There was, everyone agreed on baseball's Opening Day, only one team in the major leagues certain to win its division championship. There was, in fact, only one question: When? Memorial Day, July 4th or Labor Day? By one of those days the St. Louis Cardinals would have raced through the Eastern Division of the National League like an SDS detachment coursing through Harvard Yard. The Cardinals, after all, had won pennants in 1967 and 1968 and now they had added names like Torre and Pinson and Giusti to a roster already loaded with such old familiars as Gibson and McCarver, Flood, Brock, Shannon and Javier.
Last Sunday, with the 1969 season less than three weeks old, this modern juggernaut was six games away, down there in last place with New York and with the Expos, who were not born a year ago. Mr. Panic was walking across the Mississippi River toward the Gateway Arch.
The Chicago Cubs, tossed aside as mere pretenders, won 11 of their first 12 games, including successive shutouts over the Cardinals. But, as if one agitator was not bad enough, there were the Pittsburgh Pirates, supposedly building for 1976 or 1985. They beat the Cubs in both games of a doubleheader. Mr. Panic was checking the St. Louis football schedules for fall television.
There was a popular explanation for the early failures of the Cardinals. The people who buy baseball tickets and six-packs of Bud said the Cardinals were "Fat Cats"—overpaid and undercompetitive. To the accompaniment of some fairly strident caterwauling before the home folks in Busch Stadium, they lost eight of their first nine games and were shut out three times in six days. The lone victory came against the Expos, and it was the result of a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth.
The St. Louis players resented the reception they were getting. "They are not entitled to abuse us because of how much money we are making," Bob Gibson, the pitcher, said when the team arrived in Chicago last week. "Nobody resents what a doctor makes. You can call a doctor on the phone and he will charge you $10. I don't read that." Tim McCarver, the catcher, said, "We do our job the best we can. That's what we get paid for. Besides, with the tax structure in this country today, nobody's making any money anyway."
But this was so much talk. The Cardinals simply were in a dreadful team slump. Every opponent seemed to pitch like Mickey Lolich, hit like Jim Northrup and field like Al Kaline. Lou Brock and Curt Flood, the men who usually ignite the Cardinal offense, were almost automatic outs at the plate. They were on base together only six times in the Cardinals' first 16 games—and St. Louis lost 10 of them. Things were so bad that Brock could not even reach first base to get picked off.
The Cardinals have been through disastrous slumps before. As Curt Flood said, "Streaks—good and bad—come at strange times. Last year no one noticed we had a bad May because we had a real good record [13-5] in April. The trouble with this losing streak is that it's happening right at the start of the season, when everyone can see things perfectly. But we'll start to click soon and go on a streak the other way."
Manager Red Schoendienst, perhaps the most unperturbable man in baseball, approaches these slumps with characteristic calm. He never juggles his lineup like a Gene Mauch or a Bill Rigney, nor does he hold long clubhouse meetings to discuss situations or issue ultimatums. Throughout this unproductive period his Cardinals managed to remain lively, communicative and fun-loving. Their clubhouse still was a branch of a local discoth√®que, with music blaring from all directions, and the players could laugh. In Philadelphia, for instance, Brock spotted a young couple kissing in the second deck. "Hey, hey, hey," he yelled. "Cut that out." The other Cardinals started to laugh at the young girl and young boy. "Do it again," Brock said, "and we'll all give you a standing ovation." The couple declined.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals were still in last place last Saturday night when they played the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. The Cubs and the Pirates both had won earlier in the day and, if St. Louis lost, the team would be six games behind in the loss column. It is somewhat ridiculous to say a Saturday night game in Philadelphia in April is crucial—but the Cards considered this one big.
Schoendienst made one slight change in the lineup: he dropped Brock from first to second in the batting order. The clubs were tied after eight innings, then Reliever Barry Lersch retired the first two Cardinals in the ninth. Brock came to the plate, he and his .120 batting average. This time he hit a long home run, and the hit seemed to inflame the Cardinals. They scored five more runs, with McCarver hitting a grand slam home run, and for the first time in 1969 they had staged what could be called a rally. For 24 hours, anyway, it seemed that the turning point had been reached.
While St. Louis was thus engaged trying to straighten itself out, the Cubs and the Pirates played like the Cards were supposed to. Chicagoans responded by turning out in impressive numbers at Wrigley Field. They carried banners through the tiers (SEX IS GREAT, BOOZE IS FINE, THE CUBS WILL SHINE IN '69), and little old ladies walked down to the edge of the dugout and told Manager Leo Durocher to "open up a new can of pitchers." In Pittsburgh the burghers were less impressed. They had been promised winners the last few years, only to see their best prospects fizzle. They seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude and presumably will stay away until the Pirates prove they can win with consistency.
