Ten best World Series Game Ones ever

In my last column here at THT, I wrote a piece looking at recent World Series. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to quite get postseason thoughts out of my head. I’m not really sure why. My best guess is that the letdown that was October 2007 didn’t fully sate my expectations and appetite for autumnal excellence.

Last time I looked at the recent postseasons. Here, I want to take a different approach, and begin a series of articles that should last long enough to process all my remaining need for clutch glory.

When you think of the greatest moments in postseason, you almost always think of the greatest Game Sixes and Sevens, when an entire season could come down to just one pitch. A game taking place in Games 1 or 2 could be just as great or even superior, but hardly anyone would remember it because it merely sets the stage.

I propose to compare each game to their peers. Let’s take all the Game Ones, and rank the ten best of all time. Then I want to do the same for Game Twos, Threes, Fours, and so forth down to the Game Sevens. First come the Game Ones. Makes sense to start there.

One quick judgment call to make: I’m only looking at the World Series. Reason? Well, lemme put it to you this way—did you know we’ve had more postseason series since the aborted October 1994 strike than we had from 1900-76? It’s true—91 series to 89.

If I’m going to have a historical list, I want it to actually be historical, not some ESPN-style list consisting of recent memories with an occasional dose of stock footage. Besides, who really cares about 80% of the Division Series? Frankly, I don’t.

Best of the first

So … what are the most exciting starts any World Series has ever had? Starting with No. 10 and working our way to the top we get:

10) 1923: Giants 5, Yankees 4. It was the first postseason game ever in Yankee Stadium, a place that’s hosted quite a few more over the years. It was also the third consecutive year the Yanks took on their former landlord, John McGraw‘s New York Giants.

McGraw’s boys had won each of the last two Fall Classics, but early on it looked like this might be the Yanks’ year. They pounced on Mule Watson, the Giants’ starting pitcher early, scoring three runs in two innings before McGraw gave him the hook. However, the Giants struck right back with four runs in the third, taking the lead.

The game remained 4-3 until the seventh when Joe Dugan hit a one-out, RBI triple to tie the score. The next batter, none other than Babe Ruth himself, failed to plate him.

The game remained a tight 4-4 score until the ninth, when the Giants hit a homer in the top of the ninth to win. Sure many games are won in the ninth inning on homers, but this one was a little extra special, causing this game to make my list. It was an inside-the-park homer.

The batter sure must’ve gotten a kick at winning a World Series game in Yankee Stadium, because he involved himself in many more wins there. ‘Twas Casey Stengel who got the big hit.

9) 2004: Red Sox 11, Cardinals 9. Not really the best World Series of them all, to put it mildly. It did begin, however, with the best opening act slugfest of them all.

Boston, fresh off becoming the first team to rally from a three-games-to-none deficit in the ALCS, picked up right where they left off, scoring four in the first and leading 7-2 after three. St Louis starter Woody Williams left with the worst Game 1 game score of all-time. Fenway’s faithful can be forgiven for feeling the game was over.

The Cards hadn’t quite got the memo, however. Against Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo, they pounded out five more runs, tying the game 7-7 by the seventh inning stretch.

That didn’t scare the Red Sox, though, and they went ahead in the bottom of the seventh 9-7 off of RBI singles by (who else?) Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

The Cards proved to be a pesky pack of birds. Showing the sort of fortitude that comes with winning 105 games in the regular season, they immediately rallied right back in the top of the eighth, and again the score was tied 9-9.

But the tide had one more turn in this topsy-turvy game. The Red Sox scored another pair off a Mark Bellhorn homer. Though the Cards got the tying run up in the ninth inning, they fell short, giving Boston an 11-9 win.

8) 1916: Red Sox 6, Robins (Dodgers) 5. For 8.5 innings, it was a boring game. Then in the bottom of the ninth, the Brooklyn Dodgers staged a rally so bizarre and brilliant, it was worthy of a Fellini film.

The Red Sox broke open the game in the seventh and led 6-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth. The inning began with a walk to Jake Daubert. Though it ended Ernie Shore‘s stretch off 11 consecutive retired, Boston appeared safe, even when the next batter (Stengel, again) singled him to second. Daubert was then forced at third as Brooklyn’s hopes went on life-support.

Then a hit batter loaded the bases and an error scored two. 6-3, Red Sox. A single put the tying man on first base with still only one out. A pop fly by the No. 8 hitter put the game one pitch away from ending.

Instead of getting that pitch, Ernie Shore tossed like a bonehead, forcing in a run by walking Fred Merkle. 6-4.

He was relieved, and Carl Mays came in and promptly allowed an RBI single. 6-5. The bases were loaded with the tying run 90 feet away. Few foresaw this 15 minutes earlier. Up was the man who began it all, Jake Daubert. With the highest OBP on the team, he was exactly the man you wanted up when you had to avoid one more out.

