Like a lot of good baseball ideas, it was Casey Stengel’s idea first.
The time was 1949. Stengel’s New York Yankees were locked in a death struggle with the Boston Red Sox for the pennant.
Stengel’s team had troubles. His top slugger, the great Joe DiMaggio, had been in and out of the lineup with viral pneumonia and was 15 pounds underweight. The team had racked up more than 80 game-missing injuries by midseason, and not even Casey’s celebrated platooning--another of his good ideas--could plug the gap.
As usual, Stengel had an answer. “Get me Mize,” he instructed his front office.
John Robert Mize, at the time, was one of the certified all-time sluggers of baseball. Four times he had led his league in home runs, three times in RBIs. He had a .324 lifetime average and had hit 51 home runs the season before, only the second left-handed batter in history at the time to do that. The other was Ruth.
The only trouble with getting Mize was that he was in the other league, playing for the other New York team, the Giants. Interclub raiding in the heat of a pennant race was unheard of at that time.
But Stengel knew that the Giants were rebuilding for speed and defense and that big Mize wasn’t in their plans. Casey got him for $75,000, and set an interesting precedent.
Mize promptly won two games for the Yankees with his bat, and the Yankees went on to edge the Red Sox for the pennant by only one game.
In the World Series that year, Mize’s bat played a key role and, for the next five years, Mize became not only the league’s annual top pinch-hitter but, one season, playing in the field in only 72 games, he hit 25 home runs.
The formula worked so well for the Yankees that, a year later, in the last two weeks of the season, they reached over to Pittsburgh and picked up a guy, Johnny Hopp, who was batting only .340. He hit .333 for the Yankees the rest of the season and helped them nose out Detroit for the pennant.
The public outcry in those more innocent days was swift and indignant. “Buying the pennant!” screamed the purists. “Dollar-bill baseball!”
It was a tactic that was here to stay, though, despite the putative illegalities. Waiver rules had to be circumvented, but baseball historically has had a viable you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours gentlemen’s agreement.
The practice has proliferated rather than declined with the advent of divisional playoffs. Now there are twice as many teams in desperate need of last-minute shoring up.
The temptation for an out-of-the-running, rebuilding team to deal off a high-priced veteran for a bundle of futures is irresistible to the have-not teams, and the pennant-chasers are so dazzled by the vision of World Series that they are like lovesick calves at the bargaining table.
Gaudy visions of instant pennant dance in their heads, and they throw away young players like Siberians throwing babies out of the sled to wolves.
Perhaps you noticed the runaway table-hopping now taking place in the terminal hours of the race to October.
The Dodgers, for instance, troubled over a lack of experience, reached out to pluck Bill Madlock and Enos Cabell from troubled franchises.
These guys are not here to build dynasties. Madlock is a four-time batting champion, a lifetime .312 hitter and one of the best strikers of the baseball who ever lived. Cabell is a rock-steady, take-charge veteran who is an encyclopedia on the timely hit and how to get it.
It’s paying off. Last week, after the Dodgers had seen five games shaved off their league lead, Madlock and Cabell led a clubhouse pep meeting and then went out and sparked a 16-hit, 11-run attack in which they got 7 of those hits and 4 of those runs between them. That, you have to say, is big league pennant insurance.
The Dodgers are not alone. The St. Louis Cardinals, challenged with an injured first baseman, Jack Clark, mortgaged their future to get Cesar Cedeno from Cincinnati.
Cedeno, who had been moping with the Reds, suddenly began to look like the guy everyone thought he was going to be 10 years ago--the next Willie Mays. He hit five home runs in a little over a week, and the Cardinals are winning nicely, thank you.
The Angels’ problem was not bats, it was arms. They bailed Donald Howard Sutton out of Oakland and John Candelaria out of Pittsburgh to bolster a staff that was overloaded with young, inexperienced pitchers who had never been in a pennant drive.
Sutton has won almost 300 games in his career. The Angels want only about three more. Candelaria is a canny vet who won’t rattle in a close one.
Even the Yankees haven’t lost the touch. The team that started the Mize syndrome all those years ago has picked up Joe Niekro, one of the knuckleball brothers, and he is already paying off.
It’s a semi-desperate gamble--like calling for cards with the rent money. But baseball goes by the book, and all they can remember is that Casey Stengel won 10 pennants in 12 years with this policy, and the club won 14 in 16 years.
All the current clubs want is one pennant. This year.