The 1965 World Series had just ended, and Tony Oliva of the losing Minnesota Twins was kneeling on the clubhouse floor winding strips of adhesive tape around a large pile of bats that were about to be stored away for the winter. There were tears on Oliva's cheeks, and the injured middle finger of his right hand was swollen to double its normal size.
"No hit!" he said. "In the Series I no hit like I should hit. Tony live to hit good."
Oliva had batted only .192 in the seven-game Series against the Dodgers and had only one home run and two runs batted in. As the ranking member of the American League's Young Turks—the extraordinary group of youthful stars that has infiltrated the starting lineups of the league's teams during the last few seasons—Oliva, sore finger notwithstanding, indeed had been a major disappointment. The resurgence of the American League had included in its timetable a victory in the 1965 World Series, and Oliva's dreary performance was probably the difference between victory and defeat. If he had hit in the manner to which he is accustomed (48 homers, 196 runs batted in and a .324 batting average in his first two seasons), the Twins probably would have won, and then there would have been no doubt at all that the American League was on its way back to the heights.
This year Oliva is again hitting at an impressive clip. Despite a June slump, he is among the leaders in home runs, runs batted in and batting percentage, has an excellent chance of becoming the first American Leaguer since Ty Cobb to win the batting title three years in succession and was second only to Frank Robinson in All-Star balloting for American League outfielders. But his Minnesota Twins are having difficulty staying in the first division. Part of the reason, of course, is a general tailing off in performance by the Twins (Zoilo Versalles, for example, the Most Valuable Player in the league last season, had missed 16 games and was definitely not the Versalles of last year), but a more cogent reason concerns the play of the teams ahead of them in the standings: Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and California, all of them dependent to a significant degree on young, rising players.
Baltimore has an entire phalanx of youngsters in support of its leaders—the Robinsons—who will also be the American League leaders in the All-Star game next Tuesday. Frank and Brooks are undeniably the principal reasons why the Orioles are now the team to beat, but the Robinsons could not work their magic without the assistance of half a dozen kids who give the Orioles exceptional strength and balance all down the line.
Baltimore suffered a grievous setback in spring training when Dick Brown, the regular catcher, had to undergo surgery for a brain tumor. After scratching around in a pile of retreads, castoffs and bullpen workers in an effort to come up with a pennant-winning replacement, Manager Hank Bauer announced that he was entrusting the first-string catching job to a rookie named Andy Etchebarren (see cover), whose entire major league experience embraced seven games and 12 at bats. Etchebarren's only previous claim to renown had been the thickest eyebrows and heaviest beard in the big leagues (his teammates call him Lurch, after the character in the TV series, The Addams Family), though he did have some reputation as a defensive stylist. Bauer said that as long as the rookie handled his duties adequately in the field he really didn't care what he batted.
It turned out, of course, that Etchebarren not only was the defensive catcher Bauer wanted, but a solid, useful hitter, too. He had nine homers through the first dozen weeks of the season and won several games with timely base hits. And he has gained a reputation as a tough competitor. "I don't know how many times he's been hurt," says Bauer, "because he bounces right back and goes on catching."
The rookie's blend of guts and geniality endears him to his Oriole teammates, who enjoy telling Etchebarren stories. In June, when the Orioles played in Anaheim—which is not far from Andy's home in La Puente—he went through the dressing room asking his teammates for any complimentary tickets they were not using. He needed them, he said, "for a few friends." When Etchebarren homered in the game, virtually an entire section of fans behind first base stood up and cheered ecstatically. Later, after Etchebarren had circled the bases with a huge grin on his face, he was asked how many people had come in from La Puente to see him. "I guess there were quite a few," he said. "About 10 busloads, as a matter of fact."
