The final out of professional baseball's first century occurred on a beautiful afternoon early last October at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis when Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers moved gracefully under a foul fly near the first base dugout. He tapped his catcher's mitt, caught the ball and in an instant was bearing the full weight of Mickey Lolich, the pitching hero in one of the more heartwarming comebacks in sport. It has been only six months since Freehan made the catch, and in just that short period of time baseball has undergone more changes than any other traditional game has ever endured.
This week the second century of professional baseball began, and instead of 20 teams there were 24. Instead of two leagues there were four divisions. One hundred players who were not good enough to make the major leagues in 1968 were suddenly prime properties. Nobody knows what kind of a season it will be because nobody has ever tried to get through a year like this one before. But there are the precedents of two recent seasons when two teams were added, and if what happened then is any measure for 1969 the elements for a spectacular year are present.
The Tigers are going to try to become the first non-Yankee team to repeat as American League champions since 1935. Sometime during the first two weeks Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves will step to the plate and get a hit, which will put him at 5,000 total bases for his career. Only seven other men have done that: Musial, Cobb, Ruth, Speaker, Gehrig, Ott and Mays. Ted Williams is going to try his best to manage the Washington Senators, and that should be interesting, if only for awhile. In the home opener at Fenway Park in Boston, Tony Conigliaro, a young man the doctors said would never play baseball again, will come to bat before one of the loudest standing ovations ever heard.
The left-field fence at Sicks' Stadium in Seattle, the home of the Pilots in the American League's Western Division, is only 305' away from the plate—the shortest in the majors since the Dodgers moved away from the Coliseum and its Great Wall of China. If that does not help the hitters, who were pretty discouraged by 1968's Year of the Pitcher, the lowering of the mound from 15 inches to 10 should.
St. Louis has added Vada Pinson to Lou Brock and Curt Flood, thus forming "The Scat Pack," the fastest outfield the game has known. Buzzie Bavasi, one of the few men in the world tricky enough to enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead, has moved his genius from Los Angeles down to San Diego where he is president of the National League's Western Division Padres. Clyde King, the new manager of the San Francisco Giants, has Willie Mays batting leadoff, which means he should get to bat about 50 more times than he would while hitting third. That could make a huge difference in how the Giants fare.
In Pittsburgh there is a young first baseman named Bob Robertson, who has the kind of power that Ralph Kiner once had. But this is a season when many interesting things might be expected at first. Frank Robinson, Richie Allen and Tony Oliva all played the position in training for the 1969 race.
Third base, however, is the big spot for a surprising number of clubs this year. Seven new third basemen are coming into the majors, and only one of them, Coco Laboy of Montreal, is on an expansion team. He and the others—Bill Sudakis of Los Angeles, Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, Bobby Etheridge of the Giants, Bill Melton of the White Sox, Richie Hebner of the Pirates and Amos Otis of the Mets—will be depended upon heavily.
All this brightness and promise follows hard on a spring training season that most would just as soon forget. The threatened boycott of the players against the owners never really developed, but so many players were late in reporting that many of the pitchers are still not in their top condition. And it would be silly to suppose that the bitterness between players and owners that developed during the dispute over television moneys has evaporated.
The biggest difference in baseball has been the swift development of Bowie Kuhn as the game's commissioner. In less than 70 days he has made a forcible impression on the office. While his work is only beginning, his approach has seemed the correct one. He does not believe in making decisions by committee, and his appreciation of the game itself runs deep.
One morning early this spring Kuhn was giving a clubhouse speech to the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla. He told them, among other things, that as major league players they had a certain image to live up to. When he finished, Kuhn asked if there were any questions. "Yes sir," said a voice from the back. "We understand you are supposed to be a pretty good baseball fan. We have a coach on this team named Billy DeMars. Do you know who he played for?" Without batting an eye, Kuhn said, "He last played for the St. Louis Browns." The answer was correct.