Thursday, October 25, 2012

1947 World Series: Lavagetto's Double

The Teams
American League: New York Yankees (97-57) - 15th World Series (Won 10 previous times)
National League: Brooklyn Dodgers (94-60) - Fourth World Series

What Happened
Floyd "Bill" Bevens was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1937, at 20 years old. Despite throwing two no-hitters in the minor leagues, he wasn't able to pitch sufficiently well enough to warrant additional attention from the big league club. It took Bevens until 1944 to earn a call up to the big leagues, and that likely happened only because most of baseball's stars were fighting in World War II. Teams needed bodies wherever they could find them, so players like Bevens were given a shot they otherwise might not have gotten.

Bevens started out his professional career surprisingly well. He wasn't the best pitcher on the Yankees, but he did well enough to stay in the rotation even when the regulars started trickling back from Europe and the Pacific. His secret to staying in the majors was the reduction of the walks that so hurt him throughout his minor league career.

It all started to fall apart in 1947, though. His walk rate shot up, he started to give up more hits, and he started losing more games. While he had a winning record each of his first three seasons, he fell to 7-13 in 1947. He had the worst numbers of the six pitchers who started for the Yankees that year; in fact, he was the only Yankee pitcher with a losing record, regardless of the number of games played.

Yet Bevens took the ball for Game 4 of the series, with the Yankees up 2-1 but reeling a little bit after losing Game 3 in Brooklyn. And Bevens looked bad, walking a Dodger batter in almost every inning, throwing one wild pitch and a couple other close calls, and generally looking like he had no control of the strike zone. And yet, he was still on the mound to start the bottom of the ninth, holding on to a precarious 2-1 lead, three outs away from the first no-hitter in World Series history.

Bruce Edwards led off the bottom of the ninth with a deep fly ball to left. Ebbets Field didn't have a lot of room in the outfield, but it had enough on this hit. Johnny Lindell closed his glove on it. One down. Bevens then walked Carl Furillo, his ninth walk of the game. They tying run was now on first. Spider Jorgensen was next, and he fouled out to first, which was tough to do since Ebbets Field had about as much foul territory as your average closet. Two down.

Brooklyn went to the bench, as Pete Reiser pinch-hit for the pitcher and Al Gionfriddo pinch-ran for Furillo. Right away, Gionfriddo was off, steal second to put the tying run on second. Then Yankee manager Bucky Harris broke the golden rule in baseball: he put the winning run on base, ordering Reiser intentionally walked to set up the force play. While it went against all conventional wisdom, it was a little bit understandable. Bevens hadn't given up a hit, after all. So the winning run was on first, and there were two outs, and Cookie Lavagetto came up to pinch hit.

Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto made his major league debut as a 21-year-old second baseman for the Pirates in 1934. After three years as a backup, he moved over to Brooklyn, switched to third base, and became a perennial all-star. He played for the Dodgers in the 1941 World Series, but played poorly, batting .100 while the Dodgers went down in 5. Then, in the prime of his career, he was gone, one of the hundreds of Major Leaguers to fight in the war. By the time he came back in 1946, he was done. He was once again a part-time player, a guy playing out the string. Lavagetto had a couple of hitless at bats in Game 1, so he stepped up to the plate 1-for-12 in his World Series career. Bevens threw a first pitch, a strike. He got ready to throw the second pitch...

There were five future hall-of-famers, and a handful of other all stars, playing in the 1947 World Series. The most prominent of them was Jackie Robinson, who capped off his historic rookie season by becoming the first black man to play in a World Series. But he had no part in the next pitch, Bevens' 137th of the night, one of the most memorable pitches in baseball history. None of the Hall of Famers did. Instead, it was a pitcher and a hitter, both nearing the end of their careers, hanging on for one more moment of glory, wondering how they got picked by the baseball gods to be here in this moment.

Bevens threw the 0-1 pitch, and Lavagetto swung. He made solid contact, sending a liner toward the wall in right. It caromed off the wall, Brooklyn's first hit of the game, and Gionfriddo came around to score. As Tommy Henrich bobbled the ball coming off the wall, Reiser came flying around third to score the winning run. Bevens had been one out from immortality, but instead walked off the mound a 3-2 loser.

It was a truly remarkable game, a sublime moment, but baseball didn't have time to reflect. There was still a World Series to finish. And Bevens and Lavagetto stepped away from the spotlight and let the rest of the players to their jobs. Lavagetto would get four more at bats in the series, including another chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth the very next day (he struck out; fate had a sense of humor, but it wasn't insane). Bevens pitched in relief in Game 7 and would have earned the win under today's rules. As it was, though, he was credited with a no-decision.

And that was it. When the 1947 World Series ended, and the Yankees were crowned champions again, Bevens and Lavagetto took their final bows. Bevens never pitched in the majors after 1947, bouncing around the minor leagues for five years, including the Pacific Coast League before hanging them up. Lavagetto's game-winning hit in Game 4 was the final hit of his major league career. He, too, spent time in the Pacific Coast League, playing for his hometown Oakland team.

Perhaps Lavagetto faced Bevens in some long-forgotten minor league game during that span. It would have been something to see, just two old players trying to hang on to something, serving as a reminder of fleeting and fickle fame can be. As it was, they'll always be remembered, the unlikely stars of one of baseball's greatest moments.

They didn't pick MVPs back then, and a quick glance doesn't reveal an obvious star. I guess it'd be Lindell, the Yankee left fielder, who batted .500 with four extra base hits and a team-high seven runs batted in. It doesn't matter. All that mattered was Game 4, a game won by the team that ended up losing the series.
(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Brooklyn33 93182
New York 510822 65

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

8. 1947 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-3
9. 1972 - Oakland (A) def. Cincinnati (N) 4-3
Numbers 10-19
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
11. 1962: New York (A) 1, San Francisco 0
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
17. 1972: Oakland 3, Cincinnati 2
18. 1987: Minnesota 4, St. Louis 2
19. 1958: New York 6, Milwaukee 2
20. 1986: New York (N) 8, Boston 5 
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
25. 1982: St. Louis 6, Milwaukee 3
26. 1947: New York (A) 5, Brooklyn 2
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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