The 1950 season began with a dramatic rematch between two rivals that battled for the American League pennant until the final day the season before. In 1949, going into the final two games at Yankee Stadium, Boston needed to win only one to take the pennant. They lost both. With Boston and New York expected to again battle for the pennant in 1950, the Red Sox had an opportunity for swift revenge on Opening Day. That opportunity turned into disaster when the Red Sox blew a nine-run lead and lost to the Yankees 15-10. The Red Sox never recovered, finishing the season in third place, as the Yankees repeated as AL champions.
While the Yankees won the World Series in 1947, and again in 1949, frustration was mounting for the Red Sox. In 1946 Boston lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Seven.1 In 1948 they lost a one-game playoff for the pennant to the Cleveland Indians. Then came the crushing loss to the Yankees in 1949 that ended Boston’s season with the “taste of ashes.”2 With the Red Sox favored to win the pennant in 1950,3 Opening Day against the Yankees took on an importance well beyond that of an ordinary regular-season game.
The “furor” surrounding the game was as if the season was “already coming to a close with the pennant [about to be] decided.”4 As Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times, “[m]ost of the experts are … agreed that the Yanks can repeat as champions only in the tightest kind of pennant race. But most of them also are agreed that the Red Sox are the only contenders with a chance of blowing the race wide apart as they run off and hide from all rivals.”5 In words that would prove prophetic, Daley wrote that “[t]he pennant could be lost here and now,” observing that a one-sided result could have a disproportionate impact on the pennant race.6
Thus, on a bright and warm afternoon, Fenway Park was filled with a record Opening Day crowd of 31,822. Before the game, the commissioner of baseball, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, presented Ted Williams with the 1949 AL MVP Award.7 The governor of Massachusetts, Paul Dever, threw out the first ball.
The Yankees were managed by Casey Stengel.8 Stengel was following in the footsteps of Joe McCarthy, who led the Yankees from 1931 to 1946, winning eight pennants and seven World Series in 16 seasons.9 As if there was not enough drama for Opening Day, McCarthy was now the manager of the Red Sox, having become their skipper at the start of the 1948 season.10
The Red Sox lineup featured two future Hall of Famers, Williams and Bobby Doerr, together with Dom DiMaggio,11 Al Zarilla, Billy Goodman, Vern Stephens, and Johnny Pesky. With starting catcher Birdie Tebbetts and his backup, Buddy Rosar, both injured, Boston started Matt Batts behind the plate. On the mound was the ace of the staff, Mel Parnell, who had led the AL in both wins and ERA in 1949 (25-7, 2.77).
The Yankees had three future Hall of Famers in their lineup — Joe DiMaggio,12 Phil Rizzuto, and Yogi Berra — together with “Old Reliable,” 37-year-old Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Jerry Coleman, Billy Johnson, and Johnny Lindell. On the mound was their ace, Allie Reynolds, 17-6 in 1949.
The Boston fans were roaring early as the Red Sox scored three times in the first. After making it 4-0 in the second, Boston chased Reynolds in the fourth, scoring five runs, including a two-run home run by Goodman. Things were looking awfully good for the Red Sox as they led 9-0 after four innings.
New York’s slumbering bats woke up in the sixth, when they scored four against Parnell, closing the gap to 9-4. Parnell pitched a scoreless seventh and when Boston added an insurance run in the bottom of the frame, the game looked pretty much over with the Red Sox leading 10-4.13
Then came the Yankees eighth. With two on and one out, a Yankees rookie named Billy Martin came to the plate.14 The 21-year-old Martin had entered the game after Coleman was removed for a pinch-hitter. Billy “The Kid” was now batting for the first time in his major-league career — and he doubled off the left-field wall, driving in a run.15 Stengel then sent future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize up to pinch-hit. The 37-year-old Mize, in his first full season with the Yankees, doubled, scoring two, and suddenly it was 10-7.16 Jackie Jensen, making his major-league debut, ran for Mize.17
McCarthy had now seen enough of the tiring Parnell, and Walt Masterson came in to face Rizzuto, who made the first out. Then the onslaught resumed. Henrich tripled to right, making it 10-8. With Masterson throwing from the right side, Stengel put lefty-swinging Gene Woodling up to bat for Bauer. After a wild pitch made it 10-9, Woodling walked and DiMaggio singled, putting runners on first and second. That was it for Masterson as lefty Earl Johnson took the mound to face the lefty hitting Berra. Berra’s infield single loaded the bases. Right-hander Al Papai then came in to face the righty-hitting Johnson.18 Johnson singled to left, scoring two, and incredibly the Yankees had taken the lead, 11-10. After Lindell walked, Martin got his second hit of the inning and of his career, driving in two more runs.19 Charley Schanz,20 the fifth Boston pitcher of the inning,21 relieved Papai and ended the inning, but not before the Yankees had scored nine runs on eight hits and taken a 13-10 lead in “an explosion that all but leveled Bunker Hill.”22
Joe Page — whom the Boston Herald described as “Stengel’s meal ticket”23 — pitched two perfect innings to close out the game for the Yankees, who scored two more in the ninth to make the final score 15-10.