Along with Etchebarren, the Orioles have leaned heavily on other young players in their bid for dominance. Their bullpen is loaded with aged and great relievers (Stu Miller, Dick Hall, Eddie Fisher), but the best work has been done by 24-year-old Eddie Watt, who had never pitched so much as one major league inning before this season. Three of Baltimore's starters are Jim Palmer, a big league sophomore at the age of 20, Wally Bunker, in his third season at 21, and Dave McNally, in his fourth full year at 23. Second Baseman Dave Johnson, another 23-year-old, proved so capable at second base that Bauer benched his established second baseman, Jerry Adair, and eventually traded him off for Eddie Fisher. John (Boog) Powell, who looks like Jack Nicklaus would if he traded in his wedge for a Louisville Slugger, won't be 25 until the middle of August, and yet this is the sixth straight season that he has worn an Oriole uniform. Powell, who is 6 feet 4½ and weighs in the neighborhood of 250, started abysmally this year but then turned hot. In five weeks he jumped his average 124 points, hit 10 home runs and raised his runs batted in total to 49.
Another potent Baltimorean is Curt Blefary, just 23 this month. A long-ball hitter, he had 22 homers last year and seems likely to go beyond that this time. Blefary has gained a certain degree of attention for two related things: 1) he was originally signed by the New York Yankees, who let him go to Baltimore in 1963 when they wanted to make room on their roster for another player, and 2) he has, as if in revenge, murdered the Yankees with his bat ever since.
The Orioles are the American League team most thoroughly infested with accomplished youth, but the California Angels run them a good second, even though the Angels are running no higher than a good fourth in the league standings. Rick Reichardt, the most impressive member of the Angel youth movement, is a big, powerful, graceful kid, who is a splendid outfielder as well as a high-average, long-ball hitter. Hampered by an injured hand through most of June, Reichardt nonetheless maintained his position among the top sluggers in the league and was a runner-up selection to the All-Star team. If other young Angels—cherubim like Dean Chance, 25, Jim Fregosi and Fred Newman, 24, Paul Schaal, 23, Marcelino Lopez, Jim McGlothlin, José Cardenal and Jackie Warner, 22, and Ed Kirkpatrick, 21—either develop, like Reichardt, into established stars, or return, as Chance and Fregosi must, to star ranking they have already achieved, then the Angels of the future will be a team to watch.
Certainly the Angels have a brighter future than, to be specific, the Cleveland Indians. The only truly outstanding player under 25 that the Indians possess at the moment is the 23-year-old left-hander, Sam McDowell. The Indians' dependence on McDowell was graphically demonstrated by their stumble and slide from the league leadership after Sudden Sam's arm went bad in midspring. With McDowell the Indians are an impressive team. Without him they are—in the context of the youthful American League—an aging and declining collection of ballplayers.
Not so the Detroit Tigers, who are hard on Baltimore's heels. Detroit doesn't have the flaming youth of Baltimore or California, but it does have the likes of big, beefy Bill Freehan, in his fourth full major league season at 24 and the starting catcher on this year's All-Star team. And Outfielder Willie Horton, 23, who is built like Roy Campanella and hits—sometimes—the way Roy did. Horton, 209 pounds on a 5-foot 10½-inch frame, has immense power (29 homers last year and 104 runs batted in, despite missing almost 20 games), though his ability to demoralize opposition pitchers runs in fits and starts.
And then there is the youthful trio of Tiger pitchers: Mickey Lolich, the old man at 25, Joe Sparma, 24, and Denny McLain, at 22 the most successful pitcher in the league. McLain is a kid who wears glasses on a lough Irish face, has Lou Boudreau for a father-in-law and says and does cheerfully kooky things. He still drinks a dozen bottles of Pepsi-Cola a day, and he still comforts himself after a rare losing game by sitting down at his Hammond organ (he is a professional musician and music teacher) and playing for his own enjoyment until 6 in the morning. As of last Sunday he had won more games than anyone else in the majors except Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers and Juan Marichal of the Giants. If he wins 20 this year—which he seems a cinch to do, barring injury or disaster—he will be the youngest 20-game winner the American League has had since Bob Feller did the trick a quarter of a century ago.
McLain, who has no inhibitions about discussing himself and his achievements on and off the diamond, is an appealing combination of breezy egotism and cold self-analysis. After he won his 10th game he said blithely, "Only 20 more to go for 30." Yet, when asked about his impressive won-lost record (12-3 early in July), he said in a matter-of-fact way, "I've won quite a few games, but I'm not really as sharp as I should be. Look at the homers I've given up. Twenty, and it's not even midseason. And, boy, were they hit! There wasn't a cheap one among them.
