Operating on the theory that an imprudent word spoken today may return to haunt you tomorrow, National League managers preparing to take on the St. Louis Cardinals this spring have adopted a sensible if somewhat hypocritical approach to the matter. "The Cards," they say cautiously, "are too good a ball club to keep on losing."
Then, after knocking the Cardinals dead a few times and jumping up and down on them just to be sure that they stay that way, each opposing manager is careful to wipe the happy leer off his face and assume the proper philosophic attitude before delivering a post-mortem over the recumbent corpse: "We were lucky to catch them while they were down."
The only trouble is that if the Cardinals remain down much longer, there won't be much point in bothering to get up at all. The 1958 season, for all practical purposes, will be over. What has happened to St. Louis is one of those strange slumps which, as Fred Haney of Milwaukee points out, happens to all ball clubs once in a while—although, as Haney also admits, "usually not this bad." Expected to be no worse than the second-best team in the National League this year, just as they were in '57, and named the one ball club equipped to give the Braves a real run for the money, the Cardinals have instead turned out to be the most monumental failure of the spring. At the end of the first three weeks of the season they were in last place, 8½ games behind the Cubs and, of even more importance, eight full games behind the Braves. They lost their first four games (in fact, the season was 13 innings old before they even scored a run) and managed to win only three of their first 17. At home, where the good St. Louis fans had not seen a Cardinal victory in 233 days, they managed to lose six straight. If Frank Lane were still around, everyone would know whom to blame, but voluble Frankie having long since departed for the relative serenity of the American League, leaving his old general manager's job in the hands of Bing Devine, the solution of the problem is not quite that simple. No one expects Devine, in whom the whole thing has produced a state of mild shock and disbelief, to work miracles. Neither does anyone seriously blame Fred Hutchinson, a man of stoic mien who has the grand misfortune to be the Cardinal manager. The plain truth of the matter is that the Cardinals have been losing on sheer talent: the pitching is pitiful, the hitting bad and, as a matter of fact, the base running and defense haven't been so hot, either.
Actually, the real culprit has been the pitching staff. While the hitters were failing miserably to hit with men on base, still Stan Musial was batting a startling .529, Del Ennis .333 with 15 runs batted in, Blasin-game .294 and Gene Green .293. The Cardinals had scored 72 runs, which should have won a few more games than they had. The trouble was that the opposition had scored 112.
While Hutchinson was juggling his lineup frantically in an attempt to get more run production (he used 12 different lineups in the first 17 games), the Card manager had stuck to four starting pitchers: Vinegar Bend Mizell and Lindy McDaniel (five starts each), Sam Jones (four) and Herm Wehmeier (three). Their combined record was two wins and nine losses (both victories belonged to McDaniel) and their respective—not respectable—earned run averages were 5.63, 6.46, 6.75 and 13.50. In fact, the entire staff's ERA was the worst in all baseball, for the Cardinal relievers were just as bad. Larry Jackson, counted on as a potential 20-game winner, and Billy Muffett, the surefire relief man of '57, had been particularly sad and futile. And young Von McDaniel had developed such a hitch in his pitching motion that he wasn't even used. Four runs was the lowest that Card pitching had allowed in any one game.
"Multiply our ERA by the number of men left on base," said Hutchinson, "and it would equal the national debt."
No one is quite sure when all the trouble began, but there is a suspicion now that it started in the late stages of spring training.
"Jackson and Muffett both had sore arms," says Hutchinson, "not too bad, just a little stiff, and we figured they would be all right. Moon wasn't hitting and neither was Dark. For that matter, neither was Boyer or Kasko, and they haven't hit since. I don't know what's wrong. I sometimes think that mental attitude is the most important thing in the game. You have to go up there knowing you can hit or knowing you can throw that ball and get somebody out. Evidently this team doesn't feel that way."
In an effort to find the combination that can win, Hutchinson, while sticking with Musial at first, Blasin-game at second and Ennis in left, has tried wholesale switches at every other position. In one game against Milwaukee he tied a record by using 24 different players. He has played Boyer and Dark and Rookie Benny Valenzuela at third. He has used Dark and Kasko and Dick Schofield at short. Boyer has played center field and so has Irv Noren, and when Bobby Gene Smith had a trial out there and failed to hit, the Cards sent Smith down to Omaha and recalled young Curtis Flood, who was with the team in spring training but was tabbed for more minor league seasoning. In right there was first Moon, who failed to hit, and then Green, a strong young right-handed hitter who clubbed the Dodger and Redleg left-handers like he owned them but soon relapsed into a big out when the right-handers came to town. The three catchers—Ray Katt, Hal Smith and Hobie Landrith—had amassed a total of eight hits. Devine has been trying to make a trade since February—the names most frequently mentioned have been Center Fielder Richie Ashburn of the Phils and Catcher Smoky Burgess of the Reds, with Frank Thomas of the Pirates and even Duke Snider of the Dodgers drawing an occasional rumor, too—but, as Devine says, "They either wanted too much or felt that we did."
