Monday, July 30, 2012

1941 World Series: Strike Three

The Teams
American League: New York Yankees (101-53) - 12th World Series (won in 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939)
National League: Brooklyn Dodgers (100-54) - Third World Series

What Happened
At the start of the 1941 World Series, New York City was buzzing about the matchup between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Usually, when it was an inter-city matchup, it was the Giants trying to conquer the mighty Yankees, so the Dodgers were excited to finally have their chance at them. It was a novel matchup at the time, but the Yankees-Dodgers matchup would eventually become commonplace, as 1941 was the first of what would be seven Yankees-Dodgers World Series to be held while the Dodgers were in Brooklyn.

It's also the only one of those series remembered for a single pitch.

There were plenty of tense moments in the 1941 series, many games that could have turned on a single pitch. The first three were all one-run games, each featuring game-winning runs scored in the sixth inning or later. All three winning starters threw complete games, and all three had to deal with at least one tense inning late in the game. Game 5, the game where the Yankees clinched, was the only one without any late-inning drama, and even that one was only a two-run game.

And yet none of it mattered, forgotten to history. because of one stunning, jaw-dropping inning. Because of one rule that rarely comes into play, because of one pitcher's pitch that was, somehow, too good, the ninth inning of Game 4 became one of the greatest innings in World Series history.

Defining Game
Game 4 had been much like the previous three. With the Yankees up 3-0 in the 4th, Brooklyn pinch-hitter Jimmy Wasdell hit a two-out, two run double to cut the deficit. One inning later, Pete Reiser hit a two-run home run to give Brooklyn the lead, and they held that lead into the 9th inning.

On the mound was Hugh Casey, who had come into the game to get out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the 5th. Now that Brooklyn was ahead, Casey was in line for the win, needing only to get through the 9th unscathed. The first two Yankees to bat in the ninth grounded out harmlessly. Casey then got two strikes on Tommy Henrich. With his team one strike from tying the series, Casey decided to put a little bit extra on this next curveball (whether literally or figuratively is up for debate). Casey threw, and Henrich started to swing, only to watch in horror as the ball dropped several feet and out of the strike zone. Henrich tried to check his swing, but failed. Strike three. Game over.

Except Mickey Owen didn't catch the ball. And as Owen futilely chased the ball toward the backstop, Henrich ran to first base safely, taking advantage of baseball's Rule 6.09(b), stating that The batter becomes a runner when the third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out. Henrich was safe. The game was still alive.

It doesn't take much more than an intermediate knowledge of baseball history to know what happened next. There's a reason the Yankees always won the World Series, while it seemed like the Dodgers always lost. When given any break, any second chance, the Yankees killed you. And that's what happened next.

With the Dodgers still one out from tying the series, Joe DiMaggio singled, sending Henrich to third. Then Charlie Keller doubled, scoring Henrich and DiMaggio and giving the Yankees the lead. Quick, ruthless, devastating. And it wasn't done, because after a walk to Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon hit another double, again scoring two runs. Just four batters earlier, the Dodgers thought they had a game-ending and series-tying strikeout. Now, they were trailing 7-4. Needless to say, they lost the game that day, and they lost the series the next. And Mickey Owen is now forever known for a ball he didn't catch.

In a fantasy world, the MVP could have been fate, or the muse, or whatever ancient creature or diety smiled on the Yankees so many years ago to make sure they got all the big breaks. But the 1941 World Series was played in reality, as unrealistic as it seemed, so the MVP was Joe Gordon. A .500 batting average, a team-high five runs batted in, one of only three home runs hit in the series, and - of course - the back-breaking game-winning hit in Game 4. He was the MVP by far, even if it wasn't yet an official award.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Brooklyn 2314 1
New York 3227 3

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

41. 1941 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-2
42. 1958 - New York (A) def. Milwaukee (N) 4-3
43. 1959 - Los Angeles (N) def. Chicago (A) 4-2
44. 2008 - Philadelphia (N) def. Tampa Bay (A) 4-1
45. 1933 - New York (N) def. Washington (A) 4-1
46. 1929 - Philadelphia (A) def. Chicago (N) 4-1
47. 1982 - St. Louis (N) def. Milwaukee (A) 4-3
48. 1923 - New York (A) def. New York (N) 4-2
49. 1944 - St. Louis (N) def. St. Louis (A) 4-2
Numbers 50-59
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

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