Sunday, October 10, 2010

October 10, 1926: Caught stealing

BRONX, N.Y. - It remains the most improbable ending to a World Series yet, a play so baffling that it seems like a misprint in the decades-old play-by-play: Ruth caught stealing second, c-ss. Seriously, a game 7 of a World Series ended on that. It doesn't seem right.

It's not too surprising that Ruth was on base in that situation. He came to the plate with the Cardinals leading 3-2 with two outs in the ninth inning, and he had already homered in the game. Considering his other three plate appearances ended in walks, there was a better chance he'd see Bigfoot playing right field than there was of him getting anything to hit in that at bat. The Cardinals simply weren't going to let Ruth beat them.

Instead, they let him beat the Yankees.

Sure, Ruth had stolen 11 bases during the season, which isn't a terrible number, but how do you steal in that situation, where getting thrown out meant the end of your season, unless you know you're going to make it? With Bob Meusel, a very good hitter, batting and Lou Gehrig on deck? How do you steal? Unless you're trying to catch the Cardinals off-guard - which I suppose he did, because really, why would Ruth steal? But if Bob O'Farrell behind the plate was surprised, the feeling didn't last long, because he easily threw Ruth out.

The Cardinals were a bit fortunate to even be in that situation. After Ruth's third-inning home run, the Cardinals scored three in the top of the fourth - helped by a dropped fly ball by Meusel - then held on for dear life. See, the Yankees weren't quite the offensive juggernaut they would become the following year, but they still had Ruth and Gehrig and Meusel and Tony Lazzeri. A two-run lead likely wasn't going to be safe for long.

New York got a run back in sixth, then went into the bottom of the seventh trailing 3-2. With one out and a runner on second, the Cardinals intentionally walked Ruth, violating the old baseball adage of never putting the go-ahead run on base because, well, he's Babe Ruth. Meusel grounded out, beating the relay to prevent a double play, and then Gehrig walked, loading the bases with two outs. Instead of sticking with starter Jesse Haines, the Cardinals went to the bullpen to bring in Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander to face Lazzeri.

It was quite a surprise that Alexander was coming in. Though he was still one of the best pitchers in the National League and would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame, the 39-year-old Alexander had pitched a complete game the day before and was thought to be unavailable for game 7. Also, he was in no physical condition to pitch, either because he was drunk, according to some people, or because he had suffered an epileptic seizure earlier in the day, according to others.

So the inning came down to future hall-of-famer Alexander pitching to future hall-of-famer Lazzeri with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Cardinals up by one run. And Alexander struck out Lazzeri on three pitches, completely blew him away, keeping the Cardinal lead intact.

That was pretty much the game there. Alexander pitched the rest of the way, and the only other Yankee to reach against him was Ruth in the ninth. It could have been a tense situation, but Ruth decided to steal, and the Cardinals had won their first World Series.

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