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THE RACE IS IN THE WEST

June 04, 1962
June 04, 1962

Table of Contents
June 4, 1962

Point Of Fact
Yesterday
Race In The West
  • San Francisco's Giants broke fast in the National League, but two high hurdles loom: their own history of failure and the hipper-dipper Los Angeles Dodgers, personified below by long-striding Willie Davis stealing second against the Giants last week

Pro Football
Chess
Acknowledgments
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE RACE IS IN THE WEST

San Francisco's Giants broke fast in the National League, but two high hurdles loom: their own history of failure and the hipper-dipper Los Angeles Dodgers, personified below by long-striding Willie Davis stealing second against the Giants last week

THE GIANTS: BOOM AND BUST

This is an article from the June 4, 1962 issue Original Layout

The poet Robinson Jeffers once observed that "all the past is future." In San Francisco live several hundred thousand baseball fans who hope his observation is a lot of bunk. These are the followers of the Giants, and a hardy lot they have proved to be, accustoming themselves to grueling ascents up steep flights of stairs into the swirling winds and rains and fogs and other assorted ills that Candlestick Park is heir to. They have also accustomed themselves to steamroller starts by the Giants, followed by midseason letdowns, end-of-season collapses and a total absence of National League pennants. Will the past be future again this year? Manager Alvin Dark, a taciturn, darkly handsome man from the Cajun country of Louisiana, says no. "I don't think my players give a thought to past performances," Dark announced recently in a rare spurt of loquacity.

But even as he was speaking, the Giants were beginning to show the signs that all San Francisco has come to recognize with horror. A throw to the wrong base, two dropped line drives, an overthrow with no one backing up, and the Giants had lost two games to Houston, two more to Los Angeles and one to Philadelphia within six days. Suddenly their lead, once 4½ games, was down to almost nothing, and it looked very much as if the familiar pattern was repeating itself.

The Giants' pattern has been dismally consistent and it goes like this: the Giants usually win on Opening Day, play pennant-winning baseball through April and May and enter June in first place (or, at worst, second) with a handsome record, big on wins, short on losses. Then, as certain as the daily afternoon gale that sweeps up from the Bay, the Giants fade, finishing the season in third, or maybe fifth. It has happened that way for four years.

The worst year in point of San Francisco's mental anguish was 1959, the one time the team survived the summer slump. With eight games left, the Giants led the Dodgers and Braves by two games and seemingly had the pennant won. But they lost three straight to the Dodgers and four of their last five to finish in third place. Worse yet, the team from archrival Los Angeles won the pennant and the World Series. It was almost more than San Francisco could bear.

This year's start was the Giants' best yet, 26 wins in the first 34 games, most of them over contenders like the Cardinals, Reds, Braves and Pirates. "I don't know why we always seem to start so well," said Chub Feeney, vice-president of the Giants, recently. "I'd say it was a credit to spring training in Arizona, but then the Cubs train there, too."

There was nothing in the Giants' exhibition season to indicate that the team would start strongly this season. The exhibition record was 13-13 and the pitching staff was miserable. Billy Pierce, who had won 189 games in the American League, looked as if he wouldn't win one in the National League. Mike McCormick, the team's top left-hander last year, came up with a lame arm. "It happens every spring," complained McCormick. "It hurts, I throw anyway, and the pain disappears. This year I got smart and tried to get rid of the soreness with heat. It didn't work. McCormick's arm feels good again, though he is still not as effective as he should be.

But even without McCormick, the Giant pitching staff has been a wonderment. Juan Marichal, a jovial Dominican right-hander who kicks his leg even higher than Warren Spahn, won seven games by mid-May. Billy Pierce surprised everyone (except himself) by winning his first seven starts. Pierce and White Sox Manager Al Lopez had disagreed last year on when and how often he should pitch—"It's better to leave certain things unsaid," says Pierce when discussing it—so he was happy when he learned he had been traded to the Giants. He insists he is pitching just as he always did. So does Billy O'Dell (Digger to his teammates), a left-hander who won his first five games before losing to the Cardinals 1-0. "It's just a matter of working regularly," he says, the cliché of the satisfied pitcher.

The angry man of the Giant staff is Jack Sanford, one of the Bay area's favorite television characters. Standing on the mound, getting the sign from the catcher, Sanford scowls and grimaces, and the camera picks it all up. "He's better than Matt Dillon," said one viewer. "No one loses himself more in a game than Sanford does," said Alvin Dark. After a night game in which Sanford was the losing pitcher, Dark told the Giants to skip batting practice the next day and report at noon, an hour before game time. Sanford arrived at 9 in the morning and sat on his stool scowling for three hours. When Dark wandered by to offer his sympathy on the loss, Sanford merely stared at the floor. Grumpy or not, he has been a steady winner.

The Killer Moth

With such good work from the starting pitchers and effective relief pitching from Don Larsen, who came from the White Sox with Pierce, there has been small demand for the services of Stu Miller. For several years Miller has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, a scrawny right-hander who lobs the ball so softly that teammates call him The Killer Moth. Sportswriters refer to him as a junk pitcher, but he doesn't mind it. "The hitters know what I can do," he says grimly. He has had one major problem so far this year. With Giant pitchers consistently finishing what they start, he has not been getting enough work to keep his tricky little arm in shape, a problem that Manager Dark hopes will prevail throughout the season.

