Clubhouse doors were closed tight last week in the National League as the players began the careful process of voting for the team that would represent them against the American League in the annual All-Star Game at Anaheim, Calif. on July 11. No matter which players they picked, contrary opinion was going to run high among the fans—much higher than usual—because it seems as though everybody in the National League is hitting at least .300.
No record in sport is more deceiving than the one that shows the National League leading the American in All-Star Games by only 19-17. Lately the Nationals have made a farce of the competition by winning 15 of the last 21 played, and have you ever seen Anaheim Stadium? Unlike most of the new stadiums in the major leagues, the one in Anaheim is a hitter's paradise—and a pitcher's hell. People maintain that late at night Little Bo-peep walks over from nearby Disneyland and belts balls out of the place with a cracked crook. But even so, Anaheim Stadium is the perfect place to demonstrate the bewildering disparity that currently exists between the two leagues. People who pay attention to the lists of top hitters that appear daily in newspapers throughout the country are aware that most of the high batting averages in baseball belong to National League players. Last year only two American League hitters finished above .300, and one of those was Frank Robinson, who had spent 10 seasons in the National before taking his bat over to Baltimore. There he was outstanding in virtually every offensive category, but his league-leading .316 batting average would have left him a virtually unnoticed sixth in the National League.
When the National Leaguers sat down to begin balloting they were confused themselves by the tremendous performances of the batters in their own league. Bob Gibson, the fine all-round athlete who pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, said, "It was murder voting this time. There were so many guys having outstanding seasons that you had to feel genuinely sorry for the ones who didn't make the team. I was dying for my roommate, Curt Flood, to start in center field. I couldn't vote for him because you can't vote for anyone on your own team. Yet Jimmy Wynn is doing a great job in center field for Houston. Where would the Chicago Cubs be without Adolfo Phillips? Matty Alou won the batting title last year, and he's just starting to come on strong again. That's awful tough competition. And what about that guy from San Francisco, Willie, er, Willie, er—Mays?"
The top batting averages do not tell the full story of the big hitters in the National League. Unless a fan reads the complete batting lists that are published once a week, he will see only the first 10 hitters. Among those who are not in the top 10 are such proved batting stars as Vada Pinson, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, Ron Santo, Maury Wills, Willie Stargell, Jimmy Wynn and Willie Er. Last week only 16 American Leaguers were batting .280 or above. The National League had 38. Nowhere is the contrast between the hitting in each league more obvious than in the teams currently in first place. The Chicago White Sox have not one regular hitting .300. For most of the year the St. Louis Cardinals have had seven men above that figure.
American League fans say pitching causes this disparity and point to Baltimore's four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year's World Series as a perfect example of why batting averages in the American League are so low (not that anyone contends the Dodgers are an awe-inspiring example of National League power). The White Sox staff this season lends further support to the argument that it is the quality and depth of pitching in the league that keeps batting averages down in the low-rent districts. Known for several years as a team that relies on pitching to win, the 1967 Sox seem to have outdone even themselves. They have eight pitchers with earned run averages under 2.70, and wouldn't it be delightful to see how low those ERAs could get if the White Sox pitchers had a chance to work against the weak White Sox hitters?
Eddie Stanky, the manager of the White Sox and a National League man before taking over at Chicago in 1966, explained some things about his team and the overall pitching depth in the American League. "We are a pitching and running team," he said. "We go where our pitching takes us. We had a 10-game winning streak early in May, and that streak is the reason why we're up there leading the league and not in the middle of the pack. Our pitching staff gave up only 13 runs in those 10 games. I think the third, fourth and fifth starting pitchers in the American League may be better than those in the National. Not on every club, of course, but generally." A statistic that supports Stanky's argument about overall pitching is the 63 shutouts that have been pitched this year in the American League compared to only 37 in the National.
Claude Osteen of the Dodgers, an excellent pitcher for Washington in the American League before going to Los Angeles in 1965, says, "I had been in the National League before I ever went to Washington, and when I was there I had the definite feeling that the National was much, much more competitive. There is more fierce, rough play in the National, and every team, just about, feels it has a chance to win the pennant. But in 1965 a trend began to develop in the American League. There is a lot better balance now. And a tremendous number of strong young pitchers have moved into the league. There used to be many more hard throwers in the National, but now I'm not so sure. The pitching strength in the National is pretty much centered on one or two starters with each club. [Since 1964 there have been 15 20-game winners in the National and only six in the American.] But the American may have more depth now."
Much has been made of Frank Robinson's switch to Baltimore last season, when he dominated the league's hitters, won the Triple Crown, led the Orioles to the pennant and a world championship and was named the Most Valuable Player. But three times Robinson had higher batting averages and runs-batted-in totals in the National without ever leading the league. This year two players have come the other way, from the American into the National, and have done outstanding jobs. Roger Maris has been hitting over .300 much of the season for the Cardinals (his lifetime average in the American League was only .260), and Cletis Boyer, better known for defensive play, has batted in more runs than Joe Torre for Atlanta and last week was only one behind Henry Aaron.
Maris says, "I think there are probably two reasons why batting averages are so much higher in the National than in the American. One is that there are more good Negro and Latin players over here. They got their first chance in this league, and they make up the biggest percentage of good players. The second reason is that the infields are much harder than those in the American. Balls get through quicker, and on chops the balls bounce up and stay in the air and the runners beat them out." Matty Alou of the Pittsburgh Pirates is a case in point. Assume that Matty picked up 20 such hits last year, which seems a valid assumption. Take away those 20 hits and, instead of leading the league, as he did, with a .342 average, Matty would have hit .305. And Boyer, who should know, feels that defense in the American League is better overall than the National, which may be another reason for the lower averages there.
