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For a baseball-mad city which had boasted loudly each of the past four seasons that its Braves would win the National League pennant and which this year—at long last—had a pretty good chance of doing just that, Milwaukee last week suddenly seemed to have stopped believing. In the past, win or lose, the noble burghers had been known to descend upon the airport by the thousands, even in the blackest hours of the night, to welcome the beloved Braves home. But not at one a.m. last Friday, when their heroes staggered back from a nightmarish road trip on which they had lost half of their games and all of their hopeful grip on first place.
Instead of finding cheering multitudes and brass bands and police escorts on hand to greet them as their chartered airliner came in from Pittsburgh, the Braves found only a few sleepy wives who weren't doing any cheering at all. There were, needless to say, no brass bands.
There was one cop in the vicinity, but he didn't pick up the Braves' team bus until it was a half mile down the road from the airport heading for town, and even then he didn't bother to use his siren. He just drove up close, leaned out the window of his squad car and called over to the bus driver: "You're driving too fast, buddy. Better slow it down or I'll give you a ticket."
Such was the Braves' homecoming. It was altogether fitting and proper, too, in view of the way the Braves' run for the pennant had been jarred to a halt. They had led the league by three and a half games on Labor Day morning; in the next 18 days they lost 10 of the 18 games they played and fell to second, a full game behind Brooklyn. No wonder the Milwaukee Common Council voted down a proposal to spend $5,000 of the city's money on a gala pennant celebration. (Though the Association of Commerce stepped in with an effort of its own to raise the money, being careful to point out to all prospective contributors that the flags and bunting and posters—even a 30-foot figure of a Brave—would be kept carefully timeless in design, just in case the team didn't make it this year, and could be stored away "for the day when the pennant flag waves over Milwaukee.")
But the traffic cop could have served as a symbol for Brooklyn, too—indeed, as a symbol of the National League race. It seemed that every time one of the contenders sped away into a lively winning streak the whistle of defeat was blown.
For instance, at the moment the law threatened the Braves' ride into town the various members of the Brooklyn Dodgers were speeding west through the Pennsylvania ridges toward Pittsburgh, safe under the protection of a one-game lead that was, this late in the season, as big and shiny as a policeman's badge. They had started their run just about the same time the Braves started their slump, on Labor Day. They had won 11 of 15 games (including three out of four from the Braves and the Cincinnati Redlegs), and they were solidly in first place.
Then in Pittsburgh Friday night the Pirates' Ronnie Kline, mixing a fine curve with a startling knuckler, stopped not only the Dodgers but the trademarked, copyrighted hero, Sal Maglie, and beat Brooklyn 2-1. The Braves saw that score in big black numbers in Milwaukee in the third inning of their game with the Cubs, relaxed, almost blew a 5-1 lead but held on to win 6-4. Brooklyn's lead was reduced to .002 percentage points. The next day, Saturday, the Dodgers, appearing a bit disturbed that their fine September rush hadn't given them an insurmountable lead, were stopped cold again, this time by a retread lefthanded relief pitcher, Luis Arroyo, who had been sent to the minors this season not once but twice. He threw a screwball at the Dodger right-handers and, with the aid of a last-inning burst of relief pitching by Bob Friend, beat Brooklyn 6-1. On the scoreboard in Pittsburgh the Braves were losing 2-0 to Chicago, but it was only the first inning and no matter what happened the Dodgers were at the moment undeniably in second place. If the Braves rallied and won, Brooklyn would be mud deep in second. The Braves fell behind 4-0, but then they did rally, finally scored—four times, in fact—to tie it up, with the last run coming, appropriately, on a ninth-inning homer by fiery Johnny Logan. The crowd was on its feet and howling, and there wasn't a Milwaukee rooter within miles who doubted that the Braves would win this one now.
Only they didn't. The Cubs scored in the top of the 10th, and the Braves had stumbled again, back into second place.
It had gotten to be a very strange situation. Optimism rose in either camp, not on the wings of faith that one's own team would win so much as on the somewhat more reliable feeling that the other team would lose. On Sunday they were both disappointed. Both muddled through to victory, the Braves over the eighth-place Cubs on Bill Bruton's grand-slam home run, the Dodgers over the sixth-place Pirates on Duke Snider's bases-loaded double. In Pittsburgh the Dodgers kept a rain-soaked eye on Milwaukee's line on the scoreboard, and in Milwaukee the Braves watched Brooklyn.
Along about this time everyone became aware that the Cincinnati Redlegs, who had made periodic growling rushes at the league lead all summer (only to follow the pattern and fall flat on their large faces), were suddenly rushing again. They had been killed and buried in Brooklyn the weekend before, but now they rose from the ground with a sweep of four games over the Cardinals and were right there, only a game and a half behind the distraught leaders and in a simply marvelous position to fashion a miracle and win the pennant. No one with any sense believed Cincinnati would really pull it off, but neither did anyone with any sense want to give very big odds that the Redlegs wouldn't, now that they had regained their pulverizing home run touch and were once again careening toward a new major league home run record. Especially not with the way the Braves and the Dodgers were pussyfooting along.