Although Dark appreciates the good work the pitchers have done, he insists that it has been the unexpected fine play of the infield, especially Second Baseman Chuck Hiller, that has kept the Giants at the top. Hiller's stock was down this spring, and the Giant front office tried to lure speedy Julien Javier away from the Cardinals. It was hardly encouraging to Hiller, a nervous young man with thinning black hair, to read in the papers that what the Giants really needed was a second baseman. "Naturally it bothered me," Hiller said, "and I think I had a poor spring because of it. I was fielding badly in spring training."

The deal for Javier never came off. "Mr. Dark came to me and told me I was his second baseman," Hiller said. "Suddenly I felt wonderful. I knew the position was mine and I decided to keep it."

The change in Hiller was remarkable. "He was in a shell all spring," said a San Francisco sportswriter. "Suddenly the season started and he was walking around the field as if he owned the joint." Hiller's fielding has been steady and he has hit so well that Dark has had him batting third in recent games.

Hiller and Shortstop Jose Pagan form an adequate, if not razzle-dazzle, double-play combination. Pagan is called Humphrey by his Giant teammates because he looks like Humphrey Bogart, especially after he strikes out. He is a little fellow, only 5 feet 9, a native of Puerto Rico. "I do well this year because I have my tonsils out," he explained. "Last year my throat sore all the time." He stroked his throat tenderly, stopping about halfway down. "Right here. So I have them out and they give me ice cream and juices and now it is fine. I also do well because I am playing all the time. I used to come out and sit on the bench and no feel like a ballplayer. Now I am on the team. We have a good team and I know we win. I think."

To the Giants, Jim Davenport is Peanuts, because he, too, is small. Davenport has been hitting over .300 for most of the season and is fielding in his usual style, which the Giants insist is the best third base in the league. His knee, injured in 1959, is completely healed. The Giants still feel that it was the injury to Davenport toward the end of the season that cost them the pennant. "We tried everybody at third," said a Giant official. "Even Cepeda. It was horrible. Balls were bouncing over him, under him and around him. We missed Jimmy."

Tribal custom

Davenport is wiry and dark-haired with a swarthy complexion and a mean-looking right-angle scar under his right eye. He can be as mean as his scar if he is provoked. In a recent game Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Ed Bailey all hit home runs in the same inning. According to ancient tribal custom, Davenport, basically a singles hitter, was the one who got dusted off by the pitcher. "That pitcher made a mistake," a San Francisco player said later. "Jimmy's the one guy on this team who could rip that pitcher in half. And he's not likely to forget about it."

When the Giants were in spring training Alvin Dark said he thought the team would do better this year if only because he had a better understanding of the personnel. Soon afterward he announced that Orlando Cepeda would be on first base and Willie McCovey in the outfield, thus solving a Giant dilemma that had existed ever since McCovey burst upon the scene in mid-1959 and pushed Cepeda to the outfield, an unpleasant arrangement all around. McCovey was an outlandish first baseman and Cepeda was lost away from first. Not only that, he resented being moved to a strange position, as would any player who hits 40 home runs a year. Now Cepeda is back on first base and happy. He is a brute of a young man with a friendly, innocent expression. But when he says, "I like playing first base," it sounds like a threat, and his face isn't as friendly.

When McCovey was sent to the outfield, one Giant follower said: "Don't give him a glove. Give him a cigarette and a blindfold." McCovey himself admits that "at first I was in some doubt whether I'd be able to catch the ball," but after a few games he found it so easy that he told Willie Mays that outfielders should be made to pay their way into the park. "Imagine that," squealed Mays in his high-pitched voice. "Willie McCovey getting on Willie Mays that way!"

McCovey is a phenomenon in San Francisco. His spotlight is wider and brighter than that of anyone except Mays, and his cheers and boos are louder and longer. Whatever he does creates interest and controversy. Local opinion on McCovey ranges from, "Why doesn't Dark wake up and get him in the lineup all the time," to, "He's a wonderful player to have—sitting on the bench."

McCovey is a huge, rambling man who stands at the plate like a mountain. His swing is wide and powerful and his home runs sail high into the winds. Whenever he comes to bat in Candlestick Park, swarms of youngsters crowd the right-field fence, arms outstretched, waiting for a gift from McCovey. In the outfield, when he lopes in or staggers back to make a catch, there is always an exaggerated roar from the stands, not in mockery but in pure enjoyment of seeing a fly ball handled in a special way. There are some who say McCovey is improving as an outfielder. "At least," said one Giant official, "he's not a total loss."

Luckily for the Giants, they have two other outfielders—and good ones—to play left and right field. One is Harvey Kuenn, who comes as close as anyone to being the team leader. Kuenn leads a fast life, smokes a cigar as long as his bat and is rarely seen without a huge wad of tobacco bulging out from his cheek, but he is withal a man of class and a true professional. Whether or not he has a steadying influence on his teammates only they themselves know; this is not the sort of thing ballplayers readily admit. What they do admit is that it is comforting to have Harvey hitting in his old American League style. Last year, his first with the Giants, Kuenn's hitting was off. "The new pitchers, the new parks," he explained. "It was hard to adjust. People don't realize how unsettled you can feel and how it can affect your play. I'm more at home this year and I've been lucky, too. My hits have been dropping in all over the place."

