Mysterious things always seem to befall world champion teams that represent the National League. Certainly one of the least publicized facts in professional sports is the one that shows that not since John McGraw's New York Giants of 1921-22 has any National League club been able to win consecutive World Series. One season a team will look unbeatable while taking the pennant; the next, not even spelunkers can find it.

Although the American League has produced four different winners since 1964, the idea persists that competition in the National League is fiercer and the play better. In truth, the gap between the leagues is narrowing. If play in the National League seems more exciting, it is because the running game is still used more aggressively, the sliding is sterner and the hitting more prolific. There have been 28 averages of .300 or over in the majors during the last two seasons, and 22 of those belonged to National Leaguers. Of the six in the American, two were achieved by Frank Robinson, a National League graduate.

Since the end of last season, National League executives have been swapping players the way kids deal away bubble-gum cards. So far, 52 players have been traded or sold, and some of those trades may have as profound an effect on the 1968 season as the one that brought Roger Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967. At the least, they should help to generate the kind of four-way, you'redead-no-I-ain't race to which the league had become accustomed before last year's Cardinals tore off at midseason and won by 10½ games, the largest margin in a dozen years. The Pittsburgh Pirates, to cite a prime example, landed one of the game's finest pitchers, Jim Bunning, and what he can do for that colorful collection of hard hitters might make people forget that Maris ever played.

Everyone but Phil Wrigley tried out in right field for the surprising third-place Chicago Cubs in 1967. Now Leo Durocher has Lou Johnson from Los Angeles and he no longer needs 11 men at that position to get through the schedule. In an attempt to move up from eighth place and lure one million lost fans back to Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles has added former American League Most Valuable Player, Zoilo Versalles, and Jim Grant (SI, April 8), a 21-game winner of two years back. But Cincinnati, trying to shake off the frustrations of a season bedeviled by injuries, has changed more than any team in the league. And, wonder of wonders, the San Francisco Giants, who got Ron Hunt from Los Angeles, may even make some double plays around second base.

St. Louis, however, remains a very strong team and seemingly the only one in the league capable of winning games consistently in any one of five ways: 1) with speed, 2) with defense, 3) with pitching, 4) with power or 5) with overall hitting. These qualities drew 2,090,145 people to Busch Memorial Stadium last year, and "El Birdos" topped Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch as the leading symbol of civic pride.

The Cardinals, with a 52-28 road record last year, were hardly a lucky team. What they were was good and, as Centerfielder Curt Flood suggests, not only compatible but mature enough to realize that "as far as we are concerned all the stars are up in the sky." Unto themselves the Cards may not be stars, but what else are Flood, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda, Maris and Bob Gibson? If you saw last fall's World Series, undoubtedly you were impressed by the double-play combination of Julian Javier and Dal Maxvill. And then there was Mike Shannon, who made the transition from right field to third base well enough to rank second behind Cepeda with 77 runs batted in.

Under pressure throughout the season, Nelson Briles, 24 years old, and Steve Carlton, 23, developed into fine starting pitchers to win a total of 28 games, and Dick Hughes, a rookie at 29, threw his hard slider to win 16. These three lost only 20 games, and the staff as a whole worked 74 games in which two or fewer runs were allowed. This, mind you, without the services part of the time of Gibson, who recovered from a broken leg in time to make the Red Sox wish they had never heard of him. However, Manager Red Schoendienst will need all the pitching he can find after the All-Star break when St. Louis faces 57 straight games without a day off. Ray Washburn, Larry Jaster and rookie Mike Torrez may all be needed as well as Relievers Joe Hoerner and Ron Willis, who are better than their Series troubles would indicate, and rookie Hal Gilson, a 6'5" lefthander who won 15 in 1967 for last-place Tulsa.

St. Louis has added Catcher John Edwards, Outfielder Dick Simpson and swing Infielder Dick Schofield since the end of last season. Young Bobby Tolan can play first or the outfield, Phil Gagliano any of the infield positions plus a portion of the outfield. Dave Ricketts, the third-string catcher, switch-hits and pinch-hits well.

Serious injuries can stop any team, and so can complacency. There is nothing Schoendienst can do about the former, but as for complacency, he says, "We don't have our 10½-game lead on the rest of the league anymore and we are not one game up in the World Series, but we have an awful lot of team pride." And enough talent and spirit to put them back up above the arch once again, within jumping distance of McGraw's '21-'22 Giants.

