Thursday, April 21, 2011

1948 American League: Sweet Lou

In the first half of the 1948 season, Cleveland, New York, and the surprising Philadelphia A's were battling for the top spot in the American League. Boston started the season scuffling around in the middle of the standings before a hot streak in July helped them shoot up the standings. It was a four-team race until mid-August, when Philadelphia finally ran out of steam and dropped back. The Indians, who were 4.5 games back on Labor Day, went 20-6 in September to take the lead entering the final weekend. They went into the final day of the season one game in front, with their ace, Bob Feller, on the mound. But Cleveland struggled against Detroit's ace, Hal Newhouser, losing 7-1, and that, coupled with Boston's 10-5 win over New York, forced a one-game tiebreaker game after the season, the first such playoff game in American League history.

The Indians were playing for their first World Series berth since 1920. While the Red Sox had just gone in 1946, they were playing for city pride; the Boston Braves had already clinched the National League pennant, so the Red Sox were hoping to make it an all-Boston World Series.

The Game
Boston was the home team for the playoff game, and they had the advantage that Cleveland's ace had been used the day before. Cleveland was forced to use Gene Bearden, a rookie knuckleballer, to start the tiebreaker game, while the Red Sox had their top pitchers rested and ready to go. Curiously, though, Boston manager Joe McCarthy went with journeyman pitcher Denny Galehouse to start the deciding game rather than one of his other top pitchers.

A Lou Boudreau home run gave Cleveland a 1-0 lead in the first; Boston countered with a run of its own in the bottom of the inning. In the top of the fourth, Cleveland threatened again. Singles by Boudreau and Joe Gordon brought up power hitter Ken Keltner. With the Red Sox playing up in anticipation of a bunt, Keltner instead belted his 31st home run of the season to make it 4-1. Exit Galehouse, enter Ellis Kinder, who many people felt should have been starting for Boston anyway. Cleveland scored once more on Kinder to make it 5-1 after 4.

In the top of the fifth, Boudreau struck again, hitting his second home run of the game to make it 6-1. The Indians' player-manager was now 3-for-3 in the biggest game the Indians had seen in 28 years. Boston got two runs back in the sixth, but that was all they would get off Bearden. Cleveland added sole runs in the eighth and ninth to breeze to an 8-3 victory.

Cleveland stayed in Boston to start the World Series two days later. The Indians lost Game 1 - despite Bob Feller's complete-game 2-hitter - but won the next three. Their party was delayed by a Boston win in Game 5, but the Indians took Game 6 to claim their first World Series title since 1920. Bearden, the hero of the playoff game, threw a shutout to win Game 3 and, perhaps more importantly, came out of the bullpen to quell a Boston rally in the 8th inning of Game 6, staying on the mound for the final out of the season.

The Indians stayed near the top of the American League standings for most of the next decade, getting to another World Series in 1954, but their championship in 1948 remains their most recent one. Their drought is the longest among active American League teams. Boston, meanwhile, knew nothing but heartache in this era. After losing the 1946 World Series in seven games and then this playoff, the Red Sox missed out on a pennant with final-weekend losses in both the 1949 and 1950 seasons. It would take until 2004 for the Red Sox to finally end their championship drought.

The Rundown

29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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