The Yankees would finish sixth in the National League," said a bedazzled Cincinnati Red fan recently. He was wrong. The Yanks would probably finish no worse than fourth. Still, the National League race may turn out to be the hottest six-team battle for a major league pennant in baseball history. With two weeks to go to the halfway point in the season, no team has established a clear claim to superiority; what is more, no team is likely to.
"I figure seven games will cover the first six teams by the time the season ends," said Fred Hutchinson, manager of the Reds, last week. "I never saw so many good pitchers—young ones—in the league before."
The young pitchers have, indeed, been the big factor in the race so far. Best of these have been Ken Hunt, a rookie fastball specialist who has learned control after three years in the minors and has sparked the Reds with seven victories to date, and Sandy Koufax, who has served a much longer apprenticeship but now has learned to control both his temper and his curve ball and leads the deep, young Dodger pitching staff. Hunt is 22; Koufax, who began his major league career at 20, is 25.
"No one can keep a winning streak going long," says Alvin Dark, the rookie San Francisco Giant manager. "There are no soft touches in this league, principally because every club has at least three good pitchers and nearly every one has very good relief pitching." In one frenetic 24-hour period the Dodgers slipped to second place, dropped to third when San Francisco won an afternoon game the next day, then bounced all the way to first by beating the Chicago Cubs that night. During the last three weeks the lead has changed among the Dodgers, Giants and Reds nine times.
The Dodgers and the Reds own the biggest number of good young pitchers. To go with Koufax, Los Angeles has Don Drysdale, Ron Perranoski and Stan Williams—none of them over 30. The Reds, backing up Hunt, have Joey Jay, Jim Maloney and Jim O'Toole. The Giants are not far behind with Mike McCormick, Juan Marichal, Billy Loes, Jack Sanford and a couple of raw rookies in Bob Bolin and Dick LeMay.
Youth seems to be the mark of the contending teams. The youngest, deepest and most flexible of the clubs involved in this hectic pennant race is the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not long ago Walter Alston, the Dodger manager, contemplated his embarrassment of riches.
"I can't tell you where anyone will play on a given day," said Alston, a frank man. "It depends on a lot of things. On what park we are in, who is pitching for us and against us, who's holding a hot bat. It may even depend on which way the wind is blowing on that particular day."
It is this depth and flexibility that has kept the Dodgers up among the leaders so far, because they have had disappointing performances from players like Frank Howard, the massive young outfielder-first baseman, and Pitchers Dick Farrell and Stan Williams. They have also endured a siege of early-season injuries to Duke Snider, Norm Larker, Charlie Neal, Wally Moon, Ed Roebuck and Johnny Podres. With so many problems among regular players, another club would be in serious trouble.
Again, it is the young pitching that has sustained the Dodgers. General Manager Buzzie Bavasi commented on this the other day: "I figure that by the time they are 28, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax will be the best pitchers in baseball. Now that he has learned to control his temper, Koufax may make it even sooner. Don still gets too mad at himself; if he learns to handle his temperament, he'll be as good as Sandy is."
After several seasons of unfulfilled promise (and a career record of 36 wins against 40 losses) Koufax has taken over as the bellwether of the Dodger pitching staff. So far this year he has won nine and lost only three while striking out 97 batters in 98 innings. His lifetime strikeout average of 8.9 per game is the best in major league history. Until this year, aside from his temper, his problem was controlling his wide curve ball. When it hung, as it did often, it was a home run pitch. Now he has faith in it and control over it and uses it to get batters out.
Alston handled the flood of early-season injuries by shrewdly combining his young talent and his versatile old-timers. Junior Gilliam, who replaced Charlie Neal at second base, can play that position or the outfield. Gil Hodges can catch, play first or third. Tommy Davis, although he is more comfortable and hits better when he plays left field, is an improving third baseman. His replacement at third, Daryl Spencer, is a shortstop, too. Neal can play second or short. Howard, Norm Larker and rookie Ron Fairly can all play first or the outfield. When all of them are healthy, Alston has unlimited combinations for platooning. He can, indeed, adjust his hitting strength to take advantage of the prevailing winds. And the winds are important in a race as close as this one.
Recently Jim Brosnan, the very good relief pitcher for the Reds, was pondering the power of the wind. "The young pitchers on the club have helped us a lot," said Brosnan, a middle-aged pitcher and a young author. "Guys like Joey Jay and Hunt. But we have been pretty lucky, too. Most of the time the wind here in Cincinnati blows out from home plate, helping the batter. So far this year it has only blown out maybe three or four times." During the early part of the season Cincinnati's power hitters were not producing much power, and the Reds' young pitchers needed all the help they could get from the wind. Now the Red sluggers are back in form and, luckily again, the prevailing wind has taken over at home plate. The Reds may be the only team in baseball history to have an anemometer on the roof of the stands which gives them the wind velocity during the game. This bit of esoteric information is relayed to Manager Fred Hutchinson in the dugout and thence to the players. If the winds are strong enough, the Cincinnati hitters try to loft towering flies up into the jet-stream so that the ball will be wafted into the stands.
