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Monday, September 8, 2003
Updated: September 23, 9:51 PM ET
Pennant fever

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

No doubt about it -- we're in the midst of some wicked good division and wild-card races right now. If you haven't been paying attention, the BoSox are nipping at the heels of the Yankees in the AL East, Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City are fighting a battle of the mediocres in the AL Central, and Seattle's just two games behind Oakland in the AL West. Over in the NL Central, 1½ games separates first-place Houston from third-place St. Louis. And the wild cards? It'll probably be either the Red Sox or the Mariners in the AL, but in the NL, your guess is as good as mine -- just four games separate the top contenders.

About three weeks to go, and there's a whole lotta shakin' going on, and before it's all over, this season could possibly edge its way onto our list of the 10 greatest pennant races of all time.

1. 1978 AL East: Bucky Dent's 15 minutes
In midseason, it looked like the Red Sox were going to run away with it -- a 10-game lead over the second-place Brewers, and a 14½-game lead over the Yankees. Then the Yankees came back, including a devastating four-game sweep at Fenway in early September known as the "Boston Massacre," and opened a 3½-game lead. Which the Red Sox closed by winning their final eight games. A tie at season's end forced a one-game playoff at Fenway.

Bucky Dent
Bucky Dent rescued the Yankees in 1978.

You know the story: Bucky Dent's three-run homer off Mike Torrez won the game for the Yankees. But nobody knew what would happen as Phil Rizzuto pattered away in the fourth inning (from "O Holy Cow!: The Selected verse of Phil Rizzuto"):

One ball two strikes on Nettles,
Every pitch and every play
So important in this ball game.
Imagine two teams
Coming down to the end of the season,
Both winning 99 games,
Everybody thought 95 would win the pennant,
And it all boils down
To this one playoff game.
All right, Torrez ready.
The one-two pitch ...

2. 1967 AL: Red Sox triumph in four-team race
On Sept. 1, the standings looked like this:

Team Name G W L PCT GB
Boston Red Sox 136 77 59 .566 --
Minnesota Twins 135 75 58 .563 0.5
Detroit Tigers 135 74 60 .552 2.0
Chicago White Sox 135 73 60 .548 2.5

On Sept. 26, after Luis Tiant of the Indians beat the Red Sox, it looked like this:

Team Name G W L PCT GB
Minnesota Twins 159 91 68 .572 --
Chicago White Sox 157 89 68 .566 1.0
Boston Red Sox 159 90 69 .566 1.0
Detroit Tigers 159 89 69 .563 1.5

It came down to the final two games of the season, and the Red Sox beat the Twins twice in a two-game series, clinching the pennant. Yaz went 10-for-13 to close out his great Triple Crown season, and the Sox, with a 92-70 mark, won the flag with the lowest winning percentage ever at that point. But it was a far cry from ninth place, where Boston had finished in 1966, and a long time coming, too -- it had been 21 years since the Red Sox had won their last AL flag.

3. 1993: The last great pennant race
Here's how different baseball was 10 years ago: there were four divisions, no wild cards, and the Braves did battle in the NL West against the Giants, who had Barry Bonds and Dusty Baker and were tearing up the division, leading the Braves by 10 games in late July.

Slowly, the Braves closed the gap. Slowly, because the Giants were still winning. On Aug. 15, the Giants, with the best record in baseball, led by 7½. By Sept. 1, the lead had dwindled to 4½. By Sept. 8, the lead was down to 2. At Candlestick, the Giants lost, and lost, and lost again, and when San Fran looked up a week later, they trailed the Braves by 3½ games. The Giants had been in first place for 123 days before the Braves took over. Said Giants first baseman Todd Benzinger, "It seems strange. We've been chased relentlessly, and now we're the chasers."

The Giants didn't give up. They won 14 of their next 16 and the two teams began the last day of the season with identical 103-58 records. The Braves beat the Rockies 5-3, then waited, as did about 10,000 fans who stayed in Fulton County Stadium to watch the Giants-Dodgers contest on the stadium's big video screen. Three hours after their victory, the Braves stood in center field, doing the chop, as the Dodgers polished off the Giants 12-1.

"This whole town seemed on the verge of having a nervous breakdown at the thought of coming so far, then coming up short," wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post. "Why else would thousands of people sit in a ballpark for three hours and watch a TV screen 600 feet away? Were all their TV sets at home broken? Did somebody close every bar in town? Maybe the Braves fans just needed to band together and convince each other that the boogie man wasn't going to get them again -- not like the other times."

