If baseball made any sense at all, the Cincinnati Reds would have disappeared from the top of the National League months ago. They would be somewhere around sixth place, right where the smart money picked them to be, and they would have left the business of deciding a pennant winner to more talented teams. But baseball is rarely sensible. So the city of Cincinnati has been busily plastering up "Rally Round the Reds" signs and announcing night-game scores between bouts at the wrestling matches and acts at the opera house, while its Reds have rallied round first place.
Into this already improbable setting last Friday came the team which was considered the class of the National League, the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers. A sudden three and a half games behind, the Dodgers were combating not only the inexplicable Reds, but an equally inexplicable 10-game losing streak (worst for the Dodgers in 17 years). Three days and four games later the Dodgers left Cincinnati. They had first joyously broken their losing string and had showed off their (and baseball's) fastest pitchers, their power hitters and their flashy fielders. But they wound up still exactly three and a half games behind the Reds.
That the Dodgers should be in this desperate situation made even less sense than Cincinnati's present steadfast hold on first place. Just two weeks before, it was Los Angeles that was in first place, and it was the Reds who were trying to avoid complete collapse. Cincinnati, after leading for much of the season, had begun to lose, as expected. At the same time the Dodgers, also as expected, had begun to win—19 out of 22 in one stretch—and in so doing took over the lead. With the supposedly more serious contenders—the Giants, Braves and Pirates—considerably to the rear, it appeared that the Dodgers were about to leave the rest of the league far behind.
Then came the Dodger disaster. In a three-game series with the Reds in Los Angeles, the Dodgers scored two runs in the first inning of the first game. In the next 26 innings they neglected to score at all. They lost all three games, of course. Counting a previous defeat by St. Louis, this made four in a row and the Dodgers fell back to second place.
The loss of the Cincinnati series did not bother Manager Walt Alston. "We had won so many games that I figured we were due to drop a few," he said. The Dodgers finally scored a run in San Francisco, but lost three more games, then flew to St. Louis and dropped another three. Alston barred the clubhouse to reporters after one game and lectured his players.
"I gave them a little hell and I gave them a little encouragement," said Alston. "Norm Larker dropped a pop foul that hurt us, but nobody works harder than Norm. Willie Davis held up on a base hit and couldn't score the winning run. It was just a tough break."
As the Dodgers' losing streak grew, John Griffin, the team lockerman, changed from one bizarre costume to another in an effort to snap the jinx. One night the Dodgers, now frantically superstitious, exchanged uniform shirts for their pregame workout. They wanted to continue it that way through the game, but Alston said no.
There was wryness in the losing streak too. "I don't know who we're trying to catch, the Reds or the Phils," said one player. Big Don Drysdale looked at the Dodger plane in St. Louis and said, "The way things are going I don't think we'd better climb aboard."
Maury Wills, the Dodgers' fine little shortstop, continued to play his guitar on the team bus. "I play songs from the '20s and '30s," said Wills. "Most of the guys join in singing. I think it helps. I can't tell whether the guys are down, or whether they're being quiet because that's the thing to do when you lose."
It was inevitable that as the Dodgers lost game after game a rumor should arise that Walter Alston was about to be fired. Dodger Owner Walter O'Malley denied the rumor vigorously. "I have faith," he wired from California. Any manager knows this is a bad sign. Alston himself walked around with a smile as ambiguous as Mona Lisa's and said he had other things to worry about.
It was also not surprising that the Alston managing technique, a platooning system worthy of pro football, should be challenged. Since Casey Stengel was fired, many Yankees have complained about the way he platooned them. But Alston has stoutly defended his use of 15 to 18 players in a game, pointing out his older men need rest, admitting that it would probably be better for youngsters like Frank Howard and Willie Davis to play every day, and then concluding firmly that there is a pennant to be won. And what a pennant. A New York vs. Los Angeles World Series could mean a gross of $450,000 to the Dodger management and $13,500 to each player—the richest series ever.
Nor was Fred Hutchinson, the Cincinnati manager, much happier. After the Reds swept the Dodgers in Los Angeles and regained the lead, the team showed signs of falling apart. Frank Robinson, the hard-hitting outfielder who is certainly the Most Valuable Player in the league, hurt his knee and could not take his full swing. The Reds lost one to St. Louis and two more to San Francisco. In the second Giant loss, the Reds gave up 12 runs in the ninth inning. So, while Walt Alston was talking to the Dodgers in St. Louis, Hutchinson locked the Red dressing room. There is no report on what he said, but he said it loud and long and the Reds won the next night.
