If the San Francisco Giants contrive to lose the National League pennant by one game this year, they will blame it all on Harry Wendelstedt. Not Henry Aaron or Pete Rose, not Orlando Cepeda or Jerry Koosman, not even the team that survives this season's pennant adventure. They will simply point to an umpire named Harry Wendelstedt and say, "Harry, you did it."
Last Friday night in Los Angeles, Wendelstedt was umpiring a game between the Giants and the Dodgers when he made what may be the most controversial call of the 1968 season. The Giants were in first place but struggling, leading the 10th place Pirates by only five games in the tightest early-season race in expansion-league history. The Dodgers were pitching Don Drysdale, who was hot after a record fifth successive shutout.
When Drysdale stepped out of the dugout for the top half of the ninth, leading 3-0, the 46,067 in Dodger Stadium rose and cheered and floated paper airplanes onto the field. His pants legs drooping almost to his ankles, Drysdale tipped his blue cap as he crossed the third-base line, and he repeated the gesture as he reached the mound and bent over to pick up the resin bag.
Then he ran into trouble. Willie McCovey walked on a 3-and-2 pitch. Jim Ray Hart hit Drysdale's next pitch into right center for a single, and Dave Marshall, a rookie outfielder, walked. Now suddenly the bases were loaded, nobody was out and Catcher Dick Dietz was at the plate. Just three nights earlier in St. Louis, Dietz had hit a long sixth-inning home run off Bob Gibson after the Cardinal pitcher had methodically set down the first 15 San Francisco batters.
June 9, 1968
In any other circumstance the advantage would have been all Drysdale's—his right-handed sidearm coming in from somewhere around third base to a right-handed hitter. But in this tense situation the count went quickly to 2 and 2—and then the "thing" happened.
"Now I was looking for something on the outside part of the plate—like a spitter," said Dietz. He set himself firmly in the batter's box and leaned toward the plate. Drysdale fired. The pitch—Drysdale said it was a fast ball—seemed to mesmerize Dietz, who never moved and clearly was hit on the left elbow. Instantly Wendelstedt yelled, "Ball three!"
Drysdale, wisely, turned away. Dietz, who looks as though he should be a blocking guard for the Green Bay Packers, bounced around Wendelstedt like a man with murder in his heart. Wendelstedt reasoned that Dietz never tried to avoid the pitch. Therefore, he said, he was invoking a seldom-remembered rule and calling the pitch a ball, since it was not in the strike zone. Giant Manager Herman Franks, who was ejected, shouted unprintables all the way to the clubhouse.
The decision possibly saved the game for Drysdale. It preserved his string of scoreless innings at 45 and enabled him to tie the record of five consecutive shutouts set by Guy White of the Chicago White Sox in 1904. Instead of one run in and the tying run at second, the Giants had a sore-armed catcher at bat who was able to produce only a gentle fly too shallow to score the run from third.
Drysdale got his next out on a force at the plate, then went to his cap with his right hand, tugged at his belt, rubbed his thigh, tugged at his belt, brushed the letters on his uniform shirt, pulled at his right shoulder, went to the cap again and finally was ready for Pinch Hitter Jack Hiatt. And one Giant said, "Somewhere in that routine he gets it—the Vaseline or whatever it is he puts on the ball to make it jump around." Hiatt went out on a harmless pop-up and Dodger Stadium was instant bedlam—the golden days of Sandy Koufax revisited. The only people not saluting Drysdale's achievement were the Giants, particularly the befuddled Dietz. "Wendelstedt said I stuck my arm out on purpose," he said. "What am I? Crazy? I'm not going to let him hit me—not Drysdale. He'll cut you in two out there. I just couldn't move."
Wendelstedt's odd call amazed even the Dodgers. "I have enough trouble trying to get the ball to hit the bat" said Zoilo Versalles, the shortstop. Hank Aguirre, the left-handed relief pitcher who came over to the Dodgers from the American League earlier this year said, "Listen, if anybody wants to get hit, there are plenty of guys around who will hit him. And not on the elbow."
One thing can be said for Wendelstedt's decision—it made the pennant race even tighter and gave the participants something new to talk about in a season that so far has been dominated by perfect games, no-hitters, 24-inning 1-0 scores and microscopic batting averages. For instance, on the night Drysdale beat the Giants there were five shutouts and one 14-inning, 2-1 game in the major leagues. The Giants themselves scored only 13 runs in six games last week, and they were shut out by both Drysdale and lefthander Steve Carlton of the Cardinals. Nevertheless they managed to win three of those games, including two in St. Louis on home runs by Willie Mays and on fielding execution that pleasantly startled Manager Franks. Despite Henry Wendelstedt, they may win that pennant yet.
