Less than eight weeks to go. The tightness of the National League pennant race, obvious all season, takes on a new meaning for those involved. That extra degree of tension creeps into attitudes, plays that fail live longer in nightmares, the singing in the club car on those long road trips is less frequent, less spontaneous.
Those involved are three: the three class teams of the league. Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Brooklyn. Bound up in a tight little knot at the top of the standings, each has something big in its favor: phenomenal pitching for the Braves, tremendous power for the Reds, and for the poised, confident old Bums, a familiarity with and strong affection for the winning trail along which they are led by the strong scent of World Series checks.
Yet as recently as July 14, at 22 minutes past 4 o'clock, young Henry Aaron had buried the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The interment wasn't officially complete, of course, until the following day when the nation's great morning dailies informed their readers that this indeed was so. But to 40,000 people in Milwaukee's County Stadium that afternoon—including most of the Milwaukee Braves and perhaps a fair smattering of the recently deceased Dodgers themselves—there was little question that final rites were read at that precise instant of the 10th inning when Aaron ripped into one of Don Bessent's fast balls and sent it soaring out into left center field, allowing Johnny Logan to trot home from second base.
August 12, 1956
"The Bums," agreed the assembled thousands, "are dead."
There were few to disagree. Aaron's implement may have been a shiny, tapered 33-inch piece of yellow ash instead of a long-handled shovel, but, symbolically at least, he had just patted the final bit of earth in place over the last remains of one of baseball's great teams—the 1955 world champions. It was not so much that the Dodgers had just lost four to Milwaukee, nor even that they were in third place, 4½ games off the lead and sinking fast. It was, instead, the way in which they had lost—bumbling and stumbling and futile. It was apparent that very little remained of the magnificent team which had terrorized the National League for 10 years, won five pennants in that period of time and, finally, beaten the hated Yankees in the World Series. It was also apparent that now, less than a year after its moment of greatest triumph, the Dodger dynasty was crumbling and tottering and ready to fall.
What had happened? Well, this was easy, because almost everyone—even several million baseball fans who lived in the provincial lands outside Brooklyn and had never even seen the Dodgers—had the answer. A fair cross sampling:
1) The Dodgers had too many old pros. They were complacent and sated and the thrill was gone. They had been everywhere, seen everything, beaten everybody. They were no longer hungry.
2) The Dodgers had too many old pros. They were weary and worn and coming apart at the seams.
3) The Dodgers had no hitting. Campanella was in the worst slump of his career. So was Hodges. So was...well, look at the averages.
4) The Dodgers had no pitching. Or at least not enough. Podres was gone and so was Loes and so was Spooner, and the ones who were left couldn't carry the load of a team which wasn't hitting.
5) The Dodgers were hurt. Zimmer, beaned in late June, was out for the year. Robinson had an injured leg. Reese was playing with a sore groin muscle. And there was a whole epidemic of thumb injuries: Campanella had one full of bone chips, Randy Jackson cut his in a shower, Gilliam jammed his in a play at second base.
6) The National League was tougher than ever before. The opposition had caught up with Brooklyn.
7) The Dodgers had dissension. Manager Walter Alston and his players were feuding and fighting behind closed doors.
This was on July 14....
At 39 minutes past 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Aug. 2, Don Newcombe leaned far back on the pitching mound at Ebbets Field, kicked his left leg high in the air and sent a baseball sizzling past Eddie Mathews' violently swung bat. It was a third strike and the end of a ball game. And the thud of the ball, as it banged into Campanella's big glove, sounded like the peal of Gabriel's horn through the antiquated old ball park in Flatbush. En masse, the Brooklyn Dodgers arose from their graves, shook themselves and—not looking like ghosts at all but just a little dirty and sweaty maybe—flexed their muscles and snarled their defiance to prove they had come back to haunt the rest of the National League.
"You put us away," they said, "a little too soon."
Again, there were few to disagree. Because once again it wasn't so much that the Dodgers had just won three from Milwaukee nor even that they were only two games out of first place. It was, instead, the way in which they had been playing—tough and strong and sure. For, even while Milwaukee was continuing its hot streak through late July, there had been rustlings in the Dodger graveyard; the Dodgers were winning too. In fact, from the moment they left Milwaukee on that dismal Saturday afternoon, they had lost only five games. They won 15, including eight in a row at one stage, and when they finished with the Braves last week, they had won 11 of their last 13. The Dodgers, it was plain to see, had regained their power, their poise, their confidence; they were playing good baseball. And, when the chips were down, they were winning the games that had to be won. The Dodgers were very much alive.
What had happened? Well, for those same experts, this was easy too.
1) The Dodgers are real old pros. "They don't get very excited about winning," said Jackson, who came to Brooklyn this season after six years with the Chicago Cubs, "because they are used to winning. But they sure don't like to lose." Not hungry? The very idea of letting that big World Series paycheck get away without a real fight was unthinkable; one does not easily give up one's Cadillac and the mink stole upon the back of one's wife. The thrill all gone? Ask Pee Wee Reese, to whom there is no greater thrill than a Brooklyn victory. Complacent? Can anyone imagine a complacent Jackie Robinson?
