ARMS (FIVE) AND THE MAN

The Milwaukee Braves have the finest quintet of starting pitchers. Now Joe Adcock is on a hitting spree and pennant prospects look rosy indeed
July 29, 1956

The year may be 1906 or it may be 1956 but, if you are a baseball manager, the routine rarely varies. You watch your team come off the field after a game, and then, win or lose, you go home at night and pray for more pitching. Sometimes, of course, you pray for more pitching even before you go home. For whoever you are, even if you are Casey Stengel and your Yankees have the pennant almost wrapped up and tucked away by midseason, you never have enough of that one priceless commodity: the guy who can throw a baseball that other guys cannot hit.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Fred Haney of the 1956 Milwaukee Braves, whereupon the routine varies to this extent: you watch your team come off the field after a game, and then, win or lose, you go home at night and pray for more hitting.

"The pitching," says Haney, "I got." In midsummer of 1956 the best pitching staff in baseball no longer consists of people with famous names like Lemon and Wynn, Garcia and Score and Narleski, but, instead, of people with the sometimes rather obscure names of Burdette and Buhl, Conley and Crone and Spahn. With some recent spectacular help from Joe Adcock, Hank Aaron and the other heavy Braves bats, Haney's Big Five has pitched Milwaukee smack into the forefront of the frantic scramble which goes by the name of National League pennant race and made the Braves, in the words of those who know baseball best, the team to beat.

"Pitching," says Manager Birdie Tebbetts of the second-place Cincinnati Redlegs, "will be the key to the pennant, and the Braves have both quantity and quality...pitching that could win 15 games in a row."

"With Conley ready to go," says Manager Walter Alston of the third-place Brooklyn Dodgers, "the Braves are definitely the ones we have to worry about."

To all of which Fred Girard Haney merely grins and shrugs and admits the pitching looks good. "But," he was until recently wont to admit, "if only we were hitting a little bit, this club could be out in front by five or six games. And I'd get a good night's sleep."

Even so, the little red-faced Irishman has probably spent fewer sleepless nights than he anticipated when he took over the floundering Braves from no-longer-Jolly Cholly Grimm on the morning of June 17. For one thing, Haney's previous experiences as a big league manager had done nothing to indicate that the midway point of any campaign was a time for sheer joy. In six years of managing the old St. Louis Browns and the new Pittsburgh Pirates—perhaps major league teams by definition only—Haney achieved the rare distinction of never finishing higher than sixth, and on four occasions he finished in the cellar. For another, despite Owner Lou Perini's preseason boast that "This is a club that should win the pennant," someone had evidently forgotten to tell the Braves themselves. They started off well enough and actually were in first place, although only by the slenderest of margins, through most of the months of April and May. But then came a disastrous streak in which the Braves lost 10 of 15 games at home, two more on the road and plummeted all the way down to fifth place, four full games behind the startling young Pittsburgh Pirates. It was then that Haney was elevated from the coaching ranks to succeed his old friend Grimm and handed a ball club which was supposed to win Milwaukee's first pennant but had, in some way, managed to get headed in the opposite direction. At this point the prospects of Fred Haney's catching up on his sleep were pretty dim.

But almost immediately the new Milwaukee manager might have indulged in all the well-earned slumber his heart could crave—had he not felt it necessary to remain awake and pinch himself at regular intervals just to be sure he wasn't asleep and dreaming after all. For the Braves began to win. The pitching, which had been carrying all the load, began to get even better, and at least two of the Milwaukee batsmen, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock, began to connect with something resembling regularity. In a period of only four days the club was back in first place, and it was 11 games later before they finally lost one at all, a string of events which not only made Fred Haney's 1956 managerial debut a roaring success but also gave the Braves the longest winning streak of the year in the National League and the longest in Milwaukee's entire major league history. And since then the Braves have been looking better and better—and getting closer and closer to that pennant they were supposed to win. They have won 12 of their 14 games since the All-Star break.

