Every April people reexamine the National League and assume that it cannot possibly do again in a new season what it did so extravagantly in the old one. Three times in the last four years National League pennant races have gone down to the next to last day, the last day or into a playoff. Balance is the basic reason for this, along with the fact that everyone from Warren Crandall Giles to the bat boy for the Mets believes in the National League mystique. Consider the words of Maury Wills, the captain of the World Champion Dodgers, just after his team won last year's World Series. "It is an honor to play in the World Series and win," Maury said, "but the greatest feeling of all comes when you win a National League pennant." Gene Mauch, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, says, "A pennant race in this league is often decided by half a man."
On the pages that follow you can read about your favorite team and make up your own mind about who will do what this season. But remember that no National League team enters the season with an established fourth starting pitcher. This could make things very wild for the first few weeks. (The last few weeks are wild enough anyway.) There are other stimulating factors. Leo Durocher is in action again, so no matter where the Cubbies of Chicago finish they are going to finish loud. Drysdale and Koufax, who were out to lunch for a while, are back. People will be bunting on Drysdale this year, testing the knee that had him floundering around late last season. The Mets, bless 'em, can field an All-Star infield that dates from 1956 to 1965, and nobody nowhere never had nothing like that before. The Pirates are talking pennant, but talk is what! How long, oh great and noble Willie Mays, wilt thou go on? Better get ready for the Astrodome again. Remember last year, when outfielders couldn't catch the ball because the sun kept shining through the ceiling? Well, they have messed around with the floor this time and put down something called Astroturf—which seems to be derived from Silly Putty. They say balls bounce around like crazy in the infield. Judge Roy Hofheinz, the biggest major-astrodomo of them all, had it manufactured—or maybe he knitted it—thus proving that having failed to move heaven last year he is now taking a real good shot at earth. The Cardinals are going to run. Wait, wait. The Cardinals are going to try to run. (But don't laugh at their pitching—yet.) Milwaukee is going to play in Atlanta, because Atlanta played in Milwaukee last year. In Cincinnati they say they have "the best team in the league on paper," and I'll bet you never heard that before. You never heard this one either, but any one of six teams has a chance to win. And—look at the schedule—the six contenders bang heads the last week of the season. What a battle royal that could be!
Of the six, the Philadelphia Phillies have the best chance to win. Their early spring-training days at Clearwater, Fla. passed beautifully. Each morning more and more people from Philadelphia, Allentown, Lancaster, Reading, Pottstown and Wilkes-Barre arrived at Jack Russell Stadium and waited in line under the first-base stands until a man in a red Phillie cap opened the concession booth and passed out free four-color team rosters. Those with a sense of history paused before unfolding the roster and explained to friends that just 17 months ago—if the Phils had not collapsed in the last 10 days of the season—that very cover would have been on the World Series program at Connie Mack Stadium. But the folding Phils of 1964 are now just a nostalgic memory and Pennsylvanians have forgotten them. This February and March more Phillie fans visited Clearwater than ever before, explaining and pointing things out to each other in detail as Phillie fans do, warming up their great voices for the spring and summer semesters ahead. Just as they are capable of forgiving honest bunglers, Pennsylvanians are also capable of falling in love with genuine characters, or haven't you heard how hard they tumbled for a nut who used to go out in electrical storms at night with a kite and a key?
Anyone who read over the Phillie spring roster had to smile. It included a Wine and a Boozer; a Wagner and a Wegener; a Jerry, a Barry, a Larry and three Garys; a White, a Green and a Cherry; a Short, Wise, Clay, Cookie. Alphabetically, one of the first places belonged to America's Sweetheart, Bo Belinsky. Everyone heard how Bo arrived at training two days late because on the drive from his home in Hollywood, Calif. (doesn't everyone live in Hollywood?) he got trapped in one of those traditional old Texas snowstorms. The names closest to Philadelphia were there still—Johnny Callison, Rich Allen, Cookie Rojas, Clay Dalrymple, Jim Bunning, Ray Culp.
There were plenty of interesting new names, too. Dick Groat (see cover), a shortstop who seems to have the World Series chasing him around; Phil Linz, the most famous harmonica rascal since Borrah Minevitch; Jackie Brandt, who once watched part of an All-Star Game in the nude; and William De Kova White himself, a man who runs a highly polished trading post right in his locker. Seldom has a club changed as much from one season to the next as the Phillies changed from 1965 to 1966. Now it is a team to build a dream on.
No one is dreaming bigger dreams than Gene Mauch. When he took over at Philadelphia in April 1960 he was the youngest manager in the major leagues and his hair was black. Today he has tenure on every manager but Walter Alston and the hair has gray highlights in the front, back, sides and middle. Mauch got the job when Eddie Sawyer quit after Opening Day because "I am 49 and would like to see 50." At his first meeting with the press Mauch said, "It's nice to have this good pitching, because you can usually stay close." So the Phils rushed out and lost Mauch's first two games 13-3 and 8-4. His first two years were nightmares of frustration as the Phillies twice finished dead last. In 1961, his second season, he endured a 23-game losing streak—the longest in modern baseball history—and he would "lie in the dark with a thousand thoughts, unable to sleep for more than a few hours, and when I'd get up and order breakfast it looked like garbage." When Philadelphia finally broke that streak in Milwaukee and flew back home, 250 fans were waiting at the airport and a five-piece band played Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The crowd carried Mauch on its shoulders, and later he stood on a flight of stairs, asked for silence and said, "You'll be rewarded for this some day. We'll give you a good team yet!" When he entered his car for the ride home with his wife and daughter there were tears in his eyes and he whispered, "This is unbelievable."
Throughout that desperate losing streak he kept telling people that some day it might just pay off, that the "pressure of trying to win one game to break the streak will toughen them for good seasons ahead." Sportswriters laughed. Mauch's team finished that season with a record of 47 wins and 107 losses, but the Phillies were in the process of building under General Manager John Quinn. The next year they climbed to seventh, and their won-lost record jumped to 81-80. They rose to fourth the next year, and the year after that they just missed the pennant; and now sportswriters don't laugh much about the Phillies. Nobody laughs at them anymore, and this season they are the team the others have to beat. Although the Phils finished sixth in 1965 that means little in this league, where since 1960 two teams have risen in a year from sixth to first, and three have fallen from first to sixth or seventh. To stay in the swing of things, you have to change your act nearly every season or else you get left far behind.
It takes time to recharge a team each spring, fitting new men—even experienced new men—in with the old hands. It takes patience, experience, experimentation, an ability to maneuver and adjust to each day's developments. All through training Mauch watched his players closely, hoping to shoot his Phillies into the season with a flourish. "This is the most professional club I have ever had," he said in Clearwater. "We have guys now who do not just play the game but are in the game. Guys who know how to win. Now we have more ways of winning and fewer ways of losing." He smoked a cigarette and ran his finger over a month-by-month breakdown of the 1965 season.
"The difference between 1964 and 1965," he said, "was that we gave away about 30 games in '65 and maybe only three or four in '64. Gave them away! In 1964 we won 92 games, and we were the talk of the baseball world. Last year we won 85, and you didn't hear too much about us. Yet that's a difference of only seven games. Look here. In April of '64 we were 9-2. Last year in April we were 6-8.
"This year," he continued, "we have to be ready when the ball is teed up. Last year it got to the point that some guys would anticipate that bad things might happen—and then they did. But now it is different. We can use the hit-and-run now as it has seldom been used in baseball, because we have guys who know how to handle the bat. Guys like Groat and Cookie Rojas don't strike out. When you use the hit-and-run you get the defense running around, and things happen. You can break slumps with the hit-and-run.