John Galbreath, the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the 1967 Kentucky Derby with a genuine longshot named Proud Clarion and lost the National League pennant with a short-priced favorite. There are some who felt that Galbreath's horses and grooms shipped better than his team, which flew to many of its dates tourist class. But the real trouble with the Pirates last year was boxcars—sixes and sixes and more sixes. The pitching staff gave up six runs or more in better than a quarter of its games, and that sort of failure will not do in any league. Manager Harry Walker was fired and replaced by Danny Murtaugh, who did not want the job, all of which made little difference to a team that played no better than .500 ball for either man. Now Larry Shepard takes over. His credentials: he served as pitching coach at Philadelphia, where the team earned-run-average was 3.10. Bunning, who came from the Phils with Shepard, had six shutouts himself last year. The entire Pittsburgh staff had five.

"The Pirates," Maury Wills said recently, "plan on winning the pennant this time. We have a man to take charge of our pitching staff in Jim Bunning, and we are better than a sixth-place club." He paused to explain his new shoes, which have 10 blunt spikes on each. "Ron Fairly wore these for one whole season," Wills said, "but I wore them in a game last spring in Miami and they were objected to and outlawed by the American League first and then by the National. The rules committee has since okayed them, but I just wear them to be comfortable. I guess I may have done the bulk of my running. It's up to the Lou Brocks and Sonny Jacksons to go after the records now."

Maybe not. Wills hit .302 last year and played third base well for the Pirates. That was when his legs were hurting. They are back in shape, and he will steal more bases than the 29 he got last season.

One of Shepard's main problems, outside of pitching, will be defense, particularly if Shortstop Gene Alley is not sufficiently recovered from a shoulder ailment that vastly restricted his throwing throughout spring training. With the exception of the superb Roberto Clemente—whose fielding is every bit as impressive as his .357 average of last season—and who is the only man in the majors to have hit over .300 in every year since 1960—the outfield will give games away on defense at times. But in addition to Clemente's bat, those of Matty Alou (.338), Manny Mota (.321) and Willie Stargell (who in an off year hit .271 with 73 runs batted in) are frightening. Second Baseman Bill Mazeroski will be starting his 13th season with the Pirates, and Donn Clendenon, although he strikes out a lot, will be at first and should lift his batting average some 40 points from .249.

It is Shepard's belief that Bunning "will do for our club what Sandy Koufax did for the Dodgers, making better pitchers out of the rest of the staff by taking the pressure off of them." Very early in the season Bunning will strike out his 1,000th National League hitter and thus join Cy Young as one of the only two pitchers to strike out that many batters in both leagues.

Having looked at the Pirates from the other side of the field last year, Shepard has decided that one of the flaws in Pittsburgh teams of the past has been a failure to set up and stick with a working pitching rotation. With Bunning added to Bob Veale, Steve Blass, Tommy Sisk and Al McBean, the pitching picture certainly should improve. Jerry May will be the catcher. As Galbreath and anyone else who has been around a racetrack knows, a beaten favorite one time out often comes back to pull off a major surprise in its next start.

San Francisco Giant fans probably have looked at more seconds in recent years than anyone this side of Angelo Dundee. Still they have kept coming, carrying their thermos bottles and blankets up the hills to that modern ruin, Candlestick Park, and getting everything but the bases blown into their eyes as they ripped their stockings on the seats, but there is evidence now that even their storied patience is beginning to wear thin. Attendance during last year's third straight second-place finish dropped off 414,712 to 1,242,480—the lowest it has been since the franchise moved west in 1958.

In the 10 years that the Giants have been on the Coast they have won more games (887) than any other team in the National League and one pennant. The hated Dodgers to the south, with 11 fewer victories, have won four pennants. This is galling enough, but it is worse when you consider how the '67 Giants managed to finish second. A 10th-place team in the early running because Juan Marichal reported to spring training late following a bitter holdout, the Giants won 21 of their last 28 games. En-route to this blazing finish they accomplished some spectacularly negative things. They did not steal a base until June 7, when Willie McCovey broke the spell. Marichal pitched once after August 4, and no matter how Herman Franks, the friendly manager, mixed and matched his double-play combination of Hal Lanier and Tito Fuentes it could not make the big play. Worse, the two hit a composite .212.

Then, of course, there was Willie Mays. The easiest thing to do last year was to consider Mays through. It might also have been a most misleading thing to do. Granted, Mays had a horrible year by his own standards (.263, 22 HRs, 70 RBIs), but he still had 11 game-winning hits. At 37 he might very well duplicate the feat of an aging Stanley Musial, who, following three sub-par seasons, came back to hit .330. If he does, the Giant pitchers will have all the runs they need. Besides Mays, there are McCovey (.276, 31 HRs and 91 RBIs), Jim Ray Hart (.289, 29, 99) and Jesus Alou (.292). That is hitting. Hunt should help the Giants both offensively and defensively if he can stay off the rubbing table (he has averaged only 107 games annually over the past four years), and Lanier is adequate at short when he has a double-play man to work with. Jackie Hiatt, Bob Barton and Dick Dietz will catch, and Jim Davenport is still one of the best utility men in the game (.275 in 124 games in 1967).

