Willie and Clyde, they call themselves, and they have all the West chasing them. The guys on Murderers' Row in Cincinnati seem to be closing in. The Mod Squad kids in Los Angeles, Hammerin' Hank and Phil the Knuckler in Atlanta and Jimmy the Cannon in Houston may need a little more time, but they are not far away from Willie and Clyde's place right now. "We're certainly not going to open the door for any of them," says Willie. "Darn, Willie, if all my plans had worked out right the last couple of months we wouldn't be worrying about these people trying to catch up now," says Clyde.
The team is the San Francisco Giants, and Willie is—surprise—Willie McCovey, the first baseman and at present the most feared hitter in the National League. Clyde is Clyde King, the rookie manager of the Giants. Willie's bat and Clyde's fresh psychology have the Giants in first place in the league's fratricidal Western Division. Although they led the second-place Reds by only 1½ games and the fifth-place Astros by only 4½ as of Sunday night, the Giants may prove to be more difficult to catch in the Western hinterlands during the next three weeks than Bonnie and Clyde ever were.
There are various reasons why this is so, but all of them can be summarized in one word: team. For the first time since they landed in California 11 years ago the Giants are a genuine baseball team. That is, there are 32 players in San Francisco who are now working in concert with the manager and his coaches to produce a pennant. In past seasons—particularly in the last four seasons when the Giants were always second—this was not so. Under Manager Herman Franks, the grand guru of the game, the Giants were marvelously sufficient in all the baseball departments save one: morale, Manager and management catered too much to the star syndrome at the expense of the little man, without whose contributions, it became clear, their team would never make first place.
Franks, in fact, seemed to think that he had only four players on the Giants. They were, in order, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, McCovey and Gaylord Perry. There was an occasional experiment when Franks played around with the possibility of adding to the select four, but his heart was never in it. The other Giants, he seemed to feel, were merely dwarfs. Their function was to appear three hours before the game and disappear half an hour after it was over.
"I don't think," says Willie McCovey, "that I've ever met two men anywhere who have such opposite views about handling players. Herman was the type who hated to build a player up. Clyde, well, he's always around with the compliments to everyone. Ballplayers, like everyone else, like to get told they did something right."
Also now, for really the first time since the opening games of the season, King can field his regular team—or at least seven of the eight players he thinks of as daily performers.
The Giants have until now been baseball's Medicaid Nine. Their health insurance had its first workout when Catcher Dick Dietz' tonsils became infected. Then Jim Ray Hart, the No. 5 hitter, slammed his shoulder into a fence during opening week and developed bursitis. Not only was his throwing arm totally disabled, he was unable to use his bat. Last year he hit 23 home runs and had 78 RBIs. So far in 1969 he has hit only three homers and driven in 24 runs. Jack Hiatt, a catcher, and Bob Etheridge, the regular third baseman, both developed ulcers. Tito Fuentes and Shortstop Hal Lanier injured their ankles. Ken Henderson pulled a hamstring, and Jim Davenport displayed the usual ailments that come with old age.
Juan Marichal developed a unique injury in the Astrodome when he sneezed and simultaneously pulled a muscle in his rib cage. During the next five weeks he was able to win only one game. Second Baseman Ron Hunt, baseball's true grit, has been in and out, in and out of the lineup and the hospital, the recipient this year of 21 pitched balls on his head, his shoulders and any other place he was not too sure he should remove from the line of fire. Bobby Bonds, the brilliant young power-hitting outfielder, surveyed Hunt's black-and-blue body one day and said, "Ron, believe me, there's no advantage in turning my color." Two weeks ago Hunt was hospitalized overnight for observation after Tom Seaver skulled him with a fastball. Hunt then tried to play the next day.
But this is the story of the San Francisco Giants, and all previous stories about the San Francisco Giants have always begun and ended with Willie Mays. Not this year. Mays has not started 58 games this season because of injuries and advancing age. Last month he damaged his left knee in a home-plate crash with the Cubs' Randy Hundley, and it was not until last Saturday night in Houston that Mays was physically ready to play again. He went to the Dome in the morning for a 20-minute batting drill, then, in the game, hit a two-run triple to help the Giants beat the Astros 7-6.
"We've used eight different third basemen out of physical necessity," King says. "We've had countless outfield combinations. We've never had a regular catcher. Considering everything, our being in first place is incredible. If all those things hadn't happened, there'd be no race—we'd be up there someplace."
Fortunately for King and the Giants, McCovey and Bonds both have been able to play almost every day, and right now they form the most lethal one-two batting attack in the league. Not that McCovey has been enjoying crazy, all-out health. On the contrary, he has been hurt all year with an arthritic knee and calcium deposits and bone chips in his hip. Nevertheless, he has missed only 13 games, and he leads the National League with 41 home runs and is tied with Ron Santo with 112 RBIs, statistics that are even more impressive when his 104 bases on balls (including 41 intentional walks) are added to them. The opposition now often plays a four-man outfield against McCovey and in close situations prefers to walk him even when there is a runner on first.
Bonds, at 23, has suddenly blossomed, as many had predicted he would. He has marvelous speed and has stolen 39 bases in 42 attempts. He also has tremendous power when he meets the ball, something he does not always do. So far this year he has hit 29 home runs and driven in 75 runs, but he also has struck out 159 times. "If I were batting, say, .210 instead of .270," he said, "then I'd be worrying about my strikeouts. But I don't like to worry up there."
Called the next Mays when the Giants signed him in 1965, Bonds shrugs and says, "There will be no new Mays. How can there be? I just want to play the way I can. I can run and steal bases. I don't steal like Brock. He goes anytime. I only go in strategic circumstances. I've always had good power when I've hit the ball. Hitting the ball has been the problem. I've got time, and I've got a lot of players here helping me out."
