If you have not yet seen this year's New York Yankees play, the suggestion is made that you do so—via box office or cathode-ray tube—at once, or at any rate before the 1958 season passes forever into Taylor Spink's Baseball Guide and Record Book. For there is good reason to believe that this Yankee team is a rare prize for the baseball connoisseur: it may well be the best Yankee team that ever played ball, better than the best Joe McCarthy ever managed, better even (oh, sacrilege!) than Miller Huggins' heroic buckoes of 1927.
Joe Cronin of the Boston Red Sox, who has been in the major leagues as a player, a manager and an executive for more than 30 years, insists in his quiet but positive way that baseball is better played now than it was 20 and 30 years ago. "The fielding is better than it used to be," Cronin says. "The pitchers are better. The hitters are smarter. The players know more about the game; they're taught more about it; they're trained better. It's definitely a better game."
The argument that puts this team of Mantle and Berra, Turley and Ford, McDougald and Kubek, Howard and Bauer and Slaughter and Skowron and Duren above the great Yankee teams of the past is based on that assumption—that the game is better, more efficiently played today—and on the impression the Yankees make as a squad of 25 highly talented players, rather than as a team of eight men plus a pitcher or two.
There is an extraordinary breadth of ability on this team, so much so that slumps and injuries that would throw a lesser team completely off stride (as Herb Score's injuries have toppled Cleveland, and the early-season failure of one or two pitchers ruined Chicago's pennant dream) are absorbed by the Yankees almost without notice. There is depth—which means, simply, that the Yankees have more good players than anyone else—and there is startling versatility.
There is no key player, other than Mantle, who despite his low average this year is still the most feared hitter in baseball. Berra, the best catcher in the league, fell off in his hitting; Howard, whom some call the second-best catcher in the league, took up the slack. When Skowron, the best first baseman in the league, was hurt, Howard filled in there, too, and at other times he played the outfield. McDougald, the best shortstop in the league last year, moved to second this season to make room for young Tony Kubek; now there is a school of thought that says Gil McDougald is the best second baseman in the league and that Kubek may be even better at short than McDougald.
The team is leading the major leagues in runs scored. Its pitching is by far the best in the majors. And Baltimore's Paul Richards, whose baseball teachings always stress pitching and fielding, says the 1958 Yankees are the best defensive team he's ever seen.
The strongest praise for the Yankees comes from the also-rans in the American League, that frustrated group of can't-win-for-losing ball clubs that may well end up further behind in this pennant race than any other losing group of American Leaguers in baseball history. (The 1927 Yankees won by 19 games, the 1936 Yanks by 19½, the record. This year's team led by 17 games on Aug. 2, and though that margin was well pared in the last two weeks, the Yankees have five full weeks of the season left to experiment with.)
Now, of course, it sounds like a clear case of self-justification for the defeated to blame their plight not on their own weakness but on the victor's strength. But Bill Norman, manager of the Detroit Tigers, who made a most determined run at the Yankees in June, when they beat the New Yorkers six successive times, argues: "The Yankees are responsible for what's happening in this league. From what I've seen they're one of the best teams ever put together."
Norman might be remembering June 22, when the Yankees turned on the tormenting Tigers, scored six runs in the first inning and crushed Detroit 15-0, as if to say, "Now stop bothering me. I warned you."
The Tigers tried again, beating the Yankees 12-5 on July 15. That was, apparently, the last goad the Yankees would accept. They whacked the Tigers five straight times; the last three games were by scores of 13-3, 16-4 and 10-7, all before the home folks in Detroit.