By David Halberstam
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1994 The Amateurs Limited
All rights reserved.
The Yankees arrived at spring training as confident as ever. Their marquee names—Maris, Mantle, Ford—still inspired awe and fear among opponents. Most Yankee players as well as their fans remained confident about the coming season, which promised to mark the fifteenth year of a Yankee dynasty that had started with the arrival of Casey Stengel: since 1949 the team had won the pennant thirteen times and the World Series nine times. Yankee fans expected now that their team would always manage to win the pennant. In those years the Yankees were a spectacular, finely honed machine. They depended on a deep farm system so skillfully run that when critical parts of the team wore down, new and perhaps even better parts were always found. If by some chance the farm system failed to deliver, it was so rich in other parts that a three-for-one trade could be worked out with some hapless have-not franchise. This was the case with Roger Maris, the right fielder who, with his short, compact swing, appeared to have been born to play in Yankee Stadium, and who only three years earlier had not only beaten out Mickey Mantle for the annual home-run title but also broken Babe Ruth's record for home runs in a single season as well. The Yankee players themselves had come to believe in their invincibility. They were not merely the best, they were the toughest players as well: they almost always won the big games, and because they had played in so many big games, they were therefore better prepared for the terrible pressures of a pennant race or a World Series. It was simply part of being a Yankee. All the best young players, it was presumed, wanted to play for this, the most celebrated sports franchise in America, not only because of the pride of playing with the best but also because of the lure of so many World Series bonus checks. In 1963, after Steve Hamilton joined the Yankees as a relief pitcher, Clete Boyer, the third baseman, showed him his World Series ring. As Hamilton admired it, Boyer said, "Listen, Steve, the good thing about the Yankees is that you don't just get a ring for yourself. You get yours the first year, then you get one the next year for your wife, and the year after that for your oldest kid, and after that for your other kids." Boyer himself already had four World Series rings. Just as Boyer predicted, Steve Hamilton got his first ring that year. The rings, along with the World Series checks, were built into the expectations of being a Yankee in those years. It was part of the lore of the team that Charlie Silvera, the Yankee backup catcher for much of that period, cashed seven World Series checks for some $50,000 (the actual total was $46,337.45)—a huge amount of money in that era, particularly for someone who had played in only one World Series game. Silvera would come to refer to the lovely house he bought in suburban San Francisco as "the house that Yogi built," after the Yankee catcher whom he had played behind all those years.
Even in the matter of signing baseballs, the Yankees were set apart by their fame and success. Players on other teams might sign, at best, six boxes of a dozen balls a week, but the Yankees, because of their promotional commitments, had to sign ten or twelve boxes of a dozen balls a day. That was a daily chore few players liked, and there was a competition among the players to see who could sign the balls in the shortest amount of time. Whitey Ford was good at it, having shortened his autograph name to Ed Ford in order to expedite the process, saving four letters a ball, or forty-eight letters a box. As in all things, Tony Kubek was efficient and businesslike at signing, helped by the advantage of so short a name. Steve Hamilton thought Kubek could do twenty balls in a minute, which was something of a Yankee record. Hamilton himself was always slower, due to his long last name, but he could usually do fifteen in a minute. The most conscientious, in terms of ball signing, appeared to be Mickey Mantle, the team's great star. Hamilton liked to come to the park early to get such routine chores as baseball signing out of the way. But no matter how early he came in, Mantle had somehow already signed the requisite number of balls. For a long time Hamilton was impressed by Mantle's diligence, and then it struck him that in fact Mantle was never the first to arrive, that Hamilton was always there before Mantle. Since Mantle most assuredly did not do his signing at night after a long game, Hamilton even suspected that Pete Previte, the clubhouse boy, came in every morning and signed Mantle's baseballs for him—although he could find no proof of this.
Still, by this time there was considerable evidence that the team was wearing down physically, and that the other American League teams were now being run by richer, smarter people who were less willing to have their best players culled by the Yankees. At the end of the coming season, for the first time, major-league baseball would move to a draft for new players signing their first contracts, a change specifically designed by other owners to limit the huge bonuses being paid to untried, green players—but also weakening the power of both the Yankees and the Dodgers. In addition, by 1964 the Yankee farm system was not the majestic organization that had existed at the beginning of the dynasty, for it had been severely cut back because of economic constraints. There was one great new talent pool, that of young black players, but it was well known that the Yankees had moved slowly in this direction. Sure of their success, sure of their past, and sure of their own racial attitudes, they had essentially sat on the sidelines in the fifties as a number of National League teams had signed the best of these young, supremely gifted and determined athletes. In fact, most astute baseball observers believed now that the entire American League was inferior to the National League because it had lagged behind in signing black players. The owners even began to suspect that this difference in the talent was showing up in the attendance figures, and that the American League was in trouble, in part because the Yankees had dominated it for a generation, and in part because the National League players were far more exciting to watch.
