With the passing of Memorial Day, which is the traditional end of the first lap of the annual major league mile, the National League merits a word of praise. Stoutly refusing to become exhibitionists, as those other fellows have, and turn things upside down just to attract a little attention, the National Leaguers have puttered happily about their business in a most proper manner.
Philadelphia is in last place, the usual address for the Phillies, and Milwaukee is in first, which has become something of a permanent residence for the Braves, too. The Braves have been there most of the year. Scorning the temptation to go off on a long losing streak, a tactic despised in Wisconsin as a bush-league Yankee publicity trick, the Braves have lost no more than two games in a row since the season began. The Giants are second and the Dodgers or Pirates third, and it has been a very orderly affair, enough to turn Warren Giles's hair brown. Unless Milwaukee finds some way to lose a few games, the pennant race is going to be over by the Fourth of July and the National League will have to move a couple of franchises to get any fans.
This aura of invincibility stems not from any untouchable lead the Braves have piled up in the first eight weeks of play—their biggest margin has been 4½ games and frequently it has been much less than that—but from the serene ease with which they have managed to stay on top. The Pirates were supposed to be tough. So the Braves knocked them off in the first week of the season and that took care of the Pirates for a while. The Dodgers made threatening noises, so the Braves clipped them, too. Next it was San Francisco's turn. The Giants were kept in tow. And last week the Pirates, finally playing the way they should, came boiling up toward the top. The Braves took care of them again.
Milwaukee has been spreading its terror with two weapons called hitting and pitching. Since these make up about 99 44/100ths% of baseball, only a few pedantic individuals have persisted in pointing out that the club has deficiencies, too, like they can't run a lick and the defense leaks a bit and the uniforms don't fit good. In view of what has been happening so far the deficiencies seem rather trivial.
Henry Aaron is on his way to batting .700 or .400 or somewhere along in there and leading the league in runs batted in. He would also be leading in home runs except that Eddie Mathews, a teammate, is bashing baseballs out of the park at a clip which threatens the pace of Harmon Killebrew. As a matter of fact, everyone is hitting: Aaron, Mathews, Del Crandall, Joe Adcock, Bill Bruton, Wes Covington and Johnny Logan. Logan, in particular, is very pleased. He spent the winter collecting clippings which said that he was through and is now spending the spring looking up the people who wrote such things so that he can sneer in their faces.
A TEAM OF .300 HITTERS
At one point, Fred Haney could have fielded a complete lineup of .300 hitters by putting Joe Morgan at second base, a temptation the Milwaukee manager resisted in the cause of stopping ground balls. But Morgan is nice to have in reserve, along with either Adcock or Frank Torre (depending upon which of the two is playing first base that day), Mickey Vernon, who is still quite a hitter, Stan Lopata and guys like that.
Even on those days when the Braves don't hit, the pitching has a way of plugging up the dike. One night three Dodger pitchers, Don Drysdale, Art Fowler and Clem Labine, held the Braves scoreless from the seventh inning until the 16th. But Carl Willey, Don McMahon and Bob Rush held the Dodgers scoreless from the fifth inning and hitless after the ninth, and eventually Aaron lined a 400-foot double to drive Mathews in from first and break up the game. And look what happened to Harvey Haddix last week. Lew Burdette wasn't nearly so perfect, only better, and the Braves won on one lonely hit, that home run-double thing of Ad-cock's in the 13th.
Those two wise old squirrels, Spahn and Burdette, share the greatest act in the National League. Between them they have pitched half the Milwaukee innings this spring. They are tough and smart and talented and the main reason why the Braves almost never go off on a costly losing spin. Haney knows that he is going to get at least two consistent, well-pitched games every four days regardless of what the other guys on the staff might do, and this is why he has worked Spahn and Burdette, Spahn and Burdette, in the face of rain-outs and freeze-outs and off days while keeping Rush and Willey and Joey Jay and the others fretting impatiently on the bench. Perhaps this relative inactivity on the part of the second-line Milwaukee pitchers will turn out to be the Achilles heel of the ball club in the long, hot summer ahead. But, as Haney says, "What would you do?"
The fact that the Braves have hitting and pitching, however, does not come as a complete surprise. Even the most casual observer knew that Henry Aaron could hit and it has been several seasons since anyone asked, "Who's Lew Burdette?" The big problem at Milwaukee was supposed to be the replacement of Red Schoendienst, both as a second baseman and as the motivating force of the ball club.
