While the Yankees were winning the American League pennant last week with the verve of a steam roller flattening an ant, the National League race was being all but clinched by one of the most improbable teams to head for a World Series in many a year. Not to cavil, the Reds may also be the worst.
By the normal standards of first-place baseball clubs Cincinnati is atrocious afield, indifferent at the plate and not infrequently inept on the mound. Without consulting a recent box score, few fans could list the collection of castoffs and kids who make up so much of the starting lineup. But with a fierce-eyed genie as manager, with pockets stuffed with good luck charms and without sufficient sense to know they couldn't succeed, the Reds have zestfully and repeatedly beaten all the first-class competition in the National League. And they may well win the Series.
Not only have the Reds shocked the sense and sensibility of fans in such spots as Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Francisco, they have bamboozled their own home town as well. As late as last weekend the citizens of Cincinnati weren't going to little, old and weird (the outfield, for some reason, or none, slopes up) Crosley Field—because they knew their Reds were a sixth-place team. Who wants to watch a sixth-place team in September?
The town did manage to adopt a team slogan. But was it a rousing, impelling thing like last year's "Beat 'em, Bucs?" No, sir. The most apt phrase that the confused and surprised Cincinnatians could come up with was "Rally 'round the Reds." No cry of triumph, it had a Custer's Last Stand ring to it, but that's the way Red fans felt. And no wonder. Every team in the National League had won a pennant since Cincinnati last managed it 21 years ago. More to the point, the Reds had settled in sixth place with cozy familiarity in 1959 and 1960.
True, this year's Reds had some new talent. There was big Joey Jay, recently of the Milwaukee Braves, where he was considered a) too fat and b) too lazy. Third Baseman Gene Freese was obtained from the Chicago White Sox, whose fans had learned to avoid the box seats behind first base unless they wanted to catch and take home one of Freese's wild throws. Darrell Johnson, who never got any farther than the bullpen in two years as a Yankee catcher, was bought from Philadelphia, where he was hitting a rousing .231. And Ken Johnson, a pitcher, was purchased from Toronto. He had been so bad that Kansas City gave up on him; very few players can make that statement.
Back from the glories of sixth place last year were the likes of Gordon Coleman, a first baseman who is flattered when called merely clumsy; Shortstop Eddie Kasko, a sound utility man whom the Reds have to utilize all the time; and a confident, left-handed son of an Irish cop named Jim O'Toole who wasn't going to let anybody teach him how to pitch. He was going to learn for himself.
Back, too, was Manager Fred Hutchinson, a dark, bearish man consumed by private fires that become public conflagrations. ("When Alvin Dark gets mad he throws stools," said one player. "Hutchinson throws rooms.") In some incredible fashion, combining coddling, cuddling, chiding and outright terror, Hutchinson convinced his team in spring training that if it played hard it could finish as high as—well, fifth.
So the Reds played very hard, keeping a fearful eye on their tumultuous Hutch. He, in turn, proceeded to manage with a prescient skill that would have mesmerized a Merlin. And from opening day the Reds could do no wrong.
Big Joey Jay ran until he thought he would die, became svelte Joey Jay and won 21 games. Freese stopped scaring the customers in box seats. Darrell Johnson hit a frightening .333. And that Kansas City fellow, Ken Johnson? All he did was win five games in the first five weeks the Reds had him—a month when they briefly sagged and needed the help.
Gordon Coleman hit 25 home runs, so only his own pitchers noticed he couldn't field. Kasko caught all kinds of balls at short, and O'Toole, good as ; his word, amazed everyone by actually finding out how to pitch. ("He's learned to get his fast ball over the plate, but not over too much of the plate," says Jim Brosnan, a fellow pitcher.)
As they fought week after week with the Dodgers for first place the Reds showed not a bit of strain. Most of them had never been in the first division before and didn't realize they should be nervous. They scuffed and scrambled around the infield and slapped at the ball with their bats and positively knew they couldn't lose. So they didn't.
The feelings of astute baseball followers notwithstanding, the Reds should be a delight to see in a World Series. They are so exactly what the Yankees are not. There for all to view will be Hutchinson pacing up and down in the dugout throughout every inning of every game. He will set his foot down gently at each step, as if the floor were hot, and he will shred gum wrappers as he shreds his nerves as well. (Come out early for a team workout and you may see a rarer sight—Hutchinson catching batting practice. The team, you see, must guard its limited talent, so Hutch often lets his catchers rest.)
There, too, will be Coach Pete Whisenant, easily identifiable because his shaggy blond hair blows in the breeze as he holds a dugout pole that he considers to be lucky in one hand and his lucky bat in the other.
If a pitcher weakens, Reliever Brosnan will be seen running from the dugout to the bullpen. What is he doing in the dugout? Brosnan stayed there one game and things went well. He hasn't dared change seats since. In his pockets as he runs will be at least a lucky penny and a rabbit's foot, plus whatever other charms may have caught the fancy of this highly intelligent but typically superstitious man on a superstitious team.
Eventually Roger Maris will trip over a black cat, Mickey Mantle will slip on a four leaf clover and the Reds will have their opportunity to win. Given such a chance, they rarely pass it up.
Brosnan (after six fairly ordinary years he has suddenly, in the Cincinnati fashion, developed into one of the league's best relief pitchers) summed up the 1961 Reds after they had beaten Pittsburgh 3-2 in typical last-ditch fashion a week ago. Two of the Pirates' final three outs came on 380-foot drives to dead center field, where fleet Vada Pin-son caught them. "If the wind had been blowing any direction but in, those would have been home runs," mused Brosnan, "but the wind has been blowing right for us all year."
The Yankees don't care about such things, not being superstitious. They figure to beat the Reds with ease. So did the Dodgers, the Braves and the Giants.