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LATE FLASH FROM DELPHI

An oracle named Smith takes a long, breezy look at the National League, listens to a character or two, sticks a pin in here and there, and comes up with the word on this year's pennant race: it will be a thriller
Author:

Now, the new year reviving old desires, The thoughtful soul to solitude retires...

That was in Omar Khayyàm's league. In Warren Giles' league the thoughtful souls are named Branch Rickey and Fred Haney, and they live in Pittsburgh. "What do you think of the National League race?" Mr. Haney was asked. "Nuts to the National League," said the manager of the Pirates. "I got troubles of my own."

Elsewhere in the league the new baseball year is reviving old pennant desires, together with an optimism that borders on the obscene. At least five clubs are bubbling with a joyous conviction that they're going to win the pennant; and in Tampa, Fla., President Giles has been sunning himself like a lizard, luxuriating in the prospect of the damndest dogfight and plushiest profits since umpires learned to walk on their hind legs.

Leo Durocher, seven months gone with a swelling sense of destiny, loves Jim Hearn, a pitcher whom he formerly regarded with a repugnance warming toward loathing. The romance has ripened just in time, for the Giants need pitching.

The awesome might of the Dodgers has wrung tribute from their former manager, Charley Dressen, who would almost rather cut his tongue out than put a successor on the spot. "Unless they get all their arms broke," he has said, "they gotta win." So exuberant is the resident manager, Walter Alston, that on sunny days he pronounces both syllables of "hello."

Busloads of Milwaukee's cheerful burghers, bringing the conventional gifts of Liederkranz, cheesecake, Braunschweiger, frankincense and myrrh, trooped into the training grounds in Bradenton, Fla. to touch the hem of Bobby Thomson's sweat-sock, just over the bandage. They discerned no clay in or near his repaired ankle.

When Gussie Busch and that beer baron's retinue didn't need the St. Petersburg practice field for their exercise, some of the most promising rookies in baseball worked out there in uniforms of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Relaxing in the shade of Ted Kluszewski's biceps, Birdie Tebbetts has conceded that life could be beautiful in Cincinnati, provided the right people were to pitch well enough.

Chicago and Philadelphia also have teams in the league.

In short, it is spring, Ford Frick's in his swivel chair, and practically all is for the best in this nearly best of all possible leagues, almost.

The curious fact is that a great deal, if not all, of this starry-eyed dreaming appears to be justified by the facts. Almost certainly the National League must have a rousing race, one of the most exciting in years and maybe the best ever. Barring outrageous form reversals, at least five teams should be in contention and any one of them could win. It is difficult to remember another year when either major league had the admirable balance this one seems to possess.

New York's defending champions have many qualities devoutly to be desired, including "chutzpah," which a Jewish lexicographer defines thus: "When my brother-in-law wore my hat, coat, shoes and ties, I thought he was just nervy. But when he sat down to dinner and smiled at me with my own teeth—then I knew he had chutzpah." As Rud Rennie wrote from the Phoenix, Ariz. training camp, Leo Durocher exhibited this quality long before there was any apparent justification for it; the players acquired it by winning the 1954 pennant and sweeping the World Series in four games.

The Giants are defensively sound, offensively good enough, and pleased with superior reserves like Dusty Rhodes, Bobby Hofman and others. Pitching is the dried pea under Prince Leo's mattress.

There aren't enough pitchers around named John Antonelli or Ruben Gomez. Sal Maglie is growing old, Larry Jansen is attempting a comeback after one season as nonpitching coach. In order for the Giants to repeat, there must be many days when somebody named Hearn or Don Liddle or Windy McCall or Paul Giel can keep them in a ball game until the late innings when Hoyt Wilhelm or Marv Grissom can take over.

There is nothing wrong with the Dodgers that good work by Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson couldn't remedy. Where a succession of double-headers will send other managers screaming to their psychiatrists, Walter Alston will welcome the opportunity to work pitchers like Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Billy Loes, John Podres, Russ Meyer and perhaps Karl Spooner or Clem Labine.