Although he is spending this season as a superscout for the Cincinnati Reds, Charlie Metro was a coach for the White Sox in 1965 and has seen both leagues close up. "Don't you think," he says, "that it might just be that there are better hitters in the National than in the American?" Yet Metro adds, "There are probably five or six starting pitchers in the National League who are outstanding, but the secondary starters in the American may be better."
Hal Woodeshick of the Cardinals spent three and a half years in the American League and his summation is, "There are not as many quality players in the American League, but it's probably true—though I hate to say it—that there is more pitching depth."
Woodeshick adds that the exceptional number of high National League averages this year might be attributed to another fact. Sandy Koufax retired, and when he did a great psychological barrier was lifted from the minds of batters. "Koufax," states Woodeshick, "did something else besides win his games. You'd go in to play a four-game series against the Dodgers, and there would be Sandy waiting for your hitters. He'd put them in a slump right away, and they'd stay in it for a couple of days. That helped the other Dodger pitchers. It was a strange thing to watch, but it was true. By the time the hitters started to get their rhythm back, they were out of town and Koufax was waiting for the next team."
Koufax is not the only thing missing this year. Ken Holtzman of the Chicago Cubs was called into service in May with a record of 5-0 and an ERA of 2.32 stuffed into his duffel bag. Philadelphia's 20-game winner, Chris Short, has been disabled for a month, and Atlanta's Tony Cloninger, a 24-game winner two years ago, is only just coming back now after an injury. Jim Bunning of the Phillies and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers both have losing records, and the six losses already accumulated by Juan Marichal, who has been bothered by a neck ailment, equal his losses for all of 1966. Two fine young pitchers last season—Don Sutton of Los Angeles and Dave Giusti of Houston—have been big losers, and Al Jackson of the Cards, whose 2.51 ERA was sixth best in the league in 1966, has seen that double to more than 5.00 this time around.
Billy Hitchcock, the manager of the Atlanta Braves, spent two hours one day discussing the differences in batting averages in the two leagues. "There are eight hitters in the American batting .300 or better," he began, "and 24 in the National. Of the eight in the American only three are either Negro or Latin, and one of those is Frank Robinson, who played for 10 years in the National. Of the 24 National Leaguers hitting .300, 14 are Latin or Negro. American League teams are averaging .237, National League teams .249. That's 12 points a team; that's a tremendous difference. But the American League leads the National in homers by 36. Five of the eight .300 hitters in the American are in double figures in home runs, but only eight of the 24 .300 hitters in the National are.
"Let's assess the ball parks. In the American League there are six hitters' parks—Boston, Detroit, Minnesota, Cleveland, California and Washington. Kansas City, Chicago and Baltimore are pitchers' parks. Yankee Stadium is neither. In the National there are four pitchers' parks (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Houston and Los Angeles) and five hitters' parks (Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York and Philadelphia). San Francisco switches back and forth from one category to the other depending on the wind. In other words, the advantage should be to American League hitters, so far as the ball parks are concerned, but the figures show more hitters in the National. The only conclusion I can draw is that the National League hitter, because of the parks, is not trying to hit home runs all the time and therefore connects for more base hits.
"There are also more chances to pitch around tough hitters in the American League than in the National. Houston may be down in the standings in the National League right now but you couldn't convince me of that. That little Jimmy Wynn hit three tremendous homers off us in the Astrodome. If you try to pitch around Wynn you have Rusty Staub right behind him, and Staub is finally coming around to being the good hitter that many thought he would become. Not many people noticed his average last year but it was .280, and he is tailored to the Dome. He only has five homers this year but he's hitting over .340. You can't pitch around both Wynn and Staub because if you do you get to Eddie Mathews. I would say that there are more tough outs in the National League than in the American."
Despite the strong arguments for American League pitching, there is little doubt that the National has the better quality hitters, and Roberto Clemente (see cover) typifies them. Last week his average at one point was .368, some 40 points higher than anyone was hitting at the same date in 1966. Although Clemente maintains that the day of the .400 hitter is gone, because of the fatigue caused by the long schedule, the constant travel and the multitude of night games, he could become the first National Leaguer to hit better than .360 since Stan Musial reached .376 in 1948. Clemente is a slash hitter who can drive balls into right field, a power hitter who can lose them over walls, a chop hitter who can beat out ground balls. When the players voted last week for the All-Star team he led all the National League outfielders in the balloting.
Still, this year's All-Star Game should be a little more interesting than some recent ones because American Leaguers feel certain they are in a new era. The good performance of Minnesota in the 1965 World Series and the overpowering showing of the Orioles last year brought them closer to parity with the Nationals. American League players know that people are questioning their hitting, but they insist it is the deep pitching that is smothering their averages. The National League just laughs. Two weeks from now when the All-Star Game is on television, millions of fans will be watching it. Somebody's boast will have to be busted.
There is certainly something to say for the depth of the American League pitching, and certainly the young hitters coming up in the league are good. But the American League still has not shaken the reputation that too many of its hitters play "home run or nothing." One of the better evidences of this is the poem that Walt Williams of the White Sox says to himself as he walks slowly to the plate. At 5'6", Williams is the smallest player in the major leagues and, until he was injured last week, one of its budding stars. Hopefully, Williams does not take his poem too seriously, but it goes:
See the ball before you stride;
Make sure it's not in or outside.
If it happens to be low
Hold your bat and let it go.
But if it happens to be anyplace around
Take a good swing and hit it downtown.