Sounding only a little bit like a man whistling past a graveyard, seven of the National League's finest teams spent a happy springtime assuring themselves and a nodding assortment of itinerant experts what a whale of a pennant race this was going to be.
"The Giants can beat the Braves," they said. "They have the power." Or the Pirates who, it was explained, "had pitching and defense." Or the Reds, who had various qualifications not always evident to the untrained eye. Someone even mentioned the Dodgers once in a while, seeking, perhaps, to overlook no bets.
But when the season began, it was that eighth team, the one lurking so quietly in the graveyard, that came roaring out to play ball. In an opening week dotted with rain-outs and snow-outs and near freeze-outs, the Braves threw Spahn and Burdette, Spahn and Burdette, left-right, left-right, boom-boom, into the contest—and when the sun finally came out, it appeared that there might not even be a contest left. The Braves were unbeaten in four games, the rest of the league was staggering, and horrible visions of another 1955, when the Dodgers won 10 straight and 22 of their first 24 to turn the pennant race into a shambles, danced before the National League's eyes.
The Braves, champions for the last two years, were once again doing everything right. The two big pitchers were giving Milwaukee the kind of consistent performance a winning team needs. Henry Aaron was hitting over .500, and Eddie Mathews, who was hitting about half that, was driving in runs. Mickey Vernon came over from the American League in a waiver deal in exchange for an unwanted Milwaukee pitcher, Humberto Robinson, and in his first ball game, pinch hitting, drove in the tying run for the Braves in the ninth. Johnny O'Brien's single in the 10th won the game.
April 26, 1959
But it was more than pitching and hitting, which everyone knew the Braves had a long time ago. The defense was almost perfect; there wasn't an error in those four games. Wes Covington, who throws out about three runners a season from left field, threw out one at the plate in Pittsburgh in the second game of the season to save it for Milwaukee. Mathews was all over the left side of the infield, spearing hot liners, knocking down base hits, throwing people out. Aaron and Bill Bruton, who was running as though he had never had an injured knee, robbed opposing batsmen time and time again of what seemed like certain extra-base hits. And even Felix Mantilla, first choice to patch up the hole at second base, didn't do too badly, although a few of the more knowledgeable observers noted small, telltale signs which indicated that Mantilla didn't exactly look like Red Schoendienst out there.
But it was even more than pitching and hitting and fielding. Richie Ashburn of the Phillies, who plays center field as it was meant to be played, needlessly threw a ball away one day against the Braves, into the dugout behind third base to let a run score. Milwaukee outs turned into base hits when they bounced off bases or hopped over infielders' heads. Everything the Braves did was good, everything the opponents did was bad. This was a good ball club, perhaps the best in the league, and it was getting breaks it didn't even need.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
San Francisco, after starting out well, too, with three straight victories, began to open up at the seams. Although the Giant pitching was a good deal better than a lot of people had anticipated, the defense was absolutely horrible. In seven games the Giants made 17 errors, seven of them by the rookie shortstop, Andre Rodgers, and three in one game by his second-base sidekick, Daryl Spencer. The Giants, who hit homers almost every day, were showing their muscles, all right, but it takes a lot of home runs to make up for 17 errors.
Cincinnati started well, too. But then the Phillies came to town and the Reds began to lose. You just can't go around talking about pennants and losing ball games to the Philadelphia Phillies. With the Reds, too, the big trouble was pitching except for Bob Purkey, their fine right-hander.
But the worst start of all belonged to the Pirates, who went to bed dreaming of Cinderella and woke up screaming. They lost and lost and lost again. Before it was all over they had lost five in a row. The hitters weren't doing much hitting to speak of and none at all with runners on base. The outfield sprang a few leaks. And the pitching, to be fair all around, was inconsistent. That is about as fair as a man can be: actually, it was lousy in those five games. The Pirate staff, which allowed the fewest home runs in the National League last year, was smacked for 10—and each played a big part in the show.
It was working out just exactly the way Jimmie Dykes, even before the season began, had warned it might. "The toughest thing this club is going to have to do all year," said the dapper 63-year-old Pirate coach, "is to get that first win. I never saw a club so itchy to get a season under way. They're all tight as fiddle strings." As it turned out, Dykes, who has been around baseball for a very long time and knows about such things, was right.