The Cubs totally reflect the character of Leo Durocher. Since he is superstitious all the way from clothes to seating arrangements on buses and airplanes, the Cubs step lively between the cracks on sidewalks. The boss goes first-class jet, with people like Frank Sinatra; the Cubs do, too—often chartering jets (unlike the majority of major league teams) and putting up in places like the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where the rooms are never two-by-four. Dress is strictly optional. Mr. Durocher prefers sweaters and mock turtlenecks, the Cubs prefer sweaters and mock turtlenecks and there are no threats of fines or suspension.
When Durocher took over the Cubs in 1965, he inherited an eighth-place team. It became a 10th-place team that next year, proving that Durocher was no miracle worker. It became a third-place team the next two years, proving that he was. Durocher, in fact, built a winning club. To start, he acquired Catcher Randy Hundley and Pitcher Bill Hands from the San Francisco Giants, then he traded for Adolfo Phillips and Ferguson Jenkins of the Phillies. Only one of the four players he yielded in these trades still plays in the major leagues. Hundley is baseball's most durable catcher. Hands won 16 games last year. Phillips is a fine centerfielder when he wants to play. And Jenkins has developed into one of the four or five best pitchers in the league.
"They never gave me a chance in Philadelphia," Jenkins says. "Leo gives me the ball every four days and tells me to go out and pitch." Jenkins, only 25, won 20 games in each of the last two years and is 3-1 right now.
Still not satisfied after his two trades, Durocher began searching for a shortstop. He had a young one named Don Kessinger but, said Durocher, he would never make it. But one day he and Kessinger had an idea: switch hitting. "Try it," Durocher said. Kessinger did and instantly he acquired the confidence he needed to become what Durocher thought he was not—a ballplayer. He now is a good hitter, a superior fielder, a fine walking leadoff man and, with Glenn Beckert, the second baseman, he helps form one of the best double-play teams in baseball. Last Friday night Kessinger hit his first home run left-handed—a shot that helped the Cubs beat the Mets in New York.
Beckert listened to Durocher, too. "He told me I'd make as much money hitting singles and doubles as other players who hit home runs," Beckert said. "So I closed my stance, shortened my swing and watched Dick Groat and the way he went to right field. I could be a guy who hits 12 home runs but bats .210 and doesn't help his club. I think what I'm doing now helps the Cubs." Beckert is a .290 hitter and strikes out less than any regular in the league.
Durocher had his nucleus already, with Ron Santo at third base, Ernie Banks at first and Billy Williams, who has not missed a game in almost six years, in left. He retired Banks three straight years, then every spring Banks beat out the handpicked replacement. "I wish I knew what pills he takes," Durocher said last week. Banks, Durocher should be one of the first to know, gets himself ready for the long season by spending two weeks in February at the Buckhorn Spa near Mesa, Ariz. He takes baths, baths, baths and he says he feels like a new 37-year-old after his stay.
The Cubs could use a top rightfielder but they have not had one in 10 years and so Durocher does not worry about the position much anymore. He does not worry about St. Louis, either. "I'm not thinking about anybody else's ball club," said Durocher. "Just my own. Let the other people worry about everything else. The Cardinals? They will be around, you know that."
But the biggest surprise of the early season has been the Pirates. "After reading everything about us in the spring," said Manager Larry Shepard, "you'd think we were going to finish 14th. When you lose big names [Maury Wills, Donn Clendenon, Manny Mota, Al McBean], replace them with unknowns [Richie Hebner, Bob Robertson, Al Oliver and Fred Patek] and then have a bad spring, it leads to pessimism." Rarely do such moves lead to a dynasty. This could be one of those times, although it is awfully early to predict. "It was imperative that we get off to a fast start because of all the kids," said 37-year-old Jim Bunning. "If we had started like the Cleveland Indians, well, I don't know what would have happened the rest of the season."
Shepard has been platooning most of his young players with the exception of Patek. The 5'4" shortstop, replacing the injured Alley, so far has played a foot over his head.
The Pirates can afford to use these youngsters because they have more than enough experienced performers at the key positions. Bill Mazeroski still anchors the infield at second base, and Roberto Clemente is there in right field—complaining about his sore shoulders but hitting home runs and making Clemente-type plays in the field. He hit a two-run homer to beat Montreal last weekend after assuring anybody who would listen that he could not swing down on the ball.
A pleasing development has been the comeback of Willie Stargell. The big outfielder slumped badly last year and hit only .237 with 24 home runs and 67 RBIs. "My wife said she couldn't put up with another year like that, and even my dog barked at me," Stargell said. He is off to a .350 start with four home runs so far. Off even better is Matty Alou, who at his present rate (29 hits in 17 games) will have 275 hits by the end of the year.
Pitcher Steve Blass, an 18-game winner in 1968, last week probably summarized the crazy, mixed-up division the best. "The first thing I look for in the paper every day," he said, "is the Cardinals' score. They've got to lose games—today, tomorrow, anytime." Everybody is treading gingerly ahead of the Cardinals. As Mazeroski said, "It is critical that we all get as far ahead of them as possible." Shut out in Philadelphia on four hits Sunday, St. Louis was still doing its bit to keep Maz, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs critically and satisfactorily ahead.