For a baseball-mad city which had boasted loudly each of the past four seasons that its Braves would win the National League pennant and which this year—at long last—had a pretty good chance of doing just that, Milwaukee last week suddenly seemed to have stopped believing. In the past, win or lose, the noble burghers had been known to descend upon the airport by the thousands, even in the blackest hours of the night, to welcome the beloved Braves home. But not at one a.m. last Friday, when their heroes staggered back from a nightmarish road trip on which they had lost half of their games and all of their hopeful grip on first place.
Instead of finding cheering multitudes and brass bands and police escorts on hand to greet them as their chartered airliner came in from Pittsburgh, the Braves found only a few sleepy wives who weren't doing any cheering at all. There were, needless to say, no brass bands.
There was one cop in the vicinity, but he didn't pick up the Braves' team bus until it was a half mile down the road from the airport heading for town, and even then he didn't bother to use his siren. He just drove up close, leaned out the window of his squad car and called over to the bus driver: "You're driving too fast, buddy. Better slow it down or I'll give you a ticket."
Such was the Braves' homecoming. It was altogether fitting and proper, too, in view of the way the Braves' run for the pennant had been jarred to a halt. They had led the league by three and a half games on Labor Day morning; in the next 18 days they lost 10 of the 18 games they played and fell to second, a full game behind Brooklyn. No wonder the Milwaukee Common Council voted down a proposal to spend $5,000 of the city's money on a gala pennant celebration. (Though the Association of Commerce stepped in with an effort of its own to raise the money, being careful to point out to all prospective contributors that the flags and bunting and posters—even a 30-foot figure of a Brave—would be kept carefully timeless in design, just in case the team didn't make it this year, and could be stored away "for the day when the pennant flag waves over Milwaukee.")
September 30, 1956
But the traffic cop could have served as a symbol for Brooklyn, too—indeed, as a symbol of the National League race. It seemed that every time one of the contenders sped away into a lively winning streak the whistle of defeat was blown.
For instance, at the moment the law threatened the Braves' ride into town the various members of the Brooklyn Dodgers were speeding west through the Pennsylvania ridges toward Pittsburgh, safe under the protection of a one-game lead that was, this late in the season, as big and shiny as a policeman's badge. They had started their run just about the same time the Braves started their slump, on Labor Day. They had won 11 of 15 games (including three out of four from the Braves and the Cincinnati Redlegs), and they were solidly in first place.
Then in Pittsburgh Friday night the Pirates' Ronnie Kline, mixing a fine curve with a startling knuckler, stopped not only the Dodgers but the trademarked, copyrighted hero, Sal Maglie, and beat Brooklyn 2-1. The Braves saw that score in big black numbers in Milwaukee in the third inning of their game with the Cubs, relaxed, almost blew a 5-1 lead but held on to win 6-4. Brooklyn's lead was reduced to .002 percentage points. The next day, Saturday, the Dodgers, appearing a bit disturbed that their fine September rush hadn't given them an insurmountable lead, were stopped cold again, this time by a retread lefthanded relief pitcher, Luis Arroyo, who had been sent to the minors this season not once but twice. He threw a screwball at the Dodger right-handers and, with the aid of a last-inning burst of relief pitching by Bob Friend, beat Brooklyn 6-1. On the scoreboard in Pittsburgh the Braves were losing 2-0 to Chicago, but it was only the first inning and no matter what happened the Dodgers were at the moment undeniably in second place. If the Braves rallied and won, Brooklyn would be mud deep in second. The Braves fell behind 4-0, but then they did rally, finally scored—four times, in fact—to tie it up, with the last run coming, appropriately, on a ninth-inning homer by fiery Johnny Logan. The crowd was on its feet and howling, and there wasn't a Milwaukee rooter within miles who doubted that the Braves would win this one now.
Only they didn't. The Cubs scored in the top of the 10th, and the Braves had stumbled again, back into second place.
It had gotten to be a very strange situation. Optimism rose in either camp, not on the wings of faith that one's own team would win so much as on the somewhat more reliable feeling that the other team would lose. On Sunday they were both disappointed. Both muddled through to victory, the Braves over the eighth-place Cubs on Bill Bruton's grand-slam home run, the Dodgers over the sixth-place Pirates on Duke Snider's bases-loaded double. In Pittsburgh the Dodgers kept a rain-soaked eye on Milwaukee's line on the scoreboard, and in Milwaukee the Braves watched Brooklyn.
Along about this time everyone became aware that the Cincinnati Redlegs, who had made periodic growling rushes at the league lead all summer (only to follow the pattern and fall flat on their large faces), were suddenly rushing again. They had been killed and buried in Brooklyn the weekend before, but now they rose from the ground with a sweep of four games over the Cardinals and were right there, only a game and a half behind the distraught leaders and in a simply marvelous position to fashion a miracle and win the pennant. No one with any sense believed Cincinnati would really pull it off, but neither did anyone with any sense want to give very big odds that the Redlegs wouldn't, now that they had regained their pulverizing home run touch and were once again careening toward a new major league home run record. Especially not with the way the Braves and the Dodgers were pussyfooting along.
