In the event that the 1959 National League pennant race is completed before 1960 spring training begins, the time will come when all involved will get a chance to relax and examine the proceedings of these final, frantic weeks with an objective eye.
One discovery they will make is that never did a team lose a game it absolutely had to win. Nor, on the other hand, did a team ever win a game that it could afford to lose. Eventually, of course, probably sometime this final weekend of the season, one of the three contenders will take it upon itself to win the pennant. It says so in the rule book for one thing, and also it would not be fair to keep the White Sox waiting forever. But through all of last week, in the seven big games the Giants, Dodgers and Braves played with each other on the West Coast, as well as in half a dozen other games they played against ball clubs having no more interest in the pennant race than Mrs. Khrushchev, the strange, unreal pattern persisted.
On Monday morning, with 12 games remaining, the Giants were two games out in front. This cushion enabled the Giants to lose a few more games during the week than the other two, which of course they did. It also would have enabled them to wrap up the whole affair with a few strategic victories, but this apparently was unthinkable. The Braves, on the other hand, never won so many that they were in danger of running off with anything, either. The Dodgers followed suit.
On Monday while San Francisco lost to Cincinnati the Braves beat the Dodgers. On Tuesday the Giants beat the Reds and the Dodgers beat the Braves. On Wednesday the Braves beat the Giants and the Reds beat the Dodgers. On Thursday the Dodgers beat the Reds and the Giants beat the Braves. The Braves finally left California entirely, preferring to spend a few days in Pennsylvania rather than take part any longer in such an affair, and the Dodgers, realizing that San Francisco still had a two-game lead, bopped the Giants in both ends of a Saturday double-header. This really snarled things up.
There was enough baseball excitement during the week to last most fans for a lifetime, and not all of it was due solely to the pennant race. There was also some rather unusual—and occasionally very brilliant—baseball which at any time would stand by itself. Two of the best pitchers in the league, Johnny Antonelli of the Giants and Warren Spahn of the Braves, both trying for their 20th victories, were pounded unmercifully. Two of the league's best hitters, Henry Aaron of the Braves and Orlando Cepeda of the Giants, failed time and again, while a kid with a glove named Maury Wills went wild with a bat for the Dodgers. San Francisco's Jimmy Davenport, a third baseman with an injured knee, hobbled off the bench and onto the field to make plays on one leg that few other third basemen could make on two. Willie Mays made an unbelievable catch.
The Dodgers' Don Drysdale walked the bases full with nobody out in the first inning against the Giants, then struck out the side. The Braves' Don McMahon walked two men in one inning, but the second was with the bases full, and that cost Milwaukee a game. Ed Bailey, the Cincinnati catcher, was thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire, and his replacement, Dutch Dotterer, almost ruined the Giants all by himself. Duke Snider, the Dodgers' big slugger, was thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire, and his replacement, Ron Fairly, proceeded to tear the Braves apart. Giant and Dodger pitchers struck out a total of 22 batters in one game. Willie Mays dropped an easy fly ball. For the first time in more than a year a game was rained out in San Francisco.
If there were key games during the key week that rose above other key games, they occurred in Los Angeles on Tuesday and in San Francisco on Wednesday, on Thursday and on Saturday night. In the first of these, that three-hour-and-56-minute, 10-inning affair that the Dodgers finally won 8-7 from the Braves, there was a little bit of everything. Five Dodger pitchers gave up a total of 16 hits but left 17 Braves on base. Wills hit four singles and a triple. Joe Adcock hit a 251-foot home run that almost grazed the back side of the infamous Coliseum screen on its way down. Four innings later Adcock hit a ball three times as hard, one that was heading into orbit, but which smacked into one of the screen's supporting towers, rattled around in the cross braces for a while and finally fell, to be caught in an overlap of the mesh for a ground-rule double. The Braves were very unhappy about that, insisting it should have been ruled a home run. Managed Fred Haney and General Manager John McHale even wrote a letter to the league president, Mr. Warren Giles, telling him so.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, were very happy. They had won the game by one run, and they knew Mr. Giles wouldn't pay much attention to the letter. They had to win that one to stay in the race.
"Every game is important from here on in," said the Dodger manager, Walter Alston, "but this was sure a nice one to win."
On Wednesday it was the Braves who had to win, for once again they were two games behind. The Giants were very obliging. They swung at everything Lew Burdette threw their way, missed most of it and lost 2-0. Burdette outpitched Sam Jones in a duel of the league's only 20-game winners, the big Milwaukee right-hander turning in one of the masterpieces of his fidgety career. He kept everything low. He gave up only five hits, no two in the same inning and four of them with two men out. He struck out seven and walked only one. His stuff was so good, whatever it was, that the Giants, to retain their self-respect if nothing else, accused him once again of throwing that nasty pitch, the spitter. Lew just laughed.
"We're playing them one at a time," said Manager Haney, "but this was one we had to win."
On Thursday the Giant cause appeared hopeless. Their lead was down to only one game, the Braves were on the warpath and on the mound was Warren Spahn, who has spent many seasons teaching National Leaguers to eat out of his left hand. Only, on Thursday, Spahn barely got the hand out of the way before it was taken off. He lasted only 18 pitches, gave up three hits, a walk and three runs and didn't get a batter out.
