This day in baseball history: How the West was lost

1969 was the first season in which major league baseball split its leagues into two divisions. In the National League East, the Chicago Cubs played great baseball in the first half of the season and the New York Mets played even better in the second half. They ended up winning 100 games to take the division crown going away.

In the National League West, it was a very different story. In August, five teams were in contention for first place. As late as August 27, the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers were all within one game of each other. The fifth place Houston Astros were only three games behind the first place Giants.

No NL West team was playing particularly well. Sports Illustrated wrote a story about the race called “How the West was lost.”

Atlanta got hot in September, though. In the middle of the month, the Braves reeled off six straight victories and started another winning streak on September 19.

Only the Giants could hang with the Braves. They struggled early in September, but as of September 22 had won five straight and eight of their last nine games to move back into first place. At the end of play on the 22nd, the Giants held a 0.5 games lead on the Braves. Cincinnati was next 4 games behind and, with only a week and a half left in the season, pretty much out of contention.

On September 23, the Giants played the expansion San Diego Padres, the worst team in baseball. Atlanta faced a tougher opponent, the Astros who had a winning record. Both contenders were on the road.

The Braves won their game in a rout, 10-2. They broke a tie game wide open in the sixth inning, scoring four runs against Jim “Ball Four” Bouton, who had just come on in a relief of Jim Ray.

Bouton gave up the four runs without retiring a batter. His knuckle ball must have been dancing though because the Braves benefited from a wild pitch and two passed balls. Also a walk and three hits.

After one wild pitch and one passed ball, Houston’s manager Harry “the Hat” Walker removed catcher Marty Martinez, normally a utility infielder, and replaced him with veteran Johnny Edwards, one of the top defensive catchers of the 1960s. Two batters later, Edwards allowed a passed ball.

Later that night in San Diego, the Padres and Giants were tied 4-4 in the ninth inning. San Diego had jumped on San Francisco starter Mike McCormick for four runs in the first inning. However, the Giants had clawed their way back, tying the game in the eighth on a Willie Mays walk, a Willie McCovey double, and a ground out by pinch hitter Dave Marshall.

The Giants nearly went ahead in the top of the ninth, but Tito Fuentes was gunned down at home plate trying to score from first on a double by Ron Hunt.

In the bottom of the ninth, Frank Linzy, working his third inning of relief, retired leadoff man Jose Arcia but yielded a single to Roberto Pena. After a wild pitch by Linzy, “Downtown” Ollie Brown singled home pinch runner Ron Slocum (a name that had me scurrying tonight to my baseball encyclopedia) with the game-ending run.

As a result, Atlanta moved into first place, half a game ahead of San Francisco.

The next day, September 23, featured pitchers’ duels in both Houston and San Diego. Pat Jarvis of the Braves limited the Astros to one run on just three hits. Tom Griffin of the Astros wasn’t quite as sharp, but he held Atlanta to one run through seven innings.

However, in the top of the eighth, Tony Gonzalez homered for the Braves. Gonzalez had started the year with San Diego, where he hit just two homers in 182 at-bats. With Atlanta, Gonzalez belted eight in 320. None was more important than the one he hit on this day in baseball history.

In San Diego, the Giants had the pitching matchup they wanted — the great Juan Marichal vs. Al Santorini, a rookie with a 7-13 record (albeit a decent ERA).

The Padres tagged Marichal for three runs in the first, one fewer than they had scored the night before against McCormick. Only one run was earned though. Two scored on an error by Jim Ray Hart.

The Giants must have been confident they could get those runs back against Santorini. However, the 21 year-old kept them at bay until the eighth inning. In that frame, Santorini’s control deserted him. He hit Hunt with a pitch (this was a Ron Hunt specialty), walked Mays, and hit McCovey.

The bases were loaded with no outs. In came Tom Dukes, a September call-up who sported a 8.44 ERA.

Dukes struck out Bobby Bonds. Hart hit a sacrifice fly to finally bring home the Giants’ first run.

With the tying runs on base, the dangerous veteran Leon Wagner came up as a pinch hitter. “Daddy Wags” lofted a foul ball to the opposite field. Ivan Murrell caught it to end the inning.

With the score 3-1 in the ninth, Dukes yielded a one-out home run to pinch hitter Bob Burda. Keeping his composure, Dukes struck out Fuentes and got Hunt on a pop-up to end the game.

The Giants didn’t know it, but they had lost the West. Atlanta, now 1.5 games ahead, didn’t drop a game again until the last day of the regular season, by which time they had clinched the division crown. With a record of 93-69, they finished three games ahead of San Francisco and four ahead of Cincinnati.