To a baseball fan, the month of September is historically—and sometimes hysterically—a time to be spent in fervent observation of the major league pennant races, game by game and pitch by pitch. In the first week of September 1958, however, he could hardly be blamed for feeling that he had been gypped. Not only was there neither hysteria nor fervor, there wasn't even a pennant race. The Braves and the Yankees were in. There remained, of course, the matter of which team would win the Series, but no baseball fan needs an entire month to make up his mind on that.
But now suddenly, as if to atone for its other omissions, the 1958 season has produced another and entirely different brand of excitement, a competition not among teams but among men: the hottest two-league batting race that baseball has seen in years. In some ways it appeared almost as if the pennant races had run their course and moved aside just so attention could focus on the double handful of skilled hitters banging away in their ever-changing, day-by-day battle for the twin prizes a batting title can bring: the silver bat, treasured emblem of champions, and a pot of gold (which usually takes the form of a fat salary increase when contract time rolls around next spring).
The two leagues offer a fascinating study in contrast. On the one hand the National League line is clearly drawn among four men, each a former champion, each a great hitter in his own right and in his own way. The American League, or? the other hand, features six strong contenders of widely different backgrounds—a multiple champion, another who won the big prize once years ago, two who have come close and a final pair who in seasons past have had all of the competition they could use just trying to crack a starting lineup. And finally there is a seventh who by virtue of his tremendous talents, as well as the fact that he isn't completely out of it yet, must at least rate a thoughtful nod.
Just as fascinated as anyone else, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S baseball staff offers a thumbnail sketch of the top contenders, a brief insight into their chances with almost three weeks still to go and, if the reader should happen to be a betting man, some speculative but well-considered odds just in case he wants to back his favorite.
A left-handed slap hitter (only 23 home runs in eight seasons), the slender 30-year-old Red Sox second baseman (and sometimes first baseman) has been the big surprise of the 1958 batting race. Hitting only .283 on June 13, he began to streak, was up to .321 by the middle of July, has remained in that vicinity or slightly above ever since. Led race by eight points in late August, but near-disastrous Labor Day performance (0 for 10) cost him seven points. Occasional hot streak and generally consistent performance in between are in his favor. Against him are past records: except for 1956, when he hit .310 for Senators, Runnels has never averaged more than .285 for any one of seven previous big league years, entered '58 with lifetime average of only .274.
Below .300 only once in five previous major league seasons (last year when he hit .277), the big, tobacco-chewing Tiger outfielder went into 1958 with a lifetime average of .306, has been improving that figure steadily all year. Best season was 1956 when he finished behind only Mantle and Williams with an average of .332. This year he moved right into the top 10 batters' list on Opening Day, has been there ever since. A sharp, line-drive hitter with above-average speed, he gets few home runs but rifles singles and doubles to all fields, almost never falls into a protracted slump. Arm injury which put him on bench August 30 did not turn out to be serious, could actually have been a blessing in disguise by affording a quick breather before last-minute drive.
The most spectacular hitter in baseball in the past 25 years, the colorful and controversial Red Sox slugger is after his sixth American League batting championship at the age of 40. Hit amazing .406 in 1941, came back 17 years and two wars later to hit almost equally amazing .388 for best average since. His lifetime average of .350 is highest among active players, exactly 10 points above Musial. Off to a poor start this year, partly because of injuries and illness, he came on strong in midseason, held steady through August, was out of lineup in early days of September with sore throat. Well rested now, he should be ready for strong finish. Always a fierce competitor, Williams has produced some of his most sensational streaks in the last month of the season.
This personable, 37-year-old Cardinal demigod ranks among greatest National League hitters of all time, has sights set on eighth batting championship which would tie Honus Wagner's league record. Best year was 1948 (.376), won last year with .351. Had tremendous start this spring, was up around .500 until he gained 3,000th major league hit in May, then slowed down. Always hits very well in September, has been resting frequently this year for first time in long career, but is now suffering from leg injury which may hurt his chances. Even healthy, lacks great speed of other three, makes up for it with perhaps sharpest eyes in all baseball, marvelous timing, willingness and ability to sacrifice his famed power for sharp line drives to all fields.
Perhaps the finest natural hitter in the game today, the lithe, young (24) Braves outfielder with the vicious, wrist-popping swing has already won one batting championship, seems to improve every year. Still apparently far from his peak, the .313 lifetime average (four seasons) and single-season high of .328 in 1956 hardly seem to represent his true potential. Off to a miserable start this year, he was hitting only .263 on June 20. Then, almost unnoticed, he began to move up and suddenly, on Labor Day, there he was in the .330s. A notorious bad-ball hitter, less steady than Musial or Ashburn—he occasionally has a bad slump—he is also subject to sizzling streaks which could, in a matter of two or three days, put him well out ahead of the pack.
Batting champ in 1955 (.338) and runner-up to Musial in '51 (.344), the blond center fielder of the Phillies enters the final weeks of his 11th big league season with an awful lot on his side. An entirely different type of batsman than the power-hitting Musial, Aaron and Mays, he is a craftsman at the plate, a master of finesse, punching a double down the left field line from his choked-up, left-handed stance, looping a single into short right field, beating out a bunt with his quick getaway and furious speed. Cool and a tough competitor, he seldom strikes out, swings at few bad pitches, is less likely to plunge into a ruinous slump. On the other hand, Ashburn is not a good bet for one of those 5-for-5 days which the other three occasionally provide.
The most exciting—and quite likely the best all-round—player in either league, it is an indication of his vast talents that Giant fans can look at Mays' .330-plus average and say that he is having a bad year. Well over .400 and in hot pursuit of Musial early in the season, he slumped along with Stan, has only recently begun to hit the ball hard again. Because the muscular young Giant center fielder has had his slump, and because he is capable of such tremendous batting streaks—even more spectacular than Aaron's—Mays is in good shape to win his second championship. And while all four contenders are exceptional September hitters, records of the past four years prove that Willie is the best of all: .363 to Aaron's .353, Ashburn's .342 and Musial's .340.