Like Mays, Marichal suffered from a hamstring pull last season. This year the entire Giant camp was pointed at eliminating hamstring injuries, with Marichal, off to his earliest training start, in the forefront. His record in 1967 was only 14-10, but there is gold in that figure. Marichal had 18 complete games. Overall, in fact, the staff had the most complete games (64) and the best ERA in the league.

Continued watering down of the spitball rule is perfect for Gaylord Perry (15-17, 18 compete games and a 2.61 ERA), and he joins Marichal and 22-game winner Mike McCormick to give the Giants a solid-front three. Lefthander Ray Sadecki (12-6) was ridiculed often in San Francisco because it was Cepeda for whom he was traded, but he had nine complete games in his last 12 starts of '67 and his best earned run average ever (2.78). The bullpen is better than average, and if Sadecki has a good year the Giants could have the best and most balanced corps in the league with two lefties and two righties.

The Los Angeles Dodgers seemed to be playing last season merely to keep warm. In one game at Dodger Stadium against San Francisco things got so bad that Manager Walter Alston had to use Outfielder Jim Hickman in relief. Koufax and Wills, of course, were no longer Dodgers, depriving the club not only of its two most valuable players but also of that star quality that is so necessary to box office in L.A.

One star around this year is Don Drysdale. He was a brilliant losing pitcher in 1967 (13-16 with a 2.74 ERA), and he needs only one victory this year to break Dazzy Vance's club record of 190 and one shutout to surpass Koufax's record of 40. Since pitching has been a major Dodger trademark in recent years, the team should move up in the standings following its eighth-place finish, particularly after this year's spring training, the most strenuous anybody can recall. With Drysdale, there are Claude Osteen (17-17), the traded-for Jim Grant, Bill Singer (12-8) and young Alan Foster. Singer, who will be 24 late this month, had a hot stretch last year when he won 10 games and lost only two. Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller were traded to the Twins, but Phil Regan is still around and Jim Brewer and Vicente Romo will probably fill their bullpen spots.

Versalles is the man who may be able to erase some of the memories of Wills from the minds of unforgiving fans. He is a spectacular shortstop when he feels like playing up to his potential, and he moves into Los Angeles following a season in which Dodger shortstopping was wretched, no matter which of five different victims played it. Jim Lefebvre slides back from third to second, and Wes Parker will play first. Few play it better. Third base will see Bob Bailey, but what really matters is how often Bob Bailey will see first. Despite a comeback after the All-Star break, he ended with a .227 average.

Rocky Colavito, newly arrived from the Chicago White Sox, joins Willie Davis, Ron Fairly, Jim Fairey, Len Gabrielson and Al Ferrara in the Dodger outfield. Ferrara became at least a semistar last year with 16 homers and a .277 average. He batted .312 at Dodger Stadium and possibly would have gone over .300 for the season had he not been used so often as a pinch hitter. Although at 6'1" Ferrara looks more like a man who moves pianos instead of playing them, he appeared at Carnegie Hall at 16 with a piano class and performed one number. "I gave up the piano," he says now, "because I couldn't pick up things by ear. And the people I went out with in Brooklyn were more interested in hearing Rock Around the Clock than classical selections. I play the horses now. Love to play them. I go to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park every chance I get. No, I don't sit with Drysdale. I'm not one of those fellows who sits with owners. He's done real well as an owner, but I never won a dime on one of his horses.

"This year, in our first few exhibition games we made some fine double plays, and the whole team came alive after being dead for almost a year. We'll be in this race."

Dodger Stadium last June 18 was as fine a place to be as one could imagine. The afternoon was warm, and 35,000 Sunday spectators had come out to see Los Angeles play the Cincinnati Reds, who were leading the league by a game and a half. But down in his first-base dugout before the game, Dave Bristol, the young and colorful manager, was on the verge of delivering a soliloquy of hell.

The Reds were desperate. They had attained their slim lead by a cluster of spectacular late-inning victories in April, May and early June, and now they were trying to hold it although they had been stung by injuries to Pete Rose, Leo Cardenas, Tommy Helms and Bill McCool. "Injuries," Bristol said, "are a part of the game, and you have to overcome them as best you can. There are times when you might want to cry about them, but you can't do it." Despite those brave words, the Reds lost that June afternoon and their lead, which had once been four games, was reduced to a handful of percentage points. Ultimately injuries destroyed the Reds, and they finished fourth.

