Sometimes," said St. Louis Cardinal Coach Dick Sisler, "the best club on paper doesn't win the pennant."
Sisler was talking about the 1950 Phillies, a fraudulent band who prevailed over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 10th inning of the last day on a three-run home run by Dick Sisler. He must also have been thinking of the 1965 Cincinnati Reds, who squandered their talents so prodigally that the management fired the manager, Dick Sisler.
In any case, Sisler had articulated the essence—and the charm—of a National League pennant race: the best team does not always win, as in five of the last seven years, for instance, and this season, here we go again. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are wheel to wheel at the top of the league, and not far back are the Philadelphia Phillies and the surprising St. Louis Cardinals. Nothing can spoil N.L. President Warren Giles's annual tournament of would-be champions except a prolonged winning streak by one of the contenders, and that is highly unlikely, for each team bears the seeds of its own destruction.
The Pirates, as the season turned into August, seemed to be the best. With a team batting average 17 points higher than that of the runaway Baltimore Orioles (SI, Aug. 1), they are platooning Manny Mota, a .346 hitter. The Pirates have as much power as a team could reasonably want in a park the size of Forbes Field. They can run well enough, and the combination of Shortstop Gene Alley and Second Baseman Bill Mazeroski has elevated their defense from adequate to excellent.
But the snares of Alley and Mazeroski are a delusion, masking a pitching staff of questionable big-league quality. The good left arm of Bob Veale is hinged to a bad back, and Vernon Law's soft stuff is not puzzling that many hitters. Youngsters Woody Fryman and Steve Blass are winning, and Pirate fans applying "Buc Fever" stickers to the bumpers of their cars are sure that Tommie Sisk will win, too, sooner or later. The Pirates are living high but dangerously.
The Giants have that power, of course. No contender, not even Pittsburgh, has a foursome to match Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Jim Ray Hart and Tom Haller, who have 86 home runs among them. And nobody has two pitchers with more victories than Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.
Yet Casey Stengel in his giddiest period never juggled his lineup more than Herman Franks. By the ides of July the Giants had used six men at shortstop and first base. Only the four long-ball men are reasonably sure of playing every day, and Hart has to read the lineup card to find out whether to go to third base or left field. Left-handed pitching by the opposition has considerably diluted the power of McCovey and Haller, and Tito Fuentes and Hal Lanier arc thoroughly confused as to which of them is the shortstop and which is the second baseman.
The Giants' defense is sketchy at best and their speed is almost nil; they have hit into more double plays than they have made. The pitching, after Marichal and Perry, is ragged enough to make the front office wish it hadn't been so hasty about peddling Bob Shaw to the Mets.
The Dodgers aren't capable of a long winning streak because they score fewer runs than any team in either league. By August 1 they had been shut out a dozen times, doubling their total for the entire 1965 season. But they are also incapable of a long losing streak because arthritic Sandy Koufax, unlucky Claude Osteen, rookie Don Sutton and enigmatic Don Drysdale do not figure to be beaten in succession. It is not even advisable to knock out one of the Dodgers" starters, since the alternatives arc lefty Ron Perranoski's sinker and righty Phil Regan's irrigated "slider."
The Dodgers' speed has always been overrated, concentrated as it is in two or three men, and there are already indications that Maury Wills, at 33, is finding the base paths about a foot longer than they used to be. Their defense is barely adequate. But whoever wins the pennant will have to beat the Dodgers to get it, because they demand that.
Cardinal Manager Red Schoendienst wasn't grinning from ear to ear at the All-Star break, but then he wasn't bleeding from ear to ear, either. His team was four games under .500 and 12½ games out of first place, but he still had a job and last spring he wouldn't have bet on that. Three weeks later the Cards were six games over .500, and Schoendienst was saying that his team did have a shot at the pennant.
Down, boy: you're 5½ games behind. But it's that kind of league. In the name of economy, St. Louis General Manager Bob Howsam last winter traded high-salaried Bill White for some people who couldn't do the Cardinals any good. This spring, in the name of reason, he traded Ray Sadecki to the Giants, who were desperate for a left-handed pitcher, and got Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda's resurgence (.339) has made it possible to play light-hitting Dal Maxvill at short, and the Cardinals' defense is now calked.
Thus the Cards, with Curt Flood in center and Tim McCarver behind the plate, are as sound as any team up the middle-except for the pitcher's mound. Bob Gibson's arm troubles him, and Ray Washburn's reconstructed shoulder is suspect. St. Louis, like Pittsburgh, must lean heavily on untested pitchers such as Joe Hoerner, who was so insignificant a member of the cast during the spring that his principal assignment was to hit fungoes against the facade of the new stadium club to see if the glass would break. Obviously then, the Cardinals have no more chance than they did in 1964 when nobody believed in them but Johnny Keane.
The Phillies' age movement might have succeeded if among all the balding gentry they imported—Dick Groat, Bob Buhl, Larry Jackson, for three—they had found a right-handed relief pitcher who could get somebody out. But the Phils' bullpen consists of a slightly built rookie southpaw, Darold Knowles, who has to throw hard to throw hard, and who is likely to tire as his number of appearances approaches the record level.
The disaffection toward Manager Gene Mauch of Right Fielder John Callison—reportedly fined $1,000 after he announced that he'd rather not play for Mauch—was followed by the editorial disaffection of the Philadelphia Bulletin: "The benching of Callison, a fans' idol, raises new questions about Mauch's ability to handle his men evenly and fairly."
If Mauch's dissatisfaction with an RBI man who isn't batting in runs raises the question whether a team can win a pennant if the manager and players are feuding, the answer is—of course. It has happened before and will happen again if the Pirates win the pennant this year. What John Gunther wrote, prophetically, of Thomas E. Dewey in 1947 can be said of Pirate Manager Harry Walker: "A blunt fact about him must be faced: it is that many people do not like him."
Some of the people who do not like Walker are playing for him. "It took a while to learn his way," says Jim Pagliaroni, the team's player representative and a sort of younger statesman. "We've gotten through to him. We understand him now." But do you like him? "I said we understand him."
But if Walker's moves keep winning games, there may have to be a reappraisal. Johnny Keane doesn't smile easily, but he might laugh if the Pirates win the pennant. He has played Walker's role. Some people may be amazed if the Pirates win, but Bill White won't be one of them. He has felt the boat rock before.
"We had some pretty good ones in St. Louis in '64," White said with a shrug. "But we won the pennant." They were not the best team in the league, but Keane didn't tell them.
In a topsy-turvy scene representative of the National League pennant race, Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates slides hard into second base, upending San Francisco's Hal Lanier.