Now come baseball's final moments. The Barber has thrown his last pitch of the regular season. The Dodgers have won. The last Brave has slouched unhappily off the field to a gnawing winter of discontent (see pages 28, 29). Mantle has his triple crown. Greenberg has shed crocodile tears for Lopez. The historians of the decimal point are busy dehydrating blood-and-sinew base hits into the chipped-beef diet of the record books: 2.13 ERA, 128 RBI, .329 PCT.
The season is over, and now it is the World Series. This should be the climax, the ultimate in the extravagant drama that claimed the rapt attention of so many Americans this year.
It should be the climax, but, coming as it does so hard on the wildly improbable National League pennant race that ended in Roy Campanella's mitt in Ebbets Field last Sunday, the near-voiceless fan asks how can it possibly be a climax? The drama is done, used up, finished: there's nothing left but the curtain.
But baseball, if you check the playbills of past World Series, is bound this week and next to come up with yet another Dusty Rhodes Home Run, another Johnny Podres Shutout, another melodramatic topper that on the stage would seem outrageously contrived but which, under the proscenium of the sky, in the unrehearsed arena of infield and outfield comes with the breath of innocence and creates in the onlooker unabashed delight. Don't worry about the World Series. If Sal Maglie, the popular choice for hero, drops his spear, there's bound to be a bit player who'll leap flamboyantly to center stage, ready and eager (and very much able) to pull a Pepper Martin.
But, truth to tell, this year the Hero will have to go to extremes to top the season. Thumb through the names of 1956: Mickey Mantle, the broadback, undeniably the player of the year, when you measure the length and breadth and number of his home runs and his fame...Ted Williams, again with a remarkable comeback embellished by his strong, albeit futile, challenge for the batting title but sadly tarnished by his spoiled-child, foot-stamping rebellion against his Boston tormentors...Casey Stengel and Birdie Tebbetts, demonstrating that managerial success in the major leagues requires not only the players (the "horses," to use a current and choice metaphor) but also a sound and constantly expanding knowledge of game, personnel, environment, situation, equipment, weather, the world and man...Dale Long, who with two men on base against the Dodgers in his last time at bat in the season, struck out helplessly at a moment when a home run could have made the National Race absolutely unbearable, but who in May for one wonderful week hit homers more steadily and consistently than any man in baseball history...and Maglie, heretofore respected but not particularly loved as a cold-blooded, hard-boiled, unsmiling gangster of a pitcher when he labored for the New York Giants, who with the Dodgers became a full-blown white-armored hero since he was (as always) a courageous fighter well-armed, an old man turned young, and a villain reformed.
Mantle, Maglie, Pittsburgh's prideful Pirates and the crafty Cardinals of St. Louis particularly made it a season to remember. Mantle because he was strength, Maglie because he was skill, the Pirates because they were youth and enthusiasm, the Cardinals because they were integrity. Perhaps the last is first. Ball players as a group decry any accusation that they play the game for the fun of winning, for the gratification of success. It's gold, they insist. Money. We're professionals. We're very practical about this.
In mid-September a friend spoke to Ken Boyer, the Cardinal third baseman who had just shaken loose from a long slump and who was playing great ball again. It must be odd, the friend said, to be a ballplayer this time of year, to be a Cardinal, for instance, pretty well set in fourth place, unable to go higher and very unlikely to go lower. You must just be playing out the string, going through the motions.
Boyer grinned and nodded.
"Going through the motions," he agreed, "and rooting for Milwaukee."
Boyer's teammate, Wally Moon, who had been hitting up with the league leaders but who, enervated by an acute virus attack, was about to go into a slump, said much the same thing.
"Sure hope Milwaukee wins," he murmured. "I can use the money."
But in the last three days of the season, when the Braves needed only to win to beat out the Dodgers for the pennant, the Cardinals of Boyer and Moon stopped them.
The St. Louis fans must have made the Braves feel right at home. Rooting against their old enemies, the Dodgers, as much as anything else, they cheered every Milwaukee move, howled imprecations at the umpires on any questionable decision against the Braves and even—on occasion—booed their beloved Cards. But the Cardinals themselves played as if the pennant was at stake; instead of easing up and thinking about the larger fourth-place World Series share they would receive should Milwaukee, instead of Brooklyn, meet the Yankees, they went up to the plate, took their full cuts—and beat the Braves out of the pennant. "They can't say this game is crooked, can they, Coop?" grinned Old Cardinal War Horse Terry Moore, who now coaches first base, to Old Cardinal War Horse Walker Cooper, who still sometimes catches. "Here we beat 'em, and it's costing us money."
But beat 'em they did Friday night, and beat 'em they did again Saturday. That night, Saturday, was the death knell of Milwaukee's pennant hopes. Warren Spahn, the superb left-handed pitching star of the Braves, had almost singlehandedly defeated the Cincinnati Redlegs in a vital game four days earlier. Now he pitched even better ball, allowing only three hits and one run through 11 innings. In the 12th, Rip Repulski scratched a double off Third Baseman Ed Mathews' glove to score Stan Musial from second with the winning run. Spahn, 35, a veteran of a dozen seasons and 203 victories in the major leagues, came off the mound defeated and crying. In anger and frustration he threw his glove at a photographer (and later, because he is a man of quality as well as a fierce competitor, apologized). The Cardinals in overcoming Spahn's great skill had proved the strength of the basic fabric of baseball: the integrity of its competition.
