The final out of professional baseball's first century occurred on a beautiful afternoon early last October at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis when Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers moved gracefully under a foul fly near the first base dugout. He tapped his catcher's mitt, caught the ball and in an instant was bearing the full weight of Mickey Lolich, the pitching hero in one of the more heartwarming comebacks in sport. It has been only six months since Freehan made the catch, and in just that short period of time baseball has undergone more changes than any other traditional game has ever endured.
This week the second century of professional baseball began, and instead of 20 teams there were 24. Instead of two leagues there were four divisions. One hundred players who were not good enough to make the major leagues in 1968 were suddenly prime properties. Nobody knows what kind of a season it will be because nobody has ever tried to get through a year like this one before. But there are the precedents of two recent seasons when two teams were added, and if what happened then is any measure for 1969 the elements for a spectacular year are present.
The Tigers are going to try to become the first non-Yankee team to repeat as American League champions since 1935. Sometime during the first two weeks Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves will step to the plate and get a hit, which will put him at 5,000 total bases for his career. Only seven other men have done that: Musial, Cobb, Ruth, Speaker, Gehrig, Ott and Mays. Ted Williams is going to try his best to manage the Washington Senators, and that should be interesting, if only for awhile. In the home opener at Fenway Park in Boston, Tony Conigliaro, a young man the doctors said would never play baseball again, will come to bat before one of the loudest standing ovations ever heard.
The left-field fence at Sicks' Stadium in Seattle, the home of the Pilots in the American League's Western Division, is only 305' away from the plate—the shortest in the majors since the Dodgers moved away from the Coliseum and its Great Wall of China. If that does not help the hitters, who were pretty discouraged by 1968's Year of the Pitcher, the lowering of the mound from 15 inches to 10 should.
St. Louis has added Vada Pinson to Lou Brock and Curt Flood, thus forming "The Scat Pack," the fastest outfield the game has known. Buzzie Bavasi, one of the few men in the world tricky enough to enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead, has moved his genius from Los Angeles down to San Diego where he is president of the National League's Western Division Padres. Clyde King, the new manager of the San Francisco Giants, has Willie Mays batting leadoff, which means he should get to bat about 50 more times than he would while hitting third. That could make a huge difference in how the Giants fare.
In Pittsburgh there is a young first baseman named Bob Robertson, who has the kind of power that Ralph Kiner once had. But this is a season when many interesting things might be expected at first. Frank Robinson, Richie Allen and Tony Oliva all played the position in training for the 1969 race.
Third base, however, is the big spot for a surprising number of clubs this year. Seven new third basemen are coming into the majors, and only one of them, Coco Laboy of Montreal, is on an expansion team. He and the others—Bill Sudakis of Los Angeles, Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, Bobby Etheridge of the Giants, Bill Melton of the White Sox, Richie Hebner of the Pirates and Amos Otis of the Mets—will be depended upon heavily.
All this brightness and promise follows hard on a spring training season that most would just as soon forget. The threatened boycott of the players against the owners never really developed, but so many players were late in reporting that many of the pitchers are still not in their top condition. And it would be silly to suppose that the bitterness between players and owners that developed during the dispute over television moneys has evaporated.
The biggest difference in baseball has been the swift development of Bowie Kuhn as the game's commissioner. In less than 70 days he has made a forcible impression on the office. While his work is only beginning, his approach has seemed the correct one. He does not believe in making decisions by committee, and his appreciation of the game itself runs deep.
One morning early this spring Kuhn was giving a clubhouse speech to the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla. He told them, among other things, that as major league players they had a certain image to live up to. When he finished, Kuhn asked if there were any questions. "Yes sir," said a voice from the back. "We understand you are supposed to be a pretty good baseball fan. We have a coach on this team named Billy DeMars. Do you know who he played for?" Without batting an eye, Kuhn said, "He last played for the St. Louis Browns." The answer was correct.
Mickey Mantle is gone this year, and by the end of it so, too, will be Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. But Hoyt Wilhelm, at 45, remains. Now with the California Angels, he needs to appear in only 63 games to reach 1,000—a record that should never be broken. Aaron can reach another milestone, 3,000 hits, if he bats safely 208 times.
Carl Yastrzemski will be swinging for his fourth American League batting title, if statisticians are willing to accept his league-high .301 of last year as a title. Although the most talk has been about Williams as manager of the straining Senators, Billy Martin is taking over as the leader of the Twins and Al Lopez is back in Chicago. With a few breaks, the White Sox could become the majors' most improved team, though still not big winners.
The main problem with this season is going to be adapting to it, and that might not be as difficult as it seems. The four divisions are clearly spelled out as National League East and West, American League East and West. There is none of that Capitol, Coastal, Century, Central nonsense that pro football has been trying to sell with noticeably little success. Each team in each division plays the other five teams 18 times. Each team in a division plays the six teams outside its division 12 times, and there is no interleague play. The schedule itself is more logical than in the past. Clubs play each other within their division to open the season, next play the other division teams, repeat the process within and outside of the division once more and finish up playing in their own divisions. Thus, during the waning days of the race, teams fighting for a divisional championship will be playing each other. If the races are close at all, the final drives for pennants could become truly exciting.