Mays had sat out half of one game and all of another, resting himself for the Cardinal series. "Hey, Willie, how old you now, 49?" asked one of the Cardinals when Mays arrived at the baiting cage before the opening game in Busch Stadium. Mays ignored the question, but when Cepeda called over to him, "Hey, Willie, did you play with Papa Bear Halas when you were a boy?" his answer sounded like the Willie of old. "Who told you to ask me that?" said Mays. "You don't even know who Halas is." Cepeda turned to Tim McCarver, who had provided him with the question, and asked, "Who is this Bear you talk about?"
That night the bear turned out to be Mays, as Gaylord Perry and Bob Gibson matched one-hitters for six innings. With one man on in the seventh he hit a perfect home run pitch—fastball down the middle—into the left-field seats, and the Giants won 3-1.
The next night the Cardinals took an early one-run lead (that is all the runs they were ever getting), but with two out and Ron Hunt on second base in the top of the third, Mays golfed one of Nelson Briles's flattened-out curveballs into the same left-field seats. Juan Marichal maintained the 2-1 lead for the rest of the game.
For Mays all this was a comeback from a 1967 season that was his worst in the major leagues. Of course, he was hurt and sick most of last year. Now to keep Mays fit physically Franks occasionally rests him, particularly when the Giants face an overpowering right-handed pitcher. "I have no idea when my body's going to get tired," Mays said, "but when it does I'm getting out of there. I don't care who we're playing, whether it's a tough series or not. Fans maybe don't understand that. But I figure that even if the club loses a game or two when I'm not in there, then maybe I'll be rested enough to help win four or five games in a hurry when I get back. The big thing you have to remember is that it's a long, long season."
The Giants have a tendency to collapse in the middle of these long, long seasons, then recover to finish second with a rush. This year the collapse may not be so certain, not only because Mays is healthy and the four-man pitching staff of Marichal, Mike McCormick, Perry and Frank Linzy is superb, but also because the Giants now can make double plays.
Indeed, they saved that first game in St. Louis with a fast double play started by Hunt, their latest and perhaps best second baseman since they left the Polo Grounds. Hunt and Shortstop Hal Lanier, says Franks, "give us the one thing we've never had—the double play. It's beautiful to see for a change." The Giants acquired Hunt in a historical trade that sent Tom Haller to the Dodgers last February. "It was the first deal we've made with the Dodgers since 1956," said Chub Feeney, the Giants' general manager. "Then we sent Dick Littlefield to Brooklyn for Jackie Robinson, and Littlefield spent the winter sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge waiting to learn whether Robinson would play for us. He wouldn't, so Littlefield never did cross the bridge."
Hunt has been injury prone since he came up with the New York Mets in 1963. He plays the game hard and is one of the best take-out sliders in the league. When he tags a base runner, as he did Wes Parker in Los Angeles last weekend, it is hardly with a gentle touch.
Hunt, Lanier, Mays and the pitchers were carrying the Giants, but no one was doing much to help the St. Louis Cardinals, who were supposed to win the pennant by Memorial Day. At one time last week the Cardinals had lost 11 of 13 games, and they went from 3½ games ahead to three games behind the Giants in the standings. Cepeda left 27 men on base in those 12 games, and Manager Red Schoendienst occasionally benched McCarver and Lou Brock. The bullpen, a weak spot anyway, faltered regularly and the starters—pitching without runs—gave up too many homers.
Consider what happened to Gibson during the month of May. He made six starts, winning the first two and losing the last four. He beat the Astros in 12 innings and the New York Mets in 11. Then he lost 3-2 to the Astros; 1-0 to the Phillies in the 10th inning; 2-0 to Drysdale and the Dodgers (even though he pitched a one-hitter for eight innings) and 3-1 to the Giants last week.
"We don't worry yet," said Cepeda, who was hitting under .250. "We get no breaks so far. I get letters from my friends, and my mother calls me from Puerto Rico asking, 'What's wrong?' Nothing is wrong."
But something was wrong. Then, in that game against Perry and the Giants, the Cardinals for a moment played exactly as they had last year when they demolished the rest of the National League. Brock, who stole seven bases in the 1967 World Series but only five in 45 games this season, led off the bottom of the first inning with an ordinary single into short left field. This time, however, it was a double, as Brock caught the Giants handling the ball gingerly. Curt Flood, about the only consistent hitter in the Cardinal lineup, flied to very shallow right field. Dave Marshall, the rookie outfielder, caught the ball routinely, and Brock returned to second base. As Marshall started to return the ball to Hunt, Brock bolted for third. He beat Hunt's throw—barely. Roger Maris then grounded to First Baseman Ty Cline, who was playing about even with the base, and while Cline wound up to throw to the plate Brock scored easily.
The Cardinals, before Brock's play, obviously had been playing overcautiously. Their St. Louis fans, just as obviously, overreacted with their boos. Some paraded around the stadium wearing blazers with a breast-pocket patch that said "Royal Order of Losers." But it is only June, and there are four months to play in the season. Every team in the league is close—the bottom team could lead, given a good streak—and it just might be that at season's end the San Francisco Giants are going to thank Umpire Harry Wendelstedt for nothing, which will be the one game they lost the 1968 pennant by.