The Pittsburgh Pirates proved the vigor of its dramatic content. Early in the year they were everybody's team, the last-place crew of young fellows you'd never heard of. Bob Friend was the best pitcher in the league (he was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game), and First Baseman Dale Long hit home runs in eight consecutive games, to set a major league record untouched by Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, or even Mickey Mantle. They beat everyone and climbed up through the standings until—for nine magic days—they were in first place. Then their dreams turned to ashes, and they plunged steadily downward again until they settled into what finally developed into a losing fight for sixth place.
But in the waning days of the season, against Milwaukee and Brooklyn, they regained the fire of spring: their pitchers again were tough to hit, awfully hard to beat; their hitters were smart at the plate, and dangerous; their base runners were eager and desperate and raced around the paths; their fielders made diving, straining catches. They wanted to beat the Dodgers in the last three games as much as the Dodgers wanted to win the pennant. They lost—because they were a seventh place team and the Dodgers were the league champions—but they lost hard: 6-2 after jumping to a 2-0 first-inning lead over Maglie; 3-1 to Clem Labine in a strange, bitterly fought game, raged about with umpire-baiting; and 8-6 to Don Newcombe, but only after closing a 7-2 deficit to one spare run. They were in the season to the last swinging strikeout in the ninth inning to prove their right to pride.
When it was over, Bob Friend, the Pirates' fine pitcher, who worked in all three of the terminal games, spoke of the Dodgers as if they had beaten out Pittsburgh for the pennant, rather than Milwaukee: "They deserved to win," Friend said. "They beat us. They didn't wait for Milwaukee to lose."
Much earlier in the season than September 30 (the date the Dodgers finally clinched the National League pennant—on the final out), the New York Yankees had beaten their American League rivals into submission. The Yanks clinched the pennant on September 18, but that was just the day they moved into the house. They had bought the place back in July. The American League's western teams came East after the All-Star Game and by the time they had returned home, the only items of interest remaining were: could Mickey Mantle hit 60 home runs, could Ted Williams beat Mantle out for the batting title, could Mickey win the rare triple crown of batting (best average, most homers, most runs batted in), could the Washington Senators break the St. Louis Browns' 42-year-old record for striking out most times in one season?
It turned out that Mickey couldn't match Babe Ruth's near-legendary 60, (though his final total of 52 had been bettered by only five men in baseball's long history), but, threatened by Williams' rising average in the waning weeks of the year, he put his bat to the grindstone and won not only the hitting championship but the triple crown as well—first time that had been accomplished since 1947. And the Senators, on the very last day of the season, struck out 14 times and made history. Of sorts.
Perhaps the most significant moment of the year in the American League was May 15, the day they let Sal Maglie go. Sal had pitched only five innings for the Cleveland Indians when he was waived out of the league and over to Brooklyn. He was 39 years old and all through, supposedly. Of course, it turned out he wasn't, and he supplied the Dodgers with not just the fine skill of a most effective pitcher but also with an exciting competitive courage that roused this mature group of athletes from the lethargy of age and created in them a youthful need for victory. Sal the Barber had become another of the warming legends that make the world of sport wonderful.
There were other things, too, that are easily plucked out of the kaleidoscope of the baseball pageant and remembered from the season, some fondly, some not so fondly. The Cincinnati Redlegs, who finished third behind Brooklyn and Milwaukee, were the team in the major leagues that seemed most to enjoy baseball as a game. That is, the Redlegs, professionals like everyone else, tended to approach the game the way small boys might ("This is fun—and they pay you, besides!").
There was Jackie Robinson, once Maglie's most formidable antagonist, now his teammate and very proud that Sal was on his side. Robinson fielded well and batted well enough for Brooklyn, but on the base lines "well" was not the word; there he was, magnificent as always, the most exciting individual thing you could see in baseball in 1956.
There was cheerful Billy Hoeft, the Detroit left-hander, winning 20 games (and, with 21-game winner Frank Lary, giving Detroit Tiger fans a promise of bright things to come) and having, as Frank Sinatra might say, a very large time doing it. Joe Falls of the Associated Press tells of Hoeft, in uniform, 20 minutes before going out to pitch against the Yankees, sitting before his locker seriously studying a booklet titled How to Pitch.
And there was Cleveland, the saddest place in baseball, where the fans turned with incredible viciousness on Al Rosen, who had once been their most valuable player but who, harassed by injuries, was now only ordinary. Manager Al Lopez bitterly criticized the fans for their attitude toward Rosen. To no avail, though, for as the season ended both Rosen and Lopez were sacrificed to the wolves. General Manager Hank Greenberg first stated publicly that he felt Rosen's value to the Indians, for psychological reasons, had ended; and then he "reluctantly" accepted Lopez' resignation as manager (though "no manager ever resigned," Bucky Harris once said). It was a strange move; a manager like Lopez (five seconds and a first in six years at Cleveland) is a rare commodity. It is unlikely that Greenberg will find a better one, even if he does sign Leo Durocher to the job.
But all these are asides, stage business. Now it is the classic last act of the drama, the World Series.
SAL MAGLIE, The Barber, the 39-year-old right-handed pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers whose matchless skill and competitive courage were the most impressive weapons the Dodgers had as they struggled down the stretch toward the pennant. Maglie's personal heroics were crowned by a remarkable no-hit, no-run game in the crucial last week of the regular season.
"All right, all right. If there's anything I can't stand it's a Monday morning quarterback."