But he grounded to short. At which point the Red Sox fans let out a sigh of relief so massive it could be seen from space.

7) 1946: Red Sox 3, Cardinals 2 (10). I promise, this is the last one to involve the Red Sox. In their first World Series game since selling Babe Ruth, the Red Sox got off to a good start, holding a 1-0 lead for much of the game. The rival St Louis Cards came back to take in the lead in the bottom of the eighth, 2-1.

Despite not having put a single runner past first base since the third inning, the Red Sox staged a rally, culminating when a two-out single by Tom McBride send the tying run home.

In extra innings, Rudy York homered for the Red Sox while St Louis’ Red Schoendienst made it to third but couldn’t go any farther, preserving another Red Sox Game 1 win. It kicked off a decade that proved to be the golden era of Game Ones.

6) TIE: 1977: Yankees 4, Dodgers 3 (12). 2000: Yankees 4, Mets 3 (12). These are a pair of peas in a pod. They’re both 4-3 games in which the Yanks won at home in 12 innings. The main difference is that while the Yankees blew a ninth inning lead in 1977 to force overtime, in 2000 they came back in the final frame of regulation.

One fun factoid: while Sparky Lyle went 3.2 innings in relief in 1977—far longer than any modern ace hurler is ever asked to go—he actually threw fewer pitches than Mariano Riveria did in his two innings in 2000. That ’77 Dodgers squad went up swinging, as a dozen batters forced him to throw only 29 pitches that day.

Altogether, the 1977 game had 316 pitches thrown against 96 batters, while hitters a generation later worked pitchers for 402 pitches in 101 plate appearances. It’s hardly surprising the Mets bullpen blew the lead and game in 2000—they threw over 100 pitches.

5) TIE: 1929: A’s 3, Cubs 1. 1968: Cardinals 4, Tigers 0. There are only four really famous Game Ones in World Series history, and these are two of them. They are yoked together because both had a pitcher set a new World Series record for strikeouts in a game.

In 1929, Connie Mack chose Howard Ehmke as a surprise starter against the Cubs. Though a first rate pitcher in his prime, the aging journeyman was hardly even a presence on the A’s, tossing barely 50 innings on the year.

Mack knew what he was doing, though. He’d had Ehmke scout the Cubs hitters for weeks in advance, and between that and the rest, Mack’s unorthodox choice worked out brilliantly. Howard Ehmke set a new World Series record, striking out 13 Cubs en route to a 3-1 complete game victory. To this day, only three men have whiffed more in a Series game.

After October, he started only one more game in the rest of his life, which the A’s lost 10-1. Sure Mack knew what he was doing that October, but all the cards fell his way as well.

Bob Gibson‘s game was a foreseeable as Ehmke’s was flukish. He’d already established himself as an all-time great October pitcher, and he was coming off a year in which his ERA was 1.12. If ever a pitcher should’ve won a complete game shutout while striking out 17, it was Gibson in 1968. Exactly what he did.

Between the two, I prefer Ehmke’s game. It was a closer one, with the A’s up only 1-0 heading into the ninth. Besides, all game long one could seriously expect him to fall apart at any moment. You had both a great performance and a great game. In 1968, once the Red Birds scored thrice in the fourth inning, you just had to sit back and enjoy the performance. But, golly, what a performance!

4) 1954: Giants 5, Indians 2 (10). Here’s another of the few, the proud, the remembered Game Ones. The game itself isn’t so much remembered as one moment in it. In the eighth inning with the game tied 2-2, Vic Wertz, who was 3-for-3 on the day, stepped up with runners on first and second and none out. He hit a bomb that led to a play we’ve all seen many times.

I believe the popular view on the play contends that Willie Mays ran so fast in pursuit of the ball that the friction from his feet caused the world to rotate backwards briefly, allowing Wertz’s 3,000 foot blast to land just inside the park. Mays caught and immediately threw a bullet to the plate that traveled so fast, the aerial vortex behind it had enough suction to pull in some cotton candy, three birds, a Chevy Malibu, and Cleveland’s World Series hopes for the next 40 years. Or something like that.

Undoubtedly the most famous defensive play in history, it not only became Willie Mays’ defining moment, but also prevented the Indians from going ahead. In extra-innings, pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes hit one of the first walk-off homers in baseball history, keying one of the most unexpected sweeps in history and garnering Mays his only World Series ring.

3) 1924: Giants 4, Senators 3 (12). World Series, meet Walter Johnson. Mr. Johnson, welcome to October.

This couldn’t be how the Big Train wanted it to go, though. He gave up two early solo shots to the Giants. However, his team rallied back, tying it on a Roger Peckinpaