Sure, I watched the World Series this year. Enjoyed it, too. What baseball fan didn’t? But was it really “the greatest that was ever played,” as Sports Illustrated’s 25-year-old Minnesota native Steve Rushin proclaimed? Was it, in fact, “the best sustained sporting event anyone has ever seen,” as noted columnist Ira Berkow declared?
Wasn’t there a pretty good World Series about five years ago? And another about 11 years before that? And what about going back into sports antiquity–like the 60s, when there were several excellent Series, and a couple more in the 50s, and even, my gosh, beyond that?
The nation already has a reputation for instant amnesia, earned during the Reagan administration. It’s gotten to the point where a president can’t even coast through a calendar year on the strength of a kick-ass, feel-good war anymore. Sports is no exception. How many games of the century have there been in college football and basketball in the last few years? How many best games of the year this season (or just this week) in the National Football League? TV commentators are usually the worst offenders: their job is to pump up the importance of the game they’re describing and make the fan grateful just to be able to watch it. What was puzzling about this year’s World Series was how measured commentators Jack Buck and Tim McCarver were about the whole thing, especially compared with the print guys, who were all over themselves trying to prove this was the greatest Series of all time.
Berkow writes for the New York Times, the official record of the free world, so to be cautious he prefaced his hyperbolic declaration with a “might have been.” But the Times itself felt obliged to point out, on its front page (news section, not sports section), these Series records set by the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves:
Like most statistics, those are pretty convincing at first, but let’s step back a moment and decide just what makes for a thrilling World Series. To simplify things, let’s agree that it goes seven games (although there have been several terrific five-game Series), then add that the games are close and dramatic (preferably decided in the last at-bat), that there are elements of heroism, skill, frailty, and controversy, and–and I’m going to stress this to give everyone a hint where I’m going–that it involves two great teams.
Now, let’s get right to 1986 and 1975, the two greatest Series in my lifetime. The 1986 postseason as a whole remains the greatest since baseball went to a playoff system in 1969–there was not only a great seven-game Series, but also a thrilling six-game National League Championship Series and a seven-game American League series in which the Boston Red Sox came from down 3-1 to win–but don’t let the playoffs overshadow the Series. It’s true, the first four games were all won by the visiting team, stifling crowd excitement, but the first game was a doozy–Boston’s Bruce Hurst defeating the New York Mets’ Ron Darling 1-0 on an unearned run–and the Mets had to win twice in Boston to set up their becoming the first team to lose the first two games at home and still win the Series. Hurst won game five to put the Bosox up, then there was game six.
Everyone remembers Bill Buckner’s game-losing muff, but what about Roger Clemens leaving the game in the seventh, up 3-2, with a blister on his throwing hand? What about Dave Henderson’s two-run homer in the top of the tenth to apparently give Boston its first championship since 1918? And remember, the entire New York rally in the bottom of the tenth–from first man on to winning run scoring–came with two out.
The seventh game is commonly remembered as a rout–wrongly. The Red Sox opened a 3-0 lead. The Mets tied it in the sixth, breaking the ice on a clutch double by Keith Hernandez. They went ahead with three in the seventh, but Boston rallied with two in the eighth to make it 6-5. At that point, with a Series as back and forth as this one had been, it was still up for grabs. It was only after New York scored two more in the eighth that the Mets put it away.
Finally, remember that these were two great teams: Clemens and Dwight Gooden in their phenom periods, Hurst, Henderson, Hernandez, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Don Baylor, Marty Barrett hitting .433, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, and Series MVP Ray Knight.
As for 1975, look at these stats, quoted by Roger Angell in his postseason piece “Agincourt and After”: winning team came from behind in six of seven games, coming from behind twice in one game; five one-run games; two extra-inning games and two games won in the ninth; 13 ties or lead changes.
Boston won the first game easy at home, but the Cincinnati Reds took game two 3-2, with two runs in the ninth. A record six homers were hit in the third game, which the Reds won 6-5, on Ed Armbrister’s controversial no-interference play on a sacrifice bunt in the tenth (catcher Carlton Fisk collided with Armbrister in front of the plate, then hurried his throw to second base and it went into center field). Game four was won 5-4 by the Red Sox, but Boston starter Luis Tiant went all the way, throwing 163 (!) pitches; despite six days of rest allowed by rain, Tiant tired in game six after the Reds won the fifth easily.
Game six, back in Boston–Fisk’s game–of course challenges 1986’s sixth game as the greatest in Series history. After Tiant failed to hold a 3-0 lead and the Reds went ahead 6-3, Bernie Carbo tied it with a three-run homer in the eighth. Dwight Evans (the same) saved the game in the 11th with a great catch at the wall, and Fisk won it in the 12th.
In the seventh game, the Bosox blew a 3-0 lead, just as they would in ’86. The Reds scored two in the sixth, one in the seventh, and the game winner in the ninth on an RBI single by Joe Morgan.
Again, two great teams: Tiant, Fisk, rookie Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, and, of course, the Big Red Machine of Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey (Sr.), and Dave Concepcion.
Let’s move more rapidly now. The 60s saw seven-game World Series in 1960, ’62, ’64, ’65, ’67, and ’68, finishing with the great five-game Series between the Mets and the Baltimore Orioles. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James called it an “unmatched decade for World Series.” Bill Mazeroski is still the only player to end a season with a home run, for the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’60. And the ’62 Series, between the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants, had the only 1-0 seventh game before this year, with Willie McCovey’s scalding line drive to Bobby Richardson with runners at second and third in the ninth the final out.
The 50s saw Willie Mays’s catch in 1954, followed by back-to-back seven-game Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers in ’55 and ’56 and the Yankees and Milwaukee Braves in ’57 and ’58, all of which are considered inferior to the ’52 seven-game Series between the Yanks and Dodgers, when the Yanks won the last two games at Ebbets Field.
The 40s had Enos Slaughter scoring the winning run from first in the bottom of the eighth of the seventh game between the Saint Louis Cardinals and (not again!) the Boston Red Sox in 1946. The 30s had Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932 and the seven-game duel in ’31 between Saint Louis base stealer Pepper Martin and Philadelphia Athletics catcher Mickey Cochrane, won by the Cards. There were three great Series in the mid-20s: Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander winning game six in 1926, going out to get loaded that night, and then coming in hung over to save game seven the next day, with Ruth thrown out stealing second for the final out; the Pittsburgh Pirates coming from behind 4-0 and 6-3 against the Washington Senators in game seven of ’25; and ’24, a wonderful, overlooked match-up between the Senators and the New York Giants, with four one-run games, three won in the last at-bat, and a 12-inning seventh game. That game is renowned for two almost identical bad-hop grounders past New York third baseman Freddie Lindstrom: one instrumental to Washington’s two-run, game-tying rally in the eighth, the other allowing the winning run to score in the 12th, giving Walter Johnson his first championship in his 18th season (and you thought Michael Jordan suffered long with an inferior supporting cast).
Berkow at least mentioned the 1924 classic, along with 1975 and a few others, in crowning this year’s Series the king of them all. But he leaves one out. Take all the Series I’ve just mentioned, all the drama, all those great teams, and forget about them. The 1912 World Series–from here, anyway–looks to have been the greatest of all time.
First, these were two great teams. For the New York Giants: Christy Mathewson, Rube Marquard, Chief Meyers, and two of the most infamous names in baseball history–the Freds Merkle and Snodgrass. For the (here we go again) Boston Red Sox: Smokey Joe Wood and one of the greatest outfields of all time–Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, and Duffy Lewis. Of the 22 players interviewed in the great book The Glory of Their Times, five played in this Series, and James examines it in detail in the Historical Abstract, so there’s a wealth of information on it readily available.
How evenly matched were these teams? It’s the only best-of-seven World Series to go eight games, with game two called on account of darkness after 11 innings with the score 6-6 (an official game, where all stats count, but to be replayed from the beginning). The Red Sox were outhit in three of their four victories (rest easy, Boston fans, they win this one). There were two extra-inning games and, in addition to the tie, four one-run games.
Game one was a 4-3 Boston comeback, earned with three runs in the seventh inning when the Giants botched a double-play grounder, sealed with Wood fanning the last two men with the tying run at second. Game two was the tie, with the Giants scoring three in the eighth to go ahead, Boston tying it in the bottom of the inning, and both teams scoring a run in the tenth. Game three was a 2-1 New York win, with Josh Devore making a game-saving running catch in the ninth with the winning Boston run at second base (it was called the greatest catch of all time at the time). Games four and five were wins for Boston, with Wood picking up four, 3-1, and 20-game-winner Hugh Bedient outdueling Mathewson 2-1 in five. The Red Sox then surrendered game six peacefully to the Giants, returning to Boston up 3-2 and with Wood set for game seven. Yet he was hit with six runs in the first, and the Series was tied.