The red pinstripes are gone from Cincinnati's uniforms this year and a new riverfront stadium seating 50,000 is abuilding and should be ready by 1970. But 1968 is the critical year for the Reds and, in particular, for their general manager, Bob Howsam. Working on the second year of a three-year contract, Howsam has changed Cincinnati drastically. Deron Johnson is gone. So are Tommy Harper. Art Shamsky and Edwards. Remember, if you do not feel that these departures are drastic, that the ghost of Frank Robinson still lingers over Crosley Field.

Just as he was in St. Louis, Howsam is now a controversial figure in Cincinnati. There are those in both cities who believe that his trades look like they were thought out in a Waring blender. But who got Roger Maris and Orlando Cepeda into Cardinal uniforms?

Who, indeed, also brought to the Cardinals Art Mahaffey, Alex Johnson, Charley Smith and John Romano, all now departed? But Howsam is an innovator who does not live in fear of trying new things. Attendance jumped a quarter of a million in his first season in Cincinnati. A serious question remains, however. If it is the team that draws the bulk of the people, will an angry team prove attractive? Because that is the kind of club Howsam has on his hands after irritating many of the top Cincinnati players this spring during contract negotiations.

Angry or not, the Reds do have the players. Rookie John Bench will catch, and if you are wondering if a team has ever won a pennant with a rookie catcher the answer is yes: Andy Etchebarren caught for the 1966 Baltimore Orioles. The infield of Lee May, Tommy Helms, Leo Cardenas and Tony Perez is adequate defensively and excellent offensively, assuming that Helms (.274) stays healthy and Perez can come close to repeating his brilliant season of 1967 (27 HRs, 102 RBIs, .290 avg.). Fred Whitfield, Chico Ruiz and Bob Johnson will be the utility men.

Pete Rose, the Reds' leading hitter last year (.301), moves to right field with Vada Pinson in center. Pinson led the team in seven offensive categories. Alex Johnson and Mack Jones, one from the Cardinals, the other from the Braves, round out an excellent outfield.

The reason the Reds got off to such a fine start in 1967 is that 19-year-old Gary Nolan (14-8) and converted Outfielder Mel Queen (14-8) did so well along with Relief Pitcher Ted Abernathy. Abernathy, if you count saves (26) and wins (6), accounted for 37% of the victories. Milt Pappas (16-13) was the team's big 1967 winner, and Jim Maloney (15-11) has won 15 or more games for five straight seasons. Bill Kelso, Jorge Rubio and George Culver are pitchers picked up from the American League, and Culver (7-3 with the Indians) is one with a difference. Unlike George Plimpton, he is an athlete who wants to be a writer.

The Reds, as enigmatic as a Kremlin caper, could, if happy and healthy, finish first, but the spring arm troubles of Nolan, who has been sent down, could hurt them drastically.

When Leo Durocher took over Phil Wrigley's gummed-up Chicago Cubs two seasons back, Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi said, "The game has passed Leo by." Well, Durocher and his exciting Cubs passed Bavasi and the Dodgers right by last season on their rise from 10th to third as they improved from 59 wins in '66 to 87 in '67.

Certainly if you want to find flaws in the Cubs they are present, but not in the starting infield of Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger and the fantastic Ron Santo. Randy Hundley is a fine young catcher who has worked 301 games in the last two seasons and hit .267 last year. Ex-Dodger Rightfielder Johnson is Durocher's type of hustler, and Billy Williams is even better than his 24 homers, 84 RBIs and .278 average proved him to be last season. Centerfielder Adolfo Phillips knows that Durocher is the boss now. If he can put two good half seasons together instead of just one, the Cubs again will contend for the title.

Chicago, however, is going with young pitching and that is always a risk, even though it worked for St. Louis last year. The starting four pitchers—Ferguson Jenkins, a 20-game winner, Joe Niekro, Rich Nye and Ken Holtzman—average only 23 years of age with four full years of major league experience. Holtzman had a record of 9-0 while commuting from the service last season, but he could eventually be one of baseball's finest pitchers.

"I think," Holtzman said recently, "that position for position we can match anyone with our hitting and defense, so the pressure is really on the four of us and the bullpen. If we can come up with 15, 20 wins from two of us and 10, 15 from the other two, we can win it." That is a large order, especially now that everyone is ready and waiting for the Cubs.

