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With the passing of Memorial Day, which is the traditional end of the first lap of the annual major league mile, the National League merits a word of praise. Stoutly refusing to become exhibitionists, as those other fellows have, and turn things upside down just to attract a little attention, the National Leaguers have puttered happily about their business in a most proper manner.
Philadelphia is in last place, the usual address for the Phillies, and Milwaukee is in first, which has become something of a permanent residence for the Braves, too. The Braves have been there most of the year. Scorning the temptation to go off on a long losing streak, a tactic despised in Wisconsin as a bush-league Yankee publicity trick, the Braves have lost no more than two games in a row since the season began. The Giants are second and the Dodgers or Pirates third, and it has been a very orderly affair, enough to turn Warren Giles's hair brown. Unless Milwaukee finds some way to lose a few games, the pennant race is going to be over by the Fourth of July and the National League will have to move a couple of franchises to get any fans.
This aura of invincibility stems not from any untouchable lead the Braves have piled up in the first eight weeks of play—their biggest margin has been 4� games and frequently it has been much less than that—but from the serene ease with which they have managed to stay on top. The Pirates were supposed to be tough. So the Braves knocked them off in the first week of the season and that took care of the Pirates for a while. The Dodgers made threatening noises, so the Braves clipped them, too. Next it was San Francisco's turn. The Giants were kept in tow. And last week the Pirates, finally playing the way they should, came boiling up toward the top. The Braves took care of them again.
Milwaukee has been spreading its terror with two weapons called hitting and pitching. Since these make up about 99 44/100ths% of baseball, only a few pedantic individuals have persisted in pointing out that the club has deficiencies, too, like they can't run a lick and the defense leaks a bit and the uniforms don't fit good. In view of what has been happening so far the deficiencies seem rather trivial.
Henry Aaron is on his way to batting .700 or .400 or somewhere along in there and leading the league in runs batted in. He would also be leading in home runs except that Eddie Mathews, a teammate, is bashing baseballs out of the park at a clip which threatens the pace of Harmon Killebrew. As a matter of fact, everyone is hitting: Aaron, Mathews, Del Crandall, Joe Adcock, Bill Bruton, Wes Covington and Johnny Logan. Logan, in particular, is very pleased. He spent the winter collecting clippings which said that he was through and is now spending the spring looking up the people who wrote such things so that he can sneer in their faces.
A TEAM OF .300 HITTERS
At one point, Fred Haney could have fielded a complete lineup of .300 hitters by putting Joe Morgan at second base, a temptation the Milwaukee manager resisted in the cause of stopping ground balls. But Morgan is nice to have in reserve, along with either Adcock or Frank Torre (depending upon which of the two is playing first base that day), Mickey Vernon, who is still quite a hitter, Stan Lopata and guys like that.
Even on those days when the Braves don't hit, the pitching has a way of plugging up the dike. One night three Dodger pitchers, Don Drysdale, Art Fowler and Clem Labine, held the Braves scoreless from the seventh inning until the 16th. But Carl Willey, Don McMahon and Bob Rush held the Dodgers scoreless from the fifth inning and hitless after the ninth, and eventually Aaron lined a 400-foot double to drive Mathews in from first and break up the game. And look what happened to Harvey Haddix last week. Lew Burdette wasn't nearly so perfect, only better, and the Braves won on one lonely hit, that home run-double thing of Ad-cock's in the 13th.
Those two wise old squirrels, Spahn and Burdette, share the greatest act in the National League. Between them they have pitched half the Milwaukee innings this spring. They are tough and smart and talented and the main reason why the Braves almost never go off on a costly losing spin. Haney knows that he is going to get at least two consistent, well-pitched games every four days regardless of what the other guys on the staff might do, and this is why he has worked Spahn and Burdette, Spahn and Burdette, in the face of rain-outs and freeze-outs and off days while keeping Rush and Willey and Joey Jay and the others fretting impatiently on the bench. Perhaps this relative inactivity on the part of the second-line Milwaukee pitchers will turn out to be the Achilles heel of the ball club in the long, hot summer ahead. But, as Haney says, "What would you do?"
The fact that the Braves have hitting and pitching, however, does not come as a complete surprise. Even the most casual observer knew that Henry Aaron could hit and it has been several seasons since anyone asked, "Who's Lew Burdette?" The big problem at Milwaukee was supposed to be the replacement of Red Schoendienst, both as a second baseman and as the motivating force of the ball club.