It now appears that San Francisco's Willie Mays will not hit 162 home runs after all this season, nor will San Diego's Nate Colbert hit 135. Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell 116, Atlanta's Henry Aaron 101 or Cincinnati's Johnny Bench 92. Each has tailed off from the precipitate pace at which he hit his first four or five.
The way Tom Seaver of the Mets, Juan Marichal of the Giants and other anti-long-ball agents have been working, in fact, the pitching may be ahead of the hitting overall—as most theorists say it should be at this time of year. But Colbert is still batting .395, Mays had a 10-game streak, Stargell hit his sixth homer Saturday and research confirms that the first week's explosion amounted to the most rousing rash of individual home-run starts in 25 years.
Of all the early leaders—if not of all players ever—Mays is the most inveterate fast starter. After six games in 1968 he had a .381 average and seven RBIs: after nine in '66, .410 and 13 RBIs; after eight in '64, six homers and 15 RBIs; after six in '62, three homers; after seven in '60, .407; after nine in '58, .417; after seven in '57, three homers, 10 RBIs. This year Mays homered on the first pitch he saw and in each of his first four games. Then he went five games with only singles and a double and a triple, but last Saturday he struck a double and home run No. 5.
"I think maybe just feeling strong is why I usually start fast," he says. "A lot of people don't realize how much I concentrate in center field. [At present he is concentrating on first base, with Willie McCovey injured.] Playing day after day, and traveling, I get tired."
April 25, 1971
The spring in Mays' stroke this April might also be attributable to an off-the-field influence. Before the season Marichal bet $10 that Mays would be married by opening day; Marichal lost, but reports are that it was not a long-shot bet.
This has been Aaron's briskest homer breakaway ever, but he says, "I characterize myself as a hitter who likes to get out of the chute fast. It's simply that you want to excite yourself early. If you get off slow, you have a tendency to keep saying to yourself, 'Well, it'll get better...well...well...and then you look up, you've run out of days and you've had a bad year."
Stargell's strong start is a reversal of his 1970 form. After eight games last year he was batting .034 with no home runs and one RBI. This spring, he says, "I didn't have a lot of weight to lose for the first time in four or five years." This, incidentally, was the first spring in which the Pirates had to report ready to appear in stretch uniforms. They can make a man with a moderate paunch look like he is trying to sneak a stowaway relative onto the field.
Each of the early home-run leaders had something going for him other than his talents. Mays got three of his homers off San Diego pitching. Colbert hit two of his off the Dodgers" Don Sutton, who is a good pitcher but Colbert's patsy. Of the first 13 homers hit collectively by Stargell, Aaron and Bench, 12 came in Atlanta Stadium where hitters profit from an unusual combination of light air and warm weather. Of the three homers Stargell hit on April 10 in Atlanta, he felt that only one was solid. The other two, he said, "carried."
All of the sluggers who burst from the gate this year, however, are power hitters with or without propitious factors. None of them is likely to suffer such a falling-off as there was for the Dodgers' Wally Moon in 1961. Moon had people talking about Ruth's record that year long before Maris and Mantle caught fire. He hit six homers in his first eight games and eight in April. Then he hurt his right leg sliding and, although he went on to bat .328 for a fine all-round year, he finished with just 17 home runs—14 of them in the Los Angeles Coliseum, over whose 251-foot left-field screen Moon had established a short-lived mastery. A left-handed hitter, he used what he called "a calculated slice." Someone named the resultant home runs "Moonshots." With his striding leg hurt, Moon settled mostly for bouncing balls off the screen, and the next year the Dodgers left the Coliseum. After that one incandescent April, the nation had to rely upon NASA for Moonshots.