NO MORE ROOM AT THE TOP - Sports Illustrated Vault |
Publish date:


The Braves, having gained the summit of the baseball world, intend to remain there. Here is the story of their climb and the reasons they predict a long reign

On Saturday morning of this week, not long after breakfast and about the time that all the good baseball fans back in Milwaukee finish shoveling the snow off their sidewalks for the day, Fred Haney will step out into the Florida sun, clatter down the spike-scarred steps of the low, rambling clubhouse in Bradenton and onto the field where the Braves prepare for their summertime heroics each spring.

The clubhouse is located just outside the deep left-field foul line, and so it is that Haney's course toward the center of the diamond will be along a path knee-deep in nostalgia. The Florida training camp may be some thousand miles removed from Yankee Stadium and almost twice that from County Stadium in Milwaukee, but such geographic niceties are of small importance to a man with memories. It is still a ball park.

Here, for example, is the same relative spot where Wes Covington stretched forth an unbelievably long arm to snare Bobby Shantz's line drive and save the second game of the 1957 World Series. Here, as Haney crosses just inside third base, is the hallowed ground where Eddie Mathews made his desperate backhand stop of a sizzling ground ball off Bill Skowron's bat in the seventh game and then stepped on the bag to end she Series. And here, approaching the mound, is where Lew Burdette toiled 50 dramatically through three long afternoons to earn baseball immortality, not to mention $20,000 in endorsements and appearance fees.

There is every reason in the world why this should be a touching moment. Touching because it is a reminder of the first pennant for the Braves since 1948 and the first world championship since 1914. Touching because a ball club representing Milwaukee had never before won either. And touching because only a year before, Haney's first as Milwaukee manager, the Braves blew the pennant in the last two days of the season and heard the bitter word choke-up ring in their ears through a long and sometimes bitter year.

But Fred Haney probably won't be thinking of last fall at all. He will be thinking ahead. This is partly because he is a brusque little Irishman who lives in the present, carries a chip on his shoulder for the future and has a tendency to sneer at the past. But primarily it is because Haney does not have to live on nostalgia at all. Ahead of the Braves there seems today to be only sweetness and light and a vista of pennants stretching into the years ahead.

No one connected with the ball club is so foolish as to put himself on the spot flatly predicting another pennant even in 1958, but it would take much better acting than is available in this organization to keep the optimism from bubbling through. For the sight which greets Haney when he finally does reach the mound this Saturday morning would probably send a long, melonlike crack across the face of the Sphinx.

Right there waiting to greet him will be the regulars, the famous names who beat the Yankees last year. There may still be a few holdouts, since this will be the first official full-squad day of spring training, and the reluctant signing of contracts is the sort of welcome unpleasantness a pennant winner can expect each spring. But Haney knows who the old faces are and where they belong.

Haney will also see more. Young Casey Wise at second and Joe Morgan at short. Al Spangler and Ray Shearer in the outfield. Carlton Willey and Vic Rehm, Joey Jay and Don Kaiser among the pitchers. And behind these there will be still others, some who have missed in previous tries but could make it this year, some too young and inexperienced to be of help right now, but future major leaguers in the seasons ahead: Gerry Nelson, Antonio Diaz, Don Nottebart, Ken MacKenzie, Humberto Robinson, Ray Rippelmeyer, Phil Paine, Bob Roselli, Mike Roarke, Earl Hersh, Ed Charles, Bob Taylor, John DeMerit. And even behind these are the shadowy figures down in Class B and C and D who are without names except in the neat files of the front office where it is happily noted how well so many can run and field and hit and throw.

What Fred Haney will be looking at is baseball's newest great dynasty.

Frank Lane, then general manager of the Cards, was honest enough last fall to express the fears of the entire National League. "We may have missed our last chance," he said, "to beat them for years."

And now that Lane has moved out of the league entirely, over to the Cleveland Indians, he can still find time to marvel at the Braves. "They are now," he says, "to the National League what the Yankees have been for years in the American. The team that won last year is deep enough and young enough, and behind that they have done a tremendous job in scouting and in their farm system. Their reign could be a long one."

Frank Lane is enough of a baseball man to have spotted instantly the secret of Milwaukee's success last year and the formula which could keep the Braves on top for years to come. It is the same story that has been told before about other baseball dynasties: Branch Rickey's old Cards and the Dodgers of 1947 to '56 (which were also largely Rickey's) and the present Yankees, whose reign goes back in a more or less unbroken line to 1936. It is the story of an inspired and forward-looking front office and the farm system that two men, John Quinn and John Mullen, have developed.

In recent years when the talk has swung around to farm systems, baseball men have usually ended up talking about the Yankees. They sign the best boys and more of them, then raise them in a manner most conducive to success (SI, July 22, 1957). But today, when the subject arises, there are always two teams mentioned. The Yankees—and the Braves.

