When advised by various experts and doomsayers that their baseball teams are dead and buried as pennant contenders, Pittsburgh Manager Danny Murtaugh and his Los Angeles counterpart, Walter Alston, react much as Mark Twain did upon reading his own obituary. "The report of my death," Twain protested in a cable to a New York newspaper, "was an exaggeration." So, say Murtaugh and Alston, are all those newspaper stories consigning the Pirates and the Dodgers to oblivion. The two managers are right—to a point. Their teams remain ambulatory, although the prospects for their continued survival do not appear all that favorable.
At least the Pirates and the Dodgers are in good company, because as of last weekend the divisional races in both major leagues were almost farcically uneven. In the National, Los Angeles trailed Cincinnati by 13 games in the West and Pittsburgh was 14 in arrears of Philadelphia in the East. In the American League West, Oakland was 10 back of Kansas City, and in the East, Baltimore was nine games behind New York. If the hares continue to outdistance the tortoises, September, traditionally the month of pennant fever, will be about as exciting for baseball fans as January. And without the suggestion of a pennant race, attendance, which has been up almost 10% throughout this booming season, may tail off dramatically, a matter of no small concern to club owners and league presidents.
Consider, too, how the mighty have fallen. All of the second-place teams are champions of recent vintage, while among the front-runners only the Reds, the incumbent world champions, enjoy such distinction. The Phillies have not won a pennant since the Whiz Kids of 1950, the once-dominant Yankees have not had a championship since '64 and the Royals have never finished higher than second in their seven-season history. Has the torch been passed on to a new generation? Perhaps, but those old champs, Murtaugh and Alston—and Twain, for that matter—might caution the new fellows against premature chicken-counting. There have been enough Garrison finishes in baseball history to lift the spirits of the gloomiest fatalist, let alone someone like Manager Chuck Tanner of Oakland, who subscribes to the notion championed by the much-abused Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
"In baseball you count on the unpredictable," said Murtaugh last week, ruminating in his office rocking chair. "I've seen too many things happen in this game."
"It was before I got there," said Alston with a sly smile, "but I seem to recall a Brooklyn team blowing a big lead a few years ago."
He was referring, of course, to the 1951 Dodgers, who led the Giants by 13� games as late as Aug. 11. That imposing advantage soon disintegrated, as even the most callow of fans must know, and the two teams finished the regular season in a tie. Then with the Dodgers leading 4-2 in the third and final playoff game, the Giants' Bobby Thomson batted against Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth with one out, Clint Hartung on third and Whitey Lockman on second. Ah, but let us summon up the words of Announcer Russ Hodges: "Branca throws. ...There's a long fly.... It's gonna be.... I believe—the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
The "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" with its "shot heard around the world" is but one moment in the game's history to bolster the faint of heart. Many years earlier, in 1914, the Miracle Braves of Manager George Stallings climbed from last place in the National League on July 18 to first, then on to a clean sweep of Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's in the World Series. The Series-winning Mets of 1969 were in third place 9� games back as late as Aug. 13. And the National League champion Mets of 1973 were 11� back and in last place in the Eastern Division on Aug. 5. For a classic streak in reverse, the 1964 Phillies will be hard to bottom. With only 12 games remaining on Sept. 20, they were cinch winners, 6� games ahead of the pack. Kerplunk! They lost 10 games in succession, and the Cardinals won the pennant.
So hope should spring eternal, particularly in the National League, where almost all the miraculous finishes have occurred. But last week the Pirates and the Dodgers could only slog along behind their mercurial antagonists. Were they adjusting to the discomforts of second-place citizenship or, in defiance of the odds, holding out for miracles? Ballplayers are practical sorts, not much given to wool gathering, but pride often stands in the way of logic. The proudest of all the Pirates is Willie Stargell, the ursine first baseman whose bearded face and rumbling voice call to mind Paul Robeson as Othello.
The Shakespearean allusion is not inappropriate here, because Stargell endured what could have been a personal tragedy this year. One night early in the season he and his wife Dolores were watching television when she complained of a severe headache. After the pain grew worse, Stargell rushed her to the hospital, where she nearly died of a combination of a blood clot, an aneurysm and a stroke. Mrs. Stargell is expected to make a complete recovery, but the crisis naturally affected her husband's performance on the playing field. Stargell's totals of home runs (15) and runs batted in (50) are not what they might be, and because he is ever the professional, he is displeased with himself. Certainly no one else faults him for being somewhat distracted when he is in uniform.
Stargell has a keen sense of metaphor, which he employs to describe his ordeal. "Life is like a train," he says. "You expect delays from time to time, but not a derailment, and a derailment's what we had. It happened so quick and without warning. It was something I had never had to deal with before. I came close to losing my wife. I haven't been producing this season—I've got to be man enough to admit that—because I've had to make myself think about doing things that I had always done naturally. The other day I dropped a ball at first base because I didn't think that ball into the mitt."