The 1956 National League season ran for 167 days. On 125 of those days anyone looking at the baseball standings in his morning newspaper would have had a minimum of difficulty in locating the Milwaukee Braves. They were on top. They so dominated the race that at one point, on July 26, they led second place Cincinnati by 5½ games and the poor old Brooklyn Dodgers by 6; as late as Labor Day the Braves were still 3½ games ahead.
Yet, on the one day which counted most, the Braves were second. In the standings on the morning of October 1 it was the Dodgers who had won the pennant. This, in itself, would not have been so remarkable (the final standings two of the three previous years had been the same) except that in 1956 the Milwaukee Braves had the better team. Why, then, did they lose the pennant? What was the matter with the Braves? And have they patched it up?
The easiest answer is that the Braves really didn't have the better ball club. Yet there is hardly a player or manager or club owner in the National League who will deny that the Braves had the best personnel. "If I'd had that team," says one rival manager who didn't, "I'd have won the pennant by 10 games." Says the manager of another: "The Braves should have won by 12." And one of the league's outstanding players, an alert young man with a future, just shakes his head and says, "I think they could have won by 15."
Why, then, didn't they?
There were three reasons, says Fred Haney, the one man who does happen to manage the Braves. "The failure to hit up to expectation all season long at four positions: catcher, second base, third base and left field. Weak fundamentals; our failure to do some of the simplest things right—lousy bunting, poor base running, throwing to the wrong base—lost a lot of games. And a hitting slump in September.
"Everybody has hitting slumps; ours just happened to come at the worst possible time. When we needed them the most, we weren't getting any runs."
Happenstance, says General Manager John Quinn. "A little thing here, a little thing there. All those early rain-outs, which piled up the double-headers later on. That tie game stopped by rain in Milwaukee which we later lost in Pittsburgh. The two-day layoff in St. Louis before the final series of the year. That's a good example. The ball club looked great on Tuesday in Cincinnati: they took over and almost ran the Redlegs off the field. Then we go to St. Louis, sit around in hotel lobbies for two days with nothing to do and by Friday night we've lost the edge. Remember, if we had won just one more game all season long and the Dodgers had lost just one more—just one, we'd be the champions, and everyone would be asking what's wrong with the Dodgers. Little things," says John Quinn. "Just little things."
Too much extracurricular activity, says Jackie Robinson. The Braves were out drinking when they should have been thinking. "A couple of key men on the club...did not take care of themselves down the stretch."
They choked under pressure, say ballplayers on opposing teams in the National League, and Robinson, again, was the one who said it first. "They're beginning to taste that pennant," he said when the Dodgers began to close the gap in August, "and they're beginning to choke on it."
Sheer stupidity, says a veteran Milwaukee writer who has watched the club since it came from Boston in 1953. The Braves are not a smart team; they pull bonehead plays on the bases, at bat and in the field.
Not hungry, says another. Because of the reception the team has had in Milwaukee, because of the vast crowds which day after day pour into County Stadium, the ball club is bulging with money—and it has been more than generous in paying big salaries to young players who, on other clubs, might have had to work a little harder and wait a little longer to attain the same financial gains. The Braves have had it too easy.
Lack of experience, say some of the Braves, and then differ among themselves as to what this means. "Maybe we weren't serious enough," says Warren Spahn. "Some of the younger players seemed to feel that if we didn't win today, we'd win tomorrow." But Joe Adcock, also talking about inexperience, feels that the Braves wanted to win too much. "There's something about being in a tight pennant race for the first time that gets you," he says. "I guess you could say we tightened up. We were all trying too hard. None of us except Spahn—and I guess Rice and Thomson and Pafko—had been through it before."
Haney, chorus hundreds of Milwaukee Braves fans across the country. "The trouble was Haney. He bunted too much, and he didn't fire up the team the way he should." And this, of course, brings up the question which looms in many minds as the biggest one of all: Were the Braves capable of being fired up by anyone—or anything? Deep inside, did they really want to win the pennant badly enough?
Each of these questions or reasons for Milwaukee's 1956 failure contains at least a grain of truth. Haney, for example, has good grounds for complaint. The Braves did goof, time and time again, on their execution of plays, but Haney, unlike the writer who feels a lack of intelligence was the prime factor, prefers to blame improper grounding in fundamentals before the season began. Certainly Del Crandall at catcher (.238), Danny O'Connell at second base (.239), Eddie Mathews at third (.272) and Bobby Thomson in left field (.235) hit far below their potential and far below their average of other years.
