Monday, November 19, 2012

1924 World Series: A Rock in a Great Place

The Teams
American League: Washington Senators (92-62) - First World Series
National League: New York Giants (93-60) - Ninth World Series (Won in 1905, 1921, 1922)

What Happened
With the Senators trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning of Game 7, Washington player-manager Bucky Harris stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. If the Senators were going to do this, now would be the time. They didn't have much offense, so they would need their manager, their leader, to come through when it mattered the most. Harris hit one hard down the third base line, well hit but right at Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. Lindstrom was in position, ready to scoop the ball and step on third for the easy force, and the inning would be over and with it, most likely, the Senators' season. But just as Lindstrom was about to get his glove on it, the ball hit a pebble and bounded over his head, going far enough into left field for two runs to score. The Senators had life again.

After the craziness that he first six games of the series brought, it must have seemed that the pebble that changed the entire course of the 1924 World Series was placed there by fate. The series had already seen four games where the team trailing entering the ninth inning mounted a rally, and twice those rallies made it all the way home. A series that had started with more than its share of good storylines - would the great Walter Johnson finally win his World Series? Would the Giants become the second team to win three titles in four seasons? - had erased all subplot. Now, the only question that mattered was "what would happened next?"

What happened next, after Harris' hit bounced off that pebble and over Lindstrom's glove, was the most predictable dramatic entrance in baseball history. After throwing complete games in Game 1 and 5, Johnson wasn't expected to be available for Game 7 (wink, wink), but there he was, taking the mound for the top of the ninth, hoping to lock down Washington's first World Series.

There was really nobody else who could be on the mound, either. For most of their time in baseball, Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators were synonymous; you couldn't mention one without the other, often for negative reasons. Like: "Oh, the Senators are in town! I wonder if Johnson is pitching." Or: "It's too bad Johnson is stuck on the Senators. His brilliance is wasted on that sorry team."

The Senators weren't sorry in 1924. While Babe Ruth continued his rampage against American League pitching, the rest of his Yankees teammates fell off from their standards of the previous three seasons, leaving an opening at the top of the American League that the Senators were all too happy to fill. It didn't matter that they were facing the four-time defending National League champion Giants int he World Series - the Senators had Johnson for at least two of the games, possibly three, and they were confident that would be enough.

But they entered Game 7 with Johnson still looking for his first postseason victory, and they entered the eighth inning of Game 7 trailing, looking for all the World like they would blow their great pitcher's only chance at a title. But Harris' grounder hit that pebble, and two runs scored, and suddenly they were in extra innings with a fresh Johnson on the mound.

Johnson gave up a one-out triple in the ninth inning, but pitched out of it. New York got two runners on base against Johnson in the 11th, but Johnson pitched out of it. Meanwhile, the Senators showed no interest in mounting a rally on their own. They seemed to forget that a pitcher can only throw the ball, that he can't be expected to score a run on his own.

Finally, they got the break that woke them from their slumber. You know how on popups behind the plate, you'll see the catcher hold his mask as long as possible, throwing it off to the side only at the last possible moment? That happens for a reason, and that reason happened in the bottom of the 12th in Game 7, when Giants catcher Hank Gowdy tripped over his discarded mask and was unable to corral Muddy Ruel's foul popup. Given new life, Ruel ripped a double to left field and found himself standing at second base, representing the World Series-winning run, as Johnson stepped to the plate.

Now, it would have been wonderfully poetic if Johnson had gotten the hit that gave the Senators their first championship, if he had driven in the run that put the exclamation point on his career. But whoever was writing the script for the 1924 World Series didn't have time for poetry. Johnson hit the ball, sure, but it was right at shortstop Travis Jackson. Jackson bobbled the ball, allowing Johnson to reach first, but since Ruel didn't advance, the error had the same effect as an intentional walk. It set up a force play at any base, and it brought Earl McNeely to the plate.

McNeely hit one hard down the third base line, well hit but right at Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. Lindstrom was in position, ready to scoop the ball and step on third for the easy force and maybe look toward first for the double play. But just as Lindstrom was about to get his glove on it, the ball hit a pebble and bounded over his head, going far enough into left field to allow Ruel to score the World Series-winning run.

It was a remarkable coincidence, having two different balls in two different innings take the same bad hop to cost a team the game. Years later, Lindstrom swore both balls bounced off the same pebble, which brings up the question of why he didn't throw the pebble out of play after the first hit. Whether they hit the same rock or not, the fact remained that two different hits took bad hops at nearly identical spots in the infield, gifting the Senators three runs and giving them their first - and, as it turned out, only - World Championship.

Washington forever has owed its only World Championship to a well-placed pebble in the Griffith Stadium infield, which makes them seem like the beneficiaries of luck. But the city will always be able to point to one thing to refute claims of luck. The winning pitcher of Game 7, the pitcher who got the decision the only time the city of Washington won a baseball championship, was the great Walter Johnson. 

Since I'm not in the mood to name a pebble as the World Series MVP, it's really a tossup between Harris and Goose Goslin. Both had 11 hits and 7 runs batted in, and between the two of them hit the only five home runs the Senators hit in the series. Since they were so close, it's likely that had there been such a vote, it probably would have gone to Harris, considering he played well and managed the team.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)
New York4 (12)3 64613
Washington3447224 (12)

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

3. 1924 - Washington (A) def. New York (N) 4-3
4. 2001 - Arizona (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
5. 2011 - St. Louis (N) def. Texas (A) 4-3
6. 1912 - Boston (A) def. New York (N) 4-3 (1 tie)
7. 1992 - Toronto (A) def. Atlanta (N) 4-2
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:

2. 2001: Arizona 3, New York (A) 2
3. 1960: Pittsburgh 10, New York (A) 9
4. 1924: Washington 4, New York (N) 3
5. 1997: Florida 3, Cleveland 2
6. 1912: Boston (A) 3, New York (N) 2 (game 8)
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
27. 2011: St. Louis 6, Texas 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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