Old age and fond memories
Strong points: The Braves, with the best home run punch and the tightest infield defense in the league, are a pitcher's dream. Third Baseman Eddie Mathews (.306), Center Fielder Henry Aaron (.327) and First Baseman Joe Adcock (.285), clustered in the middle of the batting order, socked 101 of Milwaukee's 188 home runs and totaled 319 RBIs. Mathews, Second Baseman Frank Boiling and Shortstop Roy McMillan are among the best in baseball at their positions and Adcock is satisfactory around first base. Del Crandall is an exceptional handler of pitchers, and young Joe Torre has a strong arm and fine defensive ability behind the plate. Warren Spahn is going for his seventh 20-game year in a row (21-13, 3.01 ERA in 1961). "Why should Spahnie stop now?" asks Manager Birdie Tebbetts.
Weak spots: Pitching depth. After Spahn and his sidekick, Lou Burdette, an 18-game winner last year, the Braves are hurting for steady pitching. Bob Buhl, the third starter, is 33, had an ERA of 4.12 and a 9-10 record last year, and asked to be traded this spring. Behind him are Bob Shaw, obtained from the Athletics (25-27 the last two seasons), and Carlton Willey, who has won just 17 games in the past three years. Youngsters Bob Hendly, 22, a hard-throwing lefthander, and Tony Cloninger, 21, who throws a rising fast ball, are promising but inexperienced. Reliever Don McMahon was effective last season (6-4, 2.84 ERA) but he needs more help.
The big ifs: Although Torre did a fine job filling in for the injured Crandall last year, the Braves need Crandall's experienced catching. If he is healthy, Milwaukee will have the best receivers in the league. After the bastion that is Henry Aaron, the outfield drops off sharply. Lee Maye is a spotty hitter, and Tebbetts may go with Howie Bedell, who hit .327 at Louisville, in left field, and Mack Jones in right. Spahn (40) and Burdette (35) appear to be ageless but either one or both could go all of a sudden.
Rookies and new faces: The most exciting youngster in the Braves' camp, as he was last spring, was Mack Jones (23). "If he puts all his talents together, he's a great one," says Tebbetts. A left-handed batter with fine power to the opposite field, Jones hits with his left elbow cocked high like Duke Snider and runs as well as anybody on the club. Shaw, the only major addition to the team, likes to work, throws hard and has the control to win in the NL.
OUTLOOK: If the pitching surprises and the young outfielders come with a rush, the Braves will be a solid contender. Unfortunately, old age and pleasant memories of past glories dominate the Braves' picture. The fringe area of the first division will more likely he the team's resting place.
Birdie has some nice problems
As a 19-year-old in 1949, Del Crandall caught 63 games for the Boston Braves. In eight straight seasons before last year Crandall caught 100 or more games and averaged 19 homers. In 1961 Crandall caught five games and was out most of the year with a sore shoulder. During the winter he lifted weights under a doctor's supervision to strengthen the shoulder. He says: "Catching is a vulnerable position. You can't hide a bad arm. My hitting feels the same and I feel good otherwise. If the arm's better, I'll be the same as always."
With 21-year-old Joe Torre batting .278 last year, Crandall, at his best, still has to fight for his job. "It's bound to make us both play harder," said Torre.
"This is the kind of problem I like," said Manager Tebbetts.
As Crandall leisurely threw a ball along the sidelines this spring, Torre watched intently. Tebbetts studied the throw. And Del Crandall, 32 years old, said he didn't feel any pain.
Only 10 pitchers in all of baseball have won more games than Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves.
What's the explanation?
"He can throw strikes any time he wants," says Braves' Pitching Coach Whitlow Wyatt. "He gets the hitter to swing at the ball he wants. Control is the secret of the art. Spahn can put the ball over the plate. He does it more often and with more pitches than anybody. Screwball, slider, changeup, fast ball, everything."
"He thinks," says Farm Director John Mullen, who watches hundreds of young pitchers every year. "Spahn always knows what to do. He makes it his business to find out every hitter's weakness."
"It won't be a mortal that will stop Spahn," says Manager Tebbetts.
Spahn walked into the Braves' clubhouse. Sweat soaked his uniform. His hat was turned backwards on his head. His shirt was loose and flapped against his unfastened belt. He grabbed a towel and snapped it against the shorts of Catcher Del Crandall.
Warren Spahn had come from a tough workout. Now, in the privacy of the clubhouse, he played the clown. At 40, the great left-hander still thought there was some fun in baseball.
Henry Aaron was taking batting practice in St. Petersburg, leaping at pitches in his unique way, drilling some on a line over the fence and into the bay, others through the infield with such force they sent dirt into the air. After Aaron had sent the last pitch hooking meanly down the left-field line, the batting practice pitcher, a rookie, called to him. "Pretty good, hey Hank?" he said. "I mean, they were all right in there."
"Yeah," Aaron answered as he trotted toward the outfield, "and right out of there, too."
SPAHN THE NONPAREIL needs only 17 more victories this season to become the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history.