Nevertheless, it has been several years since the truant officer came looking for Campanella, Robinson or Pee Wee Reese. Robinson has said that if he can't play better ball this year than he did last, he'll quit before the season ends. If he and one or two others wear out, Alston won't have to quit.

FOR WANT OF AN ANKLE

The Braves feel, with considerable justice, that they lost the 1954 pennant when Thomson broke an ankle in spring training. They had fine pitching and a lot of it all summer, but in the first half of the season they lost often for want of one run. Thomson, in a normal year, would bat in a hundred runs.

An invalid last summer, he delivered 15 runs. Milwaukee can reasonably expect better things from him and improvement on the part of many young men—Gene Conley, Bob Buhl and Chet Nichols among the pitchers; Hank Aaron and Jim Pendleton in the outfield; Danny O'Connell and Johnny Logan on the infield; Del Crandall, who had a spring injury that hampered him behind the plate for half of last season.

The Braves finished third last year, beaten eight games. With only the improvement that may fairly be expected, without benefit of miracles, they could easily be first in 1955.

Below them are the sleepers, the long shots. There are the Cardinals, who had the best attack in the league last season and, except for Pittsburgh, the worst pitching. Eddie Stanky, who memorizes figures, recalls that St. Louis lost 30-odd games, after leading through the seventh inning, because he had no relief pitcher to hold the advantage. The Cardinals finished sixth, 25 games behind the Giants.

Frank Smith, a fine relief pitcher for Cincinnati, and Tony Jacobs, ditto for Rochester, have been brought in to alter that situation. St. Louis has two moderately renowned rookies—Ken Boyer, a big, fast, agile and powerful third baseman, and Bill Virdon, an outfielder of grace, speed and promise.

They need pitchers to help Harvey Haddix. Stanky hopes he has them around, bearing such names as Brooks Lawrence, Tom Poholsky, Gordon Jones, Stu Miller and Vic Raschi. His hopes aren't necessarily hollow, even though at the moment Raschi's back feels like a hollow tooth.

Since spring exercises began, people who admire hitters of the Ted Kluszewski-Jim Greengrass-Gus Bell-Ray Jablonski stripe have been saying that if the Reds could discover some big league pitchers they might alter the sleeping habits of many opponents. Cincinnati's articulate manager, Mr. Tebbetts, concurs, but he also disclaims any gift for passing miracles.

"We have," he says, "three pitchers who can win 12 games apiece in the National League. I know they can, because they have done it—Joe Nuxhall, Art Fowler and Corky Valentine. The first question now is, can any or all of these three move up this year into the class that wins from 15 to 20 games?

"If they can, is there somebody else on the club who can come along as a 12-game winner behind them? With a pitching staff, it's a matter of building, not a question of miracles."

Then, because it's spring, the manager draws a long breath and adds: "Of course [sigh], of course, if everything worked out perfectly, we could take it all."

Thus reads the latest bulletin from Delphi:

The Giants, Dodgers and Braves have everything, provided they also have luck; the Cardinals have power, defense and speed, need pitching; the Reds need pitching, lack speed.

If they're all possible winners, then there must be some losers. That's why Phillies, Pirates, Cubs were born.

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ILLUSTRATION

"Sure, Mays is great--but how can you compare him to Tris Speaker?"

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"I'll need a breakfast cereal--one with a picture of somebody batting over .300, please."

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RAY JABLONSKI: 3rd base: CINCINNATI REDLEGS

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"DUSTY" RHODES: outfield: NEW YORK GIANTS

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DANNY SCHELL: outfield: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

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WALLY MOON: outfield: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

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WARREN SPAHN: pitcher: MILWAUKEE BRAVES

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KARL SPOONER: pitcher: BROOKLYN DODGERS

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DICK GROAT: shortstop: PITTSBURGH PIRATES

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ERNIE BANKS: shortstop: CHICAGO CUBS

EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONS

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1

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56

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67

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79

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90

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31

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28

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26

BASEBALL & BUBBLES

Among the signs of spring are the first baseball trading cards, aimed at getting the small-fry mind on baseball and bubble gum. Herewith (courtesy Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.) SI presents a representative sampling of choice early-season items in baseball-and-bubble business.