But, as those seven other teams insisted all spring, the Braves maybe weren't all that good or the Pirates that bad. Last weekend Pittsburgh moved into Milwaukee for a scheduled three-game series, the first of at least two dozen crucial ones that should pop up this year, and the picture began to change.
The first evidence one could see was in the attitude of the Pirates. Their horrible plight had become so bad that they were able to laugh a bit at themselves. "Don't be nervous," said Red Witt, who had lost a 3-2 ball game to Philadelphia a couple of days before, to Harvey Haddix, who was pitching on Friday. "Don't be nervous. If you lose this one we may never win another. We may lose 154 games this year. But don't be nervous."
"The nice thing about this," said Smokey Burgess, "is that we can only lose 149 more. Then the season will be over and we can go home."
"I think we're loosening up," said Bob Friend, who then dropped his teaspoon off the table with a clatter.
"I know it," said Dick Groat. "This is too good a ball club to go on like this. Something's got to give." And Groat almost lit the wrong end of his cigarette.
So on Friday the Pirates went out against Bob Rush (Fred Haney had decided to give Spahn and Burdette a day off), and in the third inning Covington hit a surefire double-play ball that bounced off first base, hopped over Ted Kluszewski's waiting hands and rolled nine feet into right field for an unbelievable two-base hit that scored two runs.
Perhaps this was the straw that broke the tension—and maybe even changed a season. The Pirates were so incensed at the incredible unrighteousness of it all that Groat hit a home run (two more and he will equal 1958's output), Roberto Clemente hit a home run to tie up the game, and El Roy Face, who does this almost automatically, came in from the bullpen to relieve Haddix and stop the Braves with two scattered hits the rest of the way. The only trouble was that no one could stop the rain which swept in off Lake Michigan. The game was called at the beginning of the 10th inning, and both teams went off grumbling. All of the hitting statistics, and things like that, would go into the record book, but the score was still 2-2 and the game in its entirety would have to be replayed at a later date. The Braves were still 4-0, the Pirates 0-5. "This tie-game business is like kissing your sister," a man suggested, and Bill Mazeroski just shook his head. "We'd have won it," he said. "If it hadn't rained, we'd have beat 'em."
"Well," said El Roy Face, who is a little older, "it sure beats losing."
The next day, Saturday, the Pirates found something that beats not losing. Before a crowd of 15,703 Milwaukeeans and one rabbit (see page 33), the Pirates pounded Bob Buhl (Spahn and Burdette were still resting) and Juan Pizarro for an absurdly easy 11-5 victory.
While the crowd sat glumly on its hands and the rabbit hopped happily about the park, looking over the athletes and stopping occasionally to sniff at an umpire, Vernon Law coasted along for Pittsburgh's first 1959 win. The lanky right-hander drove in two big runs himself with a home run in the second inning, Burgess hit a three-run homer and the Pirates were in. With a seven-run lead, Law gave up two to Milwaukee in the third inning, and in the seventh, with the score 11-2, three more when Aaron bashed one out of the park. But there was never any real strain. The only disturbing event of the day for the Pirates was the temporary disablement of their fine young left fielder, Bob Skinner, who wrenched his back slightly and suffered minor cuts and abrasions when he ricocheted off the fence while taking an earlier bid for a home run away from Aaron. Later, Skinner, who wore his bandages like medals, figured it was well worth the trouble. The Sunday game was called because of subfreezing temperatures, but it didn't matter. The Pirates had begun to get well.
AND SOME HAVE NONE
Of course, the mere fact that the Braves' streak had been stopped or that Pittsburgh had finally won one didn't mean too much in itself. Milwaukee still has Spahn and Burdette, and no other team in the league has two pitchers like that. In fact, few teams have even one. The Braves still have Aaron, too, and sometimes it seems that he will hit .800. Also, it is well to remember that the Giants must find some way of stopping ground balls, the Reds can't do it with Purkey alone, and the Pirates still have several lengths of lost ground to make up.
But at least the National League can go whistling past the graveyard again and talk about a pennant race. As long as those seven other teams can whistle and talk—and as long as anybody will listen—everything is all right. The Braves are tough but they haven't run off with the pennant yet.