What the Braves have finally worked out is a system in which they don't replace Schoendienst in either of his roles. Red is feeling much better, fat and healthy after his tuberculosis attack and determined to play baseball again, if not late this year at least in 1960. Still, he is unavailable. So is Mel Roach, who did such a fine job filling in when necessary last year but who has been unable to play an inning yet this season because of an injured and slow-to-heal knee.
In the absence of these two, the Braves have gone along with the material at hand: Chuck Cottier, classified by the Braves as a sort of teenage Schoendienst and given a brief fling at the job before being sent down to Louisville, where he is still labeled promising but not yet prepared; Felix Mantilla, a good journeyman ballplayer chronically afflicted with weariness (he plays baseball all winter in Puerto Rico and therefore has a good excuse); Joe Morgan, the good-hit, seldom-catch guy; and Johnny O'Brien, the All-America basketball twin with the big chaw of tobacco, the infectious sense of humor and a batting average which will never match his free-throw record.
None is sensational, each is adequate, and as long as the rest of the Braves hit and pitch as they do, Haney's Aunt Bertha could play second base for this ball club and it would get by.
NO LEADER IN SIGHT
Neither Mantilla nor Morgan (nor Aunt Bertha) could hope to replace Schoendienst as an inspirational force, however, and before the season began it was felt that this might be of more importance in the pennant race than more material factors. The Braves, with Aaron and Mathews and Spahn and Burdette and the rest, couldn't win the pennant in 1956 nor were they winning it in 1957 until Schoendienst joined the team. With the Redhead gone, there was some question of a relapse this year.
Leadership, in baseball, is a strange and puzzling thing. It depends not only upon the individual but upon the team, and a man who can inspire one ball club might be laughed off the field by another. Sometimes, without the necessary ability in the lineup, all the leadership in the world isn't going to do as much good as a few base hits. In other situations one player—perhaps he can't hit or field a lick—can lift a ball club with sheer burning spirit.
Billy Martin, with his chatter and constant display of aggressiveness, did a job like this for the Yankees; he helped soup up a club that was technically very, very proficient but needed an occasional jab of the needle.
There are players who lead simply by virtue of their own great talent. It rubs off on everyone and shames the less accomplished into doing better than their best. Joe DiMaggio's contributions included a good bit of this.
And then there are teams which use a blend of leadership, extracting a certain quality from one player and a different brand of inspiration from another. On the 1951 Giants, Eddie Stanky, something of a Billy Martin type, and Alvin Dark, more like DiMaggio, fused their sparks to make a real explosion.
There are also a few very fortunate teams which seem to have nothing but leaders—veteran, experienced ballplayers who work so well together that inspiration floats off them like a Los Angeles smog. The Dodgers of Reese and Robinson and Campanella and Snider and Hodges were like that, a collection of real old pros.
And finally there are teams which need leaders but can't find them. This was Milwaukee until Schoendienst arrived.
It is all a bit intangible, however, and even today the Braves aren't sure they were ever led. "Yeah, Red inspired this ball club," says Haney. "Right out there at second base. He never said a word and he never gave any pep talks around here. All he did was hit .300 and make all the plays in the field and show people how a big league second baseman was supposed to play. You can call it whatever you like."
Anyway, Schoendienst supplied it, and the Braves won two pennants. Now he is gone—but still the Braves win. Apparently something has taken his place.
Something has. Confidence and maturity among the other players. Even those old Dodgers had trouble getting started in the beginning, and now the Braves have passed through that stage. If they lose, it will be because someone outhits and outpitches and outfields them, not because they are unsure of themselves. Now they know how it is done and they can count on each other.
The best example of this on the Braves is not Aaron, who was fated to be a great player no matter what uniform he wore, nor Mathews, who hit 47 home runs his second season in the league. The young old pro who has made himself into an outstanding ballplayer after years of hard work is Del Crandall, the catcher.
Part of the trouble Del had in living up to expectations was his own fault. He should never have looked so good to begin with. On the day he reported to the Braves in June of 1949 he was only 19 years old but stood almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed a tough, rangy 170 pounds, had a bazooka for an arm and could hit the ball a mile. He didn't drink or smoke or cuss or chew and he went to church on Sunday. He had straw-colored hair, light-blue eyes and a friendly, happy smile. And he loved to play ball. Sort of a Jack Armstrong in shin guards.