Haney, with classic modesty—and a classic gesture toward an old friend—denies that he personally has had much to do with the new success story or that he has really done anything which Charlie Grimm could not have done just as well. But everyone in Milwaukee, from the highest club official down to the smallest fan, knew that it was time for a change, and even the ballplayers themselves—who had a deep personal affection for their easygoing old manager—admit the change was undoubtedly for the best. Haney, although no Leo Durocher or Rogers Hornsby type manager, is also not exactly the Charlie Grimm type either. He has cracked the whip over the club's handful of playboys and demanded just a little more spirit on the field, a little more attention to the job at hand.

In a tactical sense, Haney made only one important change: under his direction the Braves became, at least temporarily, a team of bunt and squeeze-play specialists. "This is a team of free swingers," he explained right after the All-Star Game break, looking around at Adcock and Aaron and Mathews and Bobby Thomson and Wes Covington, "and if they had all been hitting like they should, it's doubtful that I would have changed a thing from the way Charlie was managing.

"But nothing is worse than a team of free swingers who aren't hitting. Instead of getting the five or six runs you need to protect your pitchers, you're not getting any at all. So I have been willing to settle for the one or two or three runs early if we can get them and then let the pitchers try to hold that lead. And to do this we've been putting runners on base with the bunt, moving them along with the bunt and even getting them home with the bunt if we have to. Until our hitters get going, it's what we have to do to win."

But since that time another of Haney's innovations—daily extra batting workouts for his big hitters—has begun to pay off, and in the past week, as the Braves moved out ahead of the pack behind the brilliant slashing hits of Aaron and the even more spectacular long-range bombing of Adcock, the bunt has begun to disappear from the land of the breweries.

Additionally, Haney has made consistent, all-round use of what has surprisingly developed into perhaps the best bench—next to that of the Yankees—in all baseball.

"A manager is foolish," Haney says, "to keep a man on the bench waiting and waiting for the time when he is needed. Because then, when he is needed, he usually isn't ready. I try to play them all a little bit and keep them in shape, ready to go. And then when I need them, they're all set to come off the bench and deliver."

But more than Haney's direction, more even than the solid depth of the team, there has been the pitching. When the Braves weren't hitting, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl, Ray Crone and Warren Spahn went right on out and won ball games anyway. Eventually they were joined by Gene Conley, who recovered from a strained tendon in his pitching shoulder in time to get off the disabled list six weeks after the season began. And now that their teammates have begun to deliver some runs, the Big Five just win that much easier.

What manner of men are these who have stood the best-hitting league in baseball on its ear all season long? Well, they pull on their flannel pants just like anyone else, one leg at a time, and they laugh and grumble in the dugout and kid each other in the dressing room, just like any other five pitchers anywhere else around the league. They look like five young men you might run into in a college football locker room, for example, or maybe on a basketball court—except that they are a little older. Buhl, with his dark beetling brows and almost perpetual smile; Burdette, usually serious and almost handsome in a rugged way; and Crone, with his round boyish face and big ears, are all about the same size—6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds. Buhl is 27, Burdette 29 and Crone 24. Spahn, the joker and still a youngster at heart even at 35 but with his close-cropped brown hair quite a bit thinner than when he came up to the big time some 14 years ago, is the smallest—6 feet and 175 pounds. And Conley, a former basketball player who towers over everyone in baseball at 6 feet 8 inches, gambols around the field and dressing room—when he isn't pitching—like an overgrown St. Bernard pup, stopping to gab with everyone in sight. He is 25.

But once they move onto the pitching mound, each of the five ceases to be a personality and becomes a machine dedicated to turning every hitter in the National League into an abject failure who happened to be sent plate-ward that day for lack of anything better. And the results they have achieved are startling.

COLD TRUTH

In the league earned run averages, four of the top eight are Braves. The fifth member of the regular rotation, Crone, ranks 12th in ERA. To baseball men, who still consider the earned run ratings the best method yet devised to measure in cold black and white figures the comparative effectiveness of any pitcher, the rankings of the Braves' Big Five are phenomenal.

