Giants, Angels peaked in 1962

Forty years ago, the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Angels -- back then, the Angels were tenants of the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine -- were the biggest stories in their respective leagues. And until now, they hadn't been such big stories since.

In 1962, the Giants finished their schedule with 101 victories ... but all it got them was a date with the Dodgers for a three-game playoff series to decide the National League pennant.

The first game was at Candlestick, where the Giants blasted the Dodgers, 8-0. The next day, the series moved south to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers evened things up with 8-7 victory. So the two teams would play a decisive third game for the pennant, just as they'd so famously done 11 years earlier on the other side of the continent.

And like 1951, the Dodgers carried a lead into the ninth. And just as they'd done 11 years earlier, the Giants, thanks to questionable bullpen strategy by Dodgers manager Walter Alston, scored four runs to earn a trip to the World Series to play the Yankees, who'd demolished the Reds in 1961 and just finished cruising to their 13th pennant in 16 years. The battle-fatigued Giants would, of course, enter the Series as underdogs.

The Yankees wouldn't have an easy time, though. They took Game 1, and then the two clubs traded victories for more than a week, as rain delayed Game 6 in San Francisco for three days. When play finally resumed, the Giants beat Whitey Ford to even the Series at three games apiece. That meant a Game 7, the first winner-take-all contest between these long-ago neighbors.

It was worth the wait, especially for those who appreciate pitchers' duels. With Jack Sanford pitching for the Giants, the Yankees pushed across a run in the fifth when Tony Kubek hit into a double play with the bases loaded. That was all Sanford would give up, but New York's Ralph Terry was even better. When the Giants came up in the bottom of the ninth, they still trailed 1-0.

Pinch-hitter Matty Alou led off, and beat out a bunt. Terry then struck out Matty's brother Felipe and Chuck Hiller, but Willie Mays -- with one of the few big postseason hits of his career -- doubled into the right-field corner. Roger Maris made a good play to keep the ball from reaching the fence, and Alou held at third base.

That brought up Willie McCovey, only 24 but already one of the most feared sluggers in the game. That season, he'd blasted 20 home runs in only 229 at-bats, and in 1963 he would lead the NL with 44 homers. McCovey had already homered and tripled against Terry in the World Series. McCovey batted left-handed, Terry threw right-handed, and today there's no way Terry would be allowed to face McCovey.

But things were different in 1962, and so Terry was left in the game to finish what he'd started. With right-handed-hitting Orlando Cepeda due next, the Yankees could have intentionally walked McCovey. But as Yankees manager Ralph Houk told Bombers author Richard Lally, "I ... remembered how the Giants had gotten into this World Series. They had beaten the Dodgers in the playoff by scoring the go-ahead run on a bases-loaded walk. That had happened only a week before" -- actually, it was 13 days before -- "so it was still fresh in my mind."

Terry's first pitch was a breaking ball, low and away, and McCovey dropped a pop foul into the stands down the right-field line. Terry's next pitch was a fastball not far from the heart of the plate. McCovey nailed it, and the Series was over. As Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson told Lally, "It was certainly the hardest-hit ball I've ever caught."

The Giants had lost, but their future certainly looked bright. They had Willie Mays and Juan Marichal, and they also had Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou and his two little brothers. In 1964, Jim Ray Hart would establish himself as one of the game's top third basemen, and in 1966 Gaylord Perry won 21 games. But it never quite came together for the Giants, who wouldn't reach the postseason again until 1971, when they lost the National League Championship Series to Pittsburgh.

There were, to be sure, plenty of close calls. In 1965, the Giants finished just two games behind the Dodgers, and in 1966 they finished one-and-a-half games behind the Dodgers. They also finished second in 1967 and '68, though both years they were far behind the first-place Cardinals. And in 1969, the Giants finished three games behind the first-place Braves in the new National League West.

From 1963 through 1970, the Giants won more games than any other team in the National League, and their worst record was 86-76 (in 1970). All that talent (Mays, Marichal, McCovey, Perry and Cepeda will eventually make the Hall of Fame), all those wins ... and eight years of watching the World Series on television.

Down in Los Angeles ...
The 1962 season was a good one for the Los Angeles Angels, too. In 1961, the inaugural Angels had finished eighth in the American league, well ahead of the (new) Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, and not far behind the Twins and Red Sox.

At the close of play on July 13 in 1962, the upstart Angels stood in third place, just a half-game behind the Yankees and Indians. The Angels moved into second place a few days later, but they'd never get so close to the Yankees again, and they wound up finishing third with an 86-76 mark, 10 games behind New York and five behind the Twins.

Still, it was an amazing performance for a second-year franchise. By contrast, the three other expansion franchises of that era -- the Senators, Mets and Astros -- all struggled terribly in their second and third seasons.

The Angels never sank to the level of their expansion brethren. They sunk to ninth place in 1963, but finished fifth, seventh, and sixth over the next three seasons. But the Angels were over their heads in 1962 -- and afflicted with the horrible luck that we've all been hearing so much about over the last few weeks. The Angels wouldn't win 86 games again until 1970, and they wouldn't win more than 86 until 1979 ... when they won 88, which was good enough for a division title, thanks to a down year for the Royals.

In 1962, the Giants came just a few inches from winning the World Series, and they had a roster stocked with future Hall of Famers.

In 1962, the Angels shocked the American League by finishing third in just their second season. They had their whole future ahead of them.

And yet, it might reasonably be argued that 1962, now 40 years past, represents the high point for both franchises.

The Angels now have a new high point, no matter what happens the rest of the way. And if the Giants beat the Angels, they'll have one, too.