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TOKYO — The New York Yankees "will be in the thick of things and not in the second division" during the 1966 baseball season, Joe DiMaggio said Monday.

DiMaggio, famed "Yankee Clipper" who retired after the 1951 season, cautioned that his prediction depended on the health of key players who were injured in 1965.

"You can't lose the services of Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Roger Maris and Tony Kubek and have a pennant winner," he said.

"If these men are healthy next season, the Yanks are going to give the other teams plenty of trouble."

(The collapse of the once-mighty Yankees was voted the sixth most important sports story of the year by Pacific Stars & Stripes sports department.)

DiMaggio, who is vice president of Continental T.V. Inc., made his observations in a downtown Tokyo hotel. He arrived here Friday night on a two-week business trip.

He said he understood that Maris' right hand had healed properly after an operation for bone chip removal. "He played in only 46 games. He certainly was missed."

Shifting to Mantle, his heir in centerfield and as team power hitter, DiMaggio said, "I pity Mickey, the way he goes on playing with all his injuries. He must be playing on nerve sometimes."

"For years now Howard has been the bulwark of that club on defense. To win you've got to have a club that's strong up the middle. The loss of Kubek (who injured his throwing arm at shortstop) further proves this."

DiMaggio noted that former teammate Whitey Ford. who is 37, "is a bit ancient, but as long as he's healthy you've got to figure lie's good for 15 wins. Mel Stottlemyre (who posted a 20-9 record) looks like a regular 20-game winner. All in all, the Yanks are going to have to make the most of what they have. There doesn't seem to be too much talent ready in their farm system now."

On the appointment of Air Force Lt. Gen. William D. Eckert (ret.) as commissioner of baseball succeeding Ford Frick, DiMaggio said: "I felt just the way Willie Mays did. Mays said — 'Who's he?'"

"I had hoped Joe Cronin (president of the American League) would get it. He's been a player, manager, general manager and now he's the top man in the league. He came right up the ladder."

Here's a vote for Stengel

"Casey Stengel is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. It would be a nice gesture if the baseball writers voted him into it now, considering that he's 75."

This was Joe DiMaggio's reaction to the clamor that has been stirred up in some quarters about honoring one of baseball's most successful managers in his lifetime.

"He certainly has done a lot for baseball. There's just one Casey Stengel." This year's Hail of Fame announcements are expected Jan. 21.

As to players who have an opportunity of entering the Cooperstown, N.Y. shrine. DiMag conceded that Ted Williams, the former Boston Red Sox slugger, has "the best chance."

"But I'd like to see my old teammate Red Ruffing make it." Ruffing played 22 years with the Bosox, Yankees and Chicago White Sox and won 273 games.

Reminded that Williams has always called DiMaggio the best baseball player he ever saw, DiMag said: "We've had a mutual admiration society. As far as I'm concerned Williams is the greatest natural hitter I ever saw."

DiMaggio has been in the Hall of Fame since 1955.

'U.S.-Japan series OK, timing counts'

The possibility of a U.S.-Japan "world series" was endorsed by Joe DiMaggio here Monday.

"There's no doubt Japanese ballplayers are improving constantly. It's the timing — when to have such a series that matters," he said.

"As to the place, I think Japan would be a better location than the U.S. From what I hear, Japanese are more enthusiastic about having these games than Americans. In the U.S. a series like this would be anti-climactic at the present, mainly because touring U.S. teams have fared so well here."

"Games like these can help further good relations between the two countries." he added.

"I saw Masanori Murakami pitch for the San Francisco Giants. He's good, has a nice curve and can put the ball right where he wants it. I only saw him on television but it's easy to see why the Giants wanted to keep him." (Murakami has decided to remain in Japan and play for the Nankai Hawks of the Japan Pacific League an 1966.)

"Lefty O'Doul (the pitcher and outfielder who starred for all three of the New York teams in the '20s and '30s), who has done a lot to help the Japanese improve in baseball, says the Japanese have got the desire to eventually be on a level with the big leagues."

We're backing you, says Joe

"Ninety-nine per cent of the folks back home are rooting for our boys fighting in Vietnam."

Joe DiMaggio, who makes his home in San Francisco — not far from where anti-Vietnam involvement protest marches have been held at Berkeley, Cal. — answered the question almost angrily.

"The great majority of American people is solidly behind our boys in the war."

He said it was a widespread belief that all of the protest marchers wanted to do is "march instead of fight."

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