This day in baseball history: A tie atop the National League

At the close of play on Sunday August 6, 1966, three teams were virtually tied for first place in the National League. Two of them, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, were in familiar territory. Winners collectively of three of the last four NL pennants, they had battled for dominance during most of the entire decade.

The third team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had been little heard from since 1960, their championship season, though in 1965 they did announce themselves as a team to watch in 1966 by winning 90 games. Old hands Roberto Clemente (on his way to the NL MVP), World Series hero Bill Mazeroski (on his way to a career year), Vernon Law (a serviceable starting pitcher, but declining) and Roy Face (still a quality reliever, but carrying a lighter workload) were still around. But the club’s resurgence was spearheaded a new cast that included Willie Stargell, Donn Clendenon, Gene Alley, Bob Bailey, Matty Alou, Bob Veale, Steve Blass, Woody Fryman, and Tommie Sisk.

The Bucs held a one game lead over the Dodgers and Giants heading into their Sunday game at home against Cincinnati. The pitching matchup was favorable: Veale (12-6 with a 2.64 ERA) against “The Old Lefthander,” Joe Nuxhall (4-2 with a 4.26 ERA), pitching in the final season of a major league career that began in 1944.

Nuxhall wouldn’t make it through the fifth inning, which was too bad for him because by then the Reds had scored six runs and chased Veale. Among the big blows were a home run by Pete Rose, a single and a double by Deron Johnson, a double by Tony Perez, and two singles by Dick Simpson whom Cincinnati had obtained when they traded Frank Robinson. Even Nuxhall chipped in with a single.

Pittsburgh was still in it though. The two runs they scored when they chased Nuxhall pulled them to within two runs, 6-4.

However, in the top of the sixth, Cincinnati scored three more runs off of Veale’s replacement Don Cardwell. Another Deron Johnson double did much of the damage.

Pittsburgh answered with three runs in the seventh on a Clemente home run, his 19th of the year on his way to a career best 29.

The score was 9-7 entering the bottom of the ninth. With two on and two out, Clemente came to bat again. On the day, he was 4-4 with two home runs. However, Billy McCool, one of the best relievers in baseball that year, retired Clemente on a fly ball to center.

Meanwhile, in Houston, Walter Alston was managing the Dodgers like it was late September, not early August. Leading 3-1 in the second inning, he yanked starter Claude Osteen (with a 2.50 ERA and on his way to a 17 win season) after the first three Astros had reached based (with one of them scoring). On came young Joe Moeller, a 23 year-old with a losing career record.

The move paid off. Moeller prevented the inherited runners from scoring and gave up only one run in five innings. The Dodgers coasted to a 14-3 win and a share of first place (actually sole possession by .001 percent over Pittsburgh). Ron Fairly led the charge, going 4-4 with a home run and 3 RBIs.

At Wrigley Field, the Giants trailed the Cubs 4-3 heading into the seventh inning. But in that frame, the Giants erupted for four runs against two quality young pitchers, Ken Holtzman and Ferguson Jenkins. Doubles by Jim Ray Hart and Willie McCovey, sandwiched around an intentional walk to Willie Mays, were the big blows.

The Giants held on to win 9-6. Gaylord Perry, despite not being terribly effective, ran his record to 17-2. The Giants joined the Dodgers and Pirates atop the National League (albeit .002 behind LA).

There would be more twists and turns before matters were finally settled almost eight weeks later in one of the best pennant races of the decade.

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