"But when I lose I don't do things like other people do. Like when Mickey Lolich loses, he breaks all the light bulbs he sees. Drives the electricians crazy. Me, I go home and sit down at the Hammond and think about the mistakes I made. I play until the sun comes up. I don't think it's strange that a pitcher should be able to play the organ. I love to play it. During the winter I played at a cocktail lounge in Detroit, and when I have time I give lessons.
"I like people. I like people to know about me. Some players object to publicity about their private lives. I don't care. In the beginning of 1965 Joe Falls, who's the sports editor of the Free Press here in Detroit, heard that I drank a lot of Pepsi-Cola, and he came and asked me about it. I told him the truth, that sometimes I knocked off as many as 16 bottles a day. Joe wrote about it, and the Pepsi-Cola people read the story, and they sent a truckload over to the house. Now I work for them, and the trucks keep coming, and I still love it, even though I can get all I want.
"I guess maybe all the notoriety affects your personal life in some ways. They had my wife on television, and she was terrific. Everyone called in and said how much they liked her, and I was happy for her. Then, of course, I had to bring her back down to earth after she didn't wash the dishes for three days.
"I enjoy kidding around, and I usually don't mind what people write about me. Though I didn't like it when Falls wrote that I was an imp. Come to think about it, I guess I am an imp. Except that before I pitch I'm the meanest man in the world. If anyone comes near me I'll take his head off.
"Did you hear about the great pitching battle in Detroit this year? Dennis McLain against Sam McDowell, and the papers played it up big. This was supposed to be the game that would determine who was the best pitcher in the league. Sam McDowell is the only man in baseball that I am truly afraid of, because he can throw so fast that he could put a hole in my head. Well, this was a meeting to decide which of us was really the best. Sam lasted an inning and two-thirds, and I went two and two-thirds. And that was the great battle. Except that when I batted against him he struck me out on three pitches, and when he batted against me I got him on three, so it was a draw."
When his attention is drawn to the pennant race McLain insists that the Tigers arc going to win. "We have the best team all around," he says, "and we just know we're going to win. You can make a lot of money in Detroit if you are good, and you can have a lot of fun, as well."
The next three weeks are going to be big ones for the hotshot kids of the American League. Not so much for individuals like home-run-hitting George Scott of the 10th-place Boston Red Sox, who this time last year was playing for Pittsfield in the Eastern League and now is the starting first baseman on the All-Star team, or Tommie Agee of the Chicago White Sox, who is about the only cheerful thing the troubled Sox have come across this season (Agee has created excitement in Comiskey Park because he openly imitates the center-field style of Willie Mays—flapping his arms when a ball is hit his way, running out from under his cap, making basket catches and generally resembling a man playing the outfield on a skate board). But for those on the pennant-contending teams, this may well be the time of decision. Last year the Minnesota Twins won the pennant in July; they began the month in second place and concluded it six games in front and waving goodby to their distant pursuers. The 1966 schedule, a real nightmare of imbalance, has the first-place Orioles and the second-place Tigers meeting six times in eight days in mid-July, after which they play but five games the rest of the season. The Orioles moved into first place during June, when they played only half a dozen games against first-division teams. But in midsummer Detroit will get its chance when it plays 30 of 33 games against lesser teams in the league.
Whatever happens, the wealth of talented young players rising to prominence as Yankee stars and Yankee dominance fade, give promise of bright years to come. They have revived sagging interest, and in All-Star and World Series play they seem certain to regain for the American League a good measure of its lost prestige.
Tony Oliva, 24, won two straight batting titles, may be first since Cobb to make it three.
Angels' Rick Reichardt, 23, achieved big-league maturity this year, is among batting leaders.
Indians' Sam McDowell, 23, Is Cleveland key. When Sam's arm hurts, the Indians slump.
Orioles' Curt Blefary, 23, is power hitter and vital member of Baltimore's murderers' row.
Denny McLain, 22, could be youngest pitcher in a quarter of a century to gain 20 victories.