Mysterious things always seem to befall world champion teams that represent the National League. Certainly one of the least publicized facts in professional sports is the one that shows that not since John McGraw's New York Giants of 1921-22 has any National League club been able to win consecutive World Series. One season a team will look unbeatable while taking the pennant; the next, not even spelunkers can find it.
Although the American League has produced four different winners since 1964, the idea persists that competition in the National League is fiercer and the play better. In truth, the gap between the leagues is narrowing. If play in the National League seems more exciting, it is because the running game is still used more aggressively, the sliding is sterner and the hitting more prolific. There have been 28 averages of .300 or over in the majors during the last two seasons, and 22 of those belonged to National Leaguers. Of the six in the American, two were achieved by Frank Robinson, a National League graduate.
Since the end of last season, National League executives have been swapping players the way kids deal away bubble-gum cards. So far, 52 players have been traded or sold, and some of those trades may have as profound an effect on the 1968 season as the one that brought Roger Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967. At the least, they should help to generate the kind of four-way, you'redead-no-I-ain't race to which the league had become accustomed before last year's Cardinals tore off at midseason and won by 10� games, the largest margin in a dozen years. The Pittsburgh Pirates, to cite a prime example, landed one of the game's finest pitchers, Jim Bunning, and what he can do for that colorful collection of hard hitters might make people forget that Maris ever played.
Everyone but Phil Wrigley tried out in right field for the surprising third-place Chicago Cubs in 1967. Now Leo Durocher has Lou Johnson from Los Angeles and he no longer needs 11 men at that position to get through the schedule. In an attempt to move up from eighth place and lure one million lost fans back to Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles has added former American League Most Valuable Player, Zoilo Versalles, and Jim Grant (SI, April 8), a 21-game winner of two years back. But Cincinnati, trying to shake off the frustrations of a season bedeviled by injuries, has changed more than any team in the league. And, wonder of wonders, the San Francisco Giants, who got Ron Hunt from Los Angeles, may even make some double plays around second base.
St. Louis, however, remains a very strong team and seemingly the only one in the league capable of winning games consistently in any one of five ways: 1) with speed, 2) with defense, 3) with pitching, 4) with power or 5) with overall hitting. These qualities drew 2,090,145 people to Busch Memorial Stadium last year, and "El Birdos" topped Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch as the leading symbol of civic pride.
The Cardinals, with a 52-28 road record last year, were hardly a lucky team. What they were was good and, as Centerfielder Curt Flood suggests, not only compatible but mature enough to realize that "as far as we are concerned all the stars are up in the sky." Unto themselves the Cards may not be stars, but what else are Flood, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda, Maris and Bob Gibson? If you saw last fall's World Series, undoubtedly you were impressed by the double-play combination of Julian Javier and Dal Maxvill. And then there was Mike Shannon, who made the transition from right field to third base well enough to rank second behind Cepeda with 77 runs batted in.
Under pressure throughout the season, Nelson Briles, 24 years old, and Steve Carlton, 23, developed into fine starting pitchers to win a total of 28 games, and Dick Hughes, a rookie at 29, threw his hard slider to win 16. These three lost only 20 games, and the staff as a whole worked 74 games in which two or fewer runs were allowed. This, mind you, without the services part of the time of Gibson, who recovered from a broken leg in time to make the Red Sox wish they had never heard of him. However, Manager Red Schoendienst will need all the pitching he can find after the All-Star break when St. Louis faces 57 straight games without a day off. Ray Washburn, Larry Jaster and rookie Mike Torrez may all be needed as well as Relievers Joe Hoerner and Ron Willis, who are better than their Series troubles would indicate, and rookie Hal Gilson, a 6'5" lefthander who won 15 in 1967 for last-place Tulsa.
St. Louis has added Catcher John Edwards, Outfielder Dick Simpson and swing Infielder Dick Schofield since the end of last season. Young Bobby Tolan can play first or the outfield, Phil Gagliano any of the infield positions plus a portion of the outfield. Dave Ricketts, the third-string catcher, switch-hits and pinch-hits well.
Serious injuries can stop any team, and so can complacency. There is nothing Schoendienst can do about the former, but as for complacency, he says, "We don't have our 10�-game lead on the rest of the league anymore and we are not one game up in the World Series, but we have an awful lot of team pride." And enough talent and spirit to put them back up above the arch once again, within jumping distance of McGraw's '21-'22 Giants.
John Galbreath, the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the 1967 Kentucky Derby with a genuine longshot named Proud Clarion and lost the National League pennant with a short-priced favorite. There are some who felt that Galbreath's horses and grooms shipped better than his team, which flew to many of its dates tourist class. But the real trouble with the Pirates last year was boxcars—sixes and sixes and more sixes. The pitching staff gave up six runs or more in better than a quarter of its games, and that sort of failure will not do in any league. Manager Harry Walker was fired and replaced by Danny Murtaugh, who did not want the job, all of which made little difference to a team that played no better than .500 ball for either man. Now Larry Shepard takes over. His credentials: he served as pitching coach at Philadelphia, where the team earned-run-average was 3.10. Bunning, who came from the Phils with Shepard, had six shutouts himself last year. The entire Pittsburgh staff had five.