Felipe Alou plays right field most of the time for the Giants. Alou got off to the best start of his career and it is significant that when he left the lineup for a week with a bad elbow, the team faltered. Alou cannot remember hitting the elbow, but when he awoke one morning it was the size of a softball. "I think I got what you call a cold in it," he said sorrowfully as he sat on a stool in the trainer's room, his right arm wrapped in a heating pad. Alou has a magnificent build—"the best in baseball," says Doc Bowman, the Giant trainer—and at 27 appears ready to stand alongside Mays and Cepeda as a power hitter. Felipe's younger brother Mateo—or Matty—is also with the team as a reserve outfielder. He is a shy but forthright boy. One day when Felipe was scheduled to play third base in an emergency, Matty was asked by a reporter if his brother had ever played the infield before. Matty nodded.

"How was he?" asked the reporter.

"So-so," said Matty.

"What does so-so mean?" the reporter asked.

"Lousy," said Matty.

Standing between Alou and Kuenn or McCovey is Willie Mays, and he stands very large indeed. He is still the league's best show and its best player. In a game against the Dodgers last week, Junior Gilliam hit a line drive to left center field, a double by anyone's standard. But Mays, racing across the grass, cut the ball off backhandedly; still running full blast toward the left-field line, he threw across his body. The ball reached second on the fly a split second ahead of Gilliam for the out. It was a typical Mays play—two brilliant moves in one.

Mays is no longer a boy. He has a man's face now, a face that reflects his worries, financial and personal. But on the field he remains a merry person, if a bit more polished than he once was. Standing near home plate at Chavez Ravine for the first time, he looked up at the fourth deck of seats. "This is a very fine baseball establishment," he told a group of Los Angeles reporters. Then he giggled. "Now won't that make a nice headline?" He spread his hands to indicate the size. "Yes, "he said, "capacity-wise, it's marvelous."

Another reminder of Mays's age—he is 31—was the announcement by Manager Dark that he would rest Willie from time to time. Mays, who once felt like playing a full season nonstop, agreed with pleasure. "Oh, I can use some rest, no doubt," he said. "I can feel it down here." He pointed to his legs. Last week Dark gave him a day off against the Phillies. The Giants lost. The next day Mays was back and hit two home runs. The Giants won.

Good as Mays and the rest of the Giants have been, there is every reason to suspect that they are playing over their heads. Billy Pierce, for instance, will not finish the season 28-0, but that is the pace he is setting. Nor are Juan Marichal and Billy O'Dell likely to maintain their winning percentages, skilled as they both are. True, Mike McCormick could help out if his arm comes around, but there is still some doubt about that. The in-fielders have already begun to slump from their early-season highs. "An adjustment," said a Giant official. A "period of hitlessness," said a reporter. Even Mays and Cepeda have been better than they figured to be (although Willie's batting average is barely .300) unless each is going to wind up with 60 home runs and 200 RBIs.

But the biggest obstacle in the path of a Giant pennant is not the Giants themselves but the Dodgers, that hated and feared rival to the south. The Dodgers, too, have pitching: Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale, et al. But what they have the most of is speed—the kind of speed that keeps opposing pitchers in a constant state of anxiety. Maury Wills had 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts, including one string of 18 in a row. Willie Davis automatically converts doubles into triples with the same easy strides he uses to knock off the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds. The other Davis, Tommy, is not only fast, he is powerful. The Giants got a full dose of him in two games last week, both won by the Dodgers with assists from Tommy's two doubles and two home runs. The Dodgers are old Giant killers, and the people of San Francisco worry about them all the time. When the Giants started with a rush, the fans were unhappy because the Dodgers were also doing well. When the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Dodgers three times, there was rejoicing in San Francisco, though the Cardinals were in second place and gaining on the Giants. And when word arrived up north that Dodger Pitcher Podres had hurt his arm (it turned out he hadn't), people in San Francisco celebrated.

If that sounds callous, remember that Giant fans have endured a lot of pain themselves. Sitting in the stands in their parkas, blankets, scarves and gloves, they have learned to accept the adversity of discomfort. What they may find impossible to accept, but what history and poetry show they had better prepare for, is another Giant failure and another pennant in Los Angeles.

PHOTOHY PESKINPHOTOHY PESKINORLANDO CEPEDA HAS A LOOPING, SOMETIMES WILD SWING, BUT AWESOME POWER MAKES HIM MOST DANGEROUS GIANT HITTERPHOTOHY PESKINAFTER SLUMPING LAST YEAR, LEAD-OFF MAN HARVEY KUENN HAS REGAINED KNACK OF GETTING ON BASE ONE WAY OR ANOTHERPHOTOHY PESKINWINNING SMILE lights the face of Willie Mays as his teammates congratulate him in the clubhouse after a game-winning homer.