It began with Henry Aaron and it ended with Henry Aaron—with No. 714 on his first swing of the season and No. 733 on his last—and between those historic hits there was a little bit of everything. Aaron made his own, uncharacteristic, strawberry statement by splattering a carton of the fruit in the face of Frank Hyland, an Atlanta sportswriter. "I kept having this insane thought about how excellent the strawberries tasted," Hyland said. And Aaron kept thinking how nice retirement would be. But now it seems he might well swing over for a DH tour in the other league where another DH, name of Frank Robinson, becomes baseball's first black manager.
Up north a ways, the Pirates, the people of the big bats, found a way to sew up their division without much using them. In their finale with the Cubs they parlayed two walks into runs that tied the score 4-4 in the ninth. One run came in on a ground out, the other after Bob Robertson had fanned for what should have been the game-ending out. But Catcher Steve Swisher revived memories of Mickey Owen by dropping the third strike and then compounded his misdeed when he tried to throw Robertson out at first base and hit him with the ball. In the 10th the Pirates finally scored a distinctly legitimate run: Al Oliver tripled and came home on a ground ball.
St. Louis finished 1½ games behind Pittsburgh despite the feet and feats of Lou Brock, who set an alltime record with 118 steals and batted .306.
"Yes, we can" was the rallying cry of the Phillies from the time Dave Cash began yelling it in spring training until a Philadelphia newspaper summed up the loss of a three-game series to the Pirates in September with a headline that read: NO, WE CAN'T. But Mike Schmidt could all year. Last season the big third baseman batted .196, had 52 RBIs and hit 18 homers; this year his average rose to .282, his RBIs to 116 and his home runs to a major-league-leading 36.
Don Sutton of the Dodgers was mystery man of the year. He put together a 6-2 record by May 14, then did not win for 10 weeks, after which he regained his touch and wound up 19-9. But there was no mystery as to which team had traded best—those same Dodgers. Former Astro Jimmy Wynn slugged 32 homers and drove in 108 runs for L.A. and former Expo Mike Marshall set new standards for games pitched (106), games finished (83), innings pitched in relief (208‚Öì) and consecutive games (13) while accounting for 15 wins, 21 saves and a 2.42 ERA. On top of that, Andy Messersmith, obtained the season before from the Angels, became one of the rare pitchers to be a 20-game winner in both leagues. Phil Niekro was the only other National Leaguer to win 20 this season.
Fans expressed themselves as never before, streaking and occasionally causing near chaos, with ugly, debris-throwing behavior. Some players indulged in maneuvers that did not seem very big league, either. The San Francisco Giants proved all too often to be Lilliputian on defense. Like the day Catcher Dave Rader chased Pete Rose of the Reds between third and home. The odd thing about this was that Rose was heading for the plate while Rader frantically chugged behind him because no one was at home to take his throw. So Rose slid in head first and Rader futilely slid in head first right after him. And then there was the ground ball hit to Giant First Baseman Dave Kingman with two outs and a runner on third. Instead of fielding the ball and stepping on first for the final out, Kingman threw home. That was the last thing anticipated by Rader, who was on his way to the dug-out when the throw sailed right over home plate.
The best butchers of all, fittingly, were found in Chicago. Among the follies they perpetrated, the Cubs twice allowed the winning run to score all the way from second base on infield rollers because nobody had the good sense to cover home.
As for the year's smartest managerial move, it was made by Whitey Lockman, who celebrated his 48th birthday by resigning as skipper of the Cubs. Another manager, Danny Ozark of the Phillies, uttered the remark with the best chance of going down in baseball lore. Asked how team morale was holding up during a losing streak, Ozark said, "Morality at this point isn't a factor."
Fortunately the National Leaguers did not live by ineptness alone. Ralph ("I'm amazing") Garr of Atlanta led the league with a .353 batting average; Johnny Bench of Cincinnati led in RBIs with 129; and Lee William Capra, rejected by the Mets, buzzed into Atlanta to take the ERA title with a 2.28.
Major league attendance fell by 81,000, with the largest dropoff in San Francisco, where crowds slumped more than 300,000 to 519,991. Los Angeles, however, had the third highest attendance of all time, 2,632,474. Promotions helped lure fans. Montreal, for example, held a Tuque Day. A tuque is a woolen hat, something the Expos could have used to pull down over their ears during a slump that left them 16 games under .500 on Sept. 9. But from then on it was tuques off to the Expos, who won 18 of their last 23 to finish with their best percentage ever (.491).
Outstanding rookies were plentiful. Among the best in the National League were Bake McBride, a fine centerfielder and .309 hitter for St. Louis; Outfielder Greg Gross of Houston, who hit .314; and Bill Madlock of Chicago, a nifty third baseman who batted .313. In the American League there were Designated Hitter Mike Hargrove, who hit .323 for Texas; Shortstop Dave Chalk, .252 for California; Third Baseman George Brett of Kansas City, who lifted his average from .205 on June 2 to .282; and Robin Yount, a teen-age shortstop who hit .250 for Milwaukee.
It was the year of the cowhide ball, and could that have accounted for the decline in home runs? In all, there were 453 fewer than in 1973, the AL falling off 12% and the NL showing a startling drop of 17%. Chicago's Dick Allen won the AL home-run derby with 32 before quitting baseball in mid-September. Minnesota's Rod Carew batted .364, the highest average in the league since Ted Williams' .388 in 1957. Carew also became the first to win three AL batting titles in a row since Ty Cobb (1917-19). Ranger Jeff Burroughs led in RBIs with 118, and the A's Jim Hunter had the best ERA, 2.49. And while Detroit on the whole was destitute of cheer, Al Kaline became the 12th player to get 3,000 hits.
Twenty-game winners abounded in the AL: Jim Kaat and Wilbur Wood of the White Sox, Luis Tiant of the Red Sox, Gaylord Perry of the Indians, Mike Cuellar of the Orioles, Nolan Ryan of the Angels, Steve Busby of the Royals and the majors' top winners with 25 victories each—Hunter and Ferguson Jenkins of the Rangers. Ryan pitched a no-hitter and struck out 367.
Some of the more sober second thoughts belonged to the Cincinnati Reds, who traded Ross Grimsley to Baltimore for Merv Rettenmund. Grimsley won 18 games and the Orioles the East. Could they have done it without him? Probably not. Rettenmund batted .216.
Perhaps the finest turnabout performance by a pitcher was that of the White Sox' Bart Johnson, who quit last spring rather than go to the minors. In May he relented and after being brought up in July was 10-4 and had a 2.74 ERA.
The Oakland A's continued to refine discontent into an art form but also awakened echoes of 1972, the year of hair: Gene Tenace and Sal Bando played under new rugs.
But far and away the hairiest play of the year occurred in a game between the Twins and White Sox. With two out, Dick Allen on second and Ken Henderson on first, Ray Corbin of the Twins had a 3-2 count on Ron Santo. Both runners broke with the pitch, on which the plate umpire delayed his call so he could check with the ump at first base to see if Santo had swung or not. Meanwhile, Twin Catcher Randy Hundley, thinking the count was 2-2, threw to third to get Allen. But the Twins' third baseman, who thought Santo had struck out, was trotting off the field and the ball sailed into left field. Allen scored and then the outfield relay nipped Henderson at the plate. Corbin arrived at home to protest the goings on, accidentally shoved Hundley and rendered him virtually useless for the rest of the season with a reinjured knee. Then, and only then, did everyone learn it had been ruled that Santo had indeed struck out to end the inning. It was quite a year.