This spring, out of 41 ballplayers on the Milwaukee roster, 32 have come up through the farm system. And of those who have not, most are the older players like Schoendienst and Pafko and Del Rice. Of the others at the training camp, promising youngsters still on minor league rosters but called in for an extra glance because of great promise, virtually every one has been home-grown by the Braves.

These things do not just happen and they did not just happen here. For the Braves, it began in 1946 when John Quinn was in his second season as general manager and a man named Harry Jenkins was farm director.

"The first thing they did," says Mullen, who at the time was a 22-year-old typist working for Lou Perini's construction company in Boston, "was to accumulate some good scouts. Scouts are the secret. No matter how smart you may be at the top of your organization, you have to have the scouts. We have been tremendously lucky to have fellows like Johnny Moore and Bill Marshall on the West Coast, Jeff Jones in New England, Dewey Griggs in New York and Canada, Honey Russell around New York City, Gil English in the South and John Ogden in Pennsylvania.

"If Moore doesn't come up with Mathews and Crandall and recommend the deal on Burdette, for example, or if Griggs doesn't find Aaron and Covington and Logan, you have nothing. And you have to keep coming up with the exceptional player even after you are at the top. You have to get the Pizarros to stay there. Your scouts can never let down."

Mullen worked his way up through the organization as a typist, secretary, assistant to Jenkins and finally became farm director himself when Jenkins met an Australian girl in French Lick, Ind., married her and moved to Australia in 1951. Mullen feels that if there was a key period in the Braves' drive to the top, it came in 1952.

"We were really at the bottom," says this pleasant, boyish-faced young man who is almost certain not to marry an Australian girl and leave the country since he already has a wife and three children in Milwaukee. "We hadn't won a pennant in year?, we didn't have many ballplayers, no one was coming to see us play and we were hurting for dough. Our finances were actually embarrassing.

"Yet John Quinn never let up. He kept right on spending money where it would do the most good and he kept on building. It was then that we signed a lot of our best young players—Aaron and Mantilla and Torre and Covington and some of the others you haven't seen much of yet. It was right then, when it would have been so easy to quit, that Quinn just worked a little harder."


Mullen admits he is probably the No. 1 member of the John Quinn fan club. "He has been the inspiration of this whole organization. Mr. Perini has been wonderful and he never squawked about spending money but it was Quinn who built the organization. He is a brilliant baseball man and so honest and fair that it hurts. He may never be named the big league executive of the year—gosh knows he deserved it last year—just because he's so quiet. But he has the ability to inspire those who work under him. John Quinn's door," says Mullen, "is always open.

"A scout can call me in the middle of the night and I talk to him. And then, if I need to, I call Quinn. In all these years he hasn't once complained about having to get out of bed.

"About 1953 we could really start to see that we had the good young players. And since then we have just continued to improve. I would say we have the material right now to just keep pennants rolling in. Of course, we don't like to predict pennants but...well, it's there."

Another thing there today which was notable chiefly for its absence in 1952 is money. As Mullen and Quinn both point out, Perini never pulled shut the purse strings even in those blackest years, but it is comforting to a general manager and his staff to be able to spend money which the ball club is making itself. And, of course, the move to Milwaukee in 1953 set off the biggest bonanza in baseball history. Last year, according to figures supplied by James G. Lippert, an attorney and supervisor of the board which insisted recently that the Braves pay more rental in 1958 for the use of County Stadium, the Milwaukee Baseball Club had a net taxable income in 1957 of $1,417,690. After expenses and taxes, the Braves netted $725,000, which will buy a number of young ballplayers even at today's prices.

"Even without a solid farm system," says John Mullen with simple candor, "I think that we could win the pennant now for three or four years. But with all these kids, we are not only going to hold our own but improve. This is the best farm system in the National League."

"This means," says Quinn, "a surplus of good young players in your system. In a trade you can afford to give more for a key player than he is worth. But in turn you get that key player who can win a pennant for you that year. The Yankees have been doing it for a long time. Now we feel that we can, too."

Nevertheless, Quinn and Mullen worry about the perils of complacency. So does Fred Haney. "Last spring, after we blew the 1956 pennant," he says, "I told the boys to forget it. This was another year. Well, that's exactly what I'm telling them this year. On March 1 we cease to be champions of the world. We'll just be one of eight ball clubs trying to win a pennant. And it's going to take the same amount of work and determination as last year if we are to repeat in '58—perhaps more."

If the Braves approach the 1958 season with their enthusiasm curbed by caution, it is because they know that strange things can happen in a 154-game season. Didn't they have the best team in 1956 and still lose? And certainly the rest of the league isn't ready to give the pennant away in March.

"The Braves can be taken," says Fred Hutchinson of the Cards. "The Cardinals or any one of five clubs can win the National League pennant. We gave the Braves a rough battle last year and we can do it again."