And, while it was almost universally accepted at the time that Milwaukee's collapse centered around the magnificent pitching staff which seemed to come apart all at once (with the notable exception of masterful old Warren Spahn), later inspection proved that Haney was right and this was not so. Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl, who won 37 games between them during the year, were still pitching good baseball at the bitter end and losing because they weren't getting any runs. It was, as Haney said, the hitting: Adcock, who had 38 home runs and was second in the league with 103 runs batted in, drove in only four of those in the last 15 games; Henry Aaron, the 23-year-old batting champion, drove in only two of his total of 92 in the last 11.
Little things happen to all ball clubs but, just as Quinn said, an unusually large number seemed to happen to the Braves. And there is little doubt, as Robinson charged, that some members of the team were living it up a little. Certainly the Braves have been spoiled from the first by the most enthusiastic and appreciative audience in baseball. As for Haney's tactics and his managerial talent—or lack thereof, as charged—the Braves, with all that material, did lose the pennant.
And once again, if the Braves really did burn to win, somewhere inside, it certainly didn't show. What, then, as the 1957 season approaches, do the Braves have in their favor?
For one thing, a very good baseball team, which is what all the other players and managers and officials were talking about in the first place. Outside of the Yankees, who play in another league and, at least until October, would appear to be the least of Milwaukee's worries, there isn't a better-looking squad in Florida.
The pitching staff, which was the best in baseball last year, now looks even better. It led the league with a combined earned run average of 3.11, gave up the fewest runs, the fewest home runs and pitched the most complete games. This year there is still the great Spahn, of whom Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "He has gained fame, prestige and money...I strongly recommend that he retire." There is Burdette, who is good enough to hold out for $30,000, and Buhl, who beat the Dodgers eight times last year. There is an older, more experienced Crone, a healthy Conley, two fine-looking rookies of '56, Taylor Phillips and Bob Trowbridge, and the good reliefers, Lou Sleater, Ernie Johnson and Red Murff.
As if all that weren't enough, the Braves have a young man from Puerto Rico named Juan Cordova Pizarro and, when they have nothing else to do, they all like to stand around just to watch him throw. As a raw 18-year-old rookie, Pizarro won 23 games while losing only six for Jacksonville last year, struck out 318 while walking only 144 in 274 innings and had an earned run average of 1.77. "He could be just as great," says Bill Terry, the old Giant who now bosses the Sally League, "as Warren Spahn." And Rollie Hemsley, who managed Charlotte last year and used to catch Bob Feller, says, "He's got it. He's the nearest thing to Feller I've ever seen."
Adcock, at first base, is one of the big hitters in baseball, and the odds are heavy that he will get even better. Johnny Logan is a superior shortstop and, next to the Cubs' Ernie Banks, the best hitter at his position in the league. Mathews, in a bad year, still hit 37 homers and drove in 95 runs; no one has ever mistaken him for Pie Traynor at third base, but he has a good arm, can throw and the Braves do not ask that he get too fancy with his glove as long as he can swing that bat. And Milwaukee also has two-thirds of a very fine outfield in Aaron, destined to be one of the game's truly good hitters, and swift Billy Bruton.
During the winter the Braves had chances to make trades, chances to patch up their problems at second base and in left field. But, as John Quinn will tell you, there is a very good reason why they didn't. "We believe," he says, "that we have a team which, just like it is, can win the pennant. We went to the winter meetings prepared to trade and, as a matter of policy, talked to every club in the National' League. But in each case, we felt that the other team wanted too much; to get what we needed to strengthen one position, we would have had to weaken another. In our position—and it is a good one—that would have been asking for trouble."
But, despite their failure to make a trade, the Braves are unworried. They believe that the catching staff of Del Crandall (who can hit the long ball and some day is surely going to have that big year), Del Rice and Carl Sawatski is as good as any in the league. They are pleased with the improvement O'Connell continues to show at second base ("It was an unfamiliar position, remember," says Quinn, "and if you don't think he is better defensively, just ask Logan"). And they still hope he will hit to his .293 average in two years at Pittsburgh. As for Thomson, despite his anemic average he drove in 74 runs and hit 20 homers, and there are teams which have won pennants with less impressive statistics in left field than that. The Dodgers, to name one.
But, even beyond this, the Braves have some good young ballplayers from a farm system which won seven pennants last year and is responsible, either directly or through trades, for 34 of the 44 members on the 1957 spring training roster. Three fine young catchers, for example, named Sammy Taylor (.358 and 123 runs batted in at Topeka), Mike Roarke and Bob Roselli will probably all go back down because there is no room—and no need—for them at the moment. Felix Mantilla, who filled in brilliantly at shortstop for the big league club last year and hit .283, worked at second base last winter in the Puerto Rican League and is labeled "ready" if O'Connell should falter again. For left field there is a host of candidates: Wes Covington, a powerful left-handed slugger who hit .283 in 138 at-bats for the Braves last year and cleared up some of his defensive inadequacies with a season of winter ball during which he also led the league in home runs; Ev Joyner, a .344 hitter for Shreveport of the Texas League who throws better now than he once did; young Earl Hersh, a .307 hitter and the American Association All-Star left fielder for Wichita; and, of course, there is always old Andy Pafko, now 36, but for a few games just about as good as anyone around.
