Monday, October 15, 2012

1926 World Series: Alexander in the Rain

The Teams
National League: St. Louis Cardinals (89-65) - First World Series
American League: New York Yankees (91-63) - Fourth World Series (Won in 1923)

What Happened
Lou Gehrig tossed the bat aside and jogged to first. The Yankees would have probably much preferred to have Gehrig swing the bat, but the Cardinals were having none of it, not with Game 7 of the World Series on the line. So Gehrig went to first, and the bases were loaded, and Tony Lazzeri walked to the plate. 1926 was Lazzeri's rookie season, but he hit the ground running, hitting 18 home runs, driving in 114 runs, and finishing 10th in the MVP voting. He wasn't Ruth or Gehrig, but he was a feared hitter.

So the Yankee fans roared to life. They were still down 3-2, with two outs in the seventh, but they had all the momentum. Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby walked slowly in from his position at second base to the mound to speak to pitcher Jesse Haines. Haines, a knuckleballer, had thrown a great game, capping off a great series, but he couldn't go on. All those knuckleballs had popped blisters on his finger tips; he was bleeding, and it was raining to boot, so he couldn't grip the ball. So with the crowd still roaring, Hornsby pointed out to the bullpen beyond the outfield.

The bullpen door swung open, and out walked a tall, lanky figure, walking slowly, deliberately through the mist. The man walking toward the mound had seen it all, done it all, except win the World Series. Now here he was, 39 years old, alcoholic and epileptic, coming in for the most important appearance of his career. And at the sight of him, the Yankee fans fell deathly silent.

Grover Cleveland Alexander, often known as Old Pete, had already won 327 games when he walked toward the Yankee Stadium mound that day. More importantly, he had beaten the Yankees twice in that World Series, including a complete-game victory the previous day. Because of those nine innings, nobody expected him to see the mound in Game 7, most of all, probably, Alexander himself. But there he was, taking the ball from Hornsby and preparing to save the Cardinals' season. And the Yankee fans fell silent, because they knew what he could do.

Hornsby asked Alexander how he wanted to pitch to Lazzeri. Alexander wanted to start him with a high and inside fastball. Hornsby wasn't sure, but Alexander said "Sure, he'll swing, but he'll never be able to keep it fair." Hornsby nodded and jogged back to his position. Alexander turned toward the plate to face Lazzeri, one epileptic to another, and fired a high and inside fastball. Lazzeri swung and blasted it high and deep to left, and for a moment, Yankee fans had hope. But just like Alexander had predicted, the ball started drifting, eventually landing safely foul in the seats in deep left. Strike one.

Having shown Lazzeri the fastball, the wily Alexander now had the rookie right where he wanted him. The next two pitches were breaking balls, starting in the middle of the plate and breaking hard away. Lazzeri had no chance, flailing at both of them to strike out and end the inning.

Alexander's strike out of Lazzeri was the biggest out of the series, but it wasn't over yet. Alexander retired the next five Yankees, bringing up Babe Ruth with two out in the bottom of the ninth. It was a potentially great moment, the Hall of Fame pitcher against the greatest player of all time with a World Series on the line. But Alexander and Hornsby wanted nothing to do with it. Ruth had already homered four times in the series, and Alexander wasn't going to make it five. He walked Ruth, officially not intentionally, but it might as well have been. And just as Alexander settled in to face Bob Meusel, Ruth inexplicably broke for second.

Maybe he was frustrated at the Cardinals refusing to pitch to him, as his ninth inning walk was his fourth of the game and his 11th of the series. Or maybe he thought he could catch the Cardinals napping and put himself in scoring position. Whatever he was thinking, most observers agreed that Ruth's decision to try to steal in the 9th inning of Game 7 was by far the worst decision of his career, maybe even the only mental mistake he ever made. He was thrown out by a mile. The Cardinals were World Champions.

Had Haines been able to finish Game 7, he might have had an argument. But Alexander won the MVP award the moment those bullpen doors opened in Game 7.  (Well, there wasn't an official MVP award back then, but you get the idea). Along with his Game 7 save, Alexander won Games 2 and 6 and gave up only four runs on 12 hits while striking out 17 in 20 innings pitched. And while he pitched in four more seasons after 1926, the World Series title was the fitting cap to a brilliant career.

Random Fact
The Cardinals were the last National League team to make it to a World Series. By 1926, the only team that hadn't made it were the Browns, the Cardinals' landlords, who wouldn't break through until 1944.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

St. Louis16 452103
New York 220103 (10)22

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

13. 1926 - St. Louis (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
14. 1995 - Atlanta (N) def. Cleveland (A) 4-2
15. 1960 - Pittsburgh (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
16. 1952 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-3
17. 1997 - Florida (N) def. Cleveland (A) 4-3
18. 1993 - Toronto (A) def. Philadelphia (N) 4-2
19. 1956 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-3
Numbers 20-29
Numbers 30-39
Numbers 40-49
Numbers 50-59
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

Game 7s
Simultaneously, I'll rank all the Game 7s. The ones that have appeared in my countdown so far:

3. 1960: Pittsburgh 10, New York (A) 9
5. 1997: Florida 3, Cleveland 2
7. 1946: St. Louis (N) 4, Boston (A) 3
9. 1925: Pittsburgh 9, Washington 7
10. 1926: St. Louis (N) 3, New York (A) 2
12. 1979: Pittsburgh 4, Baltimore 1
13. 1955: Brooklyn 2, New York (A) 0
14. 1952: New York (A) 4, Brooklyn 2
15. 1971: Pittsburgh 2, Baltimore 1
16. 1940: Cincinnati 2, Detroit 1
18. 1987: Minnesota 4, St. Louis 2
19. 1958: New York 6, Milwaukee 2
21. 1968: Detroit 4, St. Louis 1
22. 1931: St. Louis (N) 4, Philadelphia (A) 2
23. 1973: Oakland 5, New York (N) 2
24. 2002: Anaheim 4, San Francisco 1
26. 1982: St. Louis 6, Milwaukee 3
28. 1965: Los Angeles (A) 2, Minnesota 0
29. 1964: St. Louis 7, New York (A) 5
30. 1957: Milwaukee 5, New York (A) 0
31. 1967: St. Louis 7, Boston 2
32. 1945: Detroit 9, Chicago (N) 3
33. 1909: Pittsburgh 8, Detroit 0
34. 1934: St. Louis (N) 11, Detroit 0 
35. 1985: Kansas City 11, St. Louis 0
36. 1956: New York (A) 9, Brooklyn 0

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