Collectively, of course, their strength lies in the fact that there are five of them ("Five starting pitchers! Five!" moans Birdie Tebbetts of the Redlegs, who, like most other managers in baseball, always seems to be searching frantically for that third or fourth starter and seldom even dreams of having five). They are able to relieve each other, and sometimes Haney likes to use them in this way to keep them from growing stale in the four days each must normally rest in his turn.

Individually the big winners have been Burdette (12-4) and Buhl (12-4), which should not be quite as surprising as it apparently is. Burdette ("The best right-hander in the league. He never walks anyone," says Bill Rigney of the Giants) won 15 games his second full year in the majors and the following season, 1954, finished second in the league in ERA. He has a peculiar motion and can throw all three of his standard pitches—the curve, fast ball and slider—with any one of three deliveries—overhand, three-quarters or side-arm. And in addition Burdette has probably the best sinker in baseball.

Buhl, who won 13 games and had the third best ERA in the league in 1953, would undoubtedly have done even better last year (13 wins again) with a little more control. Now he has the control. "He still walks quite a few," admits Catcher Crandall, "but this year, whenever he has to, he has been able to get the ball where he wants it." And now, for the first time, Buhl has picked up the experience and confidence necessary to go with his great physical abilities.

Spahn, the only left-hander of the five, has of course been one of baseball's best pitchers during the last decade and still is. He is fast, his control is beautiful to watch, and he gets more cunning every year.

Conley, now apparently recovered from his spring training woes, has stepped back in to show that same big sweeping motion that made him virtually unbeatable last year. When he comes off the mound, opposing batters sometimes get the panicky feeling that he might reach right out and hand the ball to the catcher without even throwing it at all. And Crone, who like the others has at least three different pitches and gets them all over with remarkable control, is frankly looked upon by everyone connected with the Milwaukee team as the best young pitching prospect in baseball.

The Braves pitching does not end even here. The bullpen is solid and behind the starting five there are at least two youngsters—Bob Trowbridge and Taylor Phillips—just itching to beat somebody out for a regular job.

But even such a superb pitching staff as this has become might not be able, all alone, to carry a team forever. Through the early months of the season they did just that when only Bill Bruton, of all the batsmen, was able to resemble a major league hitter at the plate. But just when it appeared that the superior stickwork of the Cincinnati Redlegs was going to carry them away from the pack, the Braves began to find the range, too. Or at least two of them did—Aaron and Adcock. And the way these two have been hitting, it has begun to look like that might be enough.

Aaron, of course, was no surprise. Of all the fine-looking youngsters in the National League, none has been chasing a ticket to the Hall of Fame with any more singleness of purpose than this slender 22-year-old from the mud flats of Mobile. He began the season slowly, but Haney just looked at this young man with the wrist-popping swing and said, "He's still below his potential. He's a .330 hitter—at least—and I haven't the slightest doubt that he'll be up there before long." Last weekend Aaron was hitting .336, second in the National League—and still climbing.

HOW LONG?

The Braves hoped that Adcock would hit, too, and—if he did—they knew he would hit hard. But as always with the big first baseman, the question was not so much when as if—and even then how long it would last. For in his six previous big league seasons, Adcock had gained fame only as one of the most dangerous streak hitters in baseball when hot; when cold, he was virtually useless. On July 31, 1954 he hit four home runs in one game, yet hit a total of only 23 all season. Last year he hit only 15, although it is true that he missed almost half of the season after a Jim Hearn pitch broke his arm. But this year, although hale and hearty once again, he was hitting only .197 in mid-May when Grimm mercifully benched him in place of Rookie Torre.

But the night of June 16, in a losing cause, Adcock banged out a pinch-hit home run, and perhaps only because of this, Grimm reinstated him to the starting lineup in his last official act as manager. Since then, no one has been able to get him out.

