Everybody in Milwaukee knew it was going to happen.
"I knew it was going to happen," said a leathery-faced man in a floppy Panama hat. "I knew it."
The Braves had lost a Sunday double-header to the St. Louis Cardinals, blown it sky-high after running up a 6-1 lead in the first game. The Cardinals, rising steadily out of a hitting slump that had been crippling them, peppered the Braves with runs, one in the seventh, two in the eighth, two in the ninth and two in the 10th on Stan Musial's home run to win 8-6.
Then the Cardinals' colorful Vinegar Bend Mizell hung a 6-0 shutout around Milwaukee's neck in the second game, and the last of the 130,000 Wisconsinites who had come to see the Braves put the coup de gr√¢ce on the National League pennant race trudged home, shaking their heads and muttering that they knew all along the Braves would lose two.
It was terribly disappointing for Milwaukee, because this was to have been the joyous climax of a week they had been waiting for for five years. The Braves had torn the five-team pennant fight wide apart with a 10-game winning streak, had opened up an 8½-game lead over second-place St. Louis with barely 40 games left, and had come home in triumph.
Except that nobody in Milwaukee quite believed it, aside from Lou Perini. When Perini, brash Bostonian that he is, spoke out confidently on the Friday before the series with the Cardinals and said flatly, "We're in. We just can't flub it again," Milwaukeeans ran around wildly, looking for wood to knock on. Red-faced Fred Haney, the manager of the Braves, turned pale, sprinkled ground tiger bone in a circle, chanted an incantation and muttered desperately, "We're playing them one game at a time. I don't know anything about any pennant."
Perini owns the Braves. If anyone should be biting his nails in suppressed anticipation, it should be he. But apparently Lou earned his millions in the contracting business by being a realist. Even after the double defeat on Sunday, Perini maintained his optimistic view. After all, Milwaukee was still 6½ games in front, and now there were only 37 games to play.
Certainly, it is possible for them to lose. But it is highly unlikely that they will, and Perini knows it. To all intents and purposes, the Braves have won the pennant.
A reader in Milwaukee has just reached out and tapped the wooden arm of his chair. He is unused to such bold statements in print about his Braves' pennant chances. Milwaukee sportswriters are more considerate. Even Oliver Kuechle, the able sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal, in a column pointing out the Braves' commanding position, had the decency to refer to the pennant as the "you know what."
Milwaukee is running scared, in other words, and if you debate the logic of this with its citizens, they tell you about 1954, when a great late-season rush by the Braves roused expectations of a pennant, expectations that were rudely drowned in a hurricane at Ebbets Field. (The Braves lost a rain-soaked, abbreviated, 4½-inning game by one run and thereafter were never a factor.) They tell you about 1955, when the preseason polls picked the Braves for the pennant; but the Dodgers won 22 of their first 24 while the Braves floundered and Milwaukee cried. They tell you, bitterly, about last year, when Milwaukee opened a 5½-game lead in midseason and still held first place in the last week, only to lose the pennant on the very last day.
Please, Milwaukee says, remembering the balloons that have burst, let's just wait a little while and see. Well, let's wait a while and see. Meanwhile, here is how the Braves got this far.
FORESIGHT AND LUCK
First of all, they had the foresight over the years to sign and develop a whole parcel of fine young ballplayers, beginning several centuries ago with Warren Spahn (who is now a fine old ballplayer) and including the incomparable Henry Aaron. They had the gumption to make deals with other clubs that brought them such worthies as Lew Burdette, Joe Adcock and a skinny redheaded second baseman named Albert Schoendienst.
And then they had luck, which, as Branch Rickey's oft-quoted maxim has it, is the residue of design. Injuries felled regulars like Bill Bruton and Adcock, and the Braves had to scrounge around for replacements. They found Outfielder Andy Pafko rusting in their dugout, Slugger Bob Hazle ripening on their Wichita farm and First Baseman Frank Torre still hiding in Adcock's shadow. Pafko's fiery spirit, Hazle's incredible hitting (a .586 average is clearly impossible, but that's what Hazle batted during the 10-game winning streak), and Torre's highly useful play showed the Braves that they had a bench, and a good one, though they had to find it the hard way.
The soundness of the bench demonstrated that Milwaukee was the best-balanced team in the league. Without too much effort, the Braves managed to stay with the milling pack in the National League race, occasionally holding the lead, occasionally falling back a little, but never doing anything terribly bad or dramatically good. Then, one day in early August, at a time when they stood in second place, just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals, they decided to go on a 10-game winning streak at the precise time when all four of their close rivals for first place decided to go on losing binges.
It was staggering. On the morning of August 4, the Braves were a game behind St. Louis, a game and a half ahead of Brooklyn, 3½ ahead of Cincinnati, only five ahead of fifth-place Philadelphia. Twelve days later the Braves were 8½ games ahead of St. Louis and Brooklyn, 10 ahead of Cincinnati and 11½ ahead of Philadelphia. In that time, as the Braves won 10 straight, the Cardinals lost 10 of 11 (including nine in a row), the Dodgers 8 of 12, the Reds 7 of 11, the Phillies 6 of 9. Never had rivals cooperated more splendidly. The Braves were far in front and going away.
With the Cardinals (see page 30), it was their hitting—up until now the mainspring of this year's amazing resurgence—that all of a sudden gave way and dragged the team out of contention. Everyone—except, of course, Stan Musial—went into the slump together, and there was simply no bench to back up the regulars. The result was, for the moment at least, disastrous.
For the Dodgers it was an equally bitter experience. This season, when they had perhaps their finest pitching staff of recent years, turned out to be the one when their magnificent collection of pennant-winning veterans finally succumbed to the ailments of old age.