More important to the rise of the Reds than their built-in wind tunnel is the sudden development of a trio of fine pitchers, headed by Hunt. Last year the Reds could not get anyone out; they produced small clusters of runs off the hitting of Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Ed Bailey, Eddie Kasko and Gus Bell but succumbed to even bigger run production from less talented hitters on other clubs.
A balanced staff
Hunt, of course, was the big surprise. But Joey Jay, obtained from Milwaukee, has developed into a consistent winner under the gentle tutelage of Hutchinson, a superb handler of pitchers. "I don't want to criticize his other managers," says Hutchinson. "But all Joey needed was confidence—the confidence he gets from taking a regular position in the starting lineup." The regular work has given Jay control that he lacked as a sometime starter—rare—for the Braves. The development of two more youngsters—Jim Maloney, up from Nashville, and Jim O'Toole—has rounded out a Cincinnati staff which has maturity in Bob Purkey and security in the relief pitching of Brosnan, Bill Henry and Howie Nunn.
A revamped infield has helped the Reds, too. Possibly the best trade made by any club this season was the one that brought them Third Baseman Gene Freese. "He's hit a ton since he came here," says one of the Red coaches, "and the guy doesn't make any mistakes at third. Him and Blasingame [the second baseman the Reds got from the Giants] tied our infield together."
The Giants could afford to trade away Blasingame because they have two good young second basemen of their own—Charlie Hiller and Joey Amalfitano. Next to the Dodgers, the Giants are probably the deepest team in the league in good young talent. El Tappe, the current head coach of the Chicago Cubs, who may be taken as a reasonably dispassionate observer since his club is one of the two—with the Philadelphia Phils—not considered to be in the race, thinks the Giants should be favored.
"They have been the most effective against us, anyway," he says. "They bring a pinch hitter off the bench, and boom—a triple or a home run. And they're deadly in the late innings. One of those big guys—Mays, Cepeda, McCovey or someone—hits a homer to tie the game, then another one hits a homer to win it. They do just as much as they have to do to win, and that's what it has always taken to win a pennant."
A good deal of the opportunism of the Giants may be traced to the skill of Alvin Dark, who has made many unorthodox moves. Most of them to date have been successful; like Alston, he can trace a good deal of that success to his depth. He has, for instance, two completely interchangeable infields, one of which is superb on defense and adequate at bat, and the other adequate on defense and superb at bat. He has in Matty Alou as good a substitute outfielder as there is in baseball.
He has, too, a fine young pitching staff, though it has been somewhat erratic so far. The steadying influence is Stu Miller, a slender 33-year-old reliefer who comes to the aid of the fast-ball-pitching youngsters with an effective assortment of tired pitches. It is doubtful that Miller could throw a baseball through a wet paper sack; despite this lack of speed, he has won six games and saved four and leads the league in earned run average. He is especially effective against the big hitters on the other team. "Send up nine pitchers against Miller and you'd get nine hits," said Dodger Coach Leo Durocher in disgust last week after Miller had smothered a Dodger rally in junk. "But our regulars can't wait for the ball to get to the plate before they swing." Daryl Spencer, an erstwhile Giant who had been one of the victims of Miller's supersoft deliveries, agreed sadly. "I was so far out front it was ridiculous," he said.
The other three teams in this race have been hobbled principally by the failure of seasoned pitching to produce as well as expected. Ernie Broglio of the Cardinals, who tied with Warren Spahn as the league's winningest pitcher last year, is 6 and 7 now. "It's tougher to win this year," says Broglio. "You always seem to be up against a hot pitcher. I'm pitching as well as I ever did—I've got more confidence now than I had last season. I've got one problem, however. I can control my curve early or my fast ball. But I never have both of them. If the curve is in there for the first five innings, I can't count on the fast ball. If the fast ball is over, I can't throw the curve when I need to get someone out. Late in the game I have both of them. But that's too late." One reason the Cardinals are having difficulty, of course, is that they have been hurt by key injuries to Julian Javier at second, to Larry Jackson, counted on as their No. 2 pitcher, and to Hal Smith, the club's best catcher, who is hospitalized with a suspected heart condition.
The Pirates, hitting well and consistently, have had trouble in the field and have missed the one-two punch of Vernon Law and Bob Friend, neither of whom has won consistently this season. Unlike most of the other teams, the Pirates are not deep in first-line talent. Milwaukee's case is very similar. Spahn and Lou Burdette can no longer carry the whole pitching load and there is a dearth of good young pitchers to help them out.