THE CAN'T-MISS KID
Manager Billy Southworth, who had won a pennant for the Braves in '48 but a year later could only sit back and watch the patchwork champions come apart before his eyes, was overjoyed. He took one look at this kid from the Three-I League, sold aging Phil Masi to Pittsburgh and popped Crandall right into the lineup.
"Greatest catching prospect I've ever seen," said Southworth.
"On the first day," said Joe Taylor, the Braves' equipment manager, "everybody was standing around with their mouths open, wondering how this kid from Class B could do the things he did."
And later Charlie Grimm was to call him "the closest thing to another Gabby Hartnett I've ever seen." In 1954 Grimm made Crandall his field captain at the age of 24.
There is no doubt that Del was good. He had been catching since he was 9 years old back in Fullerton, California, and he had been taught how to do things the right way. He also knew that it was a catcher's job to take charge of the ball game. The first time he caught Spahn the Braves' famous left-hander shook off his signals 20 times. Crandall kept giving them. Spahn gave up and pitched the way the kid wanted him to.
Crandall had tremendous hustle, backing up plays at first and third base, running out to the mound to settle down his pitcher, going far up the line after pop flies, moving his fielders around, bellowing encouragement all across the field. Here, it was quite apparent, was a boy who was going to take over. Braves fans were positive that Delmar Wesley Crandall would be hauled, warm and kicking, into the Hall of Fame before his 30th birthday, and lift the Braves to dizzy heights with one hand while clouting home runs with the other.
It didn't work out quite that way. Del hit .263, then .220. He went off to the Army for two years, hurt his arm and couldn't throw as hard when he came back. It took a year for him to get over that. He hit a good .272 the year the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, which was probably just part of the hysteria which infected the whole ball club.
But then he hit .242 and .236 and .238 and .253. He had 26 home runs one season and 21 another but never did he drive in more than 64 runs. He reported 30 pounds overweight one spring and hurt a leg in a collision at home plate. In 1956 he messed up an elbow in another close play on a sliding runner, and this bothered him for more than a year. So most people finally gave up and quit watching.
This didn't stop Del from hustling, nor did he stop yelling. The trouble is that no one on the Braves ever seemed to be listening. If it was leadership they needed in Milwaukee, Crandall apparently wasn't the man.
"I never thought I was," says Del now. "That's just the way I play ball. A guy my age doesn't go out there and inspire a bunch of other ballplayers the same age just by making noise. If they had ever thought I was trying to take over around here, they would have stuffed me head first down the drain. A leader has to be older and more experienced or else hit .350 and 50 home runs. I'm afraid I never have done that."
But when people began to look at Crandall again through the 1958 season and as he attracted even more attention with a .300-plus batting average this spring, they began to realize what they had missed. Although Del could never lead the Braves out of the wilderness by himself, he was a pretty sturdy fellow during the march and now he can be an even stronger factor in keeping them at the top. He has become by far the best catcher in the National League.
This has been very important to the progress of the Braves, because they have had a solid, dependable, highly intelligent man behind the plate during this period when every other club has had to patch and pray and hope. Crandall has one of the strongest throwing arms in the league and almost certainly the quickest and most accurate one. He is a masterful handler of pitchers, a real student of opposing hitters and a tough man with the bat. He has never ceased to work hard and to learn—and never has he ceased to hustle.
A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA
"I found out a long time ago," says Del, "that I could make up for some of my defects by maybe working just a little harder than anyone else. It's a good life and I want to stay up here."
"Crandall is the best there is," says Spahn, "and he gets better every year."
"He always knew the hitters," says Burdette. "The thing which has made him even better in the last few years is that he knows his own pitchers so well now. He knows what we should throw to each batter and when."
"I just do what he tells me," says Jay, who is only 23 although he has been in the big leagues for six years. "He's always thinking out ahead. And he's the best target you ever saw. I don't know what he does that other catchers don't do, but he sure helps you. And, boy, he stays on top of the play all the time. He keeps you working out there. You let down for a minute and out he comes. Having Del back there has meant a lot to the young pitchers on this ball club. It's meant a lot to the entire team. Nobody else has a catcher like him in this league."
So Del Crandall, who still looks like Jack Armstrong, or maybe like his older brother, has finally arrived, although not in the way he was supposed to in the beginning. And, like Crandall, the other Braves have arrived, too. It's going to be pretty tough getting them down from up there. They don't really need a leader any more. They just follow each other these days.