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Sounding only a little bit like a man whistling past a graveyard, seven of the National League's finest teams spent a happy springtime assuring themselves and a nodding assortment of itinerant experts what a whale of a pennant race this was going to be.
"The Giants can beat the Braves," they said. "They have the power." Or the Pirates who, it was explained, "had pitching and defense." Or the Reds, who had various qualifications not always evident to the untrained eye. Someone even mentioned the Dodgers once in a while, seeking, perhaps, to overlook no bets.
But when the season began, it was that eighth team, the one lurking so quietly in the graveyard, that came roaring out to play ball. In an opening week dotted with rain-outs and snow-outs and near freeze-outs, the Braves threw Spahn and Burdette, Spahn and Burdette, left-right, left-right, boom-boom, into the contest—and when the sun finally came out, it appeared that there might not even be a contest left. The Braves were unbeaten in four games, the rest of the league was staggering, and horrible visions of another 1955, when the Dodgers won 10 straight and 22 of their first 24 to turn the pennant race into a shambles, danced before the National League's eyes.
The Braves, champions for the last two years, were once again doing everything right. The two big pitchers were giving Milwaukee the kind of consistent performance a winning team needs. Henry Aaron was hitting over .500, and Eddie Mathews, who was hitting about half that, was driving in runs. Mickey Vernon came over from the American League in a waiver deal in exchange for an unwanted Milwaukee pitcher, Humberto Robinson, and in his first ball game, pinch hitting, drove in the tying run for the Braves in the ninth. Johnny O'Brien's single in the 10th won the game.
But it was more than pitching and hitting, which everyone knew the Braves had a long time ago. The defense was almost perfect; there wasn't an error in those four games. Wes Covington, who throws out about three runners a season from left field, threw out one at the plate in Pittsburgh in the second game of the season to save it for Milwaukee. Mathews was all over the left side of the infield, spearing hot liners, knocking down base hits, throwing people out. Aaron and Bill Bruton, who was running as though he had never had an injured knee, robbed opposing batsmen time and time again of what seemed like certain extra-base hits. And even Felix Mantilla, first choice to patch up the hole at second base, didn't do too badly, although a few of the more knowledgeable observers noted small, telltale signs which indicated that Mantilla didn't exactly look like Red Schoendienst out there.
But it was even more than pitching and hitting and fielding. Richie Ashburn of the Phillies, who plays center field as it was meant to be played, needlessly threw a ball away one day against the Braves, into the dugout behind third base to let a run score. Milwaukee outs turned into base hits when they bounced off bases or hopped over infielders' heads. Everything the Braves did was good, everything the opponents did was bad. This was a good ball club, perhaps the best in the league, and it was getting breaks it didn't even need.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
San Francisco, after starting out well, too, with three straight victories, began to open up at the seams. Although the Giant pitching was a good deal better than a lot of people had anticipated, the defense was absolutely horrible. In seven games the Giants made 17 errors, seven of them by the rookie shortstop, Andre Rodgers, and three in one game by his second-base sidekick, Daryl Spencer. The Giants, who hit homers almost every day, were showing their muscles, all right, but it takes a lot of home runs to make up for 17 errors.
Cincinnati started well, too. But then the Phillies came to town and the Reds began to lose. You just can't go around talking about pennants and losing ball games to the Philadelphia Phillies. With the Reds, too, the big trouble was pitching except for Bob Purkey, their fine right-hander.
But the worst start of all belonged to the Pirates, who went to bed dreaming of Cinderella and woke up screaming. They lost and lost and lost again. Before it was all over they had lost five in a row. The hitters weren't doing much hitting to speak of and none at all with runners on base. The outfield sprang a few leaks. And the pitching, to be fair all around, was inconsistent. That is about as fair as a man can be: actually, it was lousy in those five games. The Pirate staff, which allowed the fewest home runs in the National League last year, was smacked for 10—and each played a big part in the show.