What are you going to do about those Yankees? On June 6 they seemed to be in serious trouble. Mickey Mantle had run into the center field fence the night before, breaking his foot. Bill Stafford and Stan Williams, two of the starting pitchers, were dismal flops. Luis Arroyo, the pennant-saving relief pitcher of 1961, had a sore arm and was useless. Tony Kubek was out of the lineup with an injured leg. Baltimore had wrested first place away from New York and, with Mantle out, the Orioles were in perfect position to fulfill that American League dream: winning the pennant from the Yankees. And if Baltimore could not do it, maybe Chicago could, or the powerful Minnesota Twins, who were just beginning to wake up and play ball, or the surprising Boston Red Sox.
Now, almost two months later, Mantle is still out of action, Arroyo is gone, Stafford and Williams have yet to reestablish themselves as pitchers, Roger Maris has been only a part-time star, but the Yankees have opened up one of the biggest midseason leads in the history of the game. Baltimore and Chicago and Minnesota and Boston have played very well, really, and are wrapped up in a tightly competitive knot—several thousand miles behind. The Yankees stand alone, a band of heroes whose names someday will ring down the corridors of glory along with Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio.
What names? What names, indeed! Is it possible that you have never heard of Linz and Bright and Blanchard and Bouton and Downing and Hamilton and Reniff and Lopez?
True, the names are not Babe Linz or Larruping Lou Bright or Jolting Joe Blanchard, but these men and their companions in anonymity are the players who are winning the pennant for New York, the ones who are tipping the balance. A few familiar names have earned headlines—Whitey Ford is having a normal, sensational year—but essentially the difference between the Yankees and the rest of the league has been the reserves. Who in the world are they? Where did they come from?
Well, Steve Hamilton came from the Washington Senators. He had a 3-8 record last year, and when the Yankees sent Jim Coates to the Senators for Hamilton it seemed like another of baseball's classic nothing-for-nothing trades. But Hamilton, a 6-foot-7-inch stringbean (The Skinny Monster, he is called by Stan Williams) who once played pro basketball for the Minneapolis Lakers, has turned into the best left-handed relief pitcher in the league. They say that ballplayers change when they put on a Yankee uniform, but Ralph Houk, the Yankee manager, said the other day, "We knew he could get left-handers out as well as anybody in the league. He did it to us last year. But we got a bonus in Hamilton—he's smart and he works hard and he's learned to get the righthanders out, too."
Hamilton is intelligent—he holds a master's degree in education from More-head State in Kentucky—and he has both competitive guts and an awareness of the excitement that baseball can provide. Recently he was called into a game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and no one out. He struck out three straight batters and walked off the field to tumultuous applause. Later he said, "My knees started to rattle when I walked back to the dugout, it wasn't a really tense situation—we had a 7-0 lead—but it feels pretty good to strike out the side with the bases loaded." He was complimented for acknowledging the applause of the crowd by tipping his cap. "If it had happened in the ninth inning instead of the eighth," he said, grinning, "I'd have taken the cap off and waved it." Shades of the nonchalant Yankees of yesteryear!
Harry Bright is one of those camouflaged players. He has been in professional ball since 1946 and he has been in the majors since 1958, with one side trip back to the minors, but no one knows what he looks like. Harry played for Fond du Lac, Twin Falls, Independence, Houma, Miami, Sioux Falls, Clovis, Topeka, Janesville, Memphis, Buffalo, Little Rock, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Washington and Cincinnati before joining New York. He has caught, played all four infield positions and the outfield, and one year he even pitched a little. With the Yankees he has hit often and with power. He was platooned with Joe Pepitone, the All-Star first baseman, when Joe ran into a bit of trouble hitting left-handers. Later, when injuries to Tony Kubek and Phil Linz made it necessary for Cletis Boyer to move from third base to shortstop, Harry filled in at third.
How did the Yankees know that Bright would turn out to be such a useful ballplayer? "We wanted a right-handed hitter," said Houk. "Bright's record shows that he's always been a good hitter. He hit 17 home runs last year for Washington. We wanted someone who could play first base, if we needed him to. Harry played a lot of games at first last year. He was available, and we got him."
John Blanchard didn't come from anyplace. At 30, he is a veteran of 13 seasons as Yankee property, the first eight of which were spent in the minors or in military service. Blanchard was an outfielder at the start of his career, but the Yankees converted him into a catcher. With Yogi Berra and Elston Howard around, this tended to slow his rise to the majors, and he did not make it to New York until 1959. Even then he played sparingly until Ralph Houk succeeded Casey Stengel as manager. Under Houk, Blanchard got to play more, and he hit 34 home runs in two seasons. But this year he had played rarely and was hitting poorly (.135) until he took over in right field early in July after Roger Maris was injured. Then, in the space of three weeks, he hit six home runs, drove in 16 runs and batted .346. His hot streak ended abruptly one morning last week when he phoned Tony Kubek, who lives close by, and said, "I think I'm sick. Would you drive me to the hospital?" The self-diagnosis was correct: he had acute bronchitis, bordering on bronchial pneumonia, and was immediately hospitalized. But by this time Maris, known around the Yankee clubhouse as " Blanchard's replacement," was ready to play again.
Hector Lopez is another supernumerary who has been carrying a Yankee spear for a long time. Hector comes from Panama and first played organized baseball in Canada (he had been playing for a beer company team in Panama City when a friend named Picou told him he could get him a job in the Provincial League in Quebec). The Athletics spotted him there, and a few years later he became one of the many players who traveled the Kansas City-Yankee shuttle. He had been an infielder with Kansas City but not a terribly good one, and after a shot at third base with New York he was switched to the outfield. He made some bad plays there, too, and earned a reputation as a butcher, but he has since developed into a steady, if unspectacular, outfielder. He is a strong right-handed hitter with a particular knack for hitting to right field, a technique he learned when he played for the beer company, where the prevailing wind was toward right. Like so many players on the Yankee bench, Lopez would be a regular with most teams, but he is content to stay where he is, picking up a delicious World Series check every autumn.