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Septembers To Remember
Peter Gammons
September 14, 1987
With this year's races heating up, we revisit Bobby Thomson, Duster Mails, Fred Merkle and other heroes and goats of autumn
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September 14, 1987

Septembers To Remember

With this year's races heating up, we revisit Bobby Thomson, Duster Mails, Fred Merkle and other heroes and goats of autumn

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And there have been Greater September disasters that have made lifetime goats of otherwise fine men and heroic performances that were eclipsed by greater or more timely ones. Never forgiven, despite all else they accomplished, were: Fred Merkle, whose failure to touch second base in 1908 cost the Giants a pennant; Ralph Branca, whose pitch to Bobby Thomson in '51 became the Shot Heard Round the World and cost the Dodgers a pennant; and Mike Torrez, who threw the pitch that Dent hit out in the Yankees-Red Sox one-game playoff in '78. Gene Mauch, currently the manager of the Angels, has worn the numerals 1964 across his forehead like a mark of dishonor for having presided over the Phillies that year, when they lost the pennant after having had a 6½ game lead with only 12 left to play. How often does Mauch think about '64? "Every day," he says.

Thomson's homer off Branca obscured what Jackie Robinson had done just to get the Dodgers into the three-game playoff against the Giants. New York had been 13½ games behind Brooklyn on Aug. 12, but after beating the Braves on Sept. 30, the last day of the regular season, the Giants were half a game ahead of the Dodgers, awaiting the outcome of Brooklyn's game in Philadelphia. There, in the bottom of the 12th inning, the game appeared to be over when the Phillies' Eddie Waitkus hit a line drive up the middle with the bases loaded. An excited Western Union operator in the press box prematurely sent out the message that the Dodgers had lost and the Giants—as broadcaster Russ Hodges would scream correctly three days later—had won the pennant. But second baseman Robinson made a miraculous diving catch of Waitkus's drive and then homered in the top of the 14th to win the game for the Dodgers and force the playoff.

As Robinson's heroics were forgotten, so was the terrible slide of the 1950 Phillies, thanks to a single play. Had it not been for Richie Ashburn. no one would remember the Whiz Kids, and manager Eddie Sawyer's name would have been mud in Philadelphia for a generation. The Phillies had a 7½ game lead with nine to play, but by the time they arrived at Brooklyn's Ebbetts Field on the season's last day, the margin had dwindled to a single game. Sawyer started Robin Roberts for the third time in five days. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers should have won it then: After Cal Abrams walked with none out and Pee Wee Reese advanced him to second with a base hit, Duke Snider singled. Ashburn, playing a shallow center, fielded the ball. Inexplicably, Dodgers third base coach Milt Stock sent Abrams home, and Ashburn threw him out. Roberts then retired Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges, and Dick Sisler won it for the Phillies with a three-run homer in the 10th.

As we wonder whether Mattingly or one of the Clarks will reenact Yastrzemski's 1967, or whether a Scott or Morris will have a 5-0 September run, let us rank the 10 greatest pennant races of all time:

1951: The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff
The Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, including 16 straight and their final seven, to tie the Dodgers. In the third game of their playoff, the Giants trailed 4-1 in the ninth, then made it 4-2 and had two men on when Branca came in to face Thomson, who had batted .427 since Aug. 20. The rest, Russ Hodges fans, is history.

1978: Athens and Sparta
In July, when the Red Sox led the Brewers by 10 games and the injury-riddled Yankees by 14½, the Boston Herald ran a series on the "SuperTeam." Then the Sox were beset by injuries, the Yanks got healthy, and New York swept four in Fenway to pull even. At one point the Yanks opened a 3½ game lead. Ultimately, the teams met in Boston for a one-game playoff to decide the AL East title. If Yankee rightfielder Lou Piniella hadn't made two terrific plays and Rich Gossage hadn't got Yaz to pop up with two on in the ninth—and if Dent hadn't hit that three-run homer—people would remember that Boston won its last seven regular-season games.

1920: Death Followed by Guilt
All season long this was a high-speed chase involving the Indians, White Sox and Yankees. Along the way, Babe Ruth changed the game by hitting 54 homers (the previous record: 29). On Aug. 16 first-place Cleveland was leading Chicago and New York by 1½ games when the Yankees' Carl Mays struck the Indians' star shortstop, Ray Chapman, with a pitch. Chapman died the next day. The Indians reeled for the rest of the month, when they expanded their roster with the usual supply of late-season rookies, including a shortstop named Joe Sewell and a lefthanded pitcher named Duster Mails. Sewell soon took over Chapman's position, batted .329 and ended up in the Hall of Fame, while Mails went 7-0. As Cleveland and Chicago prepared to meet in Cleveland's League Park for a showdown series beginning on Sept. 23, Chicago buzzed with rumors that a grand jury was preparing indictments against Ed Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson and six other 1919 White Sox players for throwing that year's World Series. Now, in the second game against Chicago, Mails pitched a 2-0 shutout. Still, on Sept. 28 the White Sox were only a half-game out with three to play when eight White Sox players were suspended by owner Charles Comiskey after Cicotte's confession revealed they had been involved in the fix. The Indians clinched the pennant on Oct. 2.

1908: Merkle and Addie Joss

Giants first baseman Fred Tenney woke up with lumbago on Sept. 23, so a rookie named Fred Merkle took his place. Only percentage points separated Chicago and New York as they met at the Polo Grounds that day. When the Giants' Al Bridwell got a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth with Moose McCormick on third and Merkle on first, fans poured onto the field, thinking McCormick had scored and New York had won 2-1. Problem was, Merkle, figuring the game was over, never bothered to touch second base, a dereliction noted by Cub second baseman Johnny Evers, who called for the ball. But, as legend has it, the ball was lost in the crowd of fans, and a wrestling match over it ensued between Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker and New York's Joe McGinnity. Finally Evers came up with a ball—no one knows for sure whether it was the right one—and stepped on second. Merkle was called out and McCormick's run was nullified. The game was declared a tie and replayed on Oct. 8, when Mordecai (Three Fingered) Brown beat Christy Mathewson 4-2 to put the Cubs en route to their last world championship.

That year's American League race, a four-team affair among Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia, was equally compelling. The White Sox were shocked by the Indians in the final week when Addie Joss's perfect game beat Ed Walsh's 15-strikeout performance, 1-0. But three days later the Browns knocked the Indians out of the race, and the Tigers won the pennant by a half-game.

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