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It is unfortunate that ballplayers do not arrive in the big leagues neatly packaged in tin cans, with all the specifications on the back label and a tag saying "Do not open until 1959" on top. Had this happened to Vada Edward Pinson Jr., the stripling center fielder of the Cincinnati Reds would be well on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year by now.
Pinson was too good for his own good. Opened up a year too soon, at the age of 19, he went to bat 96 times last season, thereby disqualifying himself from being a 1959 rookie by some six times at bat. The six surplus appearances were acquired in two brief trips to the majors, one at the beginning of the season and the other at the tail end, while most of Pinson's summer was spent whaling the daylights out of pitching in the Pacific Coast League. But a rule is a rule and this one, passed by the baseball writers one day two years ago while waiting for the soda fountain to open, says Pinson is no rookie. He should worry; for a fellow who isn't a rookie Vada Pinson is the doggondest rookie baseball has seen in years.
He is the only member of the Reds to have played in every game. He is batting .334, third-best in the National League. He has scored more runs than any player in either league; he has more doubles and more triples. Only Henry Aaron has more hits. All this has Cincinnati fans howling like happy banshees and opposing pitchers turning red around the ears.
Vada is so trim that he appears frail, but he has muscles that don't show from the stands. He is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds, and he has whacked 16 homers and batted in 73 runs. Fred Hutchinson, the Cincinnati manager, says Pinson hasn't yet learned to get a good jump on the pitchers. Still, Vada has stolen 17 bases. And in center field he is leading the league in putouts, a department owned lock, stock and barrel by Richie Ashburn of the Phils for nine of the last 10 years.
"That Vada," says Frank Robinson, "is making a joke out of this game."
Pinson is modest, pleasant and almost embarrassingly polite. He has delicate features, sparkling teeth and a pair of soulful brown eyes. He never talks back to his elders or loses his money shooting craps or spits on the dugout steps or takes a snooze on hot days in center field. All he does is play baseball.
Opposing players, who are seldom impressed by headlines and minor league averages and batting-practice home runs, hesitate to elect any new whiz kid to the Hall of Fame until he has been around the league a couple of times. But Pinson has been around the league now half a dozen times, and no one has yet found anything they can do about him. Except go ahead and mark up the ballots.
At the plate, where Pinson hits left-handed, his swing is just like Vada: smooth and compact. He stands in the middle of the box, takes a short, controlled stride, and the bat comes around in a short, controlled arc. If the pitch is in where he wants it, he pulls sharply to right; if the pitch is away, he goes to center or left. He has not allowed himself to become hypnotized by the home run.
"Don't too many run much faster," says Hutchinson.