Sometimes there is a quality of splendor in defeat, a trace of gallantry, an evidence of persistence and courage in the face of hopelessness. Even the destruction of the Chicago White Sox last week by the New York Yankees left Al Lopez, the White Sox manager, surrounded by an aura of nobility, undoubtedly the hero of the piece even though he was thoroughly vanquished.
Sometimes, however, defeat is not so splendid. Sometimes it is so crushing and humiliating that it becomes almost tawdry, an unpleasant thing to see.
Such was the decline and fall these past weeks of the Cincinnati Redlegs.
Cincinnati is a collection of superb baseball players. This is the club that had five men in the starting lineup of the National League's All-Star team both this year and last. It's true that balloting for the All-Star lineups was distorted by a disproportionately large vote from Cincinnati, but even so no one denied that each Redleg player elected, if not the absolute best at his position, was very close to the best.
Shortstop Roy McMillan, for instance, is one of the great fielding shortstops of all time. Here is a ballplayer who quite literally thrills those who follow baseball closely. Daily he does quietly in the infield what Willie Mays does spectacularly in the outfield: he makes the impossible plays, plays that others make only in daydreams.
The names on the Cincinnati roster have a rich, ringing sound for baseball fans who savor great skill: McMillan, Ed Bailey, Ted Kluszewski, Frank Robinson, Johnny Temple, Don Hoak, Smoky Burgess, Wally Post, George Crowe. No other team in the major leagues has so many good players. No other team has a shortstop like McMillan and a second baseman like Temple and catchers like Bailey and Burgess and a trio of outfielders like Robinson, Bell and Post and first basemen like Kluszewski and Crowe and a third baseman like Hoak. This Cincinnati club is the best collection of first-string ballplayers in the major leagues.
But they aren't good enough. None of them is a pitcher. The importance of pitching has always been recognized by students of baseball, but never was the theory so emphatically demonstrated as it was in Cincinnati this summer. The Redleg collapse was a baseball tragedy, if you accept the classic idea of tragedy: that the character who experiences it carries the seeds of his downfall within himself.
Cincinnati carried the seeds of its destruction in its pitching staff. All year long it flirted with danger. Late in July (the pennant race was still tight, but the clouds were beginning to gather), only the eighth-place Chicago Cubs had a pitching staff whose earned run average was worse than Cincinnati's. Yet, whereas the Cubs were dead last, the Redlegs were only one game out of first place.
The reason? Cincinnati's hitters, despite the disabling of Ted Kluszewski and the erratic batting of Wally Post, had scored more runs than any other team in the majors. The hitters had carried the pitchers, had made up for their deficiencies. But because hitting is not a constant, consistent, regular thing—like bad pitching—the Redlegs' record of victory and defeat over the season had been erratic in the extreme.
They lost the first four games, won the next four, lost the next three. Six of those seven early-season defeats were to Milwaukee's Braves, four of them by the agonizing margin of one run.
Then the Reds went on an impressive winning binge: 12 straight (best in the majors this season) and 19 of the next 22, a bubble of success that lifted Cincinnati into first place. On June 5 the Reds were two full games ahead and were 13 games above an even .500 pace.
Then came the first stage of the ultimate disaster: they lost 11 of their next 14 games and fell to fifth place. Inexplicably but characteristically, they reversed direction, won 12 of 16 and recaptured first place. This was July 3, midseason. On July 4 the Reds began a seven-game losing streak (the second stage of disaster) that dropped them right down into fifth again. For the third time they reacted vigorously to adversity. They won 10 of their next 13 games and by July 26 had struggled back to within one game of first place.
On that day, July 26, the National League pennant race was still an unprecedented five-team fight. Fifth-place Philadelphia was only two and a half games behind. But the final stage of disaster was about to start, and the race was never to be so close again. The tightness began to snap, and one team after another fell away. In two weeks Milwaukee had a five-and-a-half-game lead, and in three the National League pennant race was, practically speaking, all over.
The key that opened wide Milwaukee's way to the pennant was the Cincinnati pitching staff. Milwaukee's pennant-winning burst of 10 straight victories included six over the Red legs. In those six games Redleg pitchers allowed Milwaukee 55 runs, an average of over nine runs a game. When the six games were done, so was Cincinnati and so was the pennant race.
Bear with these figures for another paragraph or so. They are the lifeless sinews of a fascinating autopsy. If Cincinnati's pitching was poor before July 26, after that date it was so much worse that its earlier record seemed, in retrospect, almost superb.