Still, pussyfooting or not, the Braves and the Dodgers were in a much better position for the pennant than the Redlegs. The Dodgers, in particular, were in good shape, what with their last five games scheduled for Ebbets Field, whereas Milwaukee's remaining four games and Cincinnati's final two were away from home. Again, the Dodgers were relying on huge Don Newcombe, and neither Milwaukee, for all its wealth of pitching, nor Cincinnati had such a reliable pitcher. Newcombe's win over the Pirates was his 26th of the season, more than any Dodger pitcher had won in 30 years.
The Dodgers were in the best position despite the fact that they were obviously not the Dodgers they had been two, three, four, five years before and despite the fact that the Braves were almost certainly the best-manned and best-balanced team in the league. The Dodgers (with the buoyant memory of last year's World Series victory over the Yankees bolstering their confidence) would go into the Series with that same strange, cheerful calm that had marked so much of their play through this last month of the season. The Braves, on the other hand, were an enigma.
It wasn't so much the pitching or the batting or even the games the Braves had won and lost. If the millions—not only in Milwaukee but all across the nation—who have rooted so hard all summer for the Braves to beat out the Dodgers for the pennant were finally becoming disenchanted, it was because of the Braves themselves. They were just going along, playing the kind of baseball they had been playing all year, no better and no worse, and not getting very excited about it at all.
"Why get excited?" said Del Crandall, the young and usually very serious team captain. "Nothing's any different now than it has been since the middle of July. It would be nice if you could do something different—get a hit every time you went up there or make all the plays without a miss—but you can't. Getting excited doesn't do any good."
Manager Fred Haney said, after great deliberation: "It is a funny game. And this is a funny team."
"You'd almost think," a box-seat patron said, "that they didn't care."
They do, of course. Any team cares about a pennant and the rich gravy of a World Series share. But there was the strong possibility just the same that the Braves didn't care quite enough. They just weren't acting like champions. They hadn't choked up, as so many felt they would. But they hadn't soared to any heights either. And in the talent-studded National League you have to rise to heights to beat second-division clubs, because second-division clubs in the National League throw pitchers at you like Ron Kline and Robin Roberts and Sam Jones and John Antonelli and Bob Friend. Not just good pitchers doing a mechanical job, but proud athletes hungry for victory over a superior team. Friend, sitting in the Pirate clubhouse sipping on a bottle of beer, his warm, round face wreathed with smiles after stopping the Dodgers with an overpowering inning of relief pitching, said: "This is fun. This is the way it was in the early part of the season, when we were in first place."
It was fun for all the Pirates. For example, during the season Manager Bobby Bragan ordered beer in as a treat after double-headers. As the Pirates came into the final weeks of the season and faced few double-headers but plenty of games with the pennant contenders, Bragan proclaimed there'd be beer after every game the Pirates won. Last week Pittsburgh knocked over the Braves, then the Dodgers, then the Dodgers again. After the third victory, a Pirate player laughed aloud and said, "My God, they're out there playing for $10,000 and we're out there playing for a bottle of beer."
And relishing it. So much so that hard-won victories over teams playing for pride and beer were gratefully welcomed by Braves, Dodgers and Redlegs. Such solid strength in the second division may help to explain why the cocky National League is convinced that it is superior to the American League and why it feels that its pennant winner, as champion of a better league, should be expected to defeat the champion of an inferior league. Consistently tough opposition, the argument goes, will leave the club that finally wins the National League title well tuned, well tested and unawed when it takes the field in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
The Yankees, of course, were completely unimpressed by all this. They had swept through every problem that had confronted them during the season with an effortless superiority that led their followers to assume—as Yankee followers always assume—that victory for New York is inevitable. The National League had fine pitchers? Well, what about Pierce and Score and Lemon and Brewer and Lary and Hoeft? Don't try to tell a Yankee fan that this 22nd pennant came easily because the opposition was futile. He'll counter with evidence to prove that victory was the result of skillful, courageous pitching by Whitey Ford, John Kucks and Tom Sturdivant, and strong, timely hitting by nonpareils like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.
Mantle, by all odds the player of the year, lent support to this argument by dramatically hitting his 50th home run in the 10th inning of a thrilling game that Ford pitched at Comiskey Park in Chicago to clinch the pennant. When the batting title he had expected to win easily was threatened by Ted Williams, Mantle fought out of a slump, picked up his hitting pace and forged out ahead of Williams again.
There were others, the craftsmen, caught in the attitudes of their trade in fine color photographs by Arthur Dailey and Hy Peskin on the opposite and succeeding pages, who made up a hard spine of Yankee strength. And there was Casey Stengel, whom Leo Durocher, in a discussion of major league managers, dismissed as a genius, implying it was unfair to the other managers to compare them with Stengel. Casey (see Gerald Holland's story on page 69) rode his fine team like an Eddie Arcaro, alert for everything, ready for anything, absolutely in command of his environment.
It was difficult somehow to bring a team so well manned and so confoundedly sure of itself to the realization that it was about to be beaten by a better team from a better league. Logic insisted the Yanks would lose to the Nationals, and so did sentiment, which always runs against anything so blatantly successful as the New York Yankees. The Yankees didn't bother to argue. Instead, they waited, quietly eying the brawling National League race with just a touch of bored disdain.