There were already tangible signs that the Yankees were in the early stages of their decline. They had beaten the Giants by the narrowest of margins in a great seven-game World Series in 1962, a series decided only on the last out. Then, in 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers (powered primarily by two great pitchers) had swept the Yankees in four games. Though the Yankees appeared to have a number of talented young pitchers just beginning to come into their own, they had not yet come up with a single sure big-game winner to replace Whitey Ford, who was, by the spring of 1964, already thirty-five years old and increasingly dependent upon his shrewdness and courage. In his first thirteen World Series decisions Ford had been 9-4; in his last four he was 1-3. Some of the Yankee players were aware that time was catching up with their once virtually unbeatable team.
The previous October, the Yankees had lost their first two World Series games to the Dodgers in New York, and on the day off, as the Series shifted to Los Angeles, Ralph Terry, one of the best Yankee pitchers, had gone to the racetrack with Hal Reniff, a Yankee relief pitcher. Reniff was a true aficionado of the horse races, a man who loved to figure the odds at the track and other sporting events, and in honor of his talents his teammates had obligingly nicknamed him "Clocker Dan." On this day, as he was going over the odds with Terry, Reniff asked Terry what he thought the odds were that the Dodgers would sweep the Yankees in four games. It was a long shot, answered Terry. A sweep of an ordinary team in a World Series was one thing, but a sweep of the Yankees was another. But Reniff continued to muse. It wasn't really that long a shot, if you thought about it, Reniff said. In fact it was a real possibility. Look at the quality of the Dodger pitching, with Koufax and Drysdale both set to pitch in Los Angeles. As for the Yankees themselves, they seemed to be dominating on paper, but a lot of the top Yankee players were either hurt or coming off subpar seasons. Maris had been hurt and missed much of the season (he would come up only five times in the Series) and Mantle was clearly wearing down—he had come to bat only 172 times in the 1963 season and was not swinging well. The Yankees, Reniff said with the cool eye of a racetrack tout, were not really in very good shape. Terry listened carefully, hearing something he had not yet been willing to admit to himself. The odds on a sweep of the mighty Yankees had to be at least 50-1 and maybe 100-1, Reniff said. If Terry and Reniff were really smart and unscrupulous, they would each very quietly put down five hundred dollars on it. "You know," Reniff finally said, "the Dodgers could really sweep our asses." That, of course, was exactly what happened: Drysdale and Koufax, who were having astonishing years, with 557 strikeouts between them, both won in Los Angeles. Still, most of the Yankee players went home feeling that they had had the better team, but the edge had gone to the Dodgers because of their magnificent pitching.
In the spring of 1964 there were other signs that the team was wearing down. Jerry Coleman, the former Yankee second baseman, by then a broadcaster, was struck as he watched spring training that this was somehow not as tough and as disciplined a team as he had witnessed in the past. It was hard to tell about the talent level because some of the players were young, but Coleman was sure something was missing, perhaps some depth. Just after his retirement five years earlier, Coleman had worked in the farm system, and as the economics of baseball had changed, he had been charged with the melancholy task of getting rid of both a Double A and a Triple A farm team. That was a sign that the Yankee high command was cutting back in a major way, and it meant that the Yankees would employ half the number of players that they once did in the de facto staging area for the major-league club. There was a ripple effect in this: if there were fewer clubs at the top level in the farm system, there would soon be fewer signings as well. In the brief time that Coleman was working in the player personnel department, he had been sent out to Kearney, Nebraska, to check out how much talent the Yankees had on their rookie team there. Roy Hamey, briefly the team's general manager, called Coleman in upon his return and asked what he had seen. "We have one pitcher who might make Triple A," Coleman said. That irritated Hamey, who immediately sent Coleman's superior, Bill Skiff, out to Kearney. Soon Skiff returned. "Well, Bill, how much have we got out there?" Hamey asked. "Jerry's right," he answered. "Almost nothing." Now, some five years later, the Yankees still had young talent, but not as much as in the past.
