It was all wrong somehow, completely out of character. There were the Pirates and the Giants, well out ahead and comfortably in control and with nothing to do but keep winning and counting the days until they would get together to see who would play the Baltimore Orioles or the Vida Blues. But what everyone forgot was that this was the National League. And suddenly it reverted to lunacy. Long gone are Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds and Forbes Field and Sportsman's Park, but midsummer madness is still the province of the National League.
First, the Dodgers closed in on the Giants. Really nothing so unusual about that; the Dodgers are always closing in on the Giants when it isn't the Giants closing in on the Dodgers. But over in the Eastern Division where St. Louis had come awake while the Pirates were threatening to collapse into the Monongahela, the big team was suddenly neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals but the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs? Aren't those the guys who spend the balmy days of August and September leaning against the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, only occasionally bestirring themselves to help Ferguson Jenkins (see cover) on his way to another 20-victory year? Well, in this case they seemed to be bestirring themselves often enough to go in lively, happy pursuit of a pennant that has eluded them for more than a quarter of a century, but never more exasperatingly than during the past few seasons. Once, only two years ago, they almost had it won, only to blow an 8½-game lead and leave Manager Leo Durocher feeling like a man trying to catch jellyfish with a wooden spoon.
What makes the Cubs' performance all the more surprising is what has happened to the Pirates, who at one point were so far ahead that the only real excitement in Pittsburgh—after Willie Stargell hit another homer—was visiting the Mellon Bank to see if the division title already had been deposited there. As late as the end of July the Cubs were 11½ games behind Pittsburgh, but then things began to go sour for the Pirates. They didn't hit, they didn't pitch and they didn't feel well. Roberto Clemente was aching again, which usually precedes wondrous things, but this time nothing happened when Roberto said, "Ah."
By the second week in August, Chicago had drawn to within seven games of the Pirates, who next lost a four-game series to St. Louis, putting the Cardinals solidly in the race. Pittsburgh's most frustrating game, however, may have been the one just last Saturday against Cincinnati. Three times Pirate runners were thrown out at the plate, and those three unscored runs were the margin of the Reds' eventual victory. By Sunday, Chicago was 4½ games behind Pittsburgh but down only three games in the loss column. And the Cubs suddenly appeared masters of their own destiny. Following a lengthy stay at home, in September they get to play the Pirates and the Cardinals in 11 consecutive games.
So the long, bad trip is ending with the North Side of Chicago drugged by pennant fever and hallucinating about baseball games in October. And this time the dreams have happy endings, unlike the nightmare of 1969. Jenkins swears nothing of the sort will happen this season. "We're hungrier now," he said the other day, "and we aren't going to tire in the stretch."
If staying in ball games is the way to keep refreshed, then Jenkins has a point. The Cub pitching staff already has an amazing total of 61 complete games. Last Friday, opening the team's long home stand, Jenkins started his 30th game. He also finished for the 24th time this season, prompting one person to wonder whether Jenkins was running a campaign to put relief pitchers on welfare. Not really. He merely is enjoying his best season in baseball.
After a shaky start in which he gave up two runs in the first inning, Jenkins shut out the Astros for the rest of the game. He won 3-2 to become the first 20-game winner in the league. He also became the first pitcher to win 20 games five seasons in a row since Warren Spahn accomplished the feat during 1956-60. Robin Roberts was the last righthander to win 20 or more for five straight seasons, from 1950-54 (like Spahn, Roberts went on to make it six years in a row). But for the purpose of proper historical reference, Cub fans must go back to 1906-11 and Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown. Billy Williams, the team's sometime cleanup hitter who only now is beginning to sometimes clean up the way he did in 1970, remembered Mordecai—or somebody like him. "You're going after the club record of Medicare Brown," he told Jenkins. "Mordecai," said Jenkins. "Mordecai!"
In a more sensitive clubhouse, Williams' gag might have been cause for a brawl since the Cubs have their geriatric set. Jenkins, at 27, is a youth among the regulars. Ernie Banks, who remains the best loved of all, is 40. Last week kids tramped through the ball park with a sign that said, WIN A PENNANT FOR ERNIE BANKS. Banks had been to bat only 60 times during the year and it was obvious he was not going to win a pennant by himself. Ron Santo is 31 and is not having a good year. Williams, 33, has been erratic. Jim Hickman is old enough (34) to have bleeding ulcers, and Randy Hundley, 29, is shelved again with a knee injury. When two of the team's kids, Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert, were recently announced as having appeared in their 1,000th game as Cubs, the fact brought first applause and then a buzz of conjecture. Was this team going to die of old age before it won a pennant?
Actually the Cubs' big problem has had more to do with base hits than baseball age. Beckert has been batting around .350 all season, and Joe Pepitone has been above .300 most of it. John Callison occasionally wins a game with a timely hit.
But Chicago has failed miserably to hit consistently as a team. Santo's RBI total is below his normal pace of more than 100 and although banners are paraded around the park saying things like MY GRANDMA LUVS JOE PEPITONE, Joe has only 55 RBIs and his swing has been affected by a sore elbow that placed him on the disabled list for a while in May. But perhaps the most important factor in the lack of scoring is that without Hickman in the lineup Chicago must play an outfield of left-handed batters plus a left-handed-hitting first baseman, Pepitone, in the kind of ball park that has always been a paradise for right-handed power.
So why do Chicago fans think the Cubs will win this time around? First, because they just know the Cubs will not continue not to hit. Then, Owner Phil Wrigley and Manager Leo Durocher—of all people—are becoming strong sentimental favorites to win something for a change, Wrigley because he has been so good to baseball, Durocher because baseball has not been very good to him since, 20 years ago, he led the Giants from 13½ games behind in August to the pennant in September.
Of course, Chicago has always been fond of Phil Wrigley. Durocher, by contrast, sometimes makes Mayor Richard Daley look like Little Bo-peep. But Wrigley remembers how things were before Durocher came to Chicago, and as long as the aging Cubs can still race after the pennant, he probably will run along with Leo.
Durocher, in turn, will stick to his team and to his pitchers—the people who are the third reason why the Cubs might win it all. The pitchers are Milt Pappas, who needs one win, his 16th, to equal his previous high, and Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman, who, if they have not done much of anything else, have at least appeared often. Then there is old Juan Pizarro who is pitching for Durocher like young Juan Pizarro. And, of course, Ferguson Jenkins.
On the mound Jenkins is a model, a man with a compact windup and delivery. Working quickly, he stands upright, takes the catcher's sign without a bend or a squint, quickly brings his hands, which have been hanging loosely by his side, together in his glove where he gets a grip on the ball. With hardly a quiver, he delivers the ball through about a three-quarter arm arc. He says he throws a fastball, a breaking pitch and a changeup. His fastball is not of Bob Gibson caliber, his breaking pitch is usually a slider. But his control—everybody can admire that. In 252‚Öî innings Jenkins has walked but 27 men. Since early June, Jenkins has worked almost 100 innings and during that span he has walked only seven. "I wouldn't have got a hit if I'd been up there all night," said Henry Aaron after Jenkins stopped his latest hitting streak last week at 22 games.
Probably Jenkins will appear in more than 300 innings before the season ends—this for the fourth straight year—and should all those midsummer dreams merge into one magnificent fall spectacle, the chances are the focus will be on this cool, collected Cub.