The implications of the stunning Yankees comeback were readily apparent. The Boston Herald remarked how the season “started where the 1949 campaign ended — in deep gloom.”24 The let- down “was as shocking, if not quite so painful” as the collapse “against the same opponent on the final two days of the last season.”25 The New York Times observed how the Red Sox “opened the season with a grand flourish … but the Yankees almost closed it on the spot.”26 The Boston Traveler blared that the “Yankees Feel Psychologically Set,” stating that if the Yankees “win the American League pennant — and now they are supremely confident that they will — and if the Red Sox don’t win the pennant — and nobody’s sure that they will — the opening game of the American League season will have settled the pennant race.”27 The Red Sox were a “crestfallen” team, “shaken right down the line.”28 Before the game the Red Sox players voted to bar the press from their dressing room.29 As one Boston writer put it, instead of keeping the press out of the locker room, “they should have barred their own pitchers.”30
The next day, the Yankees and Red Sox split a doubleheader.31 The Yankees went on to win 98 games and the pennant. The Red Sox made it to first place in May, slumped to fourth for much of the season, and finished strong, ending up in third place, four games behind the Yankees.32 They scored a franchise-record 1,207 runs in 1950, but their 94 wins saw them finish behind both the Yankees and the 95-win Detroit Tigers.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1950 and again in ’51, ’52, and ’53. From 1954 through 1964, they won nine more pennants and four more World Series.33 The Red Sox finished third again in 1951, this time 11 games out. For the next 15 seasons, they never finished higher than third, were never closer than 12 games out of first and finished sixth or lower eight times. Finally, in the “Impossible Dream” season of 1967, the Red Sox won the pennant but lost in the World Series. The Yankees, of course, kept on winning championships and the Red Sox did not win one until 2004. Looking back at the hopes and dreams that the Red Sox had on Opening Day 1950, after having come so close to the pennant in both 1948 and 1949, one has to wonder how the Red Sox would have fared that season — and how baseball history might have been different — if they had not sustained that dispiriting 15-10 loss to the Yankees on Opening Day.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Game Seven of the 1946 World Series is long remembered for Enos “Country” Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” to home that beat the Red Sox. The Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918 and, prior to 1946, had gone 27 years without coming even remotely close to a pennant. In contrast, from 1921 through 1949, the Yankees won 16 pennants and 12 World Series.
2 David Halberstam, The Summer of ’49 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006) 285. Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, immortalized the 1949 pennant race in his book. That season, with the pennant in their grasp, the Red Sox blew a four-run lead in the first of their two final games against the Yankees and lost the pennant on the last day of the season. The Yankees went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.
3 Carl Felker, “Experts Strong for Dodgers, Red Sox,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1950.
4 John Drebinger, “Bombers to Clash with Red Sox in Inaugural Contest at Boston,” New York Times, April 18, 1950.
5 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, April 18, 1950.
6 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times.”
7 In 1949 Williams came within one hit of winning his third Triple Crown. He won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947. In 1949 he led the league in HRs (43) and RBIs (159) while batting .343, losing the batting title to Detroit’s George Kell on the final day of the season when he finished with a BA of .3427 to Kell’s .3429. From 1901 through 2019, there have been only 15 Triple Crown seasons in baseball history. Besides Williams, only Rogers Hornsby had two such seasons. Williams also was, as of 2020, the last player to hit .400 in a season, having hit .406 in 1941.
8 Stengel was in his second season as Yankees manager. He began his managerial career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1934. After three seasons managing the Dodgers, Stengel took over the reins of the National League Boston Bees (later Braves), managing them from 1938 through 1943. In nine years as a manager in Brooklyn and Boston, none of Stengel’s teams finished out of the second division. With the Yankees, Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series in 12 seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 1966.