Still, many people are going to find flaws in the schedule. Owners already have. Chicago, for example, will play San Francisco at home for one less series. This means three dates with Willie Mays go by the boards, and that adds up to big money. In New York, an Eastern Division city, the Western Division Dodgers and Giants play only 12 games against the Mets at Shea Stadium as opposed to 18 in past seasons. The difference could add up to a drop of more than 180,000 in attendance and close to $900,000 spent at the ball park.
As the season began there were already troubles in two of the four expansion cities. Jarry Park in Montreal was under snow, and Sicks' Stadium was only about 85% finished when the Pilots opened there. Neither of these parks is up to major league standards in attendance. At capacity Sicks' will hold only 28,500. Jarry Park is supposed to be capable of holding 30,000.
In April of 1961 the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs introduced its two new expansion teams, the Washington Senators and Los Angeles Angels, to what could hardly be called a waiting world. The first hit of the new season, few people are certain to remember, was struck by Coot Veal of the Senators. It went a distance of 30 feet. Chet Boak played that year. So did Gene Leek, Fritz Brickell and Julio Becquer. Going into June the Senators played better than .500 ball but then they found their natural level and lost 80 of their final 124 games. Los Angeles, after winning its first game, lost eight in a row to fall into last place. The Angels ended up eighth, losing nine fewer games than Washington.
Attendance did not rise appreciably in the American League because of expansion. The Angels pulled only 603,000 and the Senators 597,000. But for sustained interest, few American League seasons can compare with that first expansion year. The Detroit Tigers made an excellent run at the New York Yankees until the first weekend in September. They won 101 times, even though they lost to New York by eight games. Roger Maris hit his 61 homers, and five others—Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Jim Gentile, Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash—each hit more than 40. Cash won the batting title with .361—a figure that has never been approached since and has been topped only twice going back to 1940. Maris batted in 142 runs, Gentile 141 and Colavito 140. Since that expansion year no American League hitter has driven home more than 126.
The National League balanced things the next season with its own additions, Houston and New York, and their own list of forgettable names: Larry Foss, Rick Herrscher, Al Heist, J. C. Hartman, Herb Moford, Don Taussig, Ray Daviault. Again, however, fantastic things happened. Maury Wills stole 104 bases. No fewer than 14 men hit better than .300, and Tommy Davis of Los Angeles won the batting title with an average of .346. Frank Robinson of the Reds was just behind him at .342. Davis knocked in 153 runs. It took a playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers to decide the pennant, and San Francisco, which had compiled a hefty team batting average of .278 during the season, won.
Will history repeat itself in expansion year 1969? It is off to a good start. This spring there were pitchers named Knuckles, Fast, Fingers, Beene, Hill, Decker and Armstrong listed on major league rosters. No fewer than 25 former Mets had infiltrated the 24 rosters. Baseball's 101st year could be a dilly.
A COLORFUL CENTURY
1869: The Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first pro team, post a 65-0-1 record and a $1.39 profit after barnstorming 11,877 miles.
1870: Brooklyn's reputation is firmly established as fan tackles a Cincy fielder in game that ends Reds' unbeaten streak at 101.
1871: The National Association, first pro league, is founded in New York saloon.
1872: The curveball is legalized.
1873: A rule change prohibits fielders from catching fly balls with their hats.
1874: Boston and Philadelphia demonstrate baseball in England and Ireland and defeat their hosts in cricket.
1875: Boston (71-8) wins all its home games and a fourth-straight pennant.
1876: William Hulbert and A. G. Spalding establish the National League.
1877: Four Louisville Grays are expelled from the majors for fixing games.
1878: The first turnstiles are installed.
1879: Boston Owner Arthur Soden devises the reserve clause.
1880: Chicago, introducing mound rotation, alternates pitchers and wins pennant.
1881: Baseball owners compile the first blacklist of "insubordinate" players.
1882: Dick Higham is first—and last—umpire convicted of conspiring with bettors.
1883: Providence's Art Irwin injures his hand and invents the first fielder's glove.
1884: John A. Hillerich fashions the first Louisville Slugger.
1885: St. Louis and Chicago, with more errors (102) than hits (96), tie in the playoffs.
1886: Chicago sends King Kelly to Boston for $10,000, the game's first big deal.
1887: Irate Cincy fan Harry M. Stevens complains about scorecards and ends up as baseball's first concessionaire.
1888: Ernest L. Thayer writes Casey at the Bat.
1889: Inexhaustible John Clarkson of Boston pitches 49 wins—and 19 losses.
1890: Rebel shortstop John Montgomery Ward forms the short-lived Players' League.
1891: Interleague war results in the National League absorbing the American Association and going to 12 teams.
1892: Wilbert Robinson goes 7 for 7 as the Orioles beat St. Louis 25-4.
1893: The distance from the mound to home is increased from 50' to 60'6".
1894: Baltimore, after finishing eighth in '93, wins the pennant.
1895: The year of the great race: just 13½ games separate nine teams on Aug. 31.
1896: The Orioles invent the cutoff play and sweep Cleveland in the playoffs.