"I have tried everything I can think of," says Hutchinson. "I guess I'll go back to the team I think is the strongest I have and sink or swim with it." And as the Cubs came into town for a four-game series over the weekend, the Cardinal manager was preparing to put Boyer back on third base, Hal Smith behind the plate, Schofield at short (partly to give Dark a little rest), Flood in center field ("You can't win without speed and defense out there," says Hutchinson) and use either Moon or Joe Cunningham in right field against right-hand pitching while platooning Green against the left-handers. "I'll give the pitchers just one more time around," said Hutch, meaning Mizell and Jones, for the Cardinals finally gave up on Wehmeier (he was sold to Detroit), "and then, if they don't produce, there will be some changes. Lindy has been all right and Vinegar had some bad breaks—a dropped double-play ball cost him one game and a bad hop another—but it looks like Jackson is about ready and he'll get a chance. Unless Jones shows me something his next time out, maybe Barnes or some of the others will, too. I may pitch Von Sunday. I'm not going to get beat game after game with the same starters."
Despite all the miserable performances, however; despite Boyer's .154 batting average and five runs batted in; despite Jackson's failure to become the stopper so desperately needed; despite the 0-4 records of Mizell and Jones; despite the sometimes confused and bumbling play afield, neither the Cardinals nor their amazingly loyal fans have given up hope. The reasons are three: 1) Stan Musial, in his quietly magnificent way, is off to the finest start of a long and always brilliant career; 2) it is a little early for obituaries, considering that the season is still young and teams have come from much further back than this; and 3) there is nothing wrong with a losing streak that a long winning streak won't cure. Only a year ago, as a matter of fact, the team was floundering almost as badly as it is right now, only to begin to click suddenly and shoot up into first place. Again, after the horrible nine-game losing streak in August, which dropped them from first to 8½ games behind the Braves, the Cardinals came on strong again, closing the gap to only 2½ games by the middle of September. And finally, just as everyone says and despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Cardinals are simply too good a ball club to keep on losing.
"It seems," said Cincinnati Manager Birdie Tebbetts, "that the schedule makers arrange it so that a slumping team plays only against the clubs going good. When you're going bad, you've got to scramble and stay respectable till your luck changes. The Cardinals have a good ball club—and their luck will change."
CHICAGO—Correspondent Robert Boyle filed this report on the Cubs:
Walt Moryn, the left fielder of the precocious Chicago Cubs, was waiting his turn in the batting cage at Wrigley Field one day last week. "Oh, the Cubbies are getting up there!" he exclaimed, his voice rising as it hit the end of the sentence. " 'Getting big.' 'Hot club.' 'Cinderella club.' 'Offense, defense—they just won't give up.' " He paused, turned serious. "Everybody's pulling for one another. Even if we're behind and we're sitting there, someone says, 'Well, it's about time.' And somebody goes up there and does something. That's it."
What Moryn said was so. The Cubs, playing superbly before sparse home crowds held down by near-freezing weather, were rolling along the top of the National League on a hero-a-day plan. The biggest hero was bespectacled Lee Walls, a hitherto so-so hitter, who was batting close to .360, with nine homers and 18 runs driven in.
Next in the hierarchy was Ernie Banks. While Walls's hit total may have been overly swollen, Banks went along at his usual good pace. (Oddly enough, some of the other Cub heroes, such as Dale Long, were hitting below par.) Banks's double-playmate, Second Baseman Tony Taylor, a Cuban rookie, hadn't been hitting well, but his fielding was brilliant, if erratic. Another rookie, shy Johnny Goryl, wasn't quite certain that he had won the third base job ("I have never been told that yet"), but his fielding and hitting—his ninth-inning homer beat Milwaukee in one game—kept him in the lineup. Still another newcomer was Catcher Sammy Taylor, a left-handed batter, who played against right-handed pitching while Elvin Tappe, a veteran, went against lefties. Together they were good enough to keep Cal Neeman, last year's find, on the bench.
The pitching staff had several fine rookies, notably Eddie Mayer, a lefthander, who shut out Cincinnati in 10‚Öì scattered innings of relief (9‚Öì of them hitless), and Glen Hobbie, a righthander, who pitched a four-hit shutout over the Reds. Jim Brosnan, one of only three Cubs left over from the full 1956 season, pitched well in four of five starts, and Don Elston won four in relief. Generally, the pitching was good, and, moreover, it should improve. Dick Drott, 15-11 last year, sprained an ankle in training and was off to a slow start, and Moe Drabowsky, 13-15, missed spring training altogether because of Army service.