9 McCarthy’s tenure as Yankees manager ended during the 1946 season. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 1957.
10 It was reported that McCarthy’s critics “say that he has never won a close pennant race” and that was why the opening series with the Yankees was “tremendously important. With a rapid getaway Boston might whisk out of sight. With another sorry start by the Red Sox it could very well be that Stengel will again be taking the bows.” Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times.”
11 Dom was Joe’s younger brother. He played 11 seasons, all with the Red Sox, and had a lifetime batting average of .298.
12 At age 35, the Yankee Clipper was coming off an injury-plagued season that had limited him to 76 games in 1949. A three time AL MVP, DiMaggio had won the award in 1947, led the league in HRs and RBIs in 1948, and hit .346 in 1949.
13 The margin would have been even greater if not for a “breath taking,” “electrifying” seventh-inning catch by Joe DiMaggio near the right-center-field bullpen with the bases loaded and two out, on a drive hit by Batts. John Drebinger, “Bombers Win, 15-10, With Late Uprising,” New York Times, April 19, 1950.
14 The Providence Journal referred to him as “Al Martin” (his given name was Alfred Manuel Martin). F.C. Matzek, “Yanks Come From Behind, Whip Sox in Opener, 15-10,” Providence Journal, April 19, 1950. The Boston Globe referred to him as Billy Martin, exclaiming that “Stengel’s Rookie Protégé, Martin, Sparks Big Rally.” Hy Hurwitz, “Sox Start Fast, Blow 9-Run Lead to Champs,” Boston Globe, April 19, 1950.
15 Martin would go on to have an 11-year playing career in the majors. He played with the Yankees until he was traded during the 1957 season. Martin later returned to the Yankees as their manager in 1975. He was fired during the 1978 season but returned to manage the club in 1979, before being fired again during that season. He returned in 1983 for his third stint as manager and was fired yet again, returned again in 1985, fired again, and then came back for a short-lived fifth managerial stint in 1988.
16 After six seasons with the Cardinals and five with the Giants, Mize was sold by the Giants to the Yankees in August 1949.
17 Jensen, 23 years old, was a top Yankees prospect who was traded to Washington early in the 1952 season. After the 1953 season, Washington traded him to the Red Sox, with whom his career took off. Playing for Boston from 1954 through 1959, Jensen led the AL in RBIs three times, was a two-time All-Star, and was the AL MVP in 1958.
18 It was Papai’s Red Sox debut. He had been acquired on waivers from the St. Louis Browns after the 1949 season.
19 The Boston Globe noted that “Martin achieved some sort of baseball history” by getting two hits and three RBIs in a single inning, in his first two at-bats in the major leagues. After the game, Stengel “confessed” that he considered pulling Martin for a pinch-hitter the second time through the lineup, stating that “the kid came through for me so I let him bat a second time. He’s only 21. … I know that the Red Sox didn’t know how to pitch to him.” Hy Hurwitz.
20 Schanz was making his Red Sox debut. After pitching for the Phillies from 1944 through 1947, Schanz pitched in the minors in 1948 and 1949.
21 Boston’s use of five pitchers in a single inning tied the then major-league record. Hy Hurwitz.
22 Drebinger, “Bombers Win 15-10, With Late Uprising.”
23 Arthur Sampson, “No Relief, Hose Blow Game to Yanks, 15-10,” Boston Herald, April 19, 1950. Page was nicknamed “Fireman” in an era when the role of specialist relief pitchers was first evolving. He pitched for the Yankees from 1944 through 1950, with 76 career saves and the most saves in the AL in 1947 and 1949.
26 Drebinger, “Bombers Win 15-10 With Late Uprising.”
27 Arthur Siegel, “Yankees Feel Psychologically Set,” Boston Traveler, April 19, 1950.
29 Jerry Nason, “Compromise Needed Between Sox, Writers; Ban Penalizes Readers,” Boston Globe, April 19, 1950.
30 Siegel. Another Boston writer had his own tongue-in-cheek commentary, stating: “The Red Sox may be able to ban baseball writers from their dressing room, but they still haven’t found a way to keep the New York Yankees from crossing home plate, a little matter which would seem to be more important.” Joe Looney, “Closed Door Policy Backfires,” Boston Herald, April 19, 1950.
31 Boston won the first game, 6-3, and the Yankees took the nightcap, 16-7.
32 Detroit finished second, three games out of first.