As Coleman watched spring practice in 1964, he thought a different kind of player was beginning to come up. In the past, the Yankees had always signed the toughest kids, often for less money than they were offered elsewhere. For many of them, and Coleman had felt this way himself, being a Yankee was almost a religion. Now, Coleman thought, the younger players were not so singularly focused on baseball as those of his generation had been. Going out for dinner with his broadcasting partner, Red Barber, Coleman said, "You know, Red, I don't think the Yankees are going to win it this year." And Barber answered, "I think you're right."
The center of attention at the Yankee camp was the new manager, who was in fact the old catcher, Yogi Berra. The Yankee front office was in a state of flux. In 1960, general manager George Weiss, the efficient if not entirely lovable architect of much of the previous decade's Yankee success, had been told by his employers that his services were no longer needed. Roy Hamey had come over from Milwaukee and briefly replaced Weiss (a fleeting moment when there was a good deal more interest in signing black players), but Hamey soon wanted out, and Ralph Houk was promoted to general manager after the 1963 season. Houk had managed the Yankees for the previous three seasons and had won the pennant all three times. Houk was known as a player's manager, which meant that he could not have been more different in his approach than Casey Stengel, whom he had replaced. Not only did Stengel show little personal interest in his players, except insofar as what they might do for him on the field, he seemed loath even to learn their names. Born in 1890, Stengel came from an era in American life when very little emphasis was placed on being nice or kind to employees, and he was, in fact, rarely kind or nice to his players. He was often caustic, frequently making fun of them and putting them down to his beloved sportswriters. Stengel might be standing near the batting cage when a young player such as Jerry Lumpe was taking his swings and hitting the ball sharply to all fields. If a writer mentioned the lovely quality of Lumpe's swing to Stengel, the old man would say, "Yes, he looks like the greatest hitter in the world until you play him."
Stengel had his eye not merely on winning pennants, which he certainly wanted to do, but on history as well, and as far as his players were concerned, he seemed to be interested chiefly in courting writers. As far as Stengel was concerned, the writers were the critical link to history, and in return, they glorified his professional skills. The writers had always been important to him, and he always basked in their attention; many seemed as interested in him as they were in the game itself, and their interest was seductive. On one of the rare occasions that his Yankees did not win the pennant—in 1954 when Cleveland beat them—Stengel was stunned to find the New York writers abandoning him and his team to follow the Indians as they moved on to the World Series. "Jesus," he told one reporter, "I'm losing my writers."
Many of the writers remembered him from his leaner years of bad teams and second-division finishes, nine seasons of managing, and only one team that finished above .500; when he became the greatest manager in the game of baseball, the legitimate heir to the great John McGraw, it was all the sweeter. After all, he represented not just the present in baseball but the past as well, and the writers were interested in the past, as the players were not. Once when Mantle was young and the Yankees were going to play the Dodgers in the World Series, Stengel took Mantle out on the field in Ebbetts Field and tried to explain to him how he had played this particularly treacherous right-field wall. "You mean you actually played here?" asked the astonished Mantle. Later, Stengel gathered his writers around him, told the story, and shook his head. "He thinks when I was born I was already sixty years old and had a wooden leg and came here to manage," Stengel said.
Later in his career with the Yankees, Stengel became even more drawn to the writers and, if anything, more protective of them. Aware that some of his players were less than hospitable to certain of the more irreverent journalists, Stengel often went out of his way to make sure that the shunned writers were taken care of. After more than a decade of Casey Stengel, the writers worshiped him, but the players had come to look upon him as a rather cold-blooded albeit wealthy grandfather who still controlled the family will and who turned on his very considerable charm only for outsiders. Ralph Houk changed that overnight. His loyalty was to the players. They were not just his players, they were his pals, or, in the vernacular he used, his "pardners." He was an extremely political man, and he had a shrewd sense of the mood in the clubhouse and the resentments that had festered under Stengel despite all those years of winning. Houk was very much aware that Mantle had come to resent Stengel's treatment of him and Stengel's thinly veiled criticism (which tended to show up in the stories of various New York writers). Stengel always seemed to imply that no matter how much Mantle did and how well he played, he might somehow achieve even more and play at an even higher level, that he somehow never quite lived up to his potential, and, worse, that he was not a particularly smart baseball player. There was even a standing joke in the Yankee locker room among the players: Mickey, a player would ask Mantle, when are you going to live up to your potential? (Continues...)
Excerpted from October 1964 by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1994 The Amateurs Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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