Suppose this guy is running up a hill with a gun in his hand," said Tom Tresh. "He's charging the machinegun nest single-handed, see? And just then he pulls a hamstring muscle."
"Yeah," said Phil Linz. "How come nobody pulls muscles but ballplayers?"
Mickey Mantle, sitting in the back of the New York Yankee bus on a hamstring muscle that hurt too much to charge first base, let alone a machinegun nest, guffawed with the rest. The humor was low but spirits were high, which was impressive, considering that it was 3 a.m. and that the Yankees were a thousand miles away from where that wearying day had begun for them. In not much more than a week they had traveled from Puerto Rico to Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville to Houston and now to Minnesota, but still there were laughs. Tony Kubek reviewed the "typical Appalachian stunt" by Steve Hamilton, who escaped from the wet fury of one lawn sprinkler by taking a long-legged leap into another one. Whitey Ford analyzed the rocks in Phil Linz's head that had gotten him into a "pickle" on the base paths and the luck that had gotten him out of it. The word "pickle" was leaped upon and judged pretty funny all by itself. The bus rolled merrily through the night.
The Yankees may be in trouble, the pundits are saying. They were losers in spring training and after two chilling weeks of regular-season play they were under .500 and looking as though they belonged down there. But still there were laughs and an atmosphere of fun, the sign of a loose, tension-free ball club. One New York sportswriter asked, "Do you think there is such a thing as a team being too loose?" Not likely. "It's tough to laugh with a loser," was the pronunciamento of Don Blasingame of the Washington Senators, who in his career has played for both winners and losers.
The principal trouble, as usual, is simply being The Yankees, who are forever obliged to equate the logical possibility of not winning the pennant with the sinking of a bar of Ivory soap at Procter & Gamble. If you lose a few games the critics start carping immediately. As it was with Joe McCarthy is now and ever shall be—except that now it is fun to be a Yankee. It wasn't always.
The evolution has been swift. Short years ago the Yankee clubhouse held all the carefree charm of a dentist's office. The sounds were the "What difference does it make?" of Mantle, the noncommittal grunt of Yogi Berra (which would be magically transformed into a funny malapropism in a column), the grim silence of Frank Crosetti, glowering with fine impartiality at the ball bag, the reporters or the new stock prospectus, the snarls of Roger Maris about the sportswriters' "ripping me."
The Yankees have a picnic table in the middle of their spacious, wall-to-wall-carpeted clubhouse, and it used to be unwritten law that no "new" man (i.e., one with fewer than four World Series checks in the bank) could sit at it. Only a brash interloper like Ryne Duren dared to break it. The sportswriters counted the days until it was Ford's turn to pitch. Then they would have a player who would talk to them. In between, they would "write Stengel," because Stengel and only Stengel could or would say what he thought—or at least what he wanted to get printed in the papers, which were and are a tool of his trade.
Now there is a Crosetti who grins broadly at the elaborate pyrotechnics on the scoreboard in Houston's Astrodome, an extravagantly cheap gimmick that he once would have denounced as "bush." There is a Maris who views big black newspaper headlines unfairly labeling him a bar brawler and cracks only that "it knocked Vietnam off Page One and that ain't bad." There are second-year men who feel free to needle elders who are separated from the Hall of Fame only by time. There are personalities inside almost all the gray flannel suits. So sweeping has the metamorphosis been that the Yankees, almost to a man, doubt or deny that anything has changed.
"We always had fun," said Elston Howard. "The manager tells you to have fun."
The manager? Fun, except for himself, was never a principal component of Dr. Stengel's elixir, and indeed his overwhelming Presence was the factor that suppressed several now-burgeoning personalities. As for Yogi Berra, he more likely would have asked some of them to have just a little less fun. All Johnny Keane has been telling them is some things they didn't know, or hadn't thought of, about playing baseball. There has been only one other Yankee manager lately.