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Now come baseball's final moments. The Barber has thrown his last pitch of the regular season. The Dodgers have won. The last Brave has slouched unhappily off the field to a gnawing winter of discontent (see pages 28, 29). Mantle has his triple crown. Greenberg has shed crocodile tears for Lopez. The historians of the decimal point are busy dehydrating blood-and-sinew base hits into the chipped-beef diet of the record books: 2.13 ERA, 128 RBI, .329 PCT.
The season is over, and now it is the World Series. This should be the climax, the ultimate in the extravagant drama that claimed the rapt attention of so many Americans this year.
It should be the climax, but, coming as it does so hard on the wildly improbable National League pennant race that ended in Roy Campanella's mitt in Ebbets Field last Sunday, the near-voiceless fan asks how can it possibly be a climax? The drama is done, used up, finished: there's nothing left but the curtain.
But baseball, if you check the playbills of past World Series, is bound this week and next to come up with yet another Dusty Rhodes Home Run, another Johnny Podres Shutout, another melodramatic topper that on the stage would seem outrageously contrived but which, under the proscenium of the sky, in the unrehearsed arena of infield and outfield comes with the breath of innocence and creates in the onlooker unabashed delight. Don't worry about the World Series. If Sal Maglie, the popular choice for hero, drops his spear, there's bound to be a bit player who'll leap flamboyantly to center stage, ready and eager (and very much able) to pull a Pepper Martin.
But, truth to tell, this year the Hero will have to go to extremes to top the season. Thumb through the names of 1956: Mickey Mantle, the broadback, undeniably the player of the year, when you measure the length and breadth and number of his home runs and his fame... Ted Williams, again with a remarkable comeback embellished by his strong, albeit futile, challenge for the batting title but sadly tarnished by his spoiled-child, foot-stamping rebellion against his Boston tormentors... Casey Stengel and Birdie Tebbetts, demonstrating that managerial success in the major leagues requires not only the players (the "horses," to use a current and choice metaphor) but also a sound and constantly expanding knowledge of game, personnel, environment, situation, equipment, weather, the world and man... Dale Long, who with two men on base against the Dodgers in his last time at bat in the season, struck out helplessly at a moment when a home run could have made the National Race absolutely unbearable, but who in May for one wonderful week hit homers more steadily and consistently than any man in baseball history...and Maglie, heretofore respected but not particularly loved as a cold-blooded, hard-boiled, unsmiling gangster of a pitcher when he labored for the New York Giants, who with the Dodgers became a full-blown white-armored hero since he was (as always) a courageous fighter well-armed, an old man turned young, and a villain reformed.
Mantle, Maglie, Pittsburgh's prideful Pirates and the crafty Cardinals of St. Louis particularly made it a season to remember. Mantle because he was strength, Maglie because he was skill, the Pirates because they were youth and enthusiasm, the Cardinals because they were integrity. Perhaps the last is first. Ball players as a group decry any accusation that they play the game for the fun of winning, for the gratification of success. It's gold, they insist. Money. We're professionals. We're very practical about this.
In mid-September a friend spoke to Ken Boyer, the Cardinal third baseman who had just shaken loose from a long slump and who was playing great ball again. It must be odd, the friend said, to be a ballplayer this time of year, to be a Cardinal, for instance, pretty well set in fourth place, unable to go higher and very unlikely to go lower. You must just be playing out the string, going through the motions.
Boyer grinned and nodded.
"Going through the motions," he agreed, "and rooting for Milwaukee."