Yet, basically, the Reds were a cold team as they awaited the Dodgers, the Dodgers were a cold team coming into town, and both were so preoccupied with just winning a game that they forgot about the hatred for each other that had led to the year's best baseball feud.
Crosley Field was packed the evening of the first game, but packed for Crosley Field is only 30,000. (The Yankees shudder whenever they consider a Series in Cincinnati instead of the 92,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum.) The fans saw the game decided by one ground ball in the Reds' half of the fifth. Bob Purkey started for the Reds; Sandy Koufax, who hadn't won in a month, for the Dodgers. Old Duke Snider and young Frank Howard hit home runs to give the Dodgers a 4-2 lead as the Reds came to bat in the fifth.
Koufax, who had shown tremors of wildness, walked Purkey on four pitches. Then he hit the next batter and walked the next to load the bases with none out. Vada Pinson, a .338 hitter, was up. Frank Robinson was on deck. Walt Alston was at the mound, faced with either more Koufax or turning to one of his relief pitchers, members of a group that has been so ineffective of late it could hardly have survived in the Three-I League.
"Koufax was throwing too hard," said Alston later. "I just told him to relax and follow through." Koufax threw one relaxed pitch to Pinson and Pinson popped it up. He threw another pitch to Robinson and Robinson hit it hard, just to the left of second, where it normally would have been a hit. But Maury Wills had noticed that Robinson was not swinging well because of his bad knee and had therefore decided he might not pull as much. Wills, in exactly the right spot, scooped up the ball, bobbled it, grabbed it again, stepped on second and got the throw over to first to double Robinson. (For more on Wills and double plays, see page 36.) The Dodgers were out of the inning and Koufax was never in trouble again.
In the Dodger dressing room, John Griffin, who had dressed that night as a much-bandaged accident survivor, paraded in his costume, successful at last. Koufax got a handshake from everyone. When the team bus was ready to leave for the hotel, the pitcher was still in his uniform, answering questions. Gil Hodges called to him. "You want us to wait, Sandy?" Koufax shook his head. "Go ahead," he said. "I'll catch a cab." Hodges lingered at the door. "Look," he said. "You want us to wait? Just say the word, Sandy boy. We'll wait all night."
On Saturday the Dodgers won again, quickly and ruthlessly. Fred Hutchinson, strapped for a pitcher, tried to get by with Jay Hook, who had not started a game since June. The Dodgers jumped him for four runs in the second inning, widened the lead to 6-0 and won comfortably 10-6. Johnny Podres, the old Dodger hero who is having a fine year, won his 16th game. And huge Frank Howard hit another home run. The Dodger dressing room was much quieter than it had been the night before. They had ended their slump, and now they were the cool professionals once again, carving up a pigeon.
Nobody in gloomy Cincinnati attached much importance to two minor developments. Pinson had generated some Cincinnati offense with a grand-slam home run, and the Dodger relief pitchers who followed Podres were far from impressive. On Sunday the pigeon pecked back.
Dodger Pitcher Stan Williams, a fast-baller, of course, held the Reds hitless until the fifth. He stopped Pinson and Robinson when there were men on base, and he had a 5-1 lead going into the seventh. Then, with two out and two on, Gene Freese, a refugee from three other clubs who is having by far his finest year, hit a home run. The next inning an error led to two more Red runs, and they won 6-5.
They carried the momentum of their late rush into the second game. Pinson hit a home run in the first inning off that Dodger faster-bailer, Don Drysdale, the most unpopular man in Cincinnati because of his proclivity for hitting Red batters. The Reds drove Drysdale out in the sixth inning and won easily 8-3.
Having got their split the hard way, the Reds now had a lead that was impressive, if not decisive. They have played seven more games than the Dodgers and won them all. With 12 open dates in their schedule, they need start only their three best pitchers, Purkey, Joey Jay and Jim O'Toole. They also have six games against last-place Philadelphia while the Dodgers have seven against third-place and always-testy San Francisco.
Because of their personnel the Dodgers may still be, in theory, the best team in the league. But time has grown short, the Reds have shown their nerve, and it's an axiom of baseball that when September comes the likely pennant winner is really the best team. That's Cincinnati.