This article was written by Thomas J. Brown Jr.
The National League pennant race had become a nailbiter. St. Louis was on an eight-game winning streak but clung to just a half-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds had won nine games in a row to remain in contention. With just three games left, the Reds remained a half-game behind the Cardinals.
St. Louis manager Johnny Keane remained optimistic, noting that he would not mind entering the World Series on an 11-game winning streak. “All we have to do is keep winning and the heck with what the Reds do against the Phillies,” he said.1
The Mets arrived in St. Louis with a 51-108 record. They had lost eight in a row but Mets manager Casey Stengel still called them the “Marvelous Mets” even as “[t]hey’ve been the butt of more jokes than the proverbial traveling salesman.”2
Although the Mets occupied the cellar of the National League, they had a chance to finish the season with the best won-lost record in their short history. If they beat the Cardinals at least once they would become in the words of Red Foley of the New York Daily News, the “greatest team in Met history. Win No. 52 is a big prize for them and the way it shapes now they can actually win a pennant – for somebody.”3
Cardinals starter Bob Gibson entered the game with an 18-11 record. Gibson had led the Cardinals pitching staff in September, compiling a 6-1 record with a 1.90 ERA. A crowd of 19,019 was there to see the stopper of the staff start for the Cardinals.4 They were optimistic that he would beat the Mets since the right-hander had lost to the Mets only once.
Gibson had faced Mets left-hander Al Jackson in that lone loss, on July 27, 1962. Jackson outdueled Gibson in that game and notched a 1-0 complete-game victory. The two pitchers had not faced off against each other again until this game.
The Mets jumped on Gibson in the first. After Bobby Klaus grounded out, George Altman and Joe Christopher singled. The Mets loaded the bases when Bill White couldn’t handle Ed Kranepool’s sharp groundball. But Gibson snuffed out the Mets’ chances when he struck out the next two batters he faced.
The Mets took advantage of another scoring chance in the third. Altman, a former Cardinal, singled up the middle and stole second base. Christopher’s groundball out moved Altman to third. He scored when Kranepool hit a single to left, and the Mets went ahead 1-0.
The Mets filled the bases again in the fourth with nobody out on two singles and an error by Cardinals shortstop Dick Groat. Gibson held the fort, striking out Klaus, getting Altman on a fly to Lou Brock in short left, and striking out Christopher.
Gibson pitched well the rest of the way, allowing just two more hits before he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. But he needed some offensive help and the Cardinals were unable to provide it against Jackson. When Keane finally pulled Gibson in the eighth, he had struck out seven Mets and “survived two bags-bulging innings.”5
Jackson shut down St. Louis through the first three innings. The Cardinals got a baserunner in the fourth when Curt Flood led off with a double to left field. But Flood was left stranded on second as Jackson got the next three Cardinals out on a popup and two infield grounders.
Jackson allowed just one more hit, a single in the fifth, before the Cardinals mounted a rally in the eighth that ended “on one of the strangest plays in baseball – and that was resolved on a technicality.”6
Ed Spiezio batted for Gibson with two outs and singled to left field. Dal Maxvill ran for Spiezio. When Flood singled to left, Maxvill ignored the stop signal of third-base coach Vern Benson and sped past second to slide into third.
Brock then slammed a groundball straight toward shortstop Roy McMillan for what looked like an easy out. But before McMillan could grab the ball, it hit second-base umpire Ed Vargo and bounded into left field.
Maxvill crossed the plate and Brock took second. The “Redbird rooters who had watched Maxvill buzz across were somewhat shaken when he was returned to third.”7 But both players were ordered back, Maxvill to third and Brock to second.
Brock was credited with the single. The playing rules state that if a ball hits an umpire after it has passed the infielders it is in play. But if the ball hits an umpire before an infielder has had a chance to make the play, it is a dead ball.8 The Cardinals rally ended when the next batter, Dick Groat, lined to right field.
Jackson got the Cardinals out in order in the ninth. Ken Boyer grounded to short, White flied out to center and Julian Javier grounded to third for the final out. White had driven in at least one run in the previous nine games but Jackson stopped him. The Mets mobbed Jackson, who was given the game ball. He “pressed it firmly in his glove, making it clear that he regarded it as a treasured souvenir.”9
The lefty told reporters that he was most proud of his sinkerball. “It was dipping right but I didn’t fool anybody with the curve. I threw only five curves for strikes and three of them went for base hits,” he said.10 Jackson’s shutout was the Mets mound staff’s 10th of the season, and the southpaw had thrown three of them.
Neal Russo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed up the game: “Christmas still could come early for the baseball Cardinals even though a December 25 baby named Al Jackson was anything but a Santa Claus to the Red Birds last night.”11
“Jackson was just too good,” said Keane. “Our guy pitched well, too, but we just had one shot at Jackson.”12 The win was the fifth one-run game in a row between the two teams.
The Mets victory temporarily knocked the Cardinals out of first place. But St. Louis got a break when the Phillies ended their 10-game losing streak to beat the Reds 4-3. “This soap opera turn of events” left the Cardinals a half-game ahead of the Reds with just two to play.13
Keane remained optimistic about the Cardinals making the postseason. “We’ll do it; we’ll make it. It isn’t all bad,” he said. “Had the Reds won it might have been critical. Now I think we’ll win it.”14 The Cardinals would just have to beat the Mets, who showed with Jackson’s victory that they could be spoilers.
After all, the Mets had just set a team record for wins in a season after seeking that 52nd win for over a week. Any additional victories would just buttress their claim to the title of winningest Mets team of all time. The Mets made that a reality when they gave the Cardinals a 15-5 thrashing the following day. The loss forced the National League pennant race into its final day as a “three-team free-for all” with St. Louis tied with Cincinnati and Philadelphia just one game behind.15
St. Louis beat the Mets, 11-5, on the final day of the season. The Cardinals victory, combined with Philadelphia’s 10-0 shutout of the Reds, sent St. Louis to the World Series to face the Yankees.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org, for box-score, player, team, and season information as well as pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
1 Red Foley, “Cards Last Hurdle: Mets,” New York Daily News, October 3, 1964: 31.
2 Joe McGuff, “Jackson Fires Solid 5-Hitter,” Kansas City Times, October 3, 1964: 26.
3 Foley, “Cards Last Hurdle.”
4 Joseph Durso, “Mets Turn Back St. Louis, 1-0,” New York Times, October 3, 1964: 21.
5 Red Foley, “Mets, 1-0, Hold Cards at Half-Game,” New York Daily News, October 3, 1964: 31.
7 Foley, “Mets, 1-0, Hold Cards.”
10 Neal Russo, “Mets Beat Cardinals in Opener,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 3, 1964: 6.
14 Murray Chass (New York Times), “NL Race Gets Tighter as Windup Time Nears,” Ithaca (New York) Journal, October 3, 1964: 7.
15 Joseph Durso, “Mets Force League Race Into 3-Team Free-for-All,” New York Times, October 4, 1964: 267.