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On the road with the 'freaks'

The diary of a San Francisco fan who followed his Giants into hostile territory and through a fateful week

Philadelphia, July 28: Temperature 83, humidity 73. This is a day to remember. We won a double-header. And only used two pitchers. One percentage point out of first place....

Young Mike McCormick slept late. Bill Rigney had told him the night before that he would start the first game of the makeup double-header with the Phillies. Gomez would go the second. "You two are it," said Rig, "there aren't any more, just you two and the old man [Grissom]. So stick in there." Mike dressed and shaved and walked out into the de-pressingly muggy Philadelphia heat. He looked tentatively up and down 17th Street before heading uptown. Boredom is a baseball player's most troublesome problem on the road. When you are due to pitch it's worse.

Mike decided on a movie—Kings Go Forth. This took care of two hours. Another hour was spent buying a short-sleeved, lightweight white shirt (McCormick is a compulsive shopper, buys something in each town). Lunch at a baseball players' hangout called the "1614," near the Warwick, took an hour. Between then and game time Mike watched television in his room.

Connie Mack Stadium was filled—with America's most irascible fans. At Pittsburgh they had something to boo about when the Giants were there (the May riot involving Gomez and Cepeda). In Philly they need no motivation. For volume, technique and persistency their melancholy booing is unsurpassed in either league. It has been told, and it must be true, that the newborn in Philadelphia must learn the word boo before they can go on to more intimate and less dispassionate expressions. Later, too, they say, a small ring is placed in the child's mouth to form it permanently into a perfect circle for booing. The training culminates with a pre-teen-age tryout as Little League fans, then on to Connie Mack Stadium to join the chorus of discontent.

Mike McCormick went into the ninth inning with a one-run lead. It was obvious in the seventh and eighth that 19-year-old Mike had lost the fast one, his only real weapon. And he had to face Ashburn, Hemus and Anderson. Mike looked toward the bullpen. Old Man Gris wasn't up. He got Ashburn on a fly to right, then threw two balls to Solly Hemus, both pushed up to the plate. Grissom got up to work and Rigney shot to the mound. "I guess you're through, Mike. You're not throwing the ball, you're aiming it. What's the matter? Tired?" Rigney glanced nervously toward the bullpen, and Mike said: "I'm all right; I'll throw." Rig believed him.

From somewhere down deep the gutty kid drew strength. He lost Hemus, but he threw hard to Anderson and Bouchee and got them both on harmless flies to the outfield.

Ruben Gomez matched McCormick's win in the second game. You'd have thought it was a World Series victory by the glorious sounds in the Giants' dressing room.

After the game, Ruben Gomez dropped in for a beer at the "1614." The world looked good again to the proud, temperamental Puerto Rican who hadn't won a game for two months and was being used, sparingly, as a middle-inning reliefer.

The walls of the small room were covered with pictures of baseball players. Wes Westrum came in. He spotted Ruben, made a circle with his thumb and first finger and said, "Magnificent." Ruben looked highly pleased, raised his beer glass and said, "Salud." He started talking, letting the last two months' troubles come out: "I like to work. Work hard. I don't like to make my living sitting down. For 11 years I've been pitching—winter and summer. They lost confidence in me. I only start today because it's the second game of a double-header, and there's no one else. Maybe it will be different now."

Cincinnati, July 29: The Giants' chartered DC-6 flew over the green Ohio farmland on its way to a three-game series with the Reds. And important games, too; but already the players' minds were on Milwaukee and the four big weekend games. They should tell the story: Were the Giants really making a run for the pennant or would the kids fold, as predicted?

Bill Rigney, outfitted in a gay red sport shirt, sat on the edge of his seat and looked contentedly up and down the aisle. He asked in a voice full of wonderment: "How are you going to beat a team like this? How many games have we won in the last inning—17? I've never seen anything like it. Everybody thinks we are going to fold, but we keep right on swinging. The team will never quit."

"Who are you going to pitch tonight?" someone asked. Rigney pointed up the plane where Stu Miller was playing bridge. "Stu volunteered; he worked six innings on Friday and four on Sunday, but he wants to go. We don't have anyone else."