2) The Dodgers aren't really so old after all. Just ripe. Their dynasty may have begun to show a few cracks here and there but it certainly isn't ready to collapse. Why, look at Napoleon; before Waterloo he came back for 100 days, and the Dodgers have to last for only 60. Even Robinson and Reese aren't yet as old as Napoleon.
3) The Dodgers are hitting. Streaky, maybe, but hitting. Snider is leading the league in home runs with 30. Hodges, despite his .258 batting average, has hit 22 homers and driven in 63 runs. Sandy Amoros, in three weeks, has raised his average from .212 to .254; Robinson has gone from .224 to .292. Furillo is over .300. And the team is hitting in the clutch, which is most important of all.
4) The pitching is superb. During that eight-game winning streak, Dodger starters needed only one-third of an inning of relief; seven times they went all the way, which sent a statistics-minded gentleman leafing through the dusty back pages of his record books to discover that nothing quite so nice as this had happened to a Brooklyn pitching staff since September of 1949. Newcombe's fast ball was once again overpowering; old Sal Maglie's curve was once again Sal Maglie's curve of old; Carl Erskine was back from the gates of the pitchers' graveyard with all his tremendous ability unimpaired; young Roger Craig was fast and sharp and Clem Labine continued to look for all the world like the best relief pitcher in baseball.
5) The Dodgers are all healthy once again.
6) The National League is not really that tough. The Braves and Redlegs have yet to prove that they can stay with the old pros when the heat is on.
7) The Dodgers are really just one big happy family.
The last item may require a little elaboration, since it is this, more than anything else, which many of the Dodgers feel jerked them out of the doldrums and sent them winging after the league leaders.
On the night of July 13, between the games as Brooklyn blew a double-header to the Braves, Manager Walter Alston quietly but firmly shut the clubhouse door and not so quietly ripped into his ball club. It was a secret meeting and no one outside of the team was supposed to know what went on behind those doors. But the story leaked out.
"He called us gutless," said an anonymous Dodger two days later to a New York writer traveling with the club, and that is the way the story hit print. And then it began to snowball. Other anonymous Dodgers told the story, with variations, to other writers, until the nation's sport pages were loaded down with the fight between Alston, standing out in the open, and his team, hiding unnamed behind the protective cloak of anonymity.
"I called no one gutless," said Alston. "I don't use that word. Perhaps," he added, "I might have accused them of choking up." And that, to Walter Alston's everlasting credit, is about all that he said in his own defense.
It is no secret how many of the Dodgers feel about their manager. For one thing, they really are one big happy family—the players, that is. For years they have been winning pennants with each other and living and traveling with each other and serving as best men at each other's weddings and baby-sitting with each other's kids. But Alston, even after two years and even after leading them to their first world championship, is still an interloper—a minor league player and a minor league manager who took over a ready-made team of big leaguers. Because he is the manager, they do what he says, for they respect the authority he wields. But they do not always respect him as a baseball man; they feel he is not the equal in a tactical sense of their old manager Dressen nor does he have the ability to get a team up and moving and keep it there that belonged to their old manager Durocher.
But—and this is to the Dodgers' credit—they are fair men. As soon as Reese and Erskine and Snider and some of the others began to realize that Alston was a sitting-duck target for a barrage of anonymous dissension charges, they came to his rescue.
"If we have something to say about the manager," said Reese, "then we should say it with our names attached."
"I took a dig at baseball last spring," pointed out Snider, "but I signed the piece. It's about time some of the rest of you did the same."
And while they were talking they also realized that, whatever his faults in their eyes, Alston's only aim was the same as theirs—to win the pennant.
"I looked back at the games I've pitched," said Erskine, "and not a thing Walter Alston did or didn't do could have helped me win—or lose—even one game more."
"It's not him that's not hitting," said Campanella, "It's us."
The players themselves feel the explosion—and the wrangle in their own group which followed—was the real turning point of the entire season.
"Everyone got their problems out in the open," says Robinson, "and we fought 'em out right there. And we came out of it a ball club."
In last week's vital series against the Braves, the Dodgers showed what Robinson meant.
They lost the first game of the four to Bob Buhl, who has exerted a mysterious domination over Brooklyn all season, beating them six straight times. But even Buhl, with a cushion of six runs going into the eighth inning by virtue of home runs by Adcock and Aaron and Mathews, couldn't hold the Dodgers alone and they almost got away. They knocked him out in that inning as Furillo and Hodges drove in three runs and then almost won it in the ninth with two more on Reese's two-out homer. The Braves were happy to get that one under their belts; they were suddenly aware this was not the same Brooklyn team they had handled so easily in the West three weeks before.
