Clubhouse doors were closed tight last week in the National League as the players began the careful process of voting for the team that would represent them against the American League in the annual All-Star Game at Anaheim, Calif. on July 11. No matter which players they picked, contrary opinion was going to run high among the fans—much higher than usual—because it seems as though everybody in the National League is hitting at least .300.
No record in sport is more deceiving than the one that shows the National League leading the American in All-Star Games by only 19-17. Lately the Nationals have made a farce of the competition by winning 15 of the last 21 played, and have you ever seen Anaheim Stadium? Unlike most of the new stadiums in the major leagues, the one in Anaheim is a hitter's paradise—and a pitcher's hell. People maintain that late at night Little Bo-peep walks over from nearby Disneyland and belts balls out of the place with a cracked crook. But even so, Anaheim Stadium is the perfect place to demonstrate the bewildering disparity that currently exists between the two leagues. People who pay attention to the lists of top hitters that appear daily in newspapers throughout the country are aware that most of the high batting averages in baseball belong to National League players. Last year only two American League hitters finished above .300, and one of those was Frank Robinson, who had spent 10 seasons in the National before taking his bat over to Baltimore. There he was outstanding in virtually every offensive category, but his league-leading .316 batting average would have left him a virtually unnoticed sixth in the National League.
When the National Leaguers sat down to begin balloting they were confused themselves by the tremendous performances of the batters in their own league. Bob Gibson, the fine all-round athlete who pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, said, "It was murder voting this time. There were so many guys having outstanding seasons that you had to feel genuinely sorry for the ones who didn't make the team. I was dying for my roommate, Curt Flood, to start in center field. I couldn't vote for him because you can't vote for anyone on your own team. Yet Jimmy Wynn is doing a great job in center field for Houston. Where would the Chicago Cubs be without Adolfo Phillips? Matty Alou won the batting title last year, and he's just starting to come on strong again. That's awful tough competition. And what about that guy from San Francisco, Willie, er, Willie, er—Mays?"
The top batting averages do not tell the full story of the big hitters in the National League. Unless a fan reads the complete batting lists that are published once a week, he will see only the first 10 hitters. Among those who are not in the top 10 are such proved batting stars as Vada Pinson, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, Ron Santo, Maury Wills, Willie Stargell, Jimmy Wynn and Willie Er. Last week only 16 American Leaguers were batting .280 or above. The National League had 38. Nowhere is the contrast between the hitting in each league more obvious than in the teams currently in first place. The Chicago White Sox have not one regular hitting .300. For most of the year the St. Louis Cardinals have had seven men above that figure.
American League fans say pitching causes this disparity and point to Baltimore's four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year's World Series as a perfect example of why batting averages in the American League are so low (not that anyone contends the Dodgers are an awe-inspiring example of National League power). The White Sox staff this season lends further support to the argument that it is the quality and depth of pitching in the league that keeps batting averages down in the low-rent districts. Known for several years as a team that relies on pitching to win, the 1967 Sox seem to have outdone even themselves. They have eight pitchers with earned run averages under 2.70, and wouldn't it be delightful to see how low those ERAs could get if the White Sox pitchers had a chance to work against the weak White Sox hitters?
Eddie Stanky, the manager of the White Sox and a National League man before taking over at Chicago in 1966, explained some things about his team and the overall pitching depth in the American League. "We are a pitching and running team," he said. "We go where our pitching takes us. We had a 10-game winning streak early in May, and that streak is the reason why we're up there leading the league and not in the middle of the pack. Our pitching staff gave up only 13 runs in those 10 games. I think the third, fourth and fifth starting pitchers in the American League may be better than those in the National. Not on every club, of course, but generally." A statistic that supports Stanky's argument about overall pitching is the 63 shutouts that have been pitched this year in the American League compared to only 37 in the National.
Claude Osteen of the Dodgers, an excellent pitcher for Washington in the American League before going to Los Angeles in 1965, says, "I had been in the National League before I ever went to Washington, and when I was there I had the definite feeling that the National was much, much more competitive. There is more fierce, rough play in the National, and every team, just about, feels it has a chance to win the pennant. But in 1965 a trend began to develop in the American League. There is a lot better balance now. And a tremendous number of strong young pitchers have moved into the league. There used to be many more hard throwers in the National, but now I'm not so sure. The pitching strength in the National is pretty much centered on one or two starters with each club. [Since 1964 there have been 15 20-game winners in the National and only six in the American.] But the American may have more depth now."
Much has been made of Frank Robinson's switch to Baltimore last season, when he dominated the league's hitters, won the Triple Crown, led the Orioles to the pennant and a world championship and was named the Most Valuable Player. But three times Robinson had higher batting averages and runs-batted-in totals in the National without ever leading the league. This year two players have come the other way, from the American into the National, and have done outstanding jobs. Roger Maris has been hitting over .300 much of the season for the Cardinals (his lifetime average in the American League was only .260), and Cletis Boyer, better known for defensive play, has batted in more runs than Joe Torre for Atlanta and last week was only one behind Henry Aaron.
Maris says, "I think there are probably two reasons why batting averages are so much higher in the National than in the American. One is that there are more good Negro and Latin players over here. They got their first chance in this league, and they make up the biggest percentage of good players. The second reason is that the infields are much harder than those in the American. Balls get through quicker, and on chops the balls bounce up and stay in the air and the runners beat them out." Matty Alou of the Pittsburgh Pirates is a case in point. Assume that Matty picked up 20 such hits last year, which seems a valid assumption. Take away those 20 hits and, instead of leading the league, as he did, with a .342 average, Matty would have hit .305. And Boyer, who should know, feels that defense in the American League is better overall than the National, which may be another reason for the lower averages there.
Although he is spending this season as a superscout for the Cincinnati Reds, Charlie Metro was a coach for the White Sox in 1965 and has seen both leagues close up. "Don't you think," he says, "that it might just be that there are better hitters in the National than in the American?" Yet Metro adds, "There are probably five or six starting pitchers in the National League who are outstanding, but the secondary starters in the American may be better."