Thursday, July 28, 2011

1949 American League: The Rivalry Begins

A lot has been written in recent years about the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. In the past decade, they have been the teams with the two highest payrolls and they have spent that money wisely. Since they're in the same division, each of their 18 regular season game has been treated with postseason-type importance, making it seem like the two teams have been bitter rivals forever.

But that hasn't exactly been the case. Just like the famous sale of Babe Ruth was very one-sided, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was virtually nonexistent through most of the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, from the American League's founding in 1901 through the 1947 season, the Yankees and Red Sox finished 1-2 in the standings exactly twice, and only once was the race close enough to be exciting in the final weeks of the season.

That changed in 1948, as the Yankees and Red Sox battled for the American League lead through most of the season. In the end, the Yankees fell off, and the Red Sox fell to Cleveland in a one-game playoff for the pennant.

The Red Sox and Yankees like their pennant race so much they did it again in 1949. Through much of the early part of the season, it looked like it would be a New York-Cleveland showdown for the pennant. But as the weather got hot, so did Boston, and as they stormed up the standings, Cleveland fell off, making it a two-team race between Boston and New York. But despite their hot play, Boston could not get within 3 games of the Yankees until New York star Joe DiMaggio got hospitalized with pneumonia. With their biggest rival out, Boston went on an 11-game winning streak and entered the final weekend of the season a game in front, needing only to win one of two games in Yankee Stadium to win the pennant.

The first game, on October 1, was tied 4-4 in the fifth, with both teams into the bullpen. Boston's Joe Dobson, normally a starter, did well in relief for Boston, but New York's relief ace Joe Page was even better, giving up only 1 hit in 6 2/3 innings. Page kept the Red Sox at bay until the eighth, when backup outfielder Johnny Lindell crushed a high fastball into the left-field seats to give the Yankees a 5-4 victory. After 153 games, the Yankees and Red Sox were tied, setting up a winner-take-all season finale.

The game
Red Sox starter Ellis Kinder reacted in an interesting way to starting the biggest game of the season. He got drunk. As his roommate, Joe Dobson, recounted years later in Summer of '49, he got back to his hotel room at 4:00 the morning he was scheduled to pitch with a woman Dobson had never seen before. Kinder was awake at 9:00 that morning, calling room service and asking for coffee.

Meanwhile, Yankees starter Vic Raschi. He had been hoping for this start all week, when it became apparent that the whole season could ride on the final game. Though he had pitched in and won game 152 for the Yankees, he was ready to go for game 154. He got a good night's sleep and spent most of the pregame sitting at his locker, staring at the floor, trying to ignore the reporters and photographers who were gathering.

After Raschi got through the Red Sox in the first, Yankee shortstop led off the bottom of the inning with a triple down the third-base line, aided by Ted Williams misplaying the carom in the left field corner. The Red Sox played the infield back for the next batter, first baseman Tommy Henrich, and he happily grounded to second to take the free rbi.

And that was it, at least for a while. For the next six innings, the two aces showed why they had each won 20 games that season, staying out of trouble and putting zero after zero on the scoreboard. Kinder had apparently recovered from his night of drinking, while Raschi was coming through in the game he desperately wanted to pitch.

The turning point of the game came with one out in the top of the eighth. Though Kinder had been cruising, completely keeping the Yankees off-balance, Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy pinch-hit for him in the eighth, sending up Tom Wright, called up from the minors just that week. With a fuming Kinder watching, Wright drew a walk, but was quickly erased on a double-play grounder. The Yankees still had their 1-0 lead, and they no longer had to worry about Kinder.

Boston brought in their other 20-game winner, Mel Parnell, in relief for the eighth. Like Kinder, Parnell had been overused down the stretch as the Red Sox tried to squeeze every inning they could out of their two aces. Parnell had started and lost the day before, though, and he was exhausted as he entered game 154. Parnell didn't have it on this day, giving up a home run to Henrich, the first batter he faced, to make it 2-0. After one more hit he was gone, replaced by Tex Hughson, who gave up three more runs to seemingly give the Yankees the pennant.

But Boston wasn't done. After pitching gallantly for eight innings, Raschi started to show signs of wear in the ninth. A one-out walk to Ted Williams was followed by two straight hits, including a triple to center that DiMaggio would have normally run down with ease, except he was cramping. DiMaggio called time after the play and took himself out, not willing to risk losing the pennant because he couldn't run down a flyball.

After another out, another single made it 5-3, with the tying run coming to the plate. But the Red Sox season died on the final day for the second year in a row as Birdie Tebbets fouled out to end the game.

Invigorated by the pair of dramatic wins at the end of the season, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series for the second time in three years. The win in 1949 was the first of five consecutive World Championships for the Yankees, which still stands as the best streak in baseball history.

It took a long time for the Red Sox to recover, as they didn't finish higher than second place again until 1967. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry didn't pick up again until 1978, when Bucky Dent broke the hearts of New Englanders everywhere.

Especially hurt by the loss was Williams. Looking for vindication after batting just .200 in the 1946 World Series and losing in the 1948 playoff, Williams instead came up empty. He went 1-for-5 in the two deciding games in 1949, in the process costing himself the batting championship. He later said that more than the 1946 series or the 1948 playoff game, the loss in 1949 was the toughest one of his career.

The Rundown

8. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 3 (1949 American League)
9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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