It is one of the accepted axioms of baseball life in the bad-team towns like Kansas City, Boston and Washington that when the old bus keeps breaking down the easiest thing to do is shoot the driver. Last week the once-proud, stable and well-organized New York Yankees pulled the trigger for the second time in just 19 months. After a horrendous start in which the Yankees lost 16 of their first 20 games and found themselves in tenth (yep, tenth) place in the American League, Johnny Keane was fired as manager and replaced by the man who had hired him in October of 1964, General Manager Ralph Houk. The interesting part of the matter lies not in the fact that the Yankees flew Keane 3,000 miles to Anaheim, Calif. to fire him instead of doing it a few days earlier in New York, but in the obvious desperation of the once self-assured Yankee management. "We simply must make a change," was the official explanation for Keane's dismissal.
The firing of Keane and the attendant demotion of Houk—he is, after all, no longer general manager—ordered by Yankee President Dan Topping, forces genuine baseball fans to sit back, take several deep breaths and chuckle. The Yankees have been guilty of many things in the past. They have been cold, arrogant and ruthless. They have been correctly accused of forcing their advantages by muscling little people around. But last week they were guilty of the one thing nobody ever imagined them capable of: panic. Once upon a time the New York Yankees looked down upon a world in which the words "simply must" were always spoken by others in baseball but never by themselves.
Houk, who has a four-year contract estimated at $70,000 a year, is an excellent manager and probably a more inspiring one than Keane, but this does not mean that Keane was a bad manager. Johnny Keane, unfortunately, was merely the guy who was driving the old bus when it broke down—the one that Houk was unable to repair in his three years as chief mechanic.
Now that Houk is back in charge he faces exactly the same problems that Keane did in that 1) the true talent in the New York farm system is still young and not yet ready to play in the major leagues and 2) in any trade negotiations, the Yankees must deal off the top of the deck and try to shed some of their aging, high-salaried performers in return for untried material.
No longer does the pinstriped Yankee uniform intimidate the opposition. Some people maintain that as far back as 1963, when Houk last managed and lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight games, the Yankee dynasty was at an end. Several other teams in the league have since gone out and built strong farm systems and paid high bonuses to make themselves respectable, and Houk's detractors maintain that his biggest mistake as general manager was his failure to sign Rick Reichardt (he lost him to the California Angels). A Reichardt today might be the answer to many of the Yankee problems, for he hits with power, plays the outfield and possesses the star quality that could put the Yankees back in business.
On his returning to active managing, Houk suggested that the Yankees could still win the pennant—but if he is capable of bringing the team back as far as the first division he will have done a remarkable job. No team in the American League has ever been as far behind as the Yankees were last week—12 games—and won a pennant. Realistically, therefore, Houk's chances of finishing first are nil.
The Yankee management, fans, Houk and Keane alike came out of spring training with high hopes that this year's team would be able to shrug off last year's injuries and rise to the top of the American League standings again. At worst they assumed that the club would be a contender throughout the season. But the problems of 1965 lingered and even multiplied. Mickey Mantle had trouble batting left-handed, and Roger Maris played uninspired ball. In other Yankee times a bugle would sound and some spear-carrier would trot out of the dugout, hit .420 for two weeks, pick fly balls off the fences and drive other contending teams crazy. But the bugle that sounded and went unheard in 1965 produced the same result during the first month of this season. Desperate measures were tried. Tom Tresh, one of the best left fielders the Yankees have ever had, was shifted to third base. Third Baseman Clete Boyer was made shortstop. Nothing helped. During those first 20 games the Yankees were pitiable. The depths to which they had sunk were painfully advertised in the series with the Indians in Yankee Stadium last week.
For eight innings of the opening game, Cleveland's Luis Tiant, a right-handed pitcher with sad brown eyes and a sharp chin, had huffed and puffed through rain and cold to arrive at the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead and the top of the Yankee batting order awaiting him. If you respect history even slightly you know exactly what fate awaited Luis Tiant at that point. With two on and two out Tiant threw a bad pitch to Joe Pepitone. Joe's eyes resembled two saucers as he swung his bat, and well, you know how history handles that situation. The ball goes for a home run, the Yankees win, and the stake is forever buried in Luis Tiant's proud Cuban heart. Not this time, however. The ball did go into the stands, but went foul by inches. Pepitone stood near first base with his fists clenched and his eyes raised toward heaven. Among the few printable words Tiant heard Pepitone say were, "Give me another chance!" Cleveland did. Pepitone hit a fly ball, and the Indian infield and outfield, between which there is a Stone Age communication system, converged. Go back to history and...wrong again. The ball did not drop, because even though infielders and outfielders rammed into each other, Leon Wagner, of all people, held onto it.
But even before the series with Cleveland the Yankees had been consistently guilty of all the sins that American League teams of the past used to commit against them—wasting well-pitched games, dropping relays, falling in the outfield, letting fly balls drop that should have been caught. By the time the Indians had left town the Yankees had compiled a record against first-division teams in their own ballpark—dating from the start of the season in 1965—of 17-38. In enemy clubhouses and dugouts people were mocking the Yankees and so were the newspapers, radio and television stations.
Two weeks ago, for example, Harry Caray and Jack Buck, who announce the Cardinal games in St. Louis (where they have little to cheer about themselves), let the Yankees have it.