Baseball’s Great Games

This article was written by Fred Lieb

This article was published in the 1976 Baseball Research Journal


In addition to 1976 being the Nation’s Bicentennial, it also is a big year for celebration in each of America’s major baseball organizations. The venerable National League, being born in New York, February 2, 1876, is celebrating its proud centennial. Its once upstart junior, the American League, is accepting congratulations on surviving 75 tempestuous seasons.

With changes in frontiers and franchises in the early years and later in the last generation, baseball fans have attended thousands of games and have seen even more ball players. In the parade of games, which particular game stood out above all others? It had to be a game of vital concern to the game’s statistics, but even more it had to be a contest that touched all the gamuts of human emotions, intense partisan loyalty, the deepest of hatreds, bribery, a threat of mayhem and even a suicide of a major league executive. All of these things were wrapped up in the emotions of one game.

For my No. 1 game of the last 100 years I must pick a contest played at the old New York Polo Grounds early in the present century. It was a post season play-off between John McGraw’s scrappy New York Giants and Frank chance’s brilliant, wily Chicago Cubs, winners of 116 NL games in 1906, 107 in 1907, and a strong contender with New York and Pittsburgh for the 1908 pennant.

Of course, picking the greatest game must depend a lot on personal opinion or prejudice, also of how many games you have seen or know about. I am sure that by my picking the 1908 Cub-Giant play-off game as No. 1, some of the younger fans will say: “The old geezer picks a game we know nothing about. We haven’t even heard of it.”

Present day fans can only guess of the heated atmosphere in which this game was played. It came at a time when baseball still was undisputed king of American sports. In the spring and summer, baseball received more than three-fourths of the space in the Nation’s sports pages. It yielded somewhat to college football in the fall, but in winter, baseball still got a third to a half of the space allotted to sports.

Golf and tennis then were largely amateur events, getting real space only when they had their annual championships. Pro football was played mainly in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. College football centered around Yale, Harvard and Princeton in the East and Michigan and the University of Chicago in the Middle West. Basketball was a lesser sport played by high schools and colleges between the football and baseball seasons. Big championship boxing matches were fought in mining towns in Nevada and other out-of-the-way places and not in major cities.

As a consequence, the baseball world championships and the two major league pennants were the most cherished sports prizes. A lot of people did not go to ball games by today’s standards, but among the sporting fraternity, they knew all the players, and what they did from day to day. The 1908 play-off was not a ball game between respected opponents such as the Reds and Red Sox in the 1975 World Series, but it was war between the cities of New York and Chicago, the cities, teams and followers. All over the country, fans backed either the Cubs or Giants, with the majority supporting Frank Chance’s well oiled machine.

The hatreds and ill feeling all started with an earlier Chicago-New York game at the Polo Grounds, September 23, 1908. At the time the top contenders, Giants, Cubs and Pirates, were running almost neck and neck. In this particular game, the score was 2-2 in the New York half of the ninth inning. There were two out, Harry “Moose” McCormick was the Giant runner on third base and Fred Merkle, the rookie, was on first base, when little Giant shortstop Al Bridwell smacked a clean single over second base, permitting McCormick to score the apparent winning run. The crowd surged on the playing field as that was the quickest way to the exits leading to the trolley cars and the Sixth Avenue “L” trains.

However, things still were happening on the ball field. Artie Hofman, skillfull Cub center fielder, fielded Bridwell’s hit and threw in the general direction of second base. The alert Cubs had observed that young Merkle, instead of running down to second base after Bridwell’s hit, had dashed off to the center field clubhouse. New York’s iron man, Joe McGinnity, struggled with shortstop Joe Tinker for the ball thrown in by Hofman. Joe, suspecting that the Cubs were after a force play on Merkle at second, won possession of the ball and threw it deep into the left field bleachers.

Then there was another odd development. Floyd Kroh, a second string Cub pitcher, rolled another ball on the ground from the Cub bench to Johnny Evers, standing at second base. Johnny claimed a force play on Merkle, and umpire Hank O’Day, standing near the bag, called Merkle out, nullifying McCormick’s run.

The Cubs were ready to go to bat in the tenth inning, but by this time most of the 20,000 people who had watched the game were on the playing field. The Giants’ management made no effort to clear the field, and Charley Murphy, Chicago club owner, immediately called for a 9-0 forfeit victory. However, John T. Brush, Giant president, and manager John McGraw, ridiculed the antics of the Cubs after Bridwell’s “winning hit”, and insisted their team had won fairly on the playing field. They dismissed Merkle’s failure to tag second as not being relevant. When the winning run is scored, “that’s the end of the game.”