The next day, using a lightweight bat borrowed from Carl Furillo, he hit three home runs in a double-header against the Dodgers, including one Gargantuan smash which propelled the first ball in history over the left-field roof at Ebbets Field. Furillo, undoubtedly feeling much like the man who locked the barn door too late, reclaimed his bat and probably hid it, but by then the damage was done. Adcock ordered up a batch of light bats of his own and kept right on hitting home runs. Back home in Milwaukee after the All-Star Game, he personally beat the Dodgers four times in three days with a home run in each game. The following afternoon, with the Braves seeking their sixth straight victory in the second game of a double-header against the Pirates, Adcock came to bat in the fourth inning with two out and the game tied up 1-1. "If he hits one now," said a Milwaukee fan in a mezzanine box seat, "they'll give him the keys to the city." So Adock hit one, far into the left-field bleachers, which was all Phillips needed to hang up his victory, and the man in the box seat, after crushing his neighbor's hat, said, "I think I'll give him those keys myself."

That was Adcock's 17th home run of the year and eighth in nine games. The next day, while awaiting batting practice, he was startled by the appearance of a young head hanging over the top of the Braves dugout which said, "Thataboy, Joe. You're the real power of our team." Joe waved back with a grin. "That is much better," he said happily to a teammate, watching the head disappear, "than what they were calling me a couple of weeks ago." And Fred Haney, who had been limping around with a big toe swollen up the size of an egg after a nocturnal encounter with a bedpost at home, admitted that although "most of the time it hurts like heck, every time Adcock hits one of those home runs, it's like getting an anesthetic. When the ball goes over the fence, that toe just automatically feels real good for a while."

These are no pop-fly home runs either, for Adcock has always been a long-distance slugger and perhaps the only thing that has kept his showier drives from being classed with those of Mickey Mantle is the fact that Braves Publicist Don Davidson doesn't own a tape measure. Joe once drove the only ball in history into the center-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds. His first-game home run the night of July 13 against the Dodgers was a line drive which landed at least 30 feet past the center-field fence and became famous almost immediately as "the longest ball ever hit in County Stadium." And last week when he personally terrorized the Giants, Milwaukee fans will always believe that the rain which held up the game for an hour and a half that afternoon was brought on directly by Joe's first-inning grand-slam home run.

The Ruben Gomez affaire (see page 27) simply illustrated the second of the two worries the Braves must live with constantly where their big slugger is concerned. The first is the always present possibility that Adcock will slip back into one of his protracted slumps. But sometimes the bean ball is an even bigger worry, for Joe Adcock is a man who draws them like Milwaukee suds draws flies. Adcock crowds the plate with a tight, closed stance. He is big (6 feet 4 inches), heavy (210 pounds) and not a quick ducker.

So varied and assorted pitches each year plunk off Adcock's cranium and shoulders and arms and legs with almost monotonous regularity, and probably only his native Louisiana toughness has kept him from permanent injury. In August 1954, the day after Adcock hit the four home runs, Clem Labine bounced a pitch off his head and, in this instance, only a protective helmet saved his life. In September of the same year, Don Newcombe hit him with a pitch which broke his left thumb and put him on the sidelines the rest of the year. And then, on July 31, 1955, the pitch of Hearn's which fractured his arm caused Adcock to miss nearly 70 games as he sat out the rest of that year, too. It had become so bad that Joe's major problem in baseball is not to break Babe Ruth's home run record but merely to finish a season.

But accidents can happen to anyone at any moment in baseball and it does no good to worry about them in advance. The only big worry in Milwaukee just now is: Can Milwaukee stay up there?

"The race," says practicing pessimist Haney, "will probably go down to the last week—or maybe even the last day. None of the three leading clubs is so much stronger than the other two that it can open up a big lead and relax."

But he says this a little less emphatically than he did just two weeks ago. And all over Milwaukee the hotels are beginning to receive reservations for the World Series which, to Milwaukeeans, is not a surprising thing at all. For almost four years they have been making the same plans themselves.

So this may be the Braves' year. Meanwhile, Fred Haney's big toe is feeling better all the time.