Before the day was over, Willie Mays hit a home run, three singles, walked and drove in five runs; Davenport hit a home run, a single and a sacrifice fly and drove in four runs; Eddie Bressoud hit two singles and a homer; and Willie McCovey contributed, too. Eventually the Giants won 13-6, although Jack Sanford had to have two innings of relief help from Sam Jones (Eddie Mathews, on a rampage, drove in all six Milwaukee runs with two home runs and a lowering sacrifice fly).
Later, people said it was the greatest game Willie Mays had ever played in San Francisco. Jim Davenport said it was the greatest game he had ever played in his life.
Personally, Giant Manager Bill Rigney was glad it was over. At one time, with Sanford pitching, he had the three other Giant starting pitchers—Jones, Antonelli and McCormick—warming up in the bullpen.
"They tell me," said Manager Rigney, "that you're supposed to save a pitcher for tomorrow. I figured I couldn't wait."
By this time the Giants were two games ahead again, a situation in this pennant race to be avoided like the plague. It rained on Friday, so everyone had a day of rest, and then the Dodgers took over on Saturday. In the first game, a daylight affair, Roger Craig humbled the Giants 4-1. Maury Wills had three hits. In the night game Drysdale and Larry Sherry and Danny McDevitt and Clarence Nottingham Churn III combined their talents to beat the Giants 5-3. The Giants, stopped dead by Drysdale after they had loaded the bases on walks in the first inning, had a 1-0 lead going into the seventh. Then came the play that might well have broken the back of the pennant race. The Dodgers filled the bases with one out, but Chuck Essegian hit a double-play grounder to Davenport at third. Davenport fielded the ball and threw to Daryl Spencer at second, but Dodger Joe Pignatano barreled into Spencer, Daryl dropped the ball and the Dodgers, instead of being out of the inning with no runs, went on to score five. It was a startling reversal of fortune, but routine in this week of surprises.
The last game of the Dodger-Giant series was almost anticlimactic. Duke Snider hit a home run off Sam Jones in the second inning, and the Dodgers were off. By the time the Giants got around to scoring a couple of runs in the eighth, Los Angeles already had four and Sam Jones had long since showered and dressed. As if to emphasize what kind of week it had been, the Dodgers scored four more in the ninth. The Giants were suddenly in third place, and barely breathing.
To understand why such a twisted mixup exists in the National League race, particularly among three teams so dissimilar, it may help to study the personalities of the teams involved. And baseball teams do have individual personalities, compounded of equal parts physical ability and psychic quirks—a confusion of styles and temperaments and talents of players and managers and coaches, with even a bit of history on the side.
The Milwaukee Braves, for example, are a superior ball club, not great but very good, the best in the league. They have a certain amount of frightening power scattered throughout the lineup and some of the best pitching in baseball. Without being spectacular about it they manage to make most of the plays in the field. But the Braves are not very inspiring. They won the pennant the last two years simply because they were far better than anyone else; in 1956, when they were better, too, but not to such a marked degree, they lost.
This year they have missed Red Schoendienst at second base and at the plate, but the illness of Schoendienst has meant far more than just the loss of a glove and a bat. Without him, the Braves do not rise to the occasion. There are exceptions, of course: the two great pitchers, Spahn and Burdette, maybe Mathews and Del Crandall, perhaps a few more. But victory does not exhilarate them nor defeat drop them into the depths of despair; they are a little bit happier if they win, a little less cheerful if they lose. They are old pros, doing a job. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes not.
The Dodgers are as different from the Braves as night from day. Their physical talents are far less. They have a pitching staff of vast potential and occasional brilliance which quite frequently falls on its face. They don't have too much power. Seldom do they cause an opposing pitcher to quiver on the mound and almost never do they run another team off the field; even their victories are scrambling affairs in which hustle and a refusal to quit seem far more important than base hits.
ALL THAT MONEY
Perhaps it is the great bundle of cash which awaits them if they can bring the World Series to their Coliseum and its 95,000 seats that spurs the Dodgers. Or it could be the old winning habit ingrained in the famed Dodger teams of the past, a habit which still lives in veterans like Hodges and Gilliam and Snider and Furillo. Or perhaps it is the marked aggressiveness of some of the new players, particularly Wally Moon, who has given the Dodgers their greatest lift with his clutch hitting and fierce will to win. Whatever it is, the Dodgers have it, a spirit which has made them better than they are.
The Giants are somewhere in between. They have more power than the Braves against mediocre pitching, not quite so much against pitching that is very sharp. They have terrific speed and, with Mays in the outfield and Davenport and Bressoud in the infield, good defense. The Giants have very fine starting pitchers, but they are short on relief.
All the Giants lack is experience and the steadiness it brings; they still make mistakes; they get rattled; sometimes they seem to lack confidence in their own skills. But to make up for this, the Giants have a blend of bubbling enthusiasm which keeps them battling to win and a compelling sense of destiny. Together, these factors are as impressive as the dogged determination of the Dodgers and the stolid skill of the Braves.
These three teams, so different in ability, so widely separated in style, have combined to make 1959 one of the most memorable years in National League history. It's almost a shame that two of them have to lose.