Early next Wednesday afternoon, when Americans by the millions go through that annual October rite of tuning in their television sets for the opening game of the World Series, something is going to seem a little strange This year, for only the second time in the last 20 years, a Series is going to begin in an American League stadium that was not built by Babe Ruth. Instead of the Borough of The Bronx, N Y. this 62nd Series opens in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., equidistant from the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and it is here that the Minnesota Twins are going to try to put a stop to the National League dominance of baseball.
This is a big Series for the American League, one it can ill afford to lose. Although any baseball man worth his weight in clich�s will tell you that "superiority of leagues tends to run in cycles," the American League's cycle has been out to lunch far too long. The National League has won seven of the last 11 World Series, seven of the last eight All-Star games and almost two-thirds of the 308 interleague exhibition games played over the last two years. In addition, it is the National League, not the American, that always seems to produce those last-gasp pennant scrambles that bring added prestige and interest, not to mention money.
Ten seasons ago American League attendance was nearly 1.3 million more than the National. This season the National League is going to outdraw the American by nearly 4.5 million and the reasons are obvious. The American League is going to have only three players batting over .300 in 1965 while the National League will have 10. The American League will probably have only two hitters with more than 30 homers while the National already has ten. The American League will be lucky to have two 20-game winners; the National is already assured of six and could have as many as nine. In the two cities where there is a genuine competitive battle for customers between the two leagues, Los Angeles and New York, the Dodgers have run the Angels right out of town and down the Freeway to Anaheim by outdrawing them 4 to 1 this season, and the once-proud Yankees are going to finish nearly 600,000 paid customers behind the 10th place Mets. Only in Chicago, where the Cubs refuse to play night ball, does the American League outdraw the National.
The Minnesota Twins, however, might be just the type of team to end this out-of-phase cycle and restore some of the American League's lost prestige. The Twins have exciting young stars like Shortstop Zoilo Versalles (see cover), Tony Oliva, the best young hitter in baseball, and Jimmie Hall, the strong, swift center fielder who has both 20 homers and 20 infield hits this season. They have such impressive veterans as Harmon Killebrew, with his ability to hit tremendous home runs, Bob Allison, one of the better all-round players in the game, and Earl Battey. The bench is dependable and versatile, and their pitching staff includes Camilo Pascual, Jim (Mudcat) Grant and Jim Kaat. In short, what the Twins have is a rare blend of power, speed and pitching that is almost un-American; they are a National League-type ball club with a quality of daring that just might blow the 1965 World Series apart.
National League scouts who have been tracking the Twins have been impressed by this quality to such an extent that they admit, in some amazement, "They look an awful lot like a National League team." Almost all of them have been surprised by the vitality of Minnesota's attack. Because the Twins have been traditionally a power-hitting ball club, the scouts at first assumed that Minnesota still relied on sheer muscle to generate runs, but American League opponents could have told them a much different story. The reason why the pennant now flies over Metropolitan Stadium is because the Twins have successfully undergone one of the most severe transformations in playing style of any team in modern times.
The Twins of 1964 were first in the majors in home runs with 221, yet finished tied for sixth place; the Twins of 1965 are eighth in the majors in home runs with 143—and are finishing first. They are first because they played assertive, daring baseball day after day, series after series, all season long. They began in the spring by knocking off the top contenders with the use of speed on the bases. "What they did," according to Birdie Tebbetts of the Cleveland Indians, "was to take a run at everybody and just beat 'em back." What they did, too, was take a commanding lead in July and knock the fire out of the five-team American League pennant race that had developed among themselves, the Indians, the Chicago White Sox, the Baltimore Orioles and the Detroit Tigers. In this end-of-the-Yankee-era season, Minnesota did what most American League teams of the past did only in dreams—they beat the Yankees 13 out of 18. They also beat their most persistent challengers, the White Sox, 11 out of 18, and they crushed the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox 32 of 36.
As the Twins gathered momentum, they established a style: a flair for the daring. They used the quick strike rather than deep-think or overkill. Instead of going into bewildering technical explanations when asked the reason for their success, they gave simple answers—even though their success was not accomplished that simply.
Jim Grant, who had been taught an added pitch by new pitching Coach Johnny Sain and went on to become the league's biggest winner, explained one evening why he worked so fast. "With the kind of stuff I've got," he said, "it isn't worth thinking about what you're doing. Just grab the ball and let it go." Jimmie Hall explained a dramatic homer against the White Sox with, "I don't truly know what kind of pitch the man threw me. I just swing the bat and hope for the best." And Versalles, who may be his league's most valuable player despite a .271 batting average, described how he was able to stretch singles to doubles and doubles to triples and even to score from first base on singles. "If you get to one base and you can see the ball on the ground in the outfield," he said, "run like hell to the next base."
But though the Twins could reduce their formula for success to simple descriptions, it was actually the result of careful thought and a lot of hard work. Manager Sam Mele took the Twins into spring training camp at Orlando, Fla. last February with essentially the same personnel that had hit all those homers and gone nowhere in two previous seasons. During the winter he had sat at home in Quincy, Mass. and thought about what he could do to change 25 tortoises into 25 hares. Fresh in his mind was the World Series of 1964 in which the Yankees were beaten because the St. Louis Cardinals had run them into numerous mental and defensive blunders. There were no stirring speeches in the clubhouse at Orlando, but when the club went out to take its first batting practice the old order had changed.
On his last swing in the batting cage the hitter was instructed to run to first base as quickly as he could and stay there. When the next batter hit the ball the runner would take off for third as fast as he could go—regardless of where the ball was hit. During exhibition games the Twins used the hit-and-run again and again; although many of them were leery of the tactic at first, fearful that they might be criticized for being thrown out, Mele told his players that if anyone asked them what had gone wrong they should simply say that "Mele called the play." Minnesota began to steal and stretch base hits, and when the season opened they jumped into a strong position in the pennant race because they caught many teams unaware. "They hit and run," says Outfielder Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. "They stole bases. They took the extra base. After a while you found them forcing you into fielding mistakes because you were rushing."