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HIGHLIGHT

Milwaukee's man of the moment is Joe Adcock (see cover). He also provides our HIGHLIGHT this week. Climaxing a fury of power hitting and rhubarbs, Adcock set a new season high in the National League with eight runs batted in against the New York Giants on July 19. Joe came up to the plate in the first inning with the bases loaded. He promptly smacked a long home run over the left-field fence. In the third inning he hit a profitless double, but in the fourth singled home a run. In the sixth inning, with two men on base, Adcock hit his second home run of the day, high into the left-field bleachers. After that, he considerately retired for the day. Although no records of this are kept, it is probable no one ever produced as many RBIs in six innings of major league ball. After the game, Adcock said modestly, "Heck, I'm a big guy. I'm strong so when I hit a ball right, it goes."

Joseph Wilbur Adcock was born in the Red River Parish town of' Coushatta, Louisiana on October 30, 1927. His father was a farmer and sheriff of the parish, while his mother was a former schoolteacher. Joe grew up under what he calls "ordinary circumstances," doing odd jobs around the farm. An all-state basketball player in high school, he went to LSU on a basketball scholarship. "There were only 400 people in town and five boys in my class, so we never got around to baseball in high school."

But in college Joe played first base for three years, batted over .300 and made the All-Southeastern Conference squad. He was also an All-Conference basketball forward. Quitting college after his junior year to sign with the Cincinnati organization, Adcock played three years in the minors before going up to the Redlegs in 1950. Since there was a guy named Kluszewski playing first base, Adcock alternated in the outfield for three years before moving on to the Braves in 1953.

A genial, pipe-smoking bachelor with an engaging drawl, Joe goes out on an occasional date, but his first love is hunting and fishing. As soon as the baseball season is over, Adcock heads straight for his cattle farm (150 head) in Coushatta, which his father helps supervise. "I hunt and fish six days a week," Joe fondly relates. "Ducks, squirrels, quail, deer—anything in the bayous."

Joe Adcock is very clear about his future ambition: "I want to play in the World Series."

PITCHING WINS PENNANTS
Percentages predict a pennant for the Braves this year. Six times in the last 10 years—in each league—the club with the lowest ERA has won the pennant. Milwaukee's current ERA (3.04) is lower than any National League winner since the '46 Cards.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Year

Best Pitching Staff

Pennant Winner

1955

Dodgers—3.68 ERA

Dodgers

1954

Giants—3.09 ERA

Giants

1953

Braves—3.30 ERA

Dodgers (3rd best ERA)

1952

Phillies—3.07 ERA

Dodgers (2nd best ERA)

1951

Giants—3.48 ERA

Giants

1950

Phillies—3.50 ERA

Phillis

1949

Cardinals—3.44 ERA

Dodgers (2nd best ERA)

1948

Braves—3.38 ERA

Braves

1947

Cardinals—3.53 ERA

Dodgers (3rd best ERA)

1946

Cardinals—3.01 ERA

Cardinals

 

AMERICAN LEAGUE

 

Year

Best Pitching Staff

Pennant Winner

 

1955

Yankees—3.23 ERA

Yankees

1954

Indians—2.78 ERA

Indians

1953

Yankees—3.20 ERA

Yankees

1952

Yankees—3.14 ERA

Yankees

1951

Indians—3.38 ERA

Yankees (3rd best ERA)

1950

Indians—3.75 ERA

Yankees (3rd best ERA)

1949

Indians—3.36 ERA

Yankees (2nd best ERA)

1948

Indians—3.23 ERA

Indians

1947

Yankees—3.39 ERA

Yankees

1946

White Sox—3.10 ERA

Red Sox (4th best ERA)

PHOTOLEW BURDETTE: WON 12 LOST 4; ERA 2.59 PHOTOBOB BUHL: WON 12 LOST 4; ERA 2.68 PHOTOWARREN SPAHN: WON 9 LOST 7; ERA 2.77 PHOTORAY CRONE: WON 9 LOST 5; ERA 3.87 PHOTOGENE CONLEY: Won 4, Lost 6; ERA 3.30 "...Batters get the panicky feeling he might reach right out and hand the ball to the catcher without even throwing it." PHOTONEW MANAGER Fred Haney has; found effective anesthetic for his throbbing toe. PHOTOAFTER SLOW START, ADCOCK IS NEW HERO OF MILWAUKEE AUTOGRAPH HUNTERS ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)