It was just one ball game, played on an ordinary sunny September afternoon before a crowd of 28,635 in San Francisco last Saturday. But when it was over it may have cost the Los Angeles Dodgers a pennant and rendered useless an entire season of the most complete statistical study, strategy and platooning that baseball has ever known.
The Dodgers had arrived in San Francisco virtually tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the league lead. Actually they were in a better position than the Reds, for they had lost two less games. Besides they were hot, having won four straight from the Giants in Los Angeles. So when they lost Friday night in San Francisco while the Reds were beating the Cardinals, the Dodgers casually felt they had been due for a defeat. Now they were two games behind the Reds, but they had still lost one less game.
On the bus trip to Candlestick Park next day, the Dodgers were cheerful. Sitting in the front seat, Manager Alston discussed his team. This has not been an easy season for the Dodger manager. He has been under pressure to win the pennant with what most people consider the best team in the league. And he has been constantly criticized for his method of managing that team; his involved platooning system and his constant reference to the statistical findings of Allan Roth, the Dodger number man who keeps the most detailed performance records in the game.
The Alston method has led, for example, to this year's Dodgers having two players (Tom Davis and Ron Fairly) who have played four positions, four outfielders who have each played left, center and right, and four men who have played first base.
September 17, 1961
"But it's the kind of team it is, not Alston, that has forced the platooning," says Roth. "People forget that when Walter managed Reese, Robinson, Campanela, Snider and Hodges, he didn't platoon."
Alston himself was well aware of the danger of platooning: that constant substitution and shifting of position erodes the confidence of players. With a team of much talent and no stars, he felt he had to take the risk—and Saturday showed how serious these risks can be.
"The Giants are throwing Marichal, a right-hander, so I'm going with my left-handed hitters," said Alston as the bus ride began. "That's Roseboro catching, Ron Fairly at first and Snider in center.
"There's only one real decision I had to make in picking today's lineup," he went on, "and that was third base. I could play Tommy Davis, but that hurts us on defense and Davis hasn't been hitting. I could play Charlie Neal at second and move Junior Gilliam to third, or I could play Daryl Spencer, though he has a bad leg. I've decided on Spencer because he's been hitting pretty good."
A half hour later the Dodgers were in the locker room dressing. Alston read the starting lineup aloud.
Afterward, young Tommy Davis, who had been out of the room when the lineup was read, approached Alston. "May I see the lineup card?" he asked softly.
Alston reached into his locker and handed it to him without a word. Davis read it impassively, returned it and walked quietly to his corner of the room.
"How did I feel when I saw I wasn't playing?" Davis said in response to a question. "I'm a human being, just like anyone else, but he's got to use his nine best men."
Davis has sometimes been called on to play as many as three different positions in three innings. "I've never played much third base," Davis said. "I have trouble with slow grounders and I aim my throws too much."
"When Tommy's hitting well he has to play," said Alston. "But what outfielder does he replace? Snider? Moon? Howard? So he has to play third."
An hour later the game began. The scoreboard showed Cincinnati leading St. Louis 2-0.
The Dodgers went out easily against Marichal in the first inning. Then, with Don Drysdale pitching, Joe Amalfitano of the Giants hit a wicked hopper toward Fairly down at first base. Fairly bobbled it, booted it but managed to pick it up just in time for the out.
"I really hadn't played much first base before this year," Fairly had said the night before. "I still make a lot of mistakes, like when to hold the runner on. The outfield is my position and I feel more sure of myself there."
"He's learning," said patient Walter Alston. "He had his first bad game at first base the other night. But he's hitting well and he'll do all right."
Advice from a foe
With two out in the first, Willie Mays got up. The night before, during batting practice, he and Drysdale had been kidding each other. "I hope you do hit me," said Willie. "The way I been hitting I need a broken arm."
"You're backingaway," said Drysdale, "and swinging at bad pitches."
"Darn right I'm backing away from the plate when you pitch," Mays said. "I just want to swing at that first pitch and get out of there. When you pitch?"
"Saturday," said Drysdale.
"Well, let's talk about it Sunday," said Willie.
Now, batting against Drysdale, Mays stepped backwards and hit an inside pitch to third for an easy out.
