Crucial series, like Christmas advertising and gin and tonics, seem to get started earlier every year. And despite the scheduled evidence of almost half a season still to go, last week's three-game series between the Yankees and Orioles was as bona fide crucial as the month of July has ever produced.
To begin with, the American League seems blessed with that happy rarity, a real pennant race. Of course the American League has been visited with mirages in July before, but these particular Orioles look more substantial, somehow. Contributing further to the atmosphere of cruciality was the knowledge that the two league leaders would meet in only two more series all year. They will be completely through with each other seven weeks before the season ends. And the White Sox—the third team in the race—play their last games with the other two contenders in August also. The American League would have scheduled Halley's Comet at high noon.
Actually, any Baltimore-New York series has taken on distinction in recent years, for the Orioles are the only team in the league even remotely approaching the status of a Yankee nemesis. Since 1959 the Orioles have been 54-55 with the Yankees, and no other team is close to that record. Even during two second-division seasons, they continued to give the Yankees a hard time while being tough on hardly anybody else. This year, although they lost two of the three games last week, they still lead the Yankees 6-5, and the play has been typically tight. Until the Orioles beat the Yankees 6-1 on Thursday, no game had been decided by more than three runs—and half of them by one. Each team had scored 36 runs.
Though others have recognized Baltimore's special talent for staying with the Yankees, the oddsmakers are apparently not ready to concede. They have established New York the favorite in every game the two teams have played this season, making the Orioles the juiciest overlay around. The fans, however, who know a good series when they see it coming, turned out 100,000 strong at Yankee Stadium for last week's three games. This was far beyond Yankee expectations; indeed, it was beginning to appear doubtful that anything could bring people back from the sideshow the Mets are putting on out by the World's Fair. ("Hurry, hurry, hurry! See the passed balls! See the players collide! See the man pitch an absolutely perfect game! See the teams play 23 innings!") Last week's crowds were even more impressive than the numbers indicate. The series took place in the middle of the week in competition with the Republican Convention (free) on TV. Only one of the games was at night; one was in the afternoon, the last a 6 o'clock Suburban Night game. The night game attracted 25% of the TV audience, rated as high as 20.8 and far outdrew Huntley-Brinkley.
At Yankee Stadium everything seemed Octoberish except the humidity. The play was outstanding, the fans tremendously excited and the players tense. Yankee Third Baseman Clete Boyer said he did not recall his team being so keyed up in three years. A few Baltimore banners were unfurled in the stands, and, though every visiting team in New York attracts Yankee-haters of its own, support for the Orioles was unusually large. When the P.A. announcer began a ticket pitch, "The league-leading Orioles...," the loud cheers and boos suggested that he had nominated Baltimore to lead the league. The press box was more crowded than usual and included a group that came up from Philadelphia to examine the team the Phillies would play in the fall. When the Phillies lost their sixth of seven games on Wednesday, the Philadelphians promptly returned home.
One good indication of the present Yankee-Oriole status is the fact that the players refuse to say anything uncomplimentary about each other. This is the result of the new sporting philosophy that if you do say something negative about the opposition, the rival manager or coach will read it in the paper, put the clipping on the clubhouse wall and thus turn his indifferent forces into veritable tigers. In Baltimore last month, after the Orioles beat the Yankees, a Baltimore sportswriter overheard Elston Howard mutter, "Those lucky so-and-sos." Publication of the remark caused almost as much consternation among the Yankees as losing the game. Yankee Manager Yogi Berra just winces and smiles when asked to comment about the occasionally caustic Baltimore fans. When a reporter asked Oriole Manager Hank Bauer if he thought the Yankees had choked after a loss, Bauer gulped and then suggested that the young man go down to the Yankee clubhouse and ask them and "see what they do to you."
The Orioles are particularly respectful of the Yankees because their leaders—President Lee MacPhail, Bauer and Coaches Billy Hunter and Gene Woodling—are all ex-Yankees. Presumably this came about on the theory that if you can't beat 'em, get 'em to join you, and it does provide an added fillip to the competition.
Though Yogi Berra is already thinking ahead to the crucial August series with the Orioles and White Sox, last week's series was his most important yet as a manager, and he prepared for it even more than Bauer did. The Oriole manager refused to upset his pitching rotation, but Berra held out Left-hander Al Downing for an extra day so that he could start the first game against the Orioles. Berra has managed so far mostly by the book. Bauer himself says, "He looks like he goes by the percentages, the same as most of us." But Yogi is his own man. "I don't know if I am patterning myself after anybody—Stengel or Houk or anybody. I'm just myself," he says. "Ralph never interferes. He just told me what to expect and left me alone. He told me, 'You're going to see a lot of things a little different than before.' You know, like I can't hang around with the players anymore. Oh, maybe just breakfast or something like that."
The Yankee players think Berra has done a good job in getting the most out of each of them. "Houk would make you feel like a million with just a pat on the back," Infielder Phil Linz says. "Yogi will joke with you and get the same result." Berra is basically an extremely friendly person and has hardly changed just because he has his own office and only eats breakfast with the players.