As Merkle’s failure to touch second became more and more damaging to the Giants’ cause, lie became “Bonehead” Merkle, an unfair nickname that followed him to the end of his career. However, I always have felt that Manager McGraw was partly to blame. A fortnight before the Merkle play in New York, Evers had tried the same play in the ninth inning of a game the Cubs lost in Pittsburgh. The umpire in chief was Hank O’Day. As the winning Pittsburgh run was scoring from third base a young player named Gill also failed to tag second with two out. When Evers and Chance argued that the side had been retired by a force play on Gill, O’Day said, “I had my back turned to the play, and did not see it. But, if such a play comes up in the future, I will look for it, and call it accordingly.”

With this warning from O’Day, McGraw should have drilled all of his players, especially the youngsters, to be sure to touch the bag ahead in all situations.

League president Harry Pulliam ruled the September 23 game a 2-2 tie, and ordered that it be replayed the day following the last game of the schedule if it were needed to determine the winner. The league board of directors supported Pulliam in this decision, but it was stubbornly fought by John Brush of New York, who still considered the game of September 23 a Giant win and that “neither Pulliam, nor the board of directors could steal this victory from the Giants.”

The National League ended its regular season on October 3, in the West, and October 7, in the East, as there then was Sunday ball only in Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati. As the western clubs finished on a Sunday the Cubs were 98-53, and the Giants were 95-53. They still had to play three games with Joe Kelley’s Boston Braves. Kelley had been a teammate of McGraw’s on the Baltimore NL champions of 1894-5-6. One Boston win in the three games would kill off the Giants’ chance to get into a play-off, but the Giants swept all three games without using their ace, Christy Mathewson, by scores of 5-1, 5-1 and 8-1. Both top contenders now were 98-55, and the October 8 game therefore was not only a replay of the Merkle game but also the play-off for the pennant.

Jim Johnstone and Bill Klem were assigned as the National League umpires. While Klem was walking on Madison Avenue near his hotel on the night before the big game, a man emerged from one of the brown front houses with a fat roll of bills in his hands saying to Klem, “The Giants mustn’t lose tomorrow.”

KIern pushed him away and said, “Get away from me, you bum.” As Klem walked through one of the subterranean passages under the old wooden Polo Grounds stands the next day, he again was approached by the man with the big roll of bills. Again, he muttered, “Take these, Bill; the Giants mustn’t lose.” “Get out of my way; you stink,” said Klem.

Of course, Klem was not to be corrupted. He was an umpire who regarded his craft as something almost sacred. An investigation after the play-off game came up with a statement that the attempted briber was a part-time trainer and early osteopathic doctor of the Giants named “Doe” Cramer. The National League ruled that Cramer would be barred for life from all National League parks.

Most of the seats at the Polo Grounds then were unreserved, and crowds gathered around the Harlem field as early as daybreak. Though the game was scheduled for 3 p.m., the New York police closed the gates to all but reserved ticket-holders at 1:30, and even those with reserved seats had difficulty in getting in. They jammed Eighth Avenue and streets near the Polo Grounds. Some of the most daring somehow scaled the fence and climbed into the center field bleachers.

Others produced some sort of a battering ram, and knocked several board loose in the center field fence. Fans poured through the gap in the fence until some of the grounds crew, aided by New York firemen, repelled the free-loaders by squirting water on them with fire hoses.

When it came time for the Cubs to take infield practice, Chance led his players on the playing field while the Giants continued with their batting practice. McGinnity, who was batting out fungos, refused to yield his position at the plate. It was then that McGinnity and Chance had their confrontation. There was some pushing, and both men swung. It later developed that this was all according to Giant plans. The strong McGinnity was supposed to pick a fight with Chance, and work him over to the point that he would be unable to play. It didn’t work, as Chance protected himself and in the game whacked out two doubles and a single and drove in two runs.

Even though McGraw rested Mathewson through the three game Brave series, the big righthander was overworked and tired. He already had won 37 games for the Giants in 1908. That morning he told his wife, “Jane, my arm is as heavy and stiff as a board. I’ve got to tell McGraw I can’t work, and to pitch Hooks Wiltse or Red Ames.” However, when Matty told McGraw of his ailments, the Little Napoleon replied, “You’ve simply got to pitch, Matty. Sore, or lame arm, you still are the best I have. I wouldn’t entrust this game to any one else.” So Big Six was the Giant starter.