4. 1908: Cubs, Pirates, Giants, and Merkle's Boner
On Oct. 4, the 97-55 Cubs hosted the 98-55 Pirates in their final game of the season, and the Cubs won 5-2, with 30,247 looking on at the West Side Grounds. Chicago had eliminated Pittsburgh, but then had to wait as the Giants played a three-game series against the Braves in Boston. The Giants were 1½ games out of first. Then they beat the Braves, 8-1. One game behind. They won again the next day, 4-1. One-half game behind. They won again, 7-2, tying the Cubs with a 98-55 mark, and forcing a replay of a Sept. 23 tie game that had resulted from Fred Merkle's (as the Times put it on Sept. 24) "censurable stupidity."

The New York Times reported on the Giants' loss the next day:

Chicago-New York boxscore

"The close race for the pennant carried the deciding game of yesterday beyond the length of the season because of the decision making a tie of a game which would have been won from the Chicago team by the New Yorks but for the error of judgment of First Baseman Merkle, who destroyed a run by failing to run to second base on another player's safe hit. New Yorkers felt that their team was entitled to the pennant and had won it, but they were game enough to view with keen sporting spirit the contest which resulted yesterday and confident enough to believe that they would win up to the minute the last out was made.

"There is no record of a sporting event that stirred New York as did the game of yesterday. No crowd so big ever was moved to a field of contest as was moved yesterday. Perhaps in the history of a great city, since the days of Rome and its arena contests, has a people been pitched to such a key of excitement, as was New York 'fandom' yesterday."

In 1 hour and 40 minutes, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown beat Christy Mathewson; the Cubs won the flag and the World Series.

5. 1962: The Giants and Dodgers in a Classic
In 1962, the Giants had five future Hall of Famers in their lineup; the Dodgers boasted Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. With just six games left on their schedule, the Giants were four games behind the Dodgers. The two teams were locked in a strange, backwards race to the finish -- though both would end the season with 101-61 records, neither performed well down the stretch, with the Giants going 7-10 and the Dodgers 3-10 to close the season. The Giants caught the Dodgers on the final day of the regular season to force a three-game playoff.

The Giants won the first game at Candlestick, and lost the second at Chavez Ravine, 8-7, running through a record-tying eight pitchers in nine innings. In the rubber game, the Dodgers led 4-2 going into the ninth, but the Giants scored four on four walks, two singles, and an error to win the pennant.

Dodgers fans knew their team had blown it big time. "Andy Williams, normally a mild-mannered singer, was so angry he kicked in the side of his new foreign sports car," reported the Associated Press.

Wally Schirra, who orbited the earth a triumphant six times in his Mercury capsule that day, ended his great flight upset about only one thing: he'd asked for the score of the game while in orbit, but never got it. On the other hand, folks watching the game on NBC were updated with a bulletin that Schirra's flight was safely completed just as Maury Wills threatened to steal second.

6. 1949: Bronx, Brooklyn capture flags on last day of season
The Yankees held first place in the AL from the start of the season until ... the hard-charging Red Sox won three straight in a late-September series against New York, capped by a 7-6 win before 67,434 at Yankee Stadium. That gave Boston a one-game lead with five to go. It all came down to a final two-game set, Red Sox vs. Yankees at The Stadium. If the Red Sox could take one of two, the pennant would be theirs. But it was not to be. The Sox lost 5-4 and 5-3 to finish one game behind the Bombers, the second time in two years that Boston had lost the pennant by a game. In 1948, the Sox had lost in a one-game playoff to the Indians.

Preacher Roe and Branch Rickey
Preacher Roe and Branch Rickey.

Meanwhile, in the NL the Cards and Dodgers had been locked in a tight race all year. On July 1, Brooklyn held a 1-game lead over St. Louis. On Aug. 1, St. Louis held a ½-game lead over Brooklyn. Throughout most of September, the Cards held a slim lead, but Brooklyn finally moved into first place with just two games left to play. On the final day, the Cardinals won and the Dodgers won a 10-inning thriller in Philly. The Sym Phony Band, the Section 8 Club, and 25,000 other Dodger fans greeted the Bums at Penn Station that night. Preacher Roe was the first off the train. "The crowd went shrill," wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times. "Those who had guessed wrong about the track on which the train would arrive stampeded to the scene, waving pennants, wearing blue baseball caps with the letter 'B.'"

