as anyone to set the pace."
Bouton, perhaps better than anyone else, can explain what it has been like for these new Yankees as they go through their first pennant fight. "Everyone says," Bouton remarked recently, "that the Yankees should win because they have been through it all before. Well, I haven't been through it and neither have a lot of us. I find myself watching the scoreboard when I'm at the ball park and trying to do things at home like painting and making costume jewelry to keep my mind away from the pressure. I know that there are a lot of guys who say they aren't watching the scoreboard—the older guys. But I know that they are. The day before I pitch a game on the road I go down to the desk clerk in whatever hotel we are stopping at and reserve a single room, so that I can be alone and think about the next day's hitters. I pay for the room myself because I need that time alone. Sometimes, also, I can get mean, being alone like that."
The new Yankee who has had the toughest time in this pennant chase is Joe Pepitone, the first baseman with the Renaissance profile, the tight black street pants and hair of steel wool. While almost every Yankee senses a new feeling of warmth toward the team from the home fans at Yankee Stadium, Pepitone has had his ears blistered by catcalls and boos all season long. Pepitone, admittedly, has made nearly three times as many errors this year as he did last and he now stands 14th defensively among the American League's first basemen. Only Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart of the Boston Red Sox has made more errors than Joe. Nevertheless, Pepitone is bewildered by the roasting he is receiving. "Maybe they are still on me because of the error I made in last year's World Series," he says. Because the fact is that Pepitone's fielding and batting averages are both deceptive. On defense, he gets to more balls than the majority of first basemen do and thus the chance for error is greater. His .247 batting average means little when you consider that he has knocked in 91 runs, the second highest total on the team.
In recent weeks shy, skinny Mel Stottlemyre has strengthened the pitching rotation tremendously, and the acquisition of Pedro Ramos from Cleveland has made something out of a jumbled bullpen. Stottlemyre has won seven games since he came up from Richmond in early August; his debut is reminiscent of Whitey Ford's in 1950. Ford came to the Yankees early in July of that year. He won nine games and New York won the pennant by three.
Ramos, a 29-year-old Cuban, has dreamed of being a Yankee all his life. He has pitched and won in Washington, Minnesota and Cleveland, gathering a large collection of cowboy suits, cowboy boots and cowboy hats along the way. Last week when he stopped a late Minnesota rally and saved a game for the Yankees by twice striking out the league's leading hitter, Tony Oliva, he had a fine, un-Yankeelike explanation. "Tony," Ramos said, "is from my home town in Cuba—Pinar Del Rio. I throw him Cuban palm balls. Here they call it spitballs. They are illegal. I call them Cuban palm balls. They are legal. Always I have wanted to pitch for the Yankees. In springs I used to beg Casey Stengel to trade for Pedro. 'I am fastest runner in all of baseball,' I used to say to old man. 'I have the big bat and I peetch every day for you.' But the old man never come and get me. Jogi Berra did. Jogi Berra remembered Pedro because Jogi Berra used to strike out against Pedro all the time. It is the boyhood dream every time I put on the pretty Yankee uniform. Coming to Yankees is like getting on top of a great horse."
At the end of last week the new Yankees were in first place. Some old Yankees were there also, of course, and also responsible. Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford. Old and new—but different.
Joe Pepitone kids Phil Linz about famous harmonica incident before turn in batting cage
Jim Bouton's Crazy Guggenheim act apes Frank Fontaine role on Jackie Gleason CBS show.
Late arrival of key men Pedro Ramos (left) and Mel Stottlemyre was in Yankee tradition.
Testimonials to Mantle's courage are the seven-foot-long elastic tapes with which he must wrap his fragile legs from lower calf to upper thigh every day before playing. They hang beside his uniform in his locker along with assorted knickknacks, including a statue of St. Joseph sent by an admiring fan.