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In 1959 the San Francisco Giants led the National League for 74 days—and then blew the pennant by losing seven of their last eight games. It was a performance to bring sadness into the lives of Horace Stoneham, who owns the Giants, and Bill Rigney, who manages them, and a large number of athletes who contributed, more or less, to the eventual catastrophe. Perhaps saddest of all was a large, toothpick-chewing individual named Sam Jones, who had toiled so magnificently in defeat.
Today, in the spring of 1960, no baseball team in the land can match the buoyant good spirits of the Giants. Stoneham is happy because the Giants are favored to win the pennant. Rigney is happy because his already impressive roster has been blessed with the addition of Billy O'Dell, a fine young pitcher, and Don Blasingame, a superb little second baseman, and also because he will have the services of Wondrous Willie McCovey all year. The Giants themselves are happy because they have a new and much larger ball park and can look ahead to a plump World Series share. Everyone is happy but Sam Jones. This is partly because Sam is never happy. Even more, however, it is because Sam Jones knows that if the Giants are to make another big run at the pennant, it will be up to him once again to get them there.
Last year, Sam Jones, who had never before won even 15 games in a big league season, won 21, tying Milwaukee's Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette for most victories in the league. He pitched a rain-shortened no-hitter and a one-hitter which only a questionable fielding play at shortstop kept from being a hitless game. He led the league in earned run average and was second in strikeouts. He started and he relieved, something Sam had never before been called upon to do. He pitched with three days' rest and two days' rest and no days' rest. He beat the Braves and Dodgers a total of eight times. At the end of the season the Giants were ready to raise a monument to Sam Jones and his incredibly strong, strangely crooked, sometimes pain-racked but always willing right arm.
"He did everything you could ask of a pitcher," said Bill Rigney, "and he did it well."
Jones's sudden arrival at this position of eminence was less than remarkable to National League batters, who had been intimidated by his vast physical gifts for years. Sam is 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 210 pounds and can be as mean as a grizzly bear. He is able to throw a baseball about as hard as anyone alive, and perhaps no one, current or deceased, ever made a baseball bend in such wondrous ways. Sam has a very wicked curve.
"That thing doesn't break when it comes up there," says Richie Ashburn. "It explodes."
What makes Sam's curve so special? Dick Groat was once asked.
"Which one?" said Groat. "He's got a dozen of them. He throws from here"—demonstrating a sidearm delivery—"and here"—throwing from three-quarters—"and here"—throwing overhand. "He has fast curves and slow curves, about six different speeds. And they all break quick. Then you have to worry about that danged fast ball, too."
"He gets more rotation on his curve than anyone else," says Hank Foiles, who once caught Sam in the minors. "It comes up there and then it goes boom! It breaks about this far. If I had longer arms, I could show you."
In short, Sam Jones has the kind of stuff that other ballplayers talk about in the dressing room after the game and around the batting cage the next day and are still talking about long after Sam has left town. When the subject of stuff comes up, they agree that Sam has the most.