1897: Wee Willie Keeler, 140 pounds, "hits 'em where they ain't" for a .432 average.
1898: The schedule is set at 154 games.
1899: Cleveland Spiders lose 134 games.
1900: The National League settles down to an eight-team, seven-city membership that will remain unchanged for 53 years.
1901: The American League attains major league status.
1902: The Player War rages—AL vs. NL.
1903: Boston of the AL wins first Series.
1904: Intransigent Giants refuse to meet Boston in the Series.
1905: The Old Arbitrator, Bill Klem, begins his 36-year umpiring career.
1906: Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs win a record 116 games.
1907: Cubs steal 18 bases and become first to win four straight Series games.
1908: Fred Merkle's boner costs the Giants the pennant.
1909: William Howard Taft is the first President to attend Opening Day.
1910: The Dead Ball Era ends with the introduction of the cork-center ball.
1911: Cy Young retires with 511 wins.
1912: Eight St. Joseph's (Pa.) students, playing for Detroit during one-day player strike, lose to Philadelphia 24-2.
1913: Christy Mathewson, Rube Marquard and Charlie Tesreau each win 22 or more games as Giants take the pennant.
1914: The Miracle Braves, last on July 19, are in first place by Labor Day.
1915: The outlaw Federal League crumbles after two seasons.
1916: The Giants win record 26 straight games but still finish fourth.
1917: The St. Louis Browns hold first modern Ladies Day.
1918: The Provost Marshal's "work or fight" order curtails season.
1919: The Black Sox Scandal.
1920: Cleveland's Bill Wambsganss executes unassisted triple play.
1921: Harold Arlin makes the first baseball radio broadcast.
1922: Rookie Charley Robertson pitches perfect game in his third start.
1923: Babe Ruth christens Yankee Stadium with a three-run Opening Day homer.
1924: Rogers Hornsby hits .424, highest modern average.
1925: The great comeback: going into their last at bat trailing 15-4, A's beat Cleveland with a 13-run rally to hold first place.
1926: Babe Herman, daffiest of the Daffy Dodgers, "triples" into a double play.
1927: Ruth clouts 60 home runs.
1928: Ty Cobb retires with .367 career average. He was over .300 in 23 straight years.
1929: The A's Howard Ehmke, who worked only 55 innings all season, opens Series against Cubs and strikes out 13.
1930: The Cubs' Hack Wilson drives in record 190 runs.
1931: Cardinal rookie Pepper Martin hits .500 and steals five bases in the Series.
1932: Ruth "calls his shot" (see page 6).
1933: The first All-Star Game is played.
1934: Burleigh Grimes throws the last legal spitball.
1935: FDR presses a button in the White House and starts night ball in Cincinnati.
1936: The Yanks clinch the pennant on Sept. 9 and finish 19½ games in front.
1937: Dizzy Dean breaks his toe in the All-Star Game.
1938: Gabby Hartnett's "homer in the gloamin' " wins the pennant for the Cubs.
1939: "I consider myself the luckiest man on earth," says Lou Gehrig, retiring with incurable illness after 2,130 straight games.
1940: Bob Feller throws a no-hitter on Opening Day.
1941: Joe DiMaggio hits safely in 56 consecutive games for the Yankees.
1942: FDR tells baseball it is vital to morale and must not stop during the war.
1943: Yank Manager Joe McCarthy wins eighth pennant and seventh World Series.
1944: Wartime baseball: only 15, Joe Nuxhall pitches for the Reds.
1945: Branch Rickey signs Jackie Robinson and breaks color line.
1946: The Mexican League attracts a batch of dissatisfied ballplayers.
1947: Cookie Lavagetto's ninth-inning double for Brooklyn ruins Yank Bill Bevens' Series no-hitter.
1948: "Spahn, Sain and a day of rain."
1949: Phils Eddie Waitkus is shot by a girl fan he does not even know.
1950: Philadelphia's Whiz Kids win.
1951: Giants' Bobby Thomson hits baseball's loudest home run.
1952: Congress upholds reserve clause.
1953: Baseball begins to expand as the Braves move to Milwaukee.
1954: Pinch Hitter Dusty Rhodes' two late-inning homers help Giants sweep the Series.
1955: "Next Year" at long last comes to Brooklyn.
1956: Don Larsen hurls a perfect Series game.
1957: At 39, Ted Williams hits .388 and wins his fifth batting title.
1958: The Dodgers and Giants move west.
1959: Pittsburgh's Harvey Haddix pitches 12 perfect innings and loses.
1960: Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning homer wins the Series for the Pirates.
1961: Roger Maris hits record(*) 61 home runs.
1962: The Mets and Colt .45s complete the "first" expansion.
1963: Stan Musial retires after collecting his 3,630th hit.
1964: The pennant-winning Yanks fire Manager Yogi Berra and hire Johnny Keane.
1965: LA's Sandy Koufax throws a perfect game, his fourth no-hitter in four years.
1966: The Orioles shut out the Dodgers the last 33 innings and sweep Series.
1967: "The Impossible Dream"—100-to-1 shot Boston wins the pennant.
1968: Tiger Denny McLain wins 31 games.