Chance’s starting pitcher was his lefthander, Jack Pfiester. He was a Giant hoodoo, and was called “Jack, the Giant Killer” because of his ability to beat New York. But, this day he did no Giant-killing. He got in trouble in the very first inning when the Giants picked up an early run and should have had more. Chance quickly turned to his old reliable, Mordecai Brown, to silence the Manhattan bats. The former coal miner gave up only four hits and one run the rest of the way.

The Cubs struck hard against Mathewson, in their big third inning, when they did all their scoring. Joe Tinker led off the inning for Chicago. Though Joe was only a .260 hitter, he was Christy’s most difficult out. He started the victory ball with a triple over Cy Seymour’s head. Kling quickly brought home Tinker with a single to left. Brown sacrificed Kling to second, and Sheckard lifted an outfield floater for the second out.

Then came an unhappy ten minutes for New York’s beloved Matty. He made a mistake by walking Johnny Evers, and then Frank Schulte and Frank Chance crashed successive doubles, bringing in Kling, Evers and Schulte, four runs for the inning.

The Cubs spent the rest of the game in defending their lead. Mathewson allowed no further scoring in his next four innings, and Wiltse pitched runless ball in the eighth and ninth.

New York fans had one last time to shout. They almost raised the roof of the old wooden grandstand when in the seventh they filled the bases with none out on singles by Art Devlin and McCormick and a base on balls to Al Bridwell. But the promising inning flickered out with only one run. A limping Larry Doyle (he was just recovering from a broken leg) batted for Matty and raised a dinky little foul to catcher Kling. Devlin scored on Tenney’s sacrifice fly but the crowd gave a cry of despair when Tinker threw out Herzog for the third out. After getting out of this tough inning, “Brownie” retired the Giants in order in the eighth and ninth innings.

The Cubs won the game, 4-2, making it three straight flags, and they went on to beat Detroit in the 1908 World Series, four games to one. But it didn’t end the bitterness, backbiting and vicious criticism of league president Harry Pulliam, who disallowed what the Giants considered a legitimate 3-2 victory, and made possible the play-off defeat, and loss of the pennant.

The National League and the Giants had offices in the same building, the St. James Building at 26th Street and Broadway. The two offices became hostile camps. Pulliam was booed when he walked along Broadway, attended the theatre, or sporting events. “I won the 1908 National League fairly and honestly on the ball field, but was skeedaddled out of it in the league’s head office,” McGraw protested, and his fellow members of the Lambs Club all felt the same way.

Pulliam took this sharp criticism through the winter of 1908-09, but when it carried into the 1909 season he fretted and worried. His physician in New York told him to take a trip to Atlantic City, to forget all about baseball, and let John Heydler, the league secretary-treasurer, run the everyday duties of the office. In a fit of despondency on July 4, 1909, Pulliam took his own life by firing a bullet into his brain in his Atlantic City hotel room.

I am sure many fans will be surprised that I did not pick as my first choice the final game of the 1951 NL play-off series between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. I’ll admit that this game, known as the Bobby Thomson home run game, was more spectacular in itself. However, in my mind, it did not have the intriguing background, the intense national rivalry, and the lasting ramifications.

I don’t mean to minimize the Giant-Dodger rivalry, which was substantial in the New York area. In 1951, the Giants, managed by Leo Durocher, trailed Brooklyn by 13½ games in mid-August, but thanks to a 15-game winning streak in September, they tied the “Bums” on the last day of the season. This necessitated a three-game play-off. The Giants won the first game in Ebbets Field 3-1, but the Dodgers stormed back with heavy artillery at the Polo Grounds, winning 10-0 behind Clem Labine.

In the third game, also played in New York, it was a 1-1 pitching duel for seven innings between Sal Maglie and Don Newcombe, the Brooklyn ace. However, the Dodgers apparently tore the game apart with three runs in the eighth, and they began counting their World Series dollars.

Newcombe hastily retired the Giants in the second half of the eighth, and three runs behind in the ninth, the Durocher cause looked rather hopeless. Don had yielded only four hits up to this point, but there was a glimmer of hope when Alvin Dark led off the Giant ninth with an infield hit. Another single by Don Mueller sent Dark to third. After Monte Irvin popped out, Whitey Lockman doubled to left, scoring Dark. Mueller suffered an ankle injury sliding into third, and was replaced by Clint Hartung.

At this point, Dodger manager Chuck Dressen had to make an important decision – to let Newcombe stay in the game or to bring in one of several hurlers warming up in the bullpen. He decided to yank Don and signaled for Ralph Branca, who, a few years before had been Brooklyn’s top hurler. Ralph did little pitching. He served over one called strike to Bobby Thomson, but the Manhattan Scot drove the next pitch high into the left field bleachers.

