Every April people reexamine the National League and assume that it cannot possibly do again in a new season what it did so extravagantly in the old one. Three times in the last four years National League pennant races have gone down to the next to last day, the last day or into a playoff. Balance is the basic reason for this, along with the fact that everyone from Warren Crandall Giles to the bat boy for the Mets believes in the National League mystique. Consider the words of Maury Wills, the captain of the World Champion Dodgers, just after his team won last year's World Series. "It is an honor to play in the World Series and win," Maury said, "but the greatest feeling of all comes when you win a National League pennant." Gene Mauch, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, says, "A pennant race in this league is often decided by half a man."
On the pages that follow you can read about your favorite team and make up your own mind about who will do what this season. But remember that no National League team enters the season with an established fourth starting pitcher. This could make things very wild for the first few weeks. (The last few weeks are wild enough anyway.) There are other stimulating factors. Leo Durocher is in action again, so no matter where the Cubbies of Chicago finish they are going to finish loud. Drysdale and Koufax, who were out to lunch for a while, are back. People will be bunting on Drysdale this year, testing the knee that had him floundering around late last season. The Mets, bless 'em, can field an All-Star infield that dates from 1956 to 1965, and nobody nowhere never had nothing like that before. The Pirates are talking pennant, but talk is what! How long, oh great and noble Willie Mays, wilt thou go on? Better get ready for the Astrodome again. Remember last year, when outfielders couldn't catch the ball because the sun kept shining through the ceiling? Well, they have messed around with the floor this time and put down something called Astroturf—which seems to be derived from Silly Putty. They say balls bounce around like crazy in the infield. Judge Roy Hofheinz, the biggest major-astrodomo of them all, had it manufactured—or maybe he knitted it—thus proving that having failed to move heaven last year he is now taking a real good shot at earth. The Cardinals are going to run. Wait, wait. The Cardinals are going to try to run. (But don't laugh at their pitching—yet.) Milwaukee is going to play in Atlanta, because Atlanta played in Milwaukee last year. In Cincinnati they say they have "the best team in the league on paper," and I'll bet you never heard that before. You never heard this one either, but any one of six teams has a chance to win. And—look at the schedule—the six contenders bang heads the last week of the season. What a battle royal that could be!
Of the six, the Philadelphia Phillies have the best chance to win. Their early spring-training days at Clearwater, Fla. passed beautifully. Each morning more and more people from Philadelphia, Allentown, Lancaster, Reading, Pottstown and Wilkes-Barre arrived at Jack Russell Stadium and waited in line under the first-base stands until a man in a red Phillie cap opened the concession booth and passed out free four-color team rosters. Those with a sense of history paused before unfolding the roster and explained to friends that just 17 months ago—if the Phils had not collapsed in the last 10 days of the season—that very cover would have been on the World Series program at Connie Mack Stadium. But the folding Phils of 1964 are now just a nostalgic memory and Pennsylvanians have forgotten them. This February and March more Phillie fans visited Clearwater than ever before, explaining and pointing things out to each other in detail as Phillie fans do, warming up their great voices for the spring and summer semesters ahead. Just as they are capable of forgiving honest bunglers, Pennsylvanians are also capable of falling in love with genuine characters, or haven't you heard how hard they tumbled for a nut who used to go out in electrical storms at night with a kite and a key?
Anyone who read over the Phillie spring roster had to smile. It included a Wine and a Boozer; a Wagner and a Wegener; a Jerry, a Barry, a Larry and three Garys; a White, a Green and a Cherry; a Short, Wise, Clay, Cookie. Alphabetically, one of the first places belonged to America's Sweetheart, Bo Belinsky. Everyone heard how Bo arrived at training two days late because on the drive from his home in Hollywood, Calif. (doesn't everyone live in Hollywood?) he got trapped in one of those traditional old Texas snowstorms. The names closest to Philadelphia were there still—Johnny Callison, Rich Allen, Cookie Rojas, Clay Dalrymple, Jim Bunning, Ray Culp.
There were plenty of interesting new names, too. Dick Groat (see cover), a shortstop who seems to have the World Series chasing him around; Phil Linz, the most famous harmonica rascal since Borrah Minevitch; Jackie Brandt, who once watched part of an All-Star Game in the nude; and William De Kova White himself, a man who runs a highly polished trading post right in his locker. Seldom has a club changed as much from one season to the next as the Phillies changed from 1965 to 1966. Now it is a team to build a dream on.