For day-in, day-out play, the acquisition of Center Fielder Bobby Thomson probably did more to strengthen the Cubs than anything else. "Thomson's defensive play in center field gives them something they've lacked the last four or five years," says Birdie Tebbetts. "You need consistency in center field, and they have a consistent professional performer in Thomson." At bat, Thomson adds to the long ball threat. "They've got the power to generate runs," Tebbetts says. "They're a different club to pitch to."
Thomson was the batting hero in Hobbie's win over Cincinnati, hitting a three-run homer that bucked a 20-mile-per-hour wind. It seemed impossible at the time, but Brosnan, an intellectually inclined off-season advertising man who has undergone psychoanalysis ("I was an extreme introvert"), cites it as an example of the Cubs' absolute desire to win. "The psychology of the winning effort changes day after day," Brosnan remarked after a workout. "I don't think you win for the same reason day after day. On Tuesday the wind had an effect on the hitting. In the very first inning, Don Hoak of Cincinnati hit a ball right in his wheelhouse, where his power is, and yet the left fielder caught it. Then Thomson hit an 'impossible' home run. This wasn't a lucky break. This was sheer power. It was an example to the ball club that we could do something that looked impossible." Incidentally, the Chicago Daily News, which, like the rest of the local press, is agog over the Cubs, has already exploited the psychological angle of the team's rise to power.
In a front page story the News quoted Dr. Samuel Liebman, a Winnetka psychiatrist, as saying the Cubs have the psychological ingredients—enthusiasm, leadership and "good interpersonal relationships"—for a successful season.
Then came that awful game against Cincinnati. The Cubs led 8-2 in the ninth. Tebbetts had said earlier, "Baseball is a game of momentum. A team gets careless and makes a mistake, and that's all there is to it." The Cubs' momentum suddenly reversed itself. A walk, an error on a double-play ball, a single, a single, a forceout on a double-play ball, a freak base hit over the third baseman's head on a double-play ball, a single, a single, and then a home run, and the Reds were suddenly, shockingly ahead, 10-8.
Afterward, Manager Bob Scheffing said, "They started rolling, and we suffered every bad break in the book."
After that the Cubs packed and went off to St. Louis, hoping they had not lost their "absolute desire to win."
ST. LOUIS—The extremes met:
In the past two seasons the Cardinals and the Cubs have enjoyed an unusual relationship; at least it has been enjoyable for the Cubs. Last year, for example, not too long after Chicago rudely bumped the Cardinals out of the pennant race in August, the Cards magnanimously turned the other cheek and lost the last three games of the season to their downtrodden opponents. And much of the Cubs' early momentum this spring was built up during the first week of play when the Cardinals rolled over and played dead four straight times. In all, the Cubbies had managed to win 13 of their last 17 meetings.
Last weekend, however, the Cardinals decided that the whole thing had gone far enough. They walloped the Cubs four straight times and in so doing made three important discoveries: 1) there is nothing wrong with this ball club that some good pitching won't cure, 2) a few hits, even a very few hits, delivered at precisely the proper time, can go a long way, and 3) the Cubs, despite their fast start, are heading even faster for the second division where they belong.
Sam Jones, with a speed ball that left the Cubs blinking, kept seven hits nicely spaced for a 3-2 Cardinal victory in the series opener Friday night. Four well-timed hits sufficed for St. Louis.
On Saturday it was almost the same story. Five hits made the difference in a 3-1 game. Mizell had a shutout going into the ninth, and Larry Jackson did the rest.
Through all of this the Cubs, despite losing, had been playing good baseball. But Sunday's double-header showed that Chicago had not entirely forgotten how to kick away games. They lost the first one, an 8-7 sandlottery, in the ninth, and blew a 4-run lead to lose the second in the same way.
Disastrous though it was for the Cubs, the weekend did prove that the Cards really were too good a team to keep on losing.
HUTCH: SOMETHING SCREWY IN ST. LOUEY
SCHEFFING: WINS WITH AN INTROVERT
HOME IS THE HUNTED
When the bedraggled Cardinals crept home after losing eight of 11 games played on a sickening road trip, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Bill Mauldin welcomed them with this editorial-page cartoon and a comforting quote from an understanding Roman poet. Ah, what is more blessed than to put cares away, when the mind lays by its burden, and tired with labor of far travel we have come to our own home and rest on the couch we longed for? This it is which alone is worth all these toils.