In his box festooned with bunting along the third base line, President Herbert Hoover had just quietly flashed the sign that the fifth game of the 1929 World Series was over. The President had buttoned up his overcoat. At his side, his wife, Lou, had taken the cue and pulled on her brown suede gloves. Around them Secret Service men were arranging a hasty presidential exit from Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Yogi Berra had not yet illuminated the world with his brilliant baseball epiphany—"It ain't over till it's over"—so how on earth were the Hoovers to know?
It was nearing 3:15 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 14, and the Chicago Cubs were beating the Philadelphia Athletics 2-0 behind the elegant two-hit pitching of starter Pat Malone. For eight innings, bunching a potpourri of off-speed pitches around a snapping fastball, Malone had benumbed one of the most feared batting orders in the history of baseball. At its heart were Al Simmons, who batted .334 and hit 307 home runs over his major league career; Jimmie Foxx, who once hit a home run with such force that it shattered a wooden seat three rows from the top of the upper deck at Yankee Stadium; and Mickey Cochrane, who batted .331 in the '29 regular season and is widely regarded as one of the finest hitting catchers ever to play the game.
Now it was the last of the ninth in a game Chicago had to win to stay alive in the Series. The Cubs were down three games to one, and all they needed to return the Series to Chicago was one more painless inning from Malone. Out at shortstop, scuffing the dirt, a 22-year-old Ohio country boy named Woody English had been watching Malone cut down the A's one by one. Only Simmons and Bing Miller, Philadelphia's rightfielder, had been able to rap out hits, a measly pair of singles.
Of the 50 players who suited up that day for the two teams, only English survives, and the 89-year-old former All-Star remembers savoring the prospect of returning to Wrigley Field for Game 6. "Malone could throw real hard, and he was throwing very well," English recalls. "All we needed was three more outs and we were back in Chicago for the last two games. It looked like we had it salted away."
As things would turn out, only the peanuts were salted. For this was the '29 Series, which had already proved to be one of the wildest, most twisting, most dramatic Fall Classics of all time. By the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5, 24 Series records had been either broken or tied. The Cubs had struck out 50 times, and their surpassing second baseman, Rogers Hornsby, had fanned eight times.
This was the Series in which A's manager and part owner Connie Mack had stunned everyone in baseball by reaching around his pitching rotation—the strongest of its era, anchored by the sensational southpaw Robert (Lefty) Grove—and handing the ball in the opener to an aging, sore-armed righthander named Howard Ehmke. This was the Series in which Philadelphia, losing 8-0 in the seventh inning of Game 4, had come back swinging in what is still the most prolific inning of scoring in more than 90 years of Series history. Finally, this was the Classic that crowned a regular season in which the A's had won 104 American League games and finished a thumping 18 ahead of the second-place New York Yankees, the vaunted pinstripes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bill Dickey.
The 1927 Yankees, who won 110 games and finished 19 ahead of second-place Philadelphia, are traditionally venerated as the finest team ever assembled. In fact, according to most old-timers who played in that era, the 1927 and '28 Yankees and the 1929 and '30 Athletics matched up so closely that they were nearly equal, with the A's given the nod in fielding and pitching and the Yankees in hitting.
"I pitched against both of them, and you could flip a coin," recalls Willis Hudlin, 90, who won 157 games for the Cleveland Indians between 1926 and 1940. "They both had power and pitching. A game would be decided on who was pitching and what kind of a day he had. You could throw a dart between 'em."
In truth, the chief difference between the two teams had less to do with how they played in any given game than with where they played their home games. Many veteran baseball observers believe that the Yankees' far more exalted status in history is due largely to the fact that they played in New York, in media heaven, where the manufacture of myth and hype is a light industry. Regardless, these observers agree that those old A's were the finest baseball team to play in Philadelphia and the greatest team that almost no one remembers.
"Those A's never got the credit they deserved," says Shirley Povich, 91, the retired sports editor of The Washington Post, who covered both teams. "The A's were victims of the Yankee mystique. Perhaps the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team of all time. But if there was a close second, perhaps an equal, it was those A's. They are the most overlooked team in baseball."