But what about the choke-up charges?
"Now that it's over and we lost," says Mathews, "I think last year might have been the best thing that could have happened to us. We learned a lot."
"Now that we've been through it," says Adcock, "I don't think we'll tighten up again. We know what to expect and we're ready to go on from there."
As for Haney's managerial ability, the standings from the day he relieved Charley Grimm until the end of the season tell an oft-overlooked tale. In that stretch of nearly four months Milwaukee played at a .630 pace, winning 68 games while losing only 40. The Braves' record for the complete season, on the other hand, was .597, and that of the Dodgers .604. Haney used the sacrifice almost to the point of exasperation for sideline strategists, but he explains simply that with a team that has pitching like his a few runs will do and the best way to get them is sometimes with the bunt. It wasn't that the Braves bunted too much that hurt; it was that too often they failed to bunt effectively.
Now, with a new season just over the horizon, Fred Haney is making sure that nothing like this happens again. "You're going to hate my guts next spring," he told his players in the clubhouse in St. Louis the night the season ended, "but you'll love me when you see that World Series check in the fall." Haney has driven the Braves hard since the opening day of spring training—and they have worked hardest on fundamentals. They have, in fact, worked harder on everything than any team in Florida.
Until the exhibition schedule opened last Saturday, the Braves worked from 10:30 each morning until sometimes as late as 4:30 in the afternoon. Last year, under Charley Grimm, they were sometimes on the field less than two hours. When other teams have taken a day off because of rain, the Braves have run through a downpour. They have practiced sliding—even the veterans—like a bunch of rookies. They have practiced such unheard-of things as starts, almost like a group of sprinters, because Haney feels that they sometimes failed, by half a stride, to beat out hits last season they should have beaten out. They have worked endlessly at taking leads off bases and on rundowns and cutoff plays, and the pitchers have drilled over and over again at holding runners on base and fielding their positions. And, endlessly, Haney and his coaches have had them bunting. Finally, when they aren't doing something else they run. An error in an intrasquad game has been the signal for a shrill blast of the whistle and then everyone runs; even the players on the nonerring team have to take a lap around the park with the rest.
"Well, Fred," someone asked Haney last week, "do they hate your guts?"
"You know something," said Haney, "I haven't heard a word of complaint from anybody on this ball club. They may not love me, but they're taking it without squawking."
Whether they love him or not probably occupies little of Fred Haney's thoughts; it is enough that this is his team as last year's never was. He is convinced: "We will win the pennant if we play the type of ball we're capable of and have the right frame of mind: desire."
Frank Lane, the voluble general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, agrees: "Jackie Robinson," he says, "did the Braves the biggest favor anyone ever did when he popped off last winter. I think he has them worked up to where they are determined to prove he was wrong."
Last year the Braves looked remarkably like a team that could win or lose without turning a hair. The ballplayers denied this, sometimes halfheartedly, and Haney pointed out that inside they really did care. "They want to win as bad as any team I ever saw," he said. "They are just unfortunate in not showing it." But the feeling still persisted that this was a team without spirit. The feeling survives even as the 1957 season approaches, and it will undoubtedly continue until the Braves themselves prove it to be untrue.
One explanation might be found in the fact that the Braves lack a driving, inspired leadership on the playing field, and everyone from the bat boy to John Quinn admits it. Spahn could be the leader they need, for he is a great competitor who hates to lose with a deep and honest rage. But he controls his emotions and in the clubhouse Spahn remains the clownish, happy-go-lucky left-hander who amuses more than he inspires. Johnny Logan plays baseball like a man possessed, and he too burns with the need for victory. But somewhere between shortstop and the dugout this spark deserts Johnny Logan, and he becomes the young and casual and easygoing club prankster. Crandall has tried but he is too serious; the Braves aren't sure they want anyone telling them to quit fooling around. Mathews' feelings belong to Mathews, and they are not for public show. And Adcock is not the type, nor is Thomson or any of the rest.
"You can't just go out and get a team leader," says Quinn, "or tell someone that he should be it. Leaders," he adds thoughtfully, "just have to happen."
But spirit, like everything else in baseball, has to be a team affair. It may not be necessary to have a Reese and a Robinson, a McMillan and a Temple, a Dark and a Moon, to keep a club moving; maybe, just because each man in his own way is afire with the need to win, they can all blaze together. If the Braves of 1957 find a way to be so ignited—as the Braves of 1956 definitely were not—they should get their pennant.