McCovey and Bonds have carried the Giants during the long injury siege. "The writers always said we wouldn't win without Mays," McCovey said last week in Houston. "We have proved the last few weeks that we can win without him. We have gotten rid of that tag. Guys read things like that and they think to themselves, 'I'll show them,' and they go out and play great ball. That's what has happened to us. The guys who have come off the bench this year have done great jobs for us. And that never used to happen before. Look at Jim Davenport. Ten game-winning hits, and he's really a reserve."
The dependable, efficient bench is only part of the new look that Clyde King has injected into the Giants. From the start of the spring he has preached teamwork to his players. In the old days a Giant home-run hitter was welcomed back to the dugout like a worst enemy; King wanted a reception committee at the dugout steps. If a Giant happened to have a bad day even though the club won, that player usually sat around the clubhouse and sulked. King surveyed the locker room and detected the sulkers. He then prodded them into joining the party. Also, he discontinued the parties after defeats.
Most of the Giants accepted the manager's fresh approach. However, they all waited for the first real confrontation between manager and superstar. Mays, the No. 1 Giant of all time, is 38 years old now, and at times he performs like a 38-year-old rather than the marvelous player of only a few years back. He was virtually his own manager under Franks, playing when he wanted to, resting when he wanted to. Although the other Giants agreed that Mays deserved some preferential treatment, they did feel that he often took advantage of his position. Franks, unfortunately, never played a dominant role in these matters.
King and Mays clashed in the Astrodome near the end of June. The two men had devised a plan whereby Mays would get extra rest after particularly strenuous games or series of games. This night there was a mixup. When King, who had written Mays' name into the lineup, noticed that Willie was not on the bench to bring the lineup card out to the umpires at home plate, he grabbed the card, scratched Mays' name from it and went to the umpires' conference himself. Mays arrived in the dugout seconds later, and when he discovered what King had done he was furious.
There are various and conflicting accounts of what happened on the bench. King says that everything he read in the papers was accurate, although he says he did not read every report. Two Giants did prevent Mays from doing something he would have regretted. King censured his star in front of the other players. In effect, he said that he was the manager of the Giants. When he said that, Clyde King was the manager of the Giants, and the fact has not been questioned since. McCovey and Marichal assured him it was so.
Last weekend the Giants flew into Houston again, this time to open an eight-game road trip—their most important of the year—with three games against the Astros. The Giants had not won in six games in the Dome this year, and both McCovey and Bonds were hit-less on the AstroTurf. At the same time the Astros were talking pennant. The dozens of motels surrounding the Astrodome complex had "All The Way Astros" messages on their marquees. The Houston papers bannered the series on page 1.
The enthusiasm might well have depressed the Giants, who had become just about inured to inattention at home. Recently, for instance, they returned to San Francisco from a long trip East with a five-game winning streak and, for the moment at least, a lock on first place. The headlines on the sports pages, however, were CLIFTON MCNEIL MAY SIGN WITH 49ERS and RICK BARRY MAY SIGN WITH WARRIORS. One paper, dead set against the expansion of Candlestick Park, seemingly would give up its sports page rather than mention the Giants favorably.
The Astros were only 5½ games behind the Giants, and a successful weekend would shoot them into the race. No longer the team that always battled the Mets for 10th place, they are a young group of developers, with the three hardest throwers in the league, Larry Dierker, Don Wilson and Tom Griffin. They will be contenders for years to come. More important, the Astros have developed a pride in themselves. Dierker has appointed himself team lyricist, and after every game he sings verses of his song, It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be an Astro, dutifully accompanied by the other players.
Last Friday night Dierker shut out the Giants 2-0, winning the game when Denis Menke hit a two-run homer off Perry in the bottom of the ninth. He held McCovey and Bonds hitless and permitted only one Giant runner to reach second base. After the game Dierker and the Astros sang one of the few printable verses of their song:
Now Harry Walker is the one that manages this crew
He doesn't like it when we miss curfew,
But when we win our game each day
What the hell can Harry say?
It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.
It was not a damaging loss for the Giants because their closest pursuers, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, also lost. "Every time we win a game," said King, "we're going to gain a game on two clubs. And every time we lose, two clubs will gain on us. That's how it's going to be all the way down to the wire."
On Saturday night, with Mays back in the lineup, the Giants roared to a 7-1 lead. Bonds got a double, McCovey had two hits. Then, with two out in the ninth, the Astros had four runs across, trailed by only one run and had runners at first and second and Menke at the plate. The hero of Friday night, however, looked at a called third strike Saturday night, and the Giants survived a scare. Sunday, though, they did not, losing 7-6 after leading 6-0 in the fourth.
"Our club is funny," McCovey said. "I don't think we're as good as some of our clubs that finished second the last four years, but we have something they didn't have. Winning is a serious matter."
The Giants have been near first in September before, but, says McCovey, "The last four years we had to fight for second. We're less apt to panic than, say, Houston or the Cubs. If we get beat, we'll get beat—not because we've tightened up or panicked. We've always won the crucial series for second place. This year the crucial series will be for first. Remember in '66 when we forced the Dodgers to use Koufax in the second game on the final day to beat us for the pennant? We didn't panic then."
With Cincinnati's Murderers' Row, L.A.'s Mod Squad, Atlanta's Hammerin' Hank Aaron and the Astros' Jimmy Wynn chasing them, the Giants cannot panic now. Willie and Clyde is too fine a title for a World Series movie—or even a playoff movie—to throw away.