All those people standing on their heads trying to make sense out of the American League pennant race should come on down right now. To do otherwise is not only to miss a whale of a lot of fun but also to risk the possibility of having to remain inverted all year. The way things are going, it could happen.
The Cleveland Indians are heading for the Hall of Fame, en masse. The Athletics and Orioles do not look anything at all like the Athletics and Orioles. In Washington it is rumored that Harmon Killebrew is really Joe Hardy and that Mr. Applegate has bought a season box in Griffith Stadium. The White Sox still can't hit home runs—after all, this is only a small miracle that is taking place—but the pitching is superb, the defense a thing of wizardry and the Sox are winning. Boston is having trouble, but without Ted Williams what can you expect? And in all the uproar the Yankees and Tigers, who were supposed to finish one-two on top of the heap, hardly puffing, are seven-eight down at the bottom, gasping for air.
In the first month of play some strange things have happened. Washington, in one stretch, won seven of nine games. Kansas City won eight out of 10 after a bad start. And Baltimore had a streak, too, winning nine of 11. But it was the poor old Tigers who had the biggest streak: 15 losses in 17 games. Only their ability to beat the poor old Yankees (they won a double-header on Sunday) kept the Tigers from dropping out of the league altogether.
Yet the most startling development of all involved the Indians and the Yankees, the one because they looked so much better than anyone else, the other because they looked so bad.
In spring training the Indians appeared incapable of beating anyone (SI, March 30). Larry Doby, an outfielder, was at first base; Vic Power, a first baseman, was at third; and Woody Held, who was not a shortstop, was at short. The pitching staff was built around Herb Score, whose health was in doubt; Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, who appeared to have enough to do just carrying 33 years and that name around without having to win games in the bargain; Gary Bell, a 22-year-old with less than one year of big league experience; James (Mudcat) Grant, who wasn't even there, being temporarily employed by the U.S. Army; and little else.
WIN, WIN, WIN
Yet once the season began, the Indians won and won and won some more. They took six in a row and 10 of their first 11 before dropping three to Chicago. Held hit five home runs in the first seven games and was apparently well on his way to replacing Ruth in the record books until sidelined by an injured hand. George Strickland, who didn't even play baseball in 1958, largely because of a .223 lifetime batting average, apparently found that the rest did him good. He became a terror at the plate. The pitching was terrific, and the defense, worst in the league a year ago, was suddenly the very best. As a matter of fact, the Indians led both major leagues in just about everything: home runs, run production, fielding average, batting average, and all manner of pitching statistics. And, of course, in games won.
What happened is simple enough to see now. Manager Joe Gordon put Power back on first base. Held, who is a good third baseman, went to third. And Strickland, always a fine shortstop, stepped in to play short. With Billy Martin at second, it was a good, tight infield.
Then the pitching came around just right. Score was healthy. A little wild, but healthy, and therefore very tough. McLish, improving with age, was even tougher. Bell won a couple of games. Don Ferrarese, who hadn't really been counted on for much, won a couple, too. And Dick Brodowski, a failure of some note with both Boston and Washington several years ago and a one-game winner with Cleveland last season, turned out to be a real magician in relief. He didn't give up an earned run in his first five games.
Maybe the Indians were playing over their heads. So Held wasn't a Babe Ruth nor Strickland a Honus Wagner. Who cared? The Indians were winning, and in Cleveland that was all that mattered.