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As the days of September dwindled down to a precious few, the distances separating American League pennant contenders dwindled too. In prospect is the sort of agonizing finish the National League used to specialize in.
Any of three teams could win. The New York Yankees, with the personality of a steel blade, were experienced, powerful and confident, and in first place. The Chicago White Sox, winners in 1959, were in third, old and tired, yet convinced they remembered how it was done. But in second place, surprisingly, stood the Baltimore Orioles, until this year a solid second-division favorite.
The Orioles had been carried close to the top by a talented group of pink-cheeked players who were too young to be called men, too old to be called cub scouts. Nearly everyone outside of New York and Chicago wanted to see them win. For a while last week, after they swept three games from the Yankees to assume a fragile lead over the astonished league, it seemed that they might.
Nevertheless, as they left on a road trip—to Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit and, this week, New York—a good many people asked this question: Could the Orioles survive the pressure that comes with leading, a pressure even greater for a young team than the role of pursuer? The Baltimore pitching staff is almost incredibly young—four starting pitchers are 21, one is 22. Would the pressure make them wild? All four members of the starting infield played in the minor leagues last year, three of them for the entire season. Under pressure would they revert to minor league plays? Those who believed so watched and waited.
Trouble—but not the kind that develops from pressure—struck the Orioles before they got to Cleveland. Third Baseman Brooks Robinson, whom some people consider the most valuable player in the league this season, had remained in Baltimore with infectious tonsillitis. Although he was to fly to Cleveland before game time, there was some doubt that he would play. Gene Woodling, at 38 (a few people over 23 are allowed on the Orioles) the team's best clutch hitter, had pulled a groin muscle. He was limping around badly and was not expected to play.
Manager Paul Richards arrived at the park at 6:15 after a day on the golf course. ("That's his life," said a Baltimore man. "Golf and baseball.") Richards entered the dressing room, removed his coat and tie, then called to his ponderous catcher, Gus Triandos. "Gus," he said, "get Milton and come over here."
Milton is Miltiades Stergios Papastedgios Jr., or Milt Pappas, one of the young pitchers born in the vintage year of 1939. Pappas, plump and cocky, was to pitch that Wednesday night. Sitting in a huddle, Richards, Triandos and Pappas discussed how to pitch to the Cleveland hitters.
Despite the fact that the Orioles were leading the league, only a few thousand fans watched the game, and they were almost lost in the vast stadium. Pappas was jolted for a single and double by the first two hitters, and the Indians were quickly ahead 2-0. From there on Pappas was strong, but the Orioles wasted several scoring chances and lost the game 3-2.
Who was on first?