THE MOST impressive thing about the World Series was Yogi Berra; there's no getting away from it. Don Larsen was The Hero (there's no getting away from that, either), and Larsen is certainly deserving of all the praise and rewards coming his way, but Berra was incomparably the best player in the Series, the most valuable, the principal reason why the New York Yankees are again the champions of the baseball world.
In a way, the furor about Don Newcombe and the implication—or, for that matter, the flat accusation—that he chokes up and is easy to beat in a tight situation is a slur on Berra. For in the second game it was Berra's grand-slam home run that knocked Newcombe out of the box, and in the seventh game it was Berra's successive two-run homers that beat him, and while there is undoubtedly some foundation for the belief that Newcombe is not the best pitcher in the world in a tense game against a good club (though this has more to do with the man's particular skills than with his psyche), it should be remembered that it took the best player in the Series to beat him. In the four times he came to bat against Newcombe, Berra had three home runs and a walk. Of the 11 runs that Newcombe allowed in the Series, Berra batted in eight. Success like that against any pitcher would be remarkable enough; against a man of Newcombe's stature, it borders on the legendary.
After all, in that seventh game Newcombe twice had to pitch to Mickey Mantle, the most devastating hitter of the season, each time with a man on base and one out. Twice Newcombe struck Mantle out. And the second time Berra batted, Newcombe had him struck out, too. But Roy Campanella, ordinarily an impeccable catcher, failed to hold on to that foul-tip third strike and Berra, allowed another chance, hit the homer that destroyed Newcombe and sent him slouching off to the showers beset by gnawing doubt and self-recrimination.
What it boils down to, probably, is simply that Berra is a better baseball player than Newcombe and, indeed, very possibly one of the best baseball players who ever lived. Two years ago Casey Stengel was asked in a survey who he thought was the best natural ballplayer in the American League. Stengel thought the question over carefully, his facile tongue temporarily stilled, and then replied: "Williams is the best natural hitter, but Berra is the best natural ballplayer."
It seemed an odd choice for most "natural"—the chunky, awkward-looking Berra over some graceful athlete like, say, Mantle or Al Kaline, but Stengel is a baseball fan as well as a master practitioner of the art, and he has a deep admiration for the man who "feels" the game, whose instincts and reflexes are perfectly geared to the environment of 98-mph pitches, 200-pound base runners with spikes high, sudden variations in the age-old theme of bat, ball and glove. No one feels baseball better than Yogi Berra, no one relishes the excitement of its competition more, no one reacts more quickly to its constant challenge. He is a masterpiece of a ballplayer and this year's World Series was his showcase.
Others made their mark, too. Perhaps no one was more appealing than old Sal Maglie, who is just as much at home in baseball as Yogi is. His duel with Mickey Mantle in the Series was a fascinating thing to watch: two fine athletes fencing with each other.
In the first inning of the first game, Mantle hit a two-run homer off Maglie to send the Yankees ahead. Maglie's shoulders did not slump, his features did not sag. He struck out two men in a row to end the inning and came marching off the mound looking as though he were muttering: "Those blank-blanks...2-0.... Who do they think they are, getting a 2-0 lead on me?" And, actually, in the dugout where the pitcher is usually comforted and consoled by his teammates after giving up two runs, it was Maglie who did the comforting. "Come on," he said. "Two runs are nothing. Let's get them back." And the Dodgers did.
But the duel between Maglie and Mantle went on. The next time Mickey batted, the way Maglie pitched was sort of magnificent. He threw a low curve in close for a called strike, followed with a surprising fast ball close for a second called strike, threw a curve low for ball one, then a fast ball directly at Mantle for ball two. There was a delay then. The umpire examined the ball. A man got up and began to throw in the bullpen. The crowd lit a cigarette.
Then Maglie crouched on the mound, the ball held behind his right knee, and peered in at Mantle and Campanella. Mantle readied himself, thinking perhaps of the close curve, the close fast ball. Maglie threw, a lovely curve on the outside that just caught the edge of the plate for called strike three. "He got him!" a man yelled.
And he got him again, in the ninth, with a man on first. Maglie said later it was the best pitch he threw all day and one of the best he ever threw, a good curve low and a little bit to the outside. He knew Mantle wanted to swing, knew that he wanted to pull the ball. There was then, according to the law of Maglie, nowhere else for a low curve outside to go but to Second Baseman Gilliam. Mantle swung and hit a stinging two-hop grounder directly to Gilliam, and it was one of the fastest second-to-short-to-first double plays anyone ever saw. How many times has Mantle, batting left handed, where he has the two-step head start to first, hit into a ground-ball double play? The first game was Maglie's round.