No one is dreaming bigger dreams than Gene Mauch. When he took over at Philadelphia in April 1960 he was the youngest manager in the major leagues and his hair was black. Today he has tenure on every manager but Walter Alston and the hair has gray highlights in the front, back, sides and middle. Mauch got the job when Eddie Sawyer quit after Opening Day because "I am 49 and would like to see 50." At his first meeting with the press Mauch said, "It's nice to have this good pitching, because you can usually stay close." So the Phils rushed out and lost Mauch's first two games 13-3 and 8-4. His first two years were nightmares of frustration as the Phillies twice finished dead last. In 1961, his second season, he endured a 23-game losing streak—the longest in modern baseball history—and he would "lie in the dark with a thousand thoughts, unable to sleep for more than a few hours, and when I'd get up and order breakfast it looked like garbage." When Philadelphia finally broke that streak in Milwaukee and flew back home, 250 fans were waiting at the airport and a five-piece band played Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The crowd carried Mauch on its shoulders, and later he stood on a flight of stairs, asked for silence and said, "You'll be rewarded for this some day. We'll give you a good team yet!" When he entered his car for the ride home with his wife and daughter there were tears in his eyes and he whispered, "This is unbelievable."
Throughout that desperate losing streak he kept telling people that some day it might just pay off, that the "pressure of trying to win one game to break the streak will toughen them for good seasons ahead." Sportswriters laughed. Mauch's team finished that season with a record of 47 wins and 107 losses, but the Phillies were in the process of building under General Manager John Quinn. The next year they climbed to seventh, and their won-lost record jumped to 81-80. They rose to fourth the next year, and the year after that they just missed the pennant; and now sportswriters don't laugh much about the Phillies. Nobody laughs at them anymore, and this season they are the team the others have to beat. Although the Phils finished sixth in 1965 that means little in this league, where since 1960 two teams have risen in a year from sixth to first, and three have fallen from first to sixth or seventh. To stay in the swing of things, you have to change your act nearly every season or else you get left far behind.
It takes time to recharge a team each spring, fitting new men—even experienced new men—in with the old hands. It takes patience, experience, experimentation, an ability to maneuver and adjust to each day's developments. All through training Mauch watched his players closely, hoping to shoot his Phillies into the season with a flourish. "This is the most professional club I have ever had," he said in Clearwater. "We have guys now who do not just play the game but are in the game. Guys who know how to win. Now we have more ways of winning and fewer ways of losing." He smoked a cigarette and ran his finger over a month-by-month breakdown of the 1965 season.
"The difference between 1964 and 1965," he said, "was that we gave away about 30 games in '65 and maybe only three or four in '64. Gave them away! In 1964 we won 92 games, and we were the talk of the baseball world. Last year we won 85, and you didn't hear too much about us. Yet that's a difference of only seven games. Look here. In April of '64 we were 9-2. Last year in April we were 6-8.
"This year," he continued, "we have to be ready when the ball is teed up. Last year it got to the point that some guys would anticipate that bad things might happen—and then they did. But now it is different. We can use the hit-and-run now as it has seldom been used in baseball, because we have guys who know how to handle the bat. Guys like Groat and Cookie Rojas don't strike out. When you use the hit-and-run you get the defense running around, and things happen. You can break slumps with the hit-and-run.
"The perfect situation on a team is to have four or five men who are leaders, and we have that type of personnel now. There are so many ways you can use this team—I hope I don't have to use them all. There are six men—Groat, White, Allen, Rojas, Callison and Gonzalez—who have hit .300 in the National League. Richie Allen stole 15 bases last year in 17 tries. Bill White will hit 20 homers and up, Allen 20 to 30, Callison 25 to 35. Tony Gonzalez has hit 20 in the past. Instead of waiting for something to happen we can make it happen.
"Sure, I've read about 'Gene Mauch's Doghouse' this winter from players who were traded away. [Pitcher Art Mahaffey, now with the Cards, said, "He beat my confidence down. He ordered me to hit Wes Parker of the Dodgers. I ignored the order and went on to pitch well in relief, and still he chewed me out."] I am not paid to answer traded players back. I am here to win ball games. It's amazing how players scream after they are traded from clubs that had losing seasons. They don't scream when they are traded from winning clubs, because they'd make fools of themselves in front of the whole world."
After the entire team arrived at Jack Russell Stadium, Mauch was everywhere. He played second base between Groat at short and White at first. He hit infield practice and chattered away. He made the pitchers work for hours on pickoffs, on bunts, on covering first base, trying to improve in those areas which, to a large degree, had been responsible for those 30 given-away games. Mauch was injured one day when the pitching machine went off while he was loading it and crashed a ball into his knuckles, but overall he was as happy as a bird in its bath.
