The 1969 baseball campaign reached the Memorial Day pole as the clubs jockey for position for the summer stretch. The division leaders have held their grounds, but strange things happen in baseball during the heated months. The new division format doubles pennant fever this summer as more teams should have playoff aspirations.
The biggest surprise of the spring has been the slick-fielding Chicago White Sox who are one of two clubs to already change managers. Twenty-one year old rookie Carlos May has led the Chisox attack as their always dependable pitching has held its’ own. A recent five game skid by Chicago brought Billy Martin’s Twins within two games. The pre-season favorite Oakland Athletics and the surprising expansion entry Seattle Pilots stand six games back in third place. Former Yankee Mike Hegan has paced the Pilots with his AL leading average of .378. The Pilots made the biggest fireworks on the holiday with a stunning 9-7 comeback victory over the defending champion Tigers. Don Mincher’s two-run home run off Pat Dobson capped a four-run rally for the home club. Their expansion partners, Kansas City Royals, have expectedly struggled by only the woes of the California Angels have kept the Royals from the cellar.
In the American League, the Baltimore Orioles have been the class of all baseball with a 34-14 mark. A trio of suitors, the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees, chase the Birds, but it appears to be an uphill climb against Earl Weaver’s bunch. Ted Williams has delivered a new air of confidence to Washington. Frank Howard leads all of baseball in home runs (17) and is tied with the Cubs’ Ron Santo in RBI (42). But, the club is held back by its’ mound struggles. The same is true of the Cleveland Indians who once boasted the fine mound corps in baseball.
In the National League East, it has been all Leo Durocher’s Cubs in the early stretch. Chicago returned from a successful West Coast trip to take a thrilling opener at Wrigley against the Atlanta Braves. Willie Smith again providing the late inning thrill as he did on Opening Day. Smith’s two-out triple in the ninth scored Billy Williams for a 5-4 comeback win delighting the Bleacher Bums. The Pirates have been the main foils for the Cubs in the early stretch, but Gil Hodges’ Mets are climbing while riding a current five game winning streak. The Mets held off the Giants at Shea Stadium with a little late inning magic of their own. Wayne Garrett won the game with a RBI single in the ninth after fireman Ron Taylor escaped trouble in the top of the ninth. The defending pennant winning and overwhelming pre-season favorite Cardinals stumbled out of the gate and have been unable to gain ground. But, opponents know that any club sending Bob Gibson to the mound on a regular basis is not out of the race. The Phillies are holding ground, but discord surrounds the club as the antics of Richie Allen are becoming a distraction. The expansion Montreal Expos have provided entertaining moments north of the border. The Expos took the first in the series with the expansion Padres as fan favorite Rusty Staub singled in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of a 3-1 win.
The National League has been the domain of the Cincinnati Reds in the initial months of the season. The Reds have been like a machine clicking on all cylinders. Tony Perez leads baseball The Braves’ sneak attacks have failed in the early going as the Reds have held the higher ground. San Francisco is another likely contender as they have been for the past few seasons. Willie Mays has found a fountain of youth at age 38 and leads Clyde King’s troops with a .346 batting average. The Houston Astros appear ready to don the garb of contenders as new arrival Curt Blefary (.309) has been reborn in the indoor air. Denny Lemaster (8-2) has rebounded from a disastrous 9-17 campaign of a year ago to lead the Spacemen’s staff. Los Angeles has a new crop of farmhands in Bill Russell, Ted Sizemore and Billy Garbarkewitz. The Dodger brass hope this new generation will bring Los Angeles back to pennant contention in seasons to come. In San Diego, the Padres are taking their lumps on a current six game skid. They own the worst record in baseball (13-36), but young starts like Nate Colbert (8 HR) and Ollie Brown (25 RBI) provide a glimmer of hope.