Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October 5, 1941: Owen drops the ball

BROOKLYN - Hugh Casey knew the Dodgers needed this out. With two outs in the ninth, leading 4-3, Brooklyn was one out away from tying the World Series at 2 games apiece. They had stolen homefield advantage in game 2 by winning in the Bronx, but the Yankees had taken it right back in game 3. A win here, and the series would become a best-of-three.

At the plate stood Tommy Henrich, who had been having a terrible series so far, batting .133. Behind him in the order waited Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Bill Dickey, and Joe Gordon, all of them all stars, three of the hall-of-famers. Casey really needed to get Henrich.

Casey, Brooklyn's ace reliever, was the fourth Brooklyn pitcher of the day, having come in to extinguish a rally in the fifth. In four innings of work, he had given up only two hits with no walks, all without the benefit of a strikeout. In that time, the Dodgers had scored four unanswered runs to take a 4-3 lead.

Casey got two quick strikes on Henrich. Then, fate intervened. Perhaps at this point Casey was tired after throwing four innings of relief, so he felt like he needed a little extra on the ball, or perhaps he knew how important this out was to Brooklyn, so he wanted to give himself whatever edge he could. Whatever the reason, he threw a sinker that broke far more than any other sinker he threw that day, and Henrich swung over the top of it for strike three.

And Mickey Owen dropped the ball.

Defenders of Owen say that the ball Casey threw was almost certainly wet, an illegal spitball, and that was the reason Owen couldn't hang onto it. Others say Owen had a habit of lazily backhanding pitches in the dirt, and this time that laziness cost his team. Either way, Owen dropped the ball, it rolled away, and Henrich was on first base.

That didn't have to be the turning point of the game. Casey could have easily gotten out of the inning with just a ground ball, and Owen's drop would have been forgotten. But these were the Yankees, the team that never died, with the heart of their lineup coming up. And Casey had thrown four tense, brilliant innings. He might have been exhausted. Or, he might have been deflated from having what should have been the final out reach base. Either way, everything fell apart for the Dodgers.

DiMaggio singled, sending Henrich to second. Still not much to worry about - there were three force plays available to end the game. But then Keller cleared the bases with a double, and the Yankees had the lead. And they weren't done, as Dickey reached on a walk, followed by another double by Gordon. In a flash, a 4-3 Dodger win had turned into a 7-4 Yankee lead.

The Dodgers went down quietly in the ninth, and really, who can blame them? It was about as deflating a ninth inning as anybody had ever had. The series was virtually over at that point, though the official nail in the coffin didn't come until game 5 the next day.

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