The Milwaukee pitching meanwhile had been solid, the hitting had been simply wonderful and no one could overlook Henry Aaron, who was leading the National League in batting, home runs, runs batted in and runs scored. But, Milwaukee decided, the real reason for success lay in the fact that this season the Braves were commanding instead of just hoping, were mounting a sustained drive instead of fitful spurts that didn't last. And the prime contributor to this atmosphere of command and consistency was the skinny, redheaded second baseman, Albert Schoendienst, obtained from the Giants in a trade in mid-June. Outsiders may insist, as Leo Durocher does, that Henry Aaron is the most valuable Brave, or Warren Spahn, or Bob Buhl. Milwaukee says it's Schoendienst.
Milwaukee is in love with Schoendienst, most likely because Milwaukee has never had anything like him before, never had a second baseman who could make the plays he makes, never had a player as good who gave so much of himself to win.
The evening following the Braves' welcome at the airport, the Milwaukee Sentinel appeared on the streets of the city with an eight-column scare head across the top of the front page. Was it news of the H-bomb, or the cold war, or the latest ladler of the teamsters' gravy? No. The black letters shouted: THE SCHOENDIENST STORY. The article described the second baseman as "the player who is credited unanimously by his Braves teammates with bringing them within sight of the promised land" and "a Moses come to lead them out of the wilderness of bitter disappointment and frustration."
The story stopped short of canonizing Schoendienst, but the huge crowd (45,437) at the game that night almost took care of that detail. The roar of acclaim each time Red batted was overwhelming. Schoendienst acknowledged his reception with two beautiful fielding plays and four hits in five at bats. But the Braves lost to the second-place Cardinals, the winning streak was broken and the superstitious quaked.
THE GAME THEY HAD TO WIN
They really shouldn't have, for the next day the Braves won what may prove to be their most important victory of the season, in a game they simply had to win. And Schoendienst showed quite clearly why Milwaukee has gone dotty over him. The Cardinals got off to a quick 3-0 lead. The St. Louis pitcher, Larry Jackson, retired the first 16 Milwaukee batters in order. Spectators discussed the possibility of St. Louis sweeping the four-game series and reducing the Braves' lead to a morale-breaking 4½ games.
In the sixth inning Del Crandall got Milwaukee's first hit, a single. Two outs later, Schoendienst came to bat and with a neat flick of his wrists fly-swatted the ball over the right field fence for a home run. In the eighth inning, with a man on first, he whipped a three-two pitch to right, sending the runner to third, from whence he scored the tying run a moment later on Frank Torre's hit.
In the ninth inning, after the Cardinals had loaded the bases with one out and had Stan Musial up batting against Warren Spahn, Schoendienst took Musial's hopper and started a trap-fast double play to end the inning and prevent a run. In the 10th inning he was the middle man in another double play. He had been an offensive force, with his home run and base hits; and he had been a defensive force, with his sure, deft, impeccable fielding.
When, in the 11th inning, Henry Aaron rammed a double deep to right center to drive in the tying and winning runs, what Schoendienst had done became apparent: he had kept the Braves from losing, had held off defeat until Henry Aaron could go fetch victory. You thought of all the games the Braves used to let slip away through awkward fielding or the lack of a base hit at the right time. Then you appreciated Milwaukee's love of Red, and you knew that winning this game from the Cardinals could mean more to the pennant race than losing the double-header the next day.
Lou Perini still insists his Braves are in. He's probably right. The Braves won't flub this one.
The Yankees went to Boston for a three-game series last week and, long before the first pitch, there was standing room only at Fenway Park. The magic that drew overflow crowds (101,858 in three days or 99% of capacity) was a 38-year-old gaffer named Ted Williams and young Mickey Mantle, 13 years his junior. Williams had stirred Boston fans out of their annual baseball blues by disregarding his age and the midsummer heat. In the five-week period since the All-Star Game, Mantle had batted an impressive .400 to raise his then league-leading .369 ten points higher. But Williams hit an incredible .500, catapulting his average 44 points to a breathtaking .387.
The first game was all Mantle's, despite a round of boos every time he came to the plate. He singled twice, walked and hit a home run to knock in all of the Yankee runs. Williams could only get an inconsequential single and two walks.
When Mantle hit his game-winning home run, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Correspondent John Hanlon noted: "Williams stood with his arms folded across his chest and seemingly glowered as Mantle made his tour. I thought that when Mantle turned at second base, he looked at Williams, as if to say, 'How about that.' Ted just continued to glower."
The next afternoon even more people tried to get into the park—36,207 for a season high in Boston. To add to the confusion, 20,000 Rhode Islanders, celebrating Rhode Island Day, joined the crush. A monumental traffic jam along the way stretched an hour's drive into three, and Plate Umpire Hank Soar, coming up from Providence, just did make the game in time by pleading with traffic policemen to let him through.
For the Williams fans—i.e., just about everybody—it was worth the struggle. Ted hit a towering home run over the left field wall with two men on. As Williams circled the bases, the crowd stood on its feet and gave him one of the biggest ovations ever heard in Fenway Park. As usual, he did not acknowledge it. Later, he added a single and a walk to help the Red Sox to a 6-4 victory. Mantle was held to one hit in four at-bats.
The last game was anticlimactic, as Williams continued to add to his batting lead with a double and single in three at-bats. Mantle went 0 for 2. At series' end, Williams' .393 led Mantle by 13 points.
Williams' finest tribute came from Mantle himself: "He's the greatest hitter that ever lived."