The pitching the next night in Jersey City was wonderful to behold; Gene Conley and Dave Jolly threw a six-hitter at the Dodgers, and Erskine, with help in the ninth from Labine, stopped the Braves on seven. But it was Robinson who took matters into his own hands. First he hit a two-run homer in the second inning—only to have the Braves tie it up with a pair of their own by Adcock and Mathews. So, with one out in the last of the ninth, Robinson slammed a ball 410 feet to the fence in deepest center field to score Reese with the winning run.
If the second game was a tough one to lose, the third was even more so for Lew Burdette. While the entire Brooklyn bench, including Alston, was yelling "spitter!" this tough, businesslike right-hander with one of the heaviest assortment of pitches in all baseball—and this does not necessarily include the spitter—ignored them and proceeded to mow the Dodgers down. But he slipped once when Snider homered in the fourth inning and even though the Braves tied it up against a truly magnificent old Sal Maglie with an unearned run in the seventh, you somehow got the feeling that Milwaukee wasn't going to get another if the two teams played all night. Labine, working quick and strong in relief once more, was untouchable, and young Craig was heating up down in the bullpen just in case. Then it happened. In the eighth Robinson singled, went to second on an error and to third as Hodges sacrificed. Dale Mitchell, the veteran Cleveland outfielder who arrived in town the day before, made his first appearance as a Dodger and apparently caught the spark too. Pinch-hitting for Labine, he bounced a high hopper down to third and beat it out as the ubiquitous Robinson scooted in to score the winning run.
By the finale on Thursday it was apparent that Milwaukee was through—at least for this series—and the period of mourning for the poor old Dodgers had been a sheer waste of everybody's time. Newcombe simply reared back and fogged his fast ball past the Braves all afternoon, shutting them out on four hits while the Dodgers were tagging Ray Crone for nine. Included were home runs by Furillo and Campanella, and the Dodgers won 3-0.
Just how crucial the series had really been was a matter of individual opinion. The Braves, and you could understand their viewpoint, shrugged it off, pointed to their name still at the top of the standings and went on about their business. The Dodgers, and you could understand their reaction too, whooped it up, pounded their chests—and then for a while relaxed maybe just a little too much as the Cardinals came into town.
It was, however, clearly a time to stop and evaluate. And, looking at the Dodgers, certain doubts immediately came to mind. The Braves are forced to play 15 of their last 22 games on the road, and the Redlegs play 16 of their last 21 away. Could they possibly hold off the revived Brooks, who have all the best of the end-of-the-season schedule with 20 of their last 24 games at home, 16 of these against second-division opposition? On the other side, might those premature pallbearers have been at least partially right when they said the Dodgers were too old? Would the Dodgers be able to keep playing the brand of ball they had played against Milwaukee through that last, punishing eight-week drive for the big money?
No one was at all sure. All they knew after last week was that the old Bums could still handle the big occasion and give a lesson in playing under pressure to anyone, including the Braves.
"I would say," said Robinson after the final game, "that there is nothing wrong with that Milwaukee club except this is all new to them and they have begun to taste that pennant. And it looks like they are beginning to choke up on it a little too.
"Now, you take us," he added. "This is old stuff to the Dodgers."
Two rare plays by the Brooklyn catcher, similar in intent but dissimilar in execution, nearly transformed the big series between the Dodgers and the Braves last week. After tying the second game up in the ninth at 2-2, the Braves had loaded the bases with one out.
The batter bounced an easy ground ball to Jackie Robinson at third. Robby threw quickly to Catcher Rube Walker at home plate and the runner coming in from third was forced out.
Walker whirled toward first and cocked his arm for the expected throw to double the batter. But Walker didn't throw. "The runner was in my line of fire and I sure wasn't going to throw the ball away in that spot."
Joe Adcock, who had been on second base when the play started, and thinking Walker was throwing to first, rounded third under a full head of steam and streaked for home. Walker waited, and although the impact of Adcock's stand-up charge was felt across the Jersey flats, he held onto the ball. The potential big inning was over, and the Dodgers went on to win by one run.
"How can I get mad at Joe? He's won us so many games," Manager Fred Haney philosophized afterward.
The next night the situation was the same but the cast was different. It was the top of the seventh and the Dodgers were leading 1-0. The Braves had the bases loaded and there was one out. This time the ball was hit to First Baseman Gil Hodges who threw quickly to Roy Campanella, now catching for the Dodgers. The runner from third was forced and Campy faked a throw to first. Sure enough, Wes Covington, the runner from second tonight, was drawn home.
Now the script changes. As Campy feinted, the ball inexplicably squirted from his hand and rolled aimlessly toward the empty pitcher's mound. The embarrassed Campanella could only watch Covington come over with the tying run.
"There was nothing funny about it at the time. That was my trick fake. Rube makes the play better because he's smarter. He doesn't have to think about it," growled Campanella.
The Dodgers, however, still won by one run.——L.W.