The Atlanta Braves produced more good fights last season than the World Boxing Association's heavyweight elimination tournament. This year Paul Richards, a man who many say will somehow get himself to heaven 10 minutes before the devil knows he's dead, may be able to straighten Atlanta out. Should he succeed, Atlanta will be surprisingly strong. Yes, Henry Aaron is still with the Braves, and Joe Torre and Felipe Alou should bounce back following operations. Deron Johnson probably will hit a lot of homers in Atlanta Stadium, and Clete Boyer, who batted in 96 runs last year with a .245 batting average, Shortstop Sonny Jackson and Second Baseman Felix Millan now give the Braves overall defense. Richards believes in defense. He believes in pitching, too. He and new Manager Lum Harris are going to have to work hard to get their confused staff into winning form if the fighting Braves are to improve on their seventh-place finish, their lowest since leaving Boston for Atlanta via Milwaukee.

No team enters this season in as confused a state as the Philadelphia Phillies, for they must present a case for being a possible contender while rebuilding. To make any kind of showing now that Bunning is gone, Bill White and Richie Allen both have to come back strong. Allen has had difficulties with the fans and management in Philadelphia, and his serious injury of last year, unhappily, has left grave doubts as to his ability to throw. White, happily, has worked harder this spring than at any time since his rookie year with the Giants, and John Callison has spent part of the winter in Boston under Gene Berde, the same conditioner who was so prominent in the rehabilitation of Carl Yastrzemski last year. But expect only minor miracles this season in Philadelphia.

Although each team in the National League will be affected in 1968 by the absence of youngsters serving their military obligations, the New York Mets and Houston Astros, because of their youth, probably will suffer the most from weekend and two-week service duty. New York should be a more interesting team than in the past, if only because its young players are finally beginning to surface. Three of them did last year—Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson and Ron Swoboda—and the addition of Tommie Agee from the White Sox will at last make the team respectable in center field. At 25 Agee is potentially the most exciting payer the Mets have ever had. He has tailored himself in the image of Mays and can gallop over the outfield as well as any player. Although he will strike out a lot, Agee can run the bases and hit home runs.

Hiring Gil Hodges, who showed at Washington that he can be a good and sometimes sarcastic manager, will prove a plus. This spring the Mets were not winning many games, but they made fewer fundamental mistakes than ever. With young pitching and a different attitude, they could get off to a quick start, and that would be a delightful change.

Like the Mets, Houston has three good young players in Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan plus some hopefuls in Norm Miller, Doug Rader and Ron Davis. The Astros are also going to use rookie Catcher Hal King and Hector Torres at shortstop. Torres, now 22, was the youngster who pitched the Monterrey, Mexico, Little League team to the world championship 10 years ago. He threw left-and right-handed and presumably can do the same for the Phillies if things become terribly raunchy in the infield.

Oddly, Houston's pitching, which had been fairly good in earlier seasons, became the worst in the majors last year (4.03 ERA). Mike Cuellar (16-11), no-hit Don Wilson (10-9), Larry Dierker and Dave Giusti should not be mentioned with the Cardinal or Giant staffs, but they are better than their combined records for 1967 would have you believe. Relief pitchers will try and save them.

It is obvious that should anything happen to a Nelson Briles, a Dick Hughes or a Steve Carlton, the St. Louis Cardinals could be in serious trouble. That same reasoning, though, holds true for any pitching staff on any team. As they enter the 1968 season the Cardinals are the most impressive team in all of baseball.

ILLUSTRATIONThe swift and skillful flight of El Birdos to the top of the league and Gateway Arch may be duplicated. ILLUSTRATIONBalls and walls came tumbling down in Pittsburgh but Pitcher Jim Bunning should patch up the leaks. ILLUSTRATIONEven with that excellent Giant pitching, Herman Franks has a question mark: aging Willie Mays. ILLUSTRATIONOut of the debris left by the loss of Sandy and Maury, Walt Alston must fashion a flag contender. ILLUSTRATIONVada Pinson and the Reds always seem to start out on target but lose sight of the bull's-eye on the way. ILLUSTRATIONSome said Leo was over the hill until he charmed the Cubs and drove them to respectability in '67. ILLUSTRATIONAll the wizardry of much-traveled Paul Richards must be mustered if Atlanta's Braves are to rise. ILLUSTRATIONConfusion and injuries hover in the background as the Phils set for what may be a profitless year. ILLUSTRATIONGil Hodges looms large in the plans of the Mets as a young team hopes to offer New York a new deal. ILLUSTRATIONRoy Hofheinz of Houston has a going Dome but his sputtering Astros can't get off the launching pad.