This season the American League will continue its budding renaissance, the beginning of a return to past glories. Long accused of being moribund, inferior to the National League and far too dependent on the New York Yankees for its life's blood, the league should show a rich depth of competition, a rising level of playing skill and a higher gate attendance right down the line. The league appears to be entering a period similar to that of 1946-51 when—despite four Yankee victories in six years—there was fierce competition for the pennant, every team got into the first division, and the league drew a total of 60 million people.
Oh, there are problems still hanging around from the long era of Yankee ascendancy that ended with a whimper last year, but only a sudden and highly unlikely return to absolute domination by the Yankees can spoil the promise of a bright future. The new, deep, far-ranging competition—any one of six teams could win the pennant this season without its being considered an upset—comes at exactly the right time. Last year the National League, although burdened by the lame-duck situation in Milwaukee, out-drew the American League by 4,700,000 paid attendance, which is a money differential of more than $10 million.
But in spring training this year the American League won just about as many interleague exhibition games as the National did, and though such games are dismissed as mere window dressing, it is significant that the Nationals had been racking up the Americans consistently in recent springs. Impressive young stars like Sam McDowell, 23, Tony Conigliaro, 21, Tony Oliva, 24, Curt Blefary, 22, Bert Campaneris, 24, Zoilo Versalles, 25, and Willie Horton, 23, dot American League rosters. The bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run—exciting offensive devices normally associated with the National League—are being employed by American League teams. The Americans seem to be saying, "If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em." Eight of the 10 American League managers ( Eddie Stanky of Chicago, Gil Hodges of Washington, Alvin Dark of Kansas City, Bill Rigney of California, Birdie Tebbetts of Cleveland, Charley Dressen of Detroit, Johnny Keane of New York and Billy Herman of Boston) have National League backgrounds as players, managers or executives.
There are lots of things to look forward to as the season begins. How good, really, is McDowell, and will he ever put together a winning streak as long as his sideburns? Sam has struck out 502 men in 446 innings in his first two full years in the majors; another Cleveland pitcher, Bob Feller, struck out only 390 in 427 innings in his first two full years. (Yep, oldtimer, the hitters aren't what they used to be.) If Oliva should lead the league in hitting again he will join Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial as the only hitters in major league history to win three straight batting championships—and this in his third year in the majors. (Yep, the pitchers aren't as good as they used to be.) Campaneris may become the first American Leaguer in half a century to steal 70 bases. The new stadium in Anaheim gives Rigney's improving young Angels a genuine identity for the first time since they entered the league in 1961. And just imagine a season in which the Boston Red Sox say they are going to try.
No team will be more interesting to watch than the Baltimore Orioles, who swung the biggest trade of the off season when they sent Milt Pappas, the winningest pitcher in Baltimore's history, to the Cincinnati Reds for Frank Robinson. In 10 seasons at Cincinnati, Robinson averaged 32 home runs a year, 101 runs batted in, 104 runs scored, a .303 batting average. The oddsmakers are so impressed with his ability that they make the Orioles the favorites to win this year's pennant—despite the disturbing fact that Pappas' departure leaves Manager Hank Bauer without a truly reliable starting pitcher. But Robinson is undeniably the finest player ever traded in his prime from one league to the other, and the new Oriole batting order, with Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Curt Blefary supporting Frank, is an old-fashioned Murderers' Row. More than that, Frank Robinson is a stimulating player who makes things happen. His hard sliding precipitates fights, and his batting stance, with that left foot no farther than two or three inches from the plate, tempts pitchers to throw at him. National League teams learned, however, that throwing at Robinson is the wrong way to handle him, because when he is knocked down he becomes angry, and when he becomes angry he can be more of a threat at the plate than Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. Some National League managers slapped $50 fines on pitchers who were foolish enough to hit him.
B. Robby—Brooks, the original Oriole hero—is the best third baseman in baseball, all things considered, and Luis Aparicio, if he can shrug off last season's .225 average, is close to being the best shortstop. Add Boog Powell at first base (where he is a lot more adept than he is in left field) and Jerry Adair at second, and you have a solid, veteran infield, maybe the best in the majors. With F. Robby in left joining Paul Blair in center and Blefary in right, the outfield is pretty sharp too. Remember that Sam Bowens, a rookie sensation two years back, is sitting on the bench. The catching is a deep problem. Dick Brown underwent surgery in the winter for a brain tumor and is indefinitely sidelined. His likely successor, Andy Etchebarren, had played just seven major league games before Opening Day. With Pappas gone, the pitching is suspect. Steve Barber, the ace presumptive, is 24-23 for the past two seasons. Wally Bunker, 19-5 as a rookie in 1964, slipped to 10-8 last year. Dave McNally was 11-6 last year (though 8-2 after the All-Star break). The real pitching strength lies in the bullpen—Stu Miller and Dick Hall—but they are getting old, Father William.
Fascinating as the Orioles will surely be, the question remains: Can the city of Baltimore get aroused enough to come out and watch them? It is difficult to forget Sunday, September 20, 1964. That day the Orioles played a double-header. They had been fighting for the lead all season, and this Sunday they were only half a game out of first place. How many ecstatic crab eaters jammed their way into Memorial Stadium? Exactly 8,474. Natives explained this lack of interest by pointing out that the Baltimore Colts were playing on TV. That's the old Oriole spirit.
The Baltimore management has tried to improve attendance by conducting special "nights" for just about all local organizations except two-chair barbershops. This year the Orioles will conduct further experiments, particularly in June, July and August, when Marylanders head for the beaches. They have scheduled Saturday night twi-night doubleheaders, and at least four Saturday or Sunday afternoon games are set to start at 5 p.m., an unprecedented time for a baseball game. The reasoning is that a) people get back from the beach early; and b) it will be cool enough by 5 for fans who prefer the uncovered upper deck without the privilege of being fried like a crab cake.
It may be a futile hope on the Orioles' part. Baltimore is an old city (settled in 1729) and a big one (sixth in the U.S. in the 1960 census), but it has a depressingly smalltime gait, maybe too small to appreciate a ball team that could win the pennant. Perhaps Baltimore has been best delineated—or maybe caricatured a bit too cruelly—by Mark Russell, a young comedian who appears at the Shore-ham in Washington. Russell sings a parody about Baltimore that goes over pretty well in Washington, 40 miles southwest and five positions lower in the American League. It is done to the tune of That's Now Ireland Got Its Name and goes:
Sure, a little bit of Norfolk fell from out the sky one day.
And it nestled up in Maryland; just up the road a way.
And when the natives found it, they were filled with much despair.
They said, "We'll have to leave it. 'cause it looks so crummy there."
So they dotted it with strip joints. That's a business that will pay.
And Blaze Starr would run for mayor, if the people had their way.
And they filled the fragrant harbor with a smell you can't ignore.
And when they had it finished, sure, they called it Bal-ti-more!