One of them digs graves during the cold winter months in Massachusetts, and dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup. Another had a nervous ulcer at the age of 26, yet eats hot dogs after games with everything on them but the resin bag. A third wears a low number on the back of his Yankee uniform, occupies the locker only recently vacated by Mickey Charles Mantle and, his teammates say, has a face that resembles a lemon. A fourth wears the red, white and blue cap of the new Montreal Expos and tries to forget the frustrations of 10 years spent in minor league towns from Artesia to Winnipeg. The New York Mets have one named—depending upon your powers of concentration—Amos Otis or Otis Amos and regard him as an "untouchable," and the Los Angeles Dodgers believe they have finally found that someone who will be able to do by himself what a committee of 35 has proved unable to do collectively in a decade. And—sh, be quiet about this—in Chicago the White Sox think they may have one who can even hit an official American League ball autographed by Joseph Cronin beyond the infield.
It is possible that the arrival of these seven—all of them third basemen—had, like Harvey at the side of Elwood P. Dowd, gone virtually unnoticed. It is impossible to believe, after two weeks of the 1969 baseball season, that they are unnoticed any longer. The seven—Rich Hebner of the Pirates, Bobby Etheridge of the Giants, Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, Coco Laboy of the Expos, Amos Otis of the Mets, Bill Sudakis of the Dodgers and Bill Melton of the White Sox—have opened the season in either spectacular or controversial fashion, and they represent the biggest influx of new players at one position in 100 years.
The most publicized, and perhaps the best, is Bill Sudakis of the Dodgers, who, after it looked like he was to go 0 for April, returned to Dodger Stadium late last week and slid on his belly, belted extra-base hits and drew from Roger Craig, a coach with the San Diego Padres, a rave notice. "Sudakis," said Craig, "has more guts than any man I've ever played with, against or coached." And Roger Craig is not a man known to blow smoke rings.
The most consistent of these new third basemen has been Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, who was tied for the league lead last week in homers, hits, runs batted in and drawing reporters to his locker. Murcer, 22, comes from Oklahoma, just as Mantle did, and he was signed by Yankee Scout Tom Greenwade, the same man who signed Mantle 20 years ago. He has excellent speed, bunts well enough to fool the opposition and knows enough to keep the top button of his uniform blouse unbuttoned. It is a tradition with all Yankee stars.
"I was given uniform No. 1," he says, "after it had been laid aside for two years following Bobby Richardson's retirement. Richardson asked me if I would like to wear it. Mantle was asked who he wanted to have his locker and when he picked me I was dumfounded. The low number and this locker mean something to me. But there never will be anybody half as good as Mickey Mantle."
By starting the season with a seven-game hitting streak Murcer quickly won the hearts of Yankee fans, and his every appearance at the plate brought louder and louder applause. He may become the one to turn Yankee Stadium, a structure that has attracted so much bad luck since 1965, into a Fun House.
The arrival of Coco Laboy was certainly the least publicized event in the launching of the expansion Expos. When the team was formed last August, Laboy was the 57th of 60 players picked in the expansion pool. During 10 years in the minor league organization of the St. Louis Cardinals, Laboy put together some fine seasons, including 1968, when he hit 44 doubles, knocked in 100 runs and batted .292 with pennant-winning Tulsa. But the Cardinals have always seemed to have somebody ahead of him at third. First it was Ken Boyer, then Ed Spiezio, who was fantastic in spring training, and Phil Gagliano, who had been given a large bonus, and Mike Shannon, who moved to third after Roger Maris came to St. Louis in a trade.
Thus Laboy stayed in the minors until the Expos drafted him. "We had good reports on him," says Montreal Manager Gene Mauch. "Several times when I was managing the Phillies I talked to Tony Taylor about Laboy. Before we went to the draft meetings I talked to Tony again."
Taylor, a fine student of baseball, says. "I've known Laboy for three years. I knew when I first saw him that he could make the major leagues. He and I both played with San Juan. He'd play third and I'd play second. Then we'd switch. He could play first, too. I know he is a good ballplayer and a smart one. He is the kind of player Mauch likes. He wants to play every day and. is a 100% player. He got his nickname because he drank a lot of cocoa in Puerto Rico. He is going to surprise a lot of people. I hope he doesn't surprise a lot of Phillies."
In his first game against the Phillies last week Laboy was 4 for 5 and hiked his batting average to third best in the league, .417. But that was no surprise. Laboy had already made himself known with a three-run homer that gave the Expos an 11-10 victory in their very first game. By the end of last week only Henry Aaron of Atlanta, off to one of his finest starts, had more hits.