There were 48,526 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum last Friday night and approximately 47,000 of them must have been carrying transistor radios, because when Robin Roberts of the Phillies, who was pitching 400 miles to the north in San Francisco, retired Orlando Cepeda for the final out in the Phils' 1-0 triumph over the Giants, the wildest cheering of the night broke out.
The spontaneous roar was so sudden and so loud that the Pirates' Dick Groat, who was up, stepped out of the batter's box and looked around in bewilderment. Not for 10 or 15 seconds did Groat realize what had happened. Then the Coliseum scoreboard flashed it in lights: PHILADELPHIA 1, SAN FRANCISCO 0. The Dodgers, who had already won the first game of the twilight-night double-header, were now only one game behind the sagging Giants. When they went on to win the second, they cut the Giants' lead to one-half game in this most exciting pennant race in years. Things were so strained that it even rained in Los Angeles during a ball game, the first time that that's happened since the Dodgers went West.
In its 83 years the National League has put on some pennant races that were real wingdings. In 1946 the Cardinals and Dodgers spent all summer playing themselves into a tie, and the Cards won baseball's first intraleague playoff. The 1950 pennant wasn't decided until the last day, nor until the 10th inning, when Dick Sisler poked one into Ebbets Field's left-field seats to send the Phils home with their first pennant in 35 years. In 1951 the Giants beat the Dodgers in another playoff, this time on Bobby Thomson's historic clout. And in 1956 the Dodgers, who seem to get involved in this sort of thing almost as a matter of course, finally came out ahead when Milwaukee stumbled on the last weekend of the season.
But the 1959 finish may be the best yet. There is a three-team race raging between the Giants and Dodgers and Braves, and baseball has never had a three-way tie. The mathematical improbability of such an outcome doesn't influence anyone a bit; the three contenders keep right on chasing one another around in a circle, refusing to move out ahead, unwilling to die. Only once in the past 32 years has the National League pennant winner won less than 90 games; this season the competition has been so intense that the eventual winner will barely exceed 85.
This week, with the three rivals meeting in seven games in seven successive days on the West Coast, the tangle just might straighten itself out. But 23 earlier weeks haven't done much to straighten things out, and this race seems likely to go right on down to season's end, a week from this Sunday.
Back in August it appeared that the National League race was as dead as the Yankees. San Francisco won 16 of 23 games and moved ahead by four lengths. Previous Giant shortcomings—erratic play at shortstop, inconsistent left-handed hitting, inadequate relief pitching—had been patched up. The Giants installed Ed Bressoud at short, called up Willie McCovey and his wondrous bat, built a bullpen out of Sam Jones. Even better, the Dodgers and Braves dawdled along, playing .500 ball, going nowhere very fast.
Then the Giants stopped hitting and began to slow down, and at the same time the others began to win. Last week, while the Giants won and lost and won and lost, the Dodgers—just like the good old days—took five in a row, and the Braves—remembering that they were defending champions—won six. By week's end the three clubs were twisted together in one wild scramble.
Fans all over the country, remembering once again how exciting baseball can be, sat forward, waiting for the big week ahead, waiting for the answers to their big questions: Can the Giants recover their early form and go on to bring San Francisco its first pennant—or have the Giants had it? Can the Dodgers keep coming with one of those old, patented Dodger finishes and show Los Angeles what all the shouting used to be about back in Ebbets Field? Or will the Braves, who have been down this same road so many times in the last few years, have the experience and poise to bring another World Series to Milwaukee?
There are several factors in Milwaukee's favor. The Braves have been by far the most impressive team lately. Their hitting is far better than the Dodgers', and recently it's been better than San Francisco's, too. Their pitching, while not so spectacular as that of the Dodgers nor so heroic as that of the Giants, is steadier and more dependable. With Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette working twice a week, and winning, say, three out of four—well, that's about all the Braves need.
The Dodgers have to do it on superlative pitching, with batting help from an occasional hero like Wally Moon. With Don Drysdale apparently over his bad period and with the emergence of ex-Pirate Clarence Nottingham Churn as a dependable relief man, the Dodgers are set for the run to the wire.
But the Giants are in good position, too. They have had their slump while the others were spurting, and now, if the law of averages is still operating in baseball, it is their turn to move again. Their strength is in their hitting, slump-ridden though it has been, and good hitters do not stay quiet for long. The bad fielding situation at third base, which has cost ball games, will be all right if Jim Davenport's ailing but healing knee can hold up. And the pitching, built around Sam Jones, John Antonelli, Mike McCormick and Jack Sanford, has been consistently good, even in the losing games.
Each team is good enough to win—and, inevitably, one of them is going to, which is why everybody's got an eye on the West Coast. If Nikita Khrushchev wonders what all the workers are so excited about this weekend as he tours California, someone should tell him to tune in the ball game. He'll find out.