Two weeks ago Willie Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers sprawled out on the thick blue padding that covers the dugout bench in Dodger Stadium and talked about a subject close to his heart—running. "I really love to spin my wheels," said Willie. "I believe it's possible for me to steal between 50 and 60 bases this season. That's about twice as many as I ever stole in one season in my life. Of course, I'm not going to say that I will steal that many, because too much depends on the breaks, my health and so on. But it would be possible. Real possible."
Back in 1960, when Willie came to the major leagues to play full time, he was considered the fastest man ever to play for the always fast Dodgers, the fastest man in the National League, the fastest man in baseball and one of the fastest men alive. Today he is still extremely fast and still the fastest Dodger, but he is no longer the fastest in the National League or even the fastest in Chavez Ravine.
This season there are runners all over the place in baseball, and many seem to be as fast—or as quick—as Willie Davis ever was. Chico Ruiz of the Cincinnati Reds is now probably the fastest in his league, and the whole Red team is now as fast as the Dodgers—if not faster.
The overall speed title may belong to Dick (Briefcase) Simpson of the Los Angeles Angels. Briefcase, a center fielder, plays the same position in the same ball park as Willie Davis, which should make for some fine comparative arguments before the season is finished.
"There is no doubt," says Manager Johnny Keane of the St. Louis Cardinals, "that teams are running more this year than in a long, long time, and they will continue to run. I believe that the whole idea of running was triggered by Maury Wills and Willie Davis two years ago when they stole 136 bases between them. For too long people in baseball had forgotten about running. It has always been one of the most important parts of the game, but it became the most neglected. Today many players do not even know themselves how fast they can run and 90% can still improve their running. We worked and worked this spring on our running, on the hit-and-run, on picking up the extra base. Baseball games are tighter today than ever before, and getting a little edge with speed has become tremendously important."
Just how important the little edge can be is shown by the fact that the three best teams in baseball last season—the Dodgers, Cards and Yankees—played in a total of 161 games that were decided by one run.
Says George Strickland, who is acting as manager of the Cleveland Indians until Birdie Tebbetts recovers from a heart attack, "The Dodgers made speed attractive. That's their whole attack and it is bound to have impressed everyone, whether they admit it or not. The club that is running is going to force other clubs into mistakes. The stolen base demoralizes a defense."
Pedro Ramos, the Cleveland right-hander, believes that the way the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series has convinced many managers in the American League that speed is the answer to Yankee power for them, too. Ramos, who in 1962 grandiloquently billed himself as the "fastest man in baseball" and got beaten by Briefcase Simpson in a 75-yard dash, has adopted a slogan for his teammates this season: "Go for Pedro." And the first-place Indians are really going.
Actually, many teams in the American League are turning to speed—stealing, bunting and using the hit-and-run more than ever before. The World Series lesson was not lost on the Yankees either. One of the first things Yogi Berra did this spring was tell his players that he intended to use more running, a definite departure from the managing techniques of Ralph Houk. In a game against the Baltimore Orioles last week the Yankees flashed their speed and won a big ball game with it. Mickey Mantle dragged a bunt single, Roger Maris—yes, Roger Maris—also dragged a bunt single and went to second by tagging up on a fly ball to center and Bobby Richardson stretched a single to a double. Each eventually scored in a 4-1 win.
"When you get men with speed thinking more about running, you open up the game," says Manager Bill Rigney of the Angels. "You worry the opposition to death. This causes that infinitesimal glance by fielders that often can result in a misjudged fly ball or in a man being half a step behind a ground ball." Even the Minnesota Twins, who usually rely on extra-base hits, are working for runs this way. Says Coach Floyd Baker, "We are trying to force the defense into having at least one player out of position on the hit-and-run."