Miller taunted the Reds with his slow and slower curves and managed to get by with the loss of but three hits and two runs through the sixth inning. In the seventh, Stu tired and Old Man Grissom came in to relieve. Gris gave up another run and the Giants went into the ninth behind 3-2. Alou and Kirkland flied out. Unaccustomed to the Giants' ninth-inning victories, the fans began to leave. Back in San Francisco, about a quarter of a million Giant fans, listening to Russ Hodges, knew better. Or, at least, they hoped. Willard Schmidt got two strikes past Mays. Protecting the plate on an outside pitch, Willie steered the next one into center for a single. In the 1958 Giant tradition the script now called for Jablonski to hit a home run. Jabbo did just that. Grissom held in the bottom of the ninth and the Giants were leading the league by one game.

It was also in the new Giant tradition that there should be some private drama in Jablonski's feat: Jabbo's 5-year-old son was sick in bed back in California. Jabbo had promised, in a phone conversation, to hit a home run for his boy. "I hope he heard it on the radio."

Cincinnati, July 30: The Giants haven't beaten Bob Purkey since 1956 and haven't scored on him this season. Today they scored a moral victory of sorts over Mr. Purkey: they made a run. But Cincinnati scored two and the Giants are again one percentage point behind the Braves.

If there was any good on San Francisco's side of the ledger it was, again, Señor Orlando (The Bull) Cepeda. While the other Giants, and particularly Willie Mays, were pounding Purkey's sidearm knuckler into the ground, young Orlando unexcitedly stroked two doubles to left, on the first of which he scored the Giants' lone run of the game, and of the year, off Cincinnati's 13-game winner. Though he could have made it easy from second to home on the Spencer single, Orlando slid. Simply running across the plate is not enough drama, not enough fun. The proud, pixieish Puerto Rican comes to the park to play ball, and he plays it at all times with an awesome and refreshing gusto.

Cepeda has now hit in 16 straight games, is currently batting .324. His hitting is only half of the truth about the young man whom baseball observers almost unanimously feel will be one of the finest players of this era. For he has two other, more subtle, qualities: he learns fast (and doesn't stop learning), and he has a deep-down, driving kind of desire—one too seldom seen today among professional athletes. Not just to make money but to be the best.

Cincinnati, July 31: Looking ahead, they say, is prudent. But on occasion it can be overdone. Take, for example, the San Francisco Giants on the last day of July, in Cincinnati. On the bulletin board of the visitors' dressing room at Crosley Field was a short clipping from the New York Times. It was an interview with Mr. Casey Stengel. And though it was somewhat obscured by brevity and, no doubt, by Casey's syntax, it said, in essence, that the Giants had no business being near first place. Stengel used the word freaks in describing Rigney's eccentric warriors.

The players and their manager gathered around the bulletin board grousing. Bill Rigney snorted and said: "Freaks, huh? I'd like to take this bunch of freaks right into the Yankee Stadium." But instead of thinking ahead to a World Series, the Giants would have done better to concentrate on Birdie Tebbetts' Cincinnati Redlegs. Ahead 6-0 in the fifth and 9-4 in the eighth, the unpredictable Giants managed to blow this one real good. Only two errors were called: both by Shortstop Spencer and both damaging. But there were numerous other unpardonable skulls which, mercifully, did not get into the official records, there being no recordable penalty, only Rigney's wrath, for inept base running and miscalculated pop flies.

The Giants need no longer look ahead to Milwaukee: the four-game series starts tomorrow night at County Stadium. And by sundown on Sunday it should be clear to all whether Rigney's kids are another Cinderella team or, as Stengel and others have pointed out, a second-division club playing in luck.

Milwaukee, August 1: If Willie Mays's singularity was limited to the awesome statistics of his record, or to his pay check, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, Willie also sets himself apart from his teammates off the field. He rooms alone, goes to the ball park by himself, goes out socially with nonbaseball friends. This can be irritating, particularly when the star is not performing with distinction. And certainly this is not one of Willie's best years. He hasn't hit a home run since July 2; he hasn't batted in a run in the last 13 games.

