A physician might call it insomnia, a psychiatrist could say it was acute anxiety, but in layman's terms what kept the Cubs' Ernie Banks (see cover) up late watching television one night last week was nothing more than a sudden severe outbreak of an old baseball trauma, the close pennant race. Since his Eastern Division-leading team had lost its fourth consecutive game that afternoon, Banks was not about to be humored by Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin or Randolph Scott in Carson City on Chicago's Channel 9. He wanted the West Coast scores and he was not getting them. Finally, he impatiently phoned the press box in San Diego, where New York was playing, and asked for a report.
The news was bad and couldn't have done much for Banks' slumbers the rest of that night. The Mets were on the way to their 12th win in their last 13 games. In a remarkable 14-day stretch, while the Cubs were losing nine games, they moved from 9½ games out of first place to two and revived a race in what had been the quiescent—but by no means quiet—division of the National League. Fans in five towns of the Western Division—Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco—had long since acclimated themselves to sleeplessness. In their division the first five teams had not been separated by more than 4½ games for over a month and each, except for the Astros, had spent some time in first place.
When the baseball owners decided to move to divisional play this season, their announced reason was that it would give the fans two races to fret over instead of one. What was not proclaimed was that there was a lot of money to be made playing it this way. In the National League at least, the owners have scored well on both counts. Attendance is up in six of the seven contending cities. Never has there been anything as close as the Western Division struggle, and games at Chicago's Wrigley Field and New York's Shea Stadium were reminiscent of the old Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant days. Consistently near-capacity crowds rivaled only each other in the extremes of their lunacy.
The tossing and turning is not apt to stop in any of the seven towns until late September because each of the contenders has shown that it has strengths which can keep it close to the top, yet none has been powerful enough to indicate that it can pull away to a safe lead.
September 7, 1969
In the East, New York looked finished on Aug. 13 when it fell out of second place for the first time in 71 days. Then the Mets' pitchers, who had been very effective in the first half of the season but suffered a slump in the month following the All-Star Game, flipped on their good sides again. They allowed only two runs a game during New York's drive, and Manager Gil Hodges' staff now looks deeper and tougher than ever. To go along with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry, who have been reliable most of the year, the Mets have received impressive pitching from veteran Don Cardwell and 25-year-old Jim McAndrew. Bothered by injuries until recently, McAndrew picked up three wins during the streak, allowing just 10 hits and tying the team record for consecutive scoreless innings at 23.
With a strong, not seriously overworked bullpen to go with his five starters, Hodges must hope that his two-man offense of Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones remains intact. Jones has matured into a .350 hitter and Agee has come back strongly from a .217 year in 1968. Between the two of them, they have scored or driven in well over half of New York's runs.
The imponderable for the Mets is Hodges himself. Hawk Harrelson notwithstanding, Hodges has proved, first in Washington and now in New York, that he is an extraordinary teacher and driver of young players. If Hodges can impart to his team some of the steadiness under pressure that he gained in seven pennant drives with the Dodgers, the Mets—who have only one more loss than Chicago—could win.
But the Cubs remain the favorite. The simple fact is that their pitching is better than it has looked lately. Chicago's hitting during the slump also dropped off slightly, but the top six men in the lineup, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Banks and Randy Hundley, are all strong offensively and defensively. Recently the Cubs have found another slugger in Outfielder Jim Hickman, who averaged .300 with 10 home runs during August.
Surprisingly on a Leo Durocher-managed team, complacency seems to be the Cubs' biggest problem. Since mid-June they have played only seven games over .500 and last week no one, including Durocher, had the energy to go argue when an umpire obviously missed a call, ruling that a ball that would have given Chicago a single had been caught instead of trapped by a Cincinnati outfielder.
Despite Banks' call to San Diego, a ban on photographers in the clubhouse and a run-in between Santo and a paper-cup dispenser, the Chicago players insist that panic has not settled in. "We haven't choked," said Kessinger last week. But, said a Chicago reporter and Cub fan, "There's a lot of whistling in the dark going on around here."