When he finally divided the players up for their first intrasquad game he watched from a spot behind home plate. Rojas, the versatile Cuban who does everything but stitch the balls, opened the game by lining out to White, who made a nice play. Mauch smiled. Groat, long famed for hitting balls to right field, came up next. "Last year was the worst of my life," he had said earlier. "I was trying to guide the ball too much, trying to go to right field too often. This spring I'm going to work as hard as possible at pulling the ball." It is hard to believe he would not succeed. Groat always seems to succeed. Asked if he had packed his bag back on the final day of the 1964 season, when it was possible that the Cardinals would end the season in a tie for first place and have to travel to a playoff, Groat seemed stunned. "No, I didn't pack my bag. Until just now I never even thought of it." He asked White, "Bill, did you have a bag packed in case of a tie that last day in '64?" White gave Groat a smile, "Of course not," he said, "I just had that feeling."
On the first pitch he saw as a Phillie this year, Groat pulled a double inside third base, and Mauch bowed his head and rubbed his spikes over the grass. The rest of the game went that way. John Herrnstein, the 28-year-old outfielder the Phils have been waiting on for so long, hit two doubles and a homer. Belinsky's pick-off move worked. Brandt and Allen and Bob Uecker, the catcher acquired from the Cards, all hit on their first at bats, and Adolfo Phillips, the young outfielder with brilliant speed, tripled. Darold Knowles, a left-hander picked up from Baltimore, pitched very well, and so did Chris Short, the left-hander who collects stamps. Jim Bunning sat on the edge of the dugout in the sun and rooted for the pitchers—all the pitchers on both sides. Allen, who was appointed one of the team managers for the game, hollered over to Callison, who managed the other. When his team scored early, Uecker, who can liven up a dugout as well as anyone in baseball, shouted, "No way to win 'em all until you win the first one. Everybody else may have to play catch-up for the rest of the year." As Herrnstein's tremendous homer headed over the fence Uecker said, "That will play, sports fans. That one will play." Allen walked up and down the bench, sometimes with his hands folded in front of his chest, other times clapping loudly. "We better win this one," he said, "or I'm gonna get somebody's money! Gonna get somebody's money!" It was an imitation of someone he had heard somewhere, and when someone heard it coming out of the dugout he turned his back and rubbed a big smile off his lips.
Right from that first day the attitude was there, and though the team began losing exhibition games it bothered Mauch not at all. He took to "hiding" Knowles, using him only against American League teams, as he had done so successfully with Bunning in 1964, when Jim had come over from the Detroit Tigers. When the season began Bunning waded into the National League and won nine of his first 11 games. As the Phils lost more games, however, Mauch began experimenting. He put Groat at first base, moved Allen to the outfield, put Tony Taylor at third. After one loss he slammed the clubhouse door, and the building rattled. He sent Outfielder John Briggs to work with the Phillie minor leaguers at Dunedin, with the simple explanation, "John Briggs knows what he has to do" (i.e., change his attitude). He brought Briggs back, and the 22-year-old began hitting hard and hustling, and Mauch was happy again. More and more Grant Jackson, a 23-year-old left-hander, looked as though he might be the fourth starter, and Belinsky, of all people, became the hardest worker on the club. When Belinsky pulled a muscle in his leg, Mauch appraised him: "I don't think the average person would give Bo the benefit of the doubt about anything involving controversy. But the way he worked before the injury demands that we let him tell us when he's ready. He was working like hell, not just to make the club, but to be a starter. I'm anxious for him to get well. If I didn't think he could help us, he'd be gone. I wouldn't put up with all the razzmatazz that goes with Bo Belinsky if I didn't think he could help us."
There was concern for Ed Roebuck, the 34-year-old relief pitcher who, though released at the end of last year, has been given another chance to make the team by Mauch, his old friend. After several bad performances Mauch said, "I don't even want to talk about it. I'm pulling for that guy so hard I can't talk about it."
Brandt, who had troubles at first, began to do better. Brandt is called "Flakey," and is rather proud of the name. He has a bad habit of taking third strikes, and after striking out in the 1961 All-Star Game in San Francisco he was taken out of the game. An inning or so later he rushed in a lather from the shower in the clubhouse to a door in the right-field fence and cautiously poked his head out to watch his teammate Jim Gentile strike out, too.
Eventually the Phils began to win. The hit-and-run began to work. Groat continued to pull the ball and was enjoying his best spring at bat. The home runs started to come in clusters. White was doing a terrific job at first base, and Allen was hitting those long drives that make everyone wonder just how good he may eventually become. The experimentation over, the maneuvering having been tried and in most ways proved successful, the ticket sales up, the attitude right, the leaders beginning to lead, Mauch headed his Phillies toward the first tee. Fore!