7. 1934: "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" Damn right
On Friday, Sept. 14, the Giants beat the Cardinals 4-1, building a seemingly insurmountable 5½-game lead over the Gashouse Gang with only 16 games left in the season. But the teams played again in a Sunday doubleheader, and the Cards began a season-ending tear as brothers Dizzy and Paul Dean pasted the Giants, each winning their end of a twinbill. Exactly one week later, with the Cards in the midst of winning 14 of their last 16 games, Dizzy and Paul Dean did it again, with Dizzy pitching a three-hitter and Paul tossing a no-hitter in a doubleheader against the Dodgers. Dizzy had predicted the outcome pretty closely that morning, as he told a St. Louis writer that "Zachary and Benge [the Giants starters] will be pitching against one-hit Dean and no-hit Dean today."

In the meantime, the Giants faltered. The previous winter, Giants player-manager Bill Terry had been asked, at a small press conference, about the prospect of various NL clubs. A New York Times reporter asked, "What about the Dodgers, Bill?" Terry replied, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" The Dodgers got their revenge in September by sweeping the Giants in their season-ending series. The Cards didn't move into first place until Brooklyn's Van Lingle Mungo shut down the Giants at the Polo Grounds on the second-to-last day of the season.

8. 1956: "Is this a nation of kids, or what?"
The Dodgers, Braves, and Reds were within five games of each other all season, and even closer most of the way. With three games left, the Reds were all but officially eliminated, 2½-games back, but the Braves held a slim 1-game lead over the Dodgers. Two days later, the Dodgers swept a doubleheader against the Pirates while the Braves lost to St. Louis, and Brooklyn moved into first by a game, with one left to play. While the Braves won their final game, the Dodgers held on behind the pitching of Don Newcombe (who won his 27th game of the year) and two homers and a spectacular catch by Duke Snider. At season's end, Cincy was two games back, Milwaukee one.

The pennant race inspired William Saroyan to write a wonderful essay for Sports Illustrated, just before the second consecutive Yankees-Dodgers World Series:

"More Americans put their spare (and purest?) caring into baseball than into anything else I can think of -- and most of them put at least a little of it there. Most of them know the game is going on all the time, like the tides, and suspect there's a reason, or at least wonder about it. What is all the fuss about the whole year, and all the excitement every October? Is this a nation of kids, or what?"

9. 1951: The Shot Heard 'Round the World
The Giants had made their improbable run from 13 games back in mid-August, and everyone was surprised at how it ended. "In the ninth inning," wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times, "the loudspeaker system in the press box erupted with an announcement. 'Attention, press,' said the voice. 'Please pick up your Dodger credentials at press headquarters in the Biltmore tomorrow night.' It was slightly premature. Thomson nullified that preparation with one swing of his bat."

The best place to find a TV in New York that day was at a bar, and, as was customary, taverns took advantage of strong demand for views of the screen by shutting off the taps and selling only bottled beer, which commanded, at 35 cents, a higher profit margin. Presumably, at 3:58 p.m., when Bobby Thomson ended it all, the taps flowed again.

And the city buzzed, with so many telephone calls placed after the end of the game that the Manhattan and Brooklyn phone system was overloaded from 4 to 4:25 p.m., due to "the sudden mass surge of baseball enthusiasts to discuss the ball game and its outcome with friends."

10. 1948: Cleveland rocks
It doesn't get much better than this: with a week left in the season, Cleveland, Boston, and New York were tied at the top of the AL, with identical 91-56 records. On the final day of the season, the Indians held a 1-game lead over the Red Sox; the Yankees were 2 games out, mathematically eliminated. The Red Sox won the last game of the season, 10-5, over the disheartened Bombers, while Cleveland lost to Detroit, 7-1, forcing a one-game playoff. The Indians won it at Fenway, 8-3, behind player-manager Lou Boudreau's two homers. Cleveland went on to win the World Series over the Boston Braves in six games.

Also receiving votes:

1908 AL: Tigers win three-team battle by half-game
1964 NL: Phillies blow big lead in final two weeks
1987 AL East: Tigers beat Blue Jays on final day