The schedule is only a minor factor in the East, where the Mets and Cubs each have 13 games against the other strong Eastern teams, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. The Cards, nine games behind, and Pirates, 9½ out, retain a small chance for first place, but both hurt themselves by cooling off from hot streaks even as the Cubs were dipping into their slump. Chicago and New York finish the season with a two-game face-off at Wrigley Field. If the Mets' pitchers still have their club in contention, those should be, in the words of Durocher, "some kind of games."
In the West, where the lead has changed hands 19 times this year, almost all the remaining play will be some kind of games, too. Except for the Giants, who average only in the low .240s but hit with jolting power and now enjoy improved pitching, the West stands as a classic confrontation of the Dodgers' and Astros' tight pitching against the strong hitting of the Braves and Reds.
Houston's appearance in the race ranks as almost as much of a surprise as the Mets'. After losing 20 of their first 24 games, the Astros have had the best record in the division mainly because of a bright young trio of starters, 24-year-old Don Wilson, 22-year-old Larry Dierker and 21-year-old Tom Griffin, the prime reasons why the Astros should set a league record for striking out opposing batters.
In the closing weeks the pitchers will receive a boost from playing more of their games at home. "The biggest thing in our favor down the stretch is that we play 16 of our last 29 games in the Dome, where we're 44-21 for the season," says Manager Harry Walker. The springy AstroTurf helps a Walker team, since he specializes in teaching weak hitters to pressure opponents by hitting choppers in and over the infield. The chop hitting and the Astros' league lead in stolen bases show up in their scoring. Houston's batting average is ninth in the league but it is fifth in scoring, even though Jimmy Wynn is the only power hitter on the team.
L.A. scores fewer runs than the Astros, but its three best starters are tougher. No National League team since the 1923 Reds with Eppa Rixey, Dolph Luque and Pete Donohue has had three pitchers win over 20 games. Claude Osteen (18-11), Bill Singer (16-8) and Don Sutton (15-12), all having their best seasons, could match that.
Trades by rookie General Manager Al Campanis have set the Dodgers for a strong drive. He picked up leadoff and second-place hitters Maury Wills and Manny Mota from the Expos in June and then purchased Jim Bunning from the Pirates several weeks ago. Bunning, who threw a shutout in his first start for Los Angeles, gave the team a lift after Don Drysdale's retirement. "What an addition," said Catcher Jeff Torborg. "We've won it now."
Atlanta's Henry Aaron lays the pressure squarely on his team and Cincinnati when he says, "It's going to take about a 10-game winning streak by whoever wins it." Aaron is probably right, and it is more difficult for hitting teams to put together long streaks when they have, as the Braves and Reds do, only one big winner on the pitching staff. Atlanta's Phil Niekro has won 18 times and has half of his team's complete games. Fifteen-game winner Jim Merritt has pitched five of the Reds' 13 complete games. Both Cincinnati's and Atlanta's bullpens are overworked and, of late, inconsistent.
But with a little pitching, either team can be punishing. The Reds' average of .282 includes 155 home runs and .300 hitters Pete Rose, Alex Johnson, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench and Bobby Tolan. The Braves are lower than Cincinnati in both average and homers, but their top batters, Aaron, Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda, have all been through tight pennant drives before and are less likely to stumble under pressure.
Hindered by injuries all year but now healthy, San Francisco entered September fresh from a nine-game winning streak, with a one-game lead and the best chance to win. Juan Marichal is in top form again, bullpen ace Frank Linzy has come on strongly, Ray Sadecki, a 20-game winner for the champion 1964 Cards, has suddenly regained his fastball and the league's best overall hitter, Willie McCovey, and Bobby Bonds are both in hitting streaks. The Giants play six of their last nine games against the almost hopeless San Diego Padres. Practically the only person not impressed with that fact is Giant Owner Horace Stoneham. "I'd rather play the tough teams head to head," he said. "I've seen this kind of situation before, with a contender thinking more about the scoreboard than its own game."
During September in the National League, the scoreboard will demand serious consideration. With so many contenders, every game will seem crucial. Ernie Banks won't be the only player making a long distance phone call during the night's desperate hours.