Of such stout opinions are pennant races made. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the Braves could win in a breeze. Last year the ball club was so hard hit by injuries that Del Crandall, the No. 1 catcher, at one time had to play left field. Joe Adcock was out two-thirds of the season with injuries and Bill Bruton more than half. Covington didn't become a regular nor Red Schoendienst even join the club until mid-season. Bob Buhl and Burdette each missed several turns on the mound. Yet the Braves won the pennant by eight games. With luck, it could be even easier now.

There is always the other kind of luck to take into consideration, though, and Haney is a little concerned about the incomparable Schoendienst. Despite a large number of very promising young second basemen in the system, the Braves feel they must get one more good year out of the redhead before the kids can take over. "But I don't expect him to have to play 154 games," says Haney. "That's why we have guys like Mantilla and Wise."

Bruton's knee is even more of a question mark than Schoendienst's age but more easily compensated for by the material on hand: Bob Hazle, Andy Pafko and the rookies, hardhitting Shearer and the swift Spangler. And there is always the problem of getting a full season out of Joe Adcock, a big, powerful man who is not necessarily brittle but often appears to be an accident looking for a place to happen.

Basically, however, the Braves have few worries. This is a solid ball club with a great deal of power (they led the league in home runs even with Adcock out), marvelous pitching ("I don't say we'll have the best pitching staff," says Haney, "but we'll have the deepest. It will be our strongest point"), an adequate and improving defense and good depth.

Frank Torre is a slick gloveman with sharp left-handed hitting to complement Adcock's power and is without a doubt the best second-string first baseman in either league. Schoendienst is still Schoendienst and Johnny Logan at short is perhaps the most underrated ballplayer on the club. And Mathews, with his tremendous power and constantly improving ability afield, is the premier third baseman in the game.

If there is a certain amount of indecision over one outfield position, no one questions the other two. Henry Aaron has already won a batting championship, a home run and RBI title and the Most Valuable Player award—and he is still a growing boy. Covington, despite his World Series heroics, may require additional polishing in left field but no one has complained about his hitting. In less than 100 games he drove in 65 runs and hit 21 homers.

Crandall may never have the big year at the plate which it was once fashionable to predict for him, but he is still a superior catcher with a great arm and, with Del Rice to back him up, gives the Braves better catching than any other team in the league with the exception of Cincinnati.

Then there is the pitching. In 1956 Spahn, Burdette and Buhl won 20, 19 and 18 games respectively. Last year they won 21, 17 and 18. It would hardly be astonishing if all three should reach 20 this year. As for Spahn wearing out, the Braves only grin. "He's the youngest 36-year-old I ever saw," says Haney.

There is also Bob Rush, a fine pitcher with a poor team during his 10-year stay with the Cubs, and a man whose trade to the Braves last winter moved Roy Hamey to throw up his hands in dismay. "What did they use on the Cubs?" asked the Phillies' general manager. "A shotgun?"


Behind these four are Gene Conley, with a 3.16 ERA despite his 9-9 record; Bob Trowbridge, who can start or relieve; Don McMahon, the 1957 discovery whose 1.53 ERA, mostly in relief, was best in the entire league; the veteran Ernie Johnson; and two highly touted rookies, Carlton Willey and Joey Jay. Willey, 21-6 at Wichita, was the only 20-game winner in the American Association; Jay, the 6-foot-4 ex-bonus baby, now 22, won 17 and lost 10 for the same team.

And there is Juan Pizarro, who the Braves frankly admit now was pushed into the big time a year too soon. "Last year was a little rough on him, maybe," they say. "It probably hurt his confidence. But he will be all right now." One reason they think so is that the young left-hander pitched nine shutouts, including a no-hitter, while winning 14 games in the Puerto Rican winter league.

This is still a young ball club, not counting the rookies, with Pizarro 21, Mantilla 23, Aaron 24, Torre, Covington and Mathews 26, Trowbridge, Hazle and Conley 27, Crandall, Bruton and McMahon 28, Buhl 29, Adcock 30, Burdette and Logan 31.

And they know now that they can win. "Winning that pennant and beating the Yankees in the Series was all we needed," says Spahn. "If someone beats us this season, they'll have to beat a better ball club than we had in 1957.

"Personally, I don't think anyone can do it."



THIS WAS OCTOBER: Milwaukee fans, hungering for a National League pennant since the Braves came to town in 1953, jammed the sidewalks last fall to hail their heroes in a triumphant parade celebrating the end of the regular season. Then, nine days later, the city went completely wild after the World Series.




ILLINOIS SCHOOLBOY Bob Taylor cost Braves a near-record bonus of $119,000.


WISCONSIN COLLEGIAN John DeMerit signed with Braves for even $100,000.