The New York Yankees of Casey Stengel won, and won, for so many subtle reasons. They were intense, but not too intense, on the field, because they relaxed, and relaxed, off the field.
Within professional limits, of course, Toujours professional; a pro plays hurt, as we all know from our editication under George Allen. He also plays hung over.
If he could not in those frenetically carefree 1950s, we learn in Whitey and Mickey, by Joe Durso of The New York Times, there were tribal ways to chasten him. The young Whitey Ford, overslept, underprepared to pitch and, grappling with doubt of the merits of Jack Daniel's and orange juice, might look over his shoulder and see the visage of cliche-tough Hank Bauer, which has been likened in its topography to a clenched fist. "Don't fool around with my money," is as close as The Times could get to what Bauer would be saying.
The fire in Bauer's angry eyes may well have been fed by 86-proof fuel, but the stern message of the Yankee veterans to the youngsters was not abstinence but moderation. In the cause of victory and its spoils, they counseled, moderation was no vice.
The Yankees of Eisenhower were moderate in all things except cheating. At least Whitey Ford was. It is Ford's un-Yankee candor that saves this book, largely a 198-page journal of the bacchanals and pranks of Ford, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. Taken without Daniel's and orange juice, it becomes tendious by page 86, when Mantle is allowed to consider the proposition that the Yankee management "dragged their feet about signing black guys." He concludes: "In the locker room we players never had any feeling that way."
Recalling that in the all-white locker rooms of the Red Sox and Tigers in those same 1950s there was no militant outcry for recruitment of blacks, one was persuaded Mickey had something there.Then on page 88 Ford ("street-smart," he characterizes himself on the book's first page) opens his big mouth:
"Well, I thought they were slow bringing up Latin or black players," says Whitey, cut front after a quarter-century or so. Both Mickey and Whitey, in the five-page brush of the subject, allude to Vic Power, who was Latin, black, a superior athlete and a Yankee chattel in the early '50s. He was a big-leaguer 12 years, batted .284 (a little better than Hank Bauer, e.g.), and might have been the first nonwhite Yankee. But the Yankee management heard that Power, a flamboyant first baseman who caught nothing with two hands when he could use one, had no prejudice against white women. He made none of his 1,716 hits for the Yankees.
"I guess," Whitey concludes the book's sociological section, "that a guy's color was the sensitive thing in those days, you know, for a few years after the Dogers brought Jackie up."
But about those tricks. "Dirty tricks,'" Ford argues, as Donald Segretti argued, "sound a little strong." All he did, Whitey explains to the young and suggestible people whose Aunt Daphne will buy them this sort of book for Christmas, was do his best to win. Could you knock it, in a culture that has made "loser" it dirtiest five-letter word?
Ford won 69 per cent of the time, which will keep him in the record books the young and suggestible will read for many years. What he had to do to insure "that little edge" against being a loser included applying "foreign" substances to the ball (specifically prohibited by the rules) including such exotica as turpentine, pine tar, baby oil, resin and mud. "Look, they don't call me 'Slick' for nothing," the book quotes Ford in the midst of his compendium of chicanery.
Elston Howard, the catcher, could "lod" the ball with mud,' or cut it on the buckle of his shin guard, sharpened for the purpose. But the cutest thing was the ring. Ford had a ring on his right hand, in his glove, camouflaged by a flesh-color band-aid, and the inside surface of it was a rasp, a rough file. "It was," he explains, "as if I had my own tool bench out there."
Anybody who cares or ever cared about baseball and then covers it as a reporter wishes, at least sometimes, that he hadn't. The degree of enthusiasm Joe Durso brought to the Yankees (he told a friend the assignment fulfilled his ambition as a newsman) endures longer than most.
But there is a petal-by-petal defloration of the concept of the beau-ideal game of baseball, the splendidly logical confluence of mens sana et corpore sana in physical-cerebral combat.
It erodes in pieces. When you ask young Willie Mays for an interview and Johnny Antonelli, butting in, ask how much you'll pay for it, that's a piece. When old Enos Slaughter, the paradigm of professionalism who had taken hustle to be his province three years before Pete Rose was born, bad-mouths the rookie Norm seibern who might take his job in the Yankee's left field, that's a chunk. When super tought Bauer joins in Slaughter's opinion, the duet audible to media . . .
Such was the final game of the 1963 World series, matching the non-pareil Sandy Koufax and the wily Ford. (The terrible swift sword against the switchblade knife, a wise guy said at the time. Stick around.) There was a long home run by Mantle and a longer one by Frank Howard.
Koufax prevailed, 2-1, in a (rare legitimate role for that barbarously miscast word) classic that might have gone into the night but for an error by the flawed gem. Joe Pepitone.
Well, that 430-foot shot of Howard's into the upper deck (still a Dodge Stadium record) is the more remarkable because it flew it course baring mud, perhaps patty-caked onto it by helpful catcher Elston Howard, or little landing flaps pared from its cover by Whitey's crafty ring.
"I threw mostly mud balls or cut balls the whole game," Ford says of that October Classic. "I used enough mud that day to build a dam." But he never, or hadly ever, threw the spitter probably because he couldn't control it, he explains.
Once I thought he did. It was in '63, in Detroit, with a two-run lead in a very late inning, two on and two out. Ford struck out one Frank Kostro, swinging, on what appeared to be a fast ball, right down the pipe. Not, it seemed, very artful for a street-smart kid who enjoyed being called Slick (which by the way, I can't remember anybody calling him).
A spitter is a fast ball that "does something." Did that fast ball do something? Supercool Whitey's reply sounded like strident Bill Hartack. Anybody who thought that was a spitter, he said, didn't know what he was talking about.
I guess I didn't.