This background on Willie's on-and-off field behavior serves to point up a little drama which occurred during batting practice before today's opening game with the Braves. Willie was waiting his turn and Daryl Spencer was hitting fungos to the outfield a few feet away. As Willie moved toward the cage, Spencer's light bat slipped; it flew through the air and caught Mays just above the left knee. Willie dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. Rigney ran over asking anxiously, "What happened, what happened?" and saw his star lying prostrate on the ground. Spencer explained that the bat had slipped. Rigney admonished him for hitting fungos so near the batting cage. Angered, Spencer explained that he had been hitting there for four years and nothing like this had happened before. "What's more," said Spencer, looking down at Mays's stretched-out body, "he's not hurt."

The club doctor came out and Mays hobbled off the field. In the San Francisco dugout a player said, "We almost lost our boy," and another answered: "Yeh, but we might pick up an Academy Award for that acting performance."

We go to the ninth inning of the opening game of the series which should decide the National League pennant race. The world champion Braves lead 4-2. Bob Schmidt singles. Pinch hitters Speake and Sauer fly out. Kirkland doubles Schmidt to third. Willie Mays is next. McMahon relieves the tiring Burdette. Throwing nothing but fast balls, McMahon works the count to three and two. Del Crandall gives the signal, and after a long pause McMahon acknowledges it. Then he rears back and throws a beautiful curve ball past Mays. The umpire, the Giant dugout and the 39,563 fans see it split the plate. Willie doesn't. He hits the ground with his bat, stomps his right foot angrily in protest and swivels to complain. The umpire is on his way to the dressing room. Mays turns toward the Giant dugout. The players are leaving. The field lights are dimmed and the organ starts playing. Willie walks slowly away, dragging his bat heavily.

Milwaukee, August 2: Natty, gum-chewing Leo Durocher leaned against the batting cage at County Stadium and watched the Giants work out. Orlando Cepeda stepped into a fast ball and sent it over the left-field fence. Durocher beamed: "That kid's great. If he doesn't make Rookie of the Year, somebody's just cheating." Mays stepped in. Leo quickly detected a change in Willie's swing: "His hands are too close to his body; he used to carry the bat much further back." Mays had been bringing the bat back eventually, but he waited until the pitch was delivered, thus hurrying the action and causing a hitch in his swing. So when Willie stepped out of the cage, Durocher explained what he was doing wrong. Willie had been told before—but from Durocher, well, that was different. He listened happily and attentively as the glib Durocher talked.

Bill White, Leon Wagner and Willie Kirkland, the big left-handers, took their turn in the batting cage, each hitting one ball out of the park. Durocher watched eagerly and enthused: "Great bunch of rookies," looking for all the world like a man who wanted desperately to get back into uniform and take these kids on to a World Series. Somebody will. It's just a question of time. Schmidt catching, McCormick pitching, Cepeda on first, Wagner, Kirkland, White, Mays and Alou in outfield, and Jackie Brandt, soon back from the service, playing somewhere. Average age 23, weight 210. And they can all run.

It's pleasant to look to the future, the more so when the world champion Milwaukee Braves are taking the present away from you. They did this rather decisively Saturday afternoon with a 10-0 win over the bewildered Giants. San Francisco is now three games behind. As Rigney predicted, they won't quit. But the Braves appear to be too much ball club for the youthful Giants this year.

Milwaukee, August 3: Bill Rigney's colorful kids came to the end of the line on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. The Braves took both ends of a double-header to make it four straight games over our slumping heroes. The weak hitting of Mr. Willie Mays, coupled with inept relief pitching and a leaky infield, was too great a burden to carry into a decisive series.

How San Francisco fans, who certainly expect a good deal of their remarkable ball team, will feel about today's humiliation in Milwaukee no one knows. But they can certainly take heart for the fact that their beloved Giants were the most exciting team in baseball through July and were the only team in either major league who made a run of it.

The Giants may come back again, though it is extremely doubtful. San Franciscans' wonderful dream of a pennant in their first year will have to wait. But not for very long.


POSTGAME JUBILATION over a Giant victory is conventionally but painlessly registered by home run hitting Jablonski, Mays, Pitcher Grissom and Manager Rigney.