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The most important thing to remember about the American League pennant race this year is not the clear and often demonstrated fact that the Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox are overwhelmingly superior to the other five clubs in the league, but the less clear, less often demonstrated but no less significant fact that they—the Indians, the Yankees and the White Sox—play most of their games, 71.4% to be precise, against those same dolefully weak clubs.
This is important, because the number of games, however few, that those dolefully weak clubs win from the top three will probably be the decisive factor in deciding who wins the American League pennant this year. It was last year. It was the year before that.
In 1953 when the Yankees won 99 games, the Indians split even with them, 11-11, and yet finished second, eight and a half games back, castigated as choke-ups, weak sisters, congenital failures. In 1954 when the Yankees won 103 games, the Indians again split even with them, 11-11, but this time finished first, eight games ahead, acclaimed on all sides as one of the great teams in American League history.
What was the difference between the "choke-up" Indians of '53 and the championship Indians of '54? The addition of Mossi, Narleski and Newhouser to the relief pitching staff? The revitalization of starting pitchers Feller and Houtteman? Yes, of course. Pitching was the difference. But only where application of improved pitching had clear and direct results.
THE KEY TO THE PENNANT
Against the Yankees and the White Sox, improved pitching notwithstanding, the Indian's won-and-lost record showed no change whatsoever. But against the other five teams.... In '53 when the Yankees won 75 games from the weak clubs, the Indians won only 70. In '54 when the Yankees won 77 from the weak clubs, the Indians won a smothering 89. The key to losing or winning the pennant obviously lay deep in the second division.
So, despite gay references to two American Leagues—one a three-team fight for first place, and the other a five-team roundelay for fourth (or possibly to avoid eighth)—remember that the American League race is still an eight-team contest, even though the contest is to see which of the three big clubs will eat most of the five little ones.
Thus, though the exciting games of the year, the great moments, the crucial series, the dramatic stuff that baseball is made of, will come on days when the Indians are playing the Yankees, or the White Sox the Indians, or the White Sox the Yankees, the 1955 championship is more likely to be decided on quiet afternoons and evenings in Baltimore or Washington, or even Kansas City, when battered Yank and weary Indian, physically and emotionally drained from a crowded, shrieking Sunday afternoon in, say, Municipal Stadium or Comiskey Park, yawn their way through games with seventh- or eighth-place teams whose only fun in life is winning one occasionally from a pennant contender.
And this year they are apt to win that occasional one a good deal more often than they did last year, even though the Indians, Yankees and White Sox now fully realize the need for beating up the little fellows every chance they get. The five weak sisters will be a lot less agreeable and a lot more inclined to stir things up the way the Red Sox did one weekend last August when they massacred the Yankees three straight and threw them, for practical purposes, out of the pennant race.
NO ONE CAN BE THAT BAD