Here I’d like to stress that I enjoyed this year’s World Series. It may well have been the most evenly matched Series, well, since the 1912 championship. Yet it was a Series dominated by great pitching, and for a fan who wasn’t following, say, the way the Twins worked Sid Bream inside through all seven games, it probably lacked something. The tomahawk chop provided some delightful off-field controversy (essential to all great Series), but as a team the Braves were lacking. Fundamental mistakes cost them games, and while that, in part, made them more dramatic and likable as a young team trying to defeat both the opponents and their own inexperience, it also diminished the quality of the overall play. And there was their notable lack of a left-handed hitter off the bench, which, combined with the Twins’ right-handed pitching strength, spelled doom for them. I felt from the beginning they were destined to lose, and while I eventually rooted for them all the more–for Steve Avery and John Smoltz trying to single-handedly overcome the team’s weaknesses–in the end I think the Series would have been more dramatic if the Braves had won, because they should have been beaten. And in the end, they were.
This Series will probably go down as the one lost on the decoy play. In the scoreless seventh game, the Braves’ Lonnie Smith led off the eighth by reaching base. Terry Pendleton then hammered a double off the left-field fence. But Smith was running on the pitch, with his head down, and even though the play was right in front of him, he didn’t know it. When the Twins’ heady midfield combo of Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne mimicked a double-play grounder, a confused Smith paused at second base to get his bearings. Otherwise he would have scored. As it was, the Braves had men on second and third and no outs–and failed to get a run.
Still, the decoy play is a fine point in baseball; it requires explanation to the weekend fan. I think it marvelous that this Series pivoted on such a play, and I think that, for the true baseball aficionado–the person following pitching patterns and defensive positioning–this may well have been a better Series than the ’86 or ’75 championships. Yet the World Series ought to, as the name implies, involve the world, or at least our national portion of it, and I believe the ’75 and ’86 Series, with their household names and surface drama, both surpass this year’s. As for 1912, it still gives up its drama, in print alone–no replays, not even any memories anymore–almost 80 years after the fact.
Game eight, 1912. The visiting Giants, with Mathewson on the mound, took the lead with a run in the third. In the fifth, however, the momentum swung on a catch by Hooper that eclipsed Devore’s in game three. Wood describes it in Glory: “That was the thing that really took the heart out of the Giants. Larry Doyle hit a terrific drive to right-center, and Harry ran back at full speed and dove over the railing and into the crowd and in some way, I’ll never figure out quite how, he caught the ball–I think with his bare hand. It was almost impossible to believe even when you saw it.”
In the seventh, three New York players (one of them Snodgrass), let a pop fly drop between them, allowing Jake Stahl to reach base. He went to second on a walk. Then, with two out and two strikes, pinch hitter Olaf Henricksen drilled the ball off third base. It caromed so wildly that Stahl, off with the crack of the bat, scored from second.
Wood, knocked out of the box only the day before, came on in relief. He and Mathewson dueled through nine. In the tenth, Wood allowed an RBI single to Merkle, who was trying to atone for his base-running boner that had deprived the Giants of a pennant four years before.
In the bottom of the inning, pinch hitter Clyde Engle led off with a can of corn to Snodgrass in center. It bounced off his mitt, and Engle went to second–the infamous “Snodgrass muff.” Hooper then drove one to deep center. Snodgrass himself describes it: “I made one of the greatest plays of my life on it, catching the ball over my shoulder while on a dead run out in deep left-center. They always forget about that play when they write about that inning. In fact, I almost doubled up Engle at second base. He was turning third when I caught the ball. He thought it was gone, you know, and the play at second was very close.”
Mathewson walked the next man, Steve Yerkes, a crucial mistake that probably led to the strategic dictum that one never walks the potential lead run (this was, after all, only the ninth World Series in history). Speaker then popped in foul territory down the first-base line, but the ball dropped. All sources agree the ball could easily have been caught by first baseman Merkle. Some say Mathewson could have caught it as well. Catcher Chief Meyers later said the raucous Boston dugout, located on the first-base side, contributed to the Giants’ confusion. Hooper later said Mathewson, for some reason, called on Meyers to take it, and though Meyers “lumbered down that line as fast as his big legs would carry him,” he missed.
Hooper adds that Speaker then called to Mathewson, “Well, you just called for the wrong man. It’s gonna cost you this ball game.” That seems a bit rich, but Speaker, in any event, singled in the tying run, Yerkes going to third. Larry Gardner then won the Series with a sacrifice fly.
Still unconvinced? The 1991 Series ended when Gene Larkin’s fly ball fell beyond the pulled-in Atlanta outfielders; Dan Gladden pranced home. Gardner’s fly ball was caught by Devore. There was a play at the plate. Safe.