In their first 10 games after the July 26 high point and including their 6-5 victory over the Dodgers that day, Cincinnati's pitchers held their opponents to less than five runs in a game only twice. Despite this the Reds managed to break even in those 10 games, winning by such scores as 6-5 and 9-6.
Then came Milwaukee. Six games in 10 days. Four victories in those games would bring the Redlegs right back on the heels of the Braves. Now, if ever, was Cincinnati's chance to catch Milwaukee. Instead, Cincinnati died.
In the first game the Braves quickly took a 2-0 lead in the third inning and opened it to 5-1 in the sixth. With the redoubtable Warren Spahn pitching for Milwaukee this was an impressive margin of safety. Nevertheless, the Redleg batters pressed Spahn and scored three times in the eighth and ninth innings. It was not quite enough. The final score was 5-4, Milwaukee.
The next day, with the Redlegs hoping to get even, Milwaukee cut through Cincinnati's pitching staff like a knife through soft cheese. The Braves led 2-0 in the first inning, 5-1 in the third, 7-1 in the fifth, 11-2 in the seventh and 12-2 at the end.
The third day the desperate Reds scored first. The Braves promptly replied with three runs to take the lead. The Reds tied the score in the eighth inning, but again the Cincinnati pitching was wholly unable to handle the situation. A hit batsman, two bases on balls and one base hit and the Braves had two runs, a 5-3 victory, and a sweep of the series.
Despite the shocking loss of all three games (the Braves at that point had won 11 of 13 from Cincinnati for the season) and despite the fact that the very next day their pitchers yielded seven runs to weak-hitting Chicago, the Redlegs rallied to win three straight games from the Cubs. Once again, they prepared to meet Milwaukee. This time Cincinnati had no choice. It had to win all three games to stay in the pennant race.
The Reds took a 2-0 lead in the first game of this second series, fell behind 4-2, then fought back to tie the game at 4-4 in the fifth inning. This was the last inning of the season during which the Redlegs were in the pennant race. Milwaukee's pitching permitted no runs through the rest of the game. Cincinnati's permitted eight. The Braves won 12-4.
The next day the Braves took a 3-0 lead. The Reds closed it to 3-2. The Braves widened it to 5-2. The Reds closed it to 5-3. Cincinnati had one more turn at bat coming, but in the ninth inning, before the Reds got that last chance, the Braves scored eight times. Final: 13-3.
On the last day the Reds were never in the game. Milwaukee scored four times in the first inning and walked away to win, 8-1. It was all over.
Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but at this point the Cincinnati batters stopped hitting, apparently from utter frustration. Games seemed to fly out of reach just when the Reds were about to grab them, or even before they had their first chance at bat. The day after that last game of the disastrous Milwaukee series, the lowly Chicago Cubs scored five runs in the first inning against the Reds. Even so, Cincinnati came back to tie the game. Even so, naturally, they eventually lost it.
After that, everything went to pot. In all, the Reds lost 10 straight games (worst of the National League season) and 13 of 14 to drop once again to fifth place. The hitters were averaging less than three runs a game. This is very poor, but actually it made little difference, since the Redleg pitching gave up eight or more runs in 10 of those 14 games. It was like a fireworks display, building up to a grand, crashing finale. For the Reds the finale came in the Polo Grounds in New York where they lost 10-1 and 17-3 to the sixth-place New York Giants.
Thirty games remained to the Red-legs at that time. It seemed reasonable to assume that they would win more of those games than they'd lose, and finish a fairly respectable fourth.
But fourth place is bitter ashes for a team that had its eye on the pennant. Heads, most of them attached to pitching arms, will certainly roll before next season begins.
GUILTY: THE PITCHING STAFF
KLIPPSTEIN, JOHN, 29. Starting pitcher. Crime: only 1 complete game in 16 starts.
[See caption above.]
FOWLER, ARTHUR, 34. Ex-starter, on relief. Crime: 6.44 earned runs per game.
[See caption above.]
FREEMAN, HERSHELL, 29. Star reliever. Crime: 4.55 ERA, allowed 14 home runs.
[See caption above.]
NUXHALL, JOSEPH, 29. Ace left-hander. Crime: 4.42 ERA, beat only weak teams.
UNHAPPY Birdie Tebbetts, last year's Manager of Year, ponders ruined season.