It was “the shot heard round the world” as the score quickly changed from 4-1 Brooklyn to the dramatic final count of 5-4 New York. It was one of the historic blows of the first 100 years of big league baseball.

If the fan is a pitching nut, he may prefer the double no-hitter on May 2, 1917 between Cincinnati’s righthanded Fred Toney, the “man-mountain of Tennessee,” and the equally large lefty of Chicago, Jim “Hippo” Vaughn. In the regulation nine innings, neither of these heavyweights gave up the semblance of a hit at Wrigley Field. The break came in the tenth inning, when the weak-hitting Larry Kopf opened with a roller to the right side which got between two former New York Giants, Larry Doyle at second, and Fred Merkle at first. Vaughn then disposed of Greasy Neale with an outfield fly to Cy Williams for the second out. But Williams then muffed Hal Chase’s line drive, and Kopf streaked to third. With Jim Thorpe, the Indian football and track star at bat, Chase stole second. Thorpe hit a high chopper in front of the plate which bounced high for Vaughn. Seeing he could not catch the speedy Thorpe at first, Vaughn threw home, which caught catcher Art Wilson off guard. The ball went through him and Kopf scored for a 1-0 victory. Thorpe was credited with a hit and an RBI. Toney pitched another hitless frame for a 10-inning no-hitter.

Among the other great games, I would have to include the October 2, 1908 pitching duel between Addie Joss of Cleveland, who pitched a perfect game, and Ed Walsh of the White Sox who fanned 1 5 while giving up only four hits. Joss won 1-0. Another contest involving a perfect game was Don Larsen’s gem against Brooklyn on October 8, 1956. Not to be forgotten was the strong line-up the Yankee hurler was facing that day – players like Robinson, Hodges, Snider, Furillo, Campanella, and Reese. Another outstanding World Series game was the one featuring the 1960 home run by Bill Mazeroski which gave the Pirates the title over the Yankees.

Three All-Star games also have high spots on the writer’s list of outstanding games. First is the familiar 1934 contest where the Giants’ brilliant meal ticket, Carl Hubbell, struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin in succession. But with Mel Harder’s fine relief pitching, the American Leaguers still pulled it out 9-7 at the expense of Van Mungo and Dizzy Dean.

The second mid-summer classic I have fond recollections of was the July 8, 1941 game where young Ted Williams broke up the game with a three-run homer to give the American League a 7-5 win. I can still see Ted dancing around the bases with all his youthful exuberance when he hit that homer in Detroit.

Au All-Star homer dearer to National League fans was one hit in old Comiskey Park, Chicago, on July 11, 1951. At that time the American League had won 1 2 games to 4 for the NL, and it looked like the usual pattern would be followed with the AL leading 3~2 after eight innings. The late Arthur Daley, then the sports columnist for the New York Times and a National League partisan, said sadly in the Chicago press box, “No matter what the National League does, it just doesn’t seem possible for it to win any of these games.”

Hardly had he made the remark when Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner tied the game with a homer into the left field stands. Five innings later, Red Schoendiest hit another fourbagger in the same general area to give the Nationals a 4-3 win. It marked the end of AL dominance in All-Star play. From that time on, the NL has dominated to the extent that the Junior Circuit has won only six games in a quarter century. The 195 1 game was the turning point.

In conclusion, I should be allowed one sentimental choice, or so it may seem. Actually, this was a historic game in that it virtually assured the Yankees of their first pennant. It was a contest between the World Champion Cleveland Indians and the challenging New Yorkers on September 26, 192 1. It was the last meeting of the two clubs for the season, and followed a 20-5 thrashing which the crew of Miller Huggins took the day before.

A sellout crowd of 40,000 packed the Polo Grounds to see Babe Ruth hit two homers and a double and George Burns hit a triple and three singles to lead the Yankees to a come from behind 8-7 victory.

There was great tension and pressure, particularly in the ninth inning when the Indians loaded the bases. Yankee club president Jake Ruppert couldn’t take it and retreated from the press box. He missed the most dramatic play of the game as the count went to 3 and 2 on batter Steve O’Neill. He could barely see the tricky underhand delivery of Carl Mays in the evening dusk and fanned on a pitch that was almost in the dirt. From the yelling of the crowd, Ruppert knew his club had triumphed. That put the Yanks a game and a half up, a lead they held for the rest of the final week of the season. It gave them the right to meet their landlords, the Giants, in the historic 1921 World Series.

Considering the way the Yankees dominated the American League and baseball in general over the next 40-odd years, the September 26, 1921 triumph over the Indians merits inclusion among the outstanding games of the last 100 years.

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