With two out in the Dodger second, Roseboro hit a home run for a 1-0 Dodger lead. "It's always easier to hit when you're playing regularly," Roseboro had said earlier. "When Alston sends me up to pinch-hit, I just feel he knows I haven't been playing and understands I might do extra bad. So if I do, the hell with it."
Spencer struck out to end the inning. When he had heard that he was playing that day, he had let out a mock whistle. "That makes three games in a row, a record," he said. "It's rough sitting on the bench. On most teams if you have a bad day, you can come back the next. With this club, you have a bad day, you might be out a week. But Walter's got a tough problem with so many good men."
In the Giant second, Willie McCovey hit a home run to tie the score. Orlando Cepeda tripled and scored on a fly ball. The Giants scored twice more in the third, Cepeda hitting a single to right with two out and the bases loaded. Frank Howard bobbled the ball for an error. The night before he had bobbled another ball, letting a run score. Howard this year has played right field, left field and first base.
The Dodgers came to bat in the sixth inning, still losing 4-1. Billy O'Dell had replaced Marichal, who was spiked. With one out Gilliam singled, Moon walked and Snider singled for a run. That brought up Fairly.
"It might have seemed sensible to bring in Hodges," explained Alston later. "Gil hits right-handed and gives us better defense at first. But Fairly had singled off O'Dell the first time he faced him and that wind was beginning to blow pretty good toward right. The wind is a big factor, just as the screen is at the Coliseum. In Chicago, there's always a wind, too. If it's blowing out, I play my big hitters. If it's blowing in, I play my defensive team. Depending on the pitcher, of course."
So now there came the kind of play that makes all thinking managers wonder if they don't torment themselves needlessly. Fairly drove a ground ball at McCovey near first base. It was a perfect double-play ball, but McCovey never touched it. The ball zipped neatly through his legs and into the right-field corner. Both runners scored, Fairly went to third, and the score was tied 4-4. Howard then hit a sacrifice fly, and the Dodgers were ahead.
When the Dodgers still led by a run after they had hit in the seventh, Walter Alston began to shift to his defensive team. Neal went in to play second base and Gilliam moved to third.
"I don't care which position I play," Gilliam had said earlier. "I just play."
Up in the press box, Cookie Lavagetto, the deposed manager of the Minnesota Twins, smiled when told this. "Don't let them fool you," he said. "Ballplayers hate to move around."
As for Neal, he had twice within the month made crucial errors to lose games. "I think he's sick," one Los Angeles sportswriter said. "I mean it, I really think he's not feeling well."
Sitting in front of his locker before the game, Neal did look thin and nervous, with eyes like a frightened fawn. "When you go into a game near the end, it's hard to get loose. That's what makes it tough. The mental strain? No, I don't think there's any mental strain."
Willie fooled Don
With one out and one on, in the Giant seventh, Willie Mays, having successfully conned Drysdale the night before, rammed a pitch far into the left-field seats. The Giants led again 6-5. To make it worse, the scoreboard showed that Cincinnati had won in 12 innings.
Wally Moon brightened things for the Dodgers by hitting a home run in the eighth. Leo Durocher, coaching at third, nearly knocked him down with a pat on the back. But in the bottom of the eighth the Dodgers collapsed.
There was one out when Felipe Alou hit a ground ball just to Neal's right. For an instant Neal stood there, frozen. Then he moved awkwardly, grabbed the ball and dropped it. Ernie Bowman then hit a fly ball to center. Snider drifted to his left, but the ball, caught in the breeze, drifted too. Snider lunged for it, and missed. Alou scored and the Giants were ahead 7-6.
For Walter Alston, the next minutes must have seemed like a glimpse of hell. The Giant pitcher hit a ball to Maury Wills at short. The ball bounced off Wills's shin for an error. The next batter grounded to the unfortunate Neal. Neal picked this ball up and flipped it to Wills. Wills dropped it for another error, the third of the inning, and the team's fifth. When Willie Mays singled, making it 9-6, it didn't take Allan Roth to know that the Dodgers' number was up.
Dazed, the Dodgers went out quickly in the ninth. They dressed in silence, then got on the bus for the long ride back to their hotel. No one talked. Charlie Neal, sitting near the rear of the bus, gazed mournfully out the window at the hills of San Francisco. Walter Alston, sitting alone up front, stared blankly at a sheet of statistics.