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Every Spring the American, League goes through an uneasy period when it appears that the Yankees might not win the pennant. Despite protestations to the contrary, the League finds the thought profoundly upsetting; it implies a disruption of the established order.
Contemplating an American League without the Yankees in first is similar to the problems Americans are having adjusting to a cold war in which the Russians are not the major enemies. You may hate the Yankees, but there is a reassurance in their supremacy. Change is unpredictable and possibly disastrous; in the few times within memory that the Yanks didn't win, the League suffered severe humiliation in the World Series.
Nonetheless, with the passion of the lost cause leader or the glee of a little boy who knows he is doing something wrong, sportswriters are again writing, their traditional Spring obituaries for the Yankees. The failure of the New Yorkers to have clinched the pennant already is being explained by the traditional, idealistic theory that the League is stronger and the Yanks too old or too lame.
While a few cynics contend that the Yankees are holding back to avoid anti-trust prosecution and to improve attendance, the events of the first fifth of the season indicate that there may be more truth than usual in the old cliches.
The Yankees are clearly having troubles. Although Bill Veeck may be partially right in arguing the team has been too worried about the Mets' attendance and not enough concerned with the League, there are some more physical problems.
That invulnerable, mythical unit called the Yankee first string has only played 11 innings. Roger Maris, Mickey Mantie, and the supposedly more sturdy Tom Tresh developed injuries almost before the first ball was pitched. Tony Kubek is a recent newcomer to the line-up, and even Clete Boyer missed several days.
With the exception of Mantle and Maris while they're there, and Bobby Richardson, the hitting has been erratic. Until recently Joe Pepitone wasn't even hitting his weight, and a Boyer base hit is rarer than Kennedy half dollars.
But everyone knew the Bombers had switched to light artillery a few years ago. The pitching and fielding was supposed to make Yogi Berra a first time winner. After a brilliant first week, however, only Whitey Ford has lasted long enough to work up a sweat, and only the Stuartmisled Red Sox have a worse fielding average.
The chief threat this year should come from Minnesots, where practically everyone in the line-up seems determined to replace Paul Bunyan as the hero of the North Woods. Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jim Hall, and Tony Oliva alone have more home runs than any other team in the Majors.
Thus far, however, the Twins have been little more than terrorists. While a college team like Harvard can win with two pitchers, in the Majors it hasn't been done since the '48 Boston Braves. Unless Cal Griffith can pull off a deal like the rumored Killebrew for Bill Monhouquette swap or Camilio Pasqual and Jim Kast learn to throw every other day and twice on Sundays, Minnesota will watch the Series on TV.
The current leaders of the League, Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore, are perennial spring flowers. Like the lilacs, they should be gone by July. Each of them has a few attractive players, but all lack well-rounded strength.
Prospects for a general stalemate and an effective stop-the-Yankees movement depend on the non-contenders, who appear better this year than ever. Boston lacks the pitching and the gloves to win consistently, but Tony Conigliaro, Dalton Jones, Eddie Bressoud, and Frank Malzone will win many games. If Cari Yastrzemski and Dick Stuart decide to play, the Red Sox could be genuinely exciting.
Two major surprises have been the strength of Washington's neophyte Nats and Finley's flourescent Kansas City Athletics. Rocky Colavito and Jim Gentile have given Finley home run power in any park, and the Senators have managed to get as impressive 137 RBIs (second to Minnesota's astounding 182) from a most unassuming lot. Bill Skowron and Chuck Hinton will louse up many would-be champs.
Los Angeles and Detroit also have great spoiler potential. Jim Fregosi, who is a strong contender in the rookie-of-the-year derby against hot shots Conigliaro and Oliva, may be the best hitter in the Angels' abbreviated history, and should be able to help even Bo Belinsky win more than women. The Tigers haven't changed much, but they always had their share of Yalnkee meat in the past.
In September it may very well be the League's strength that sends the Yankees to San Francisco for the Series. With all their troubles, Berra's batsmen still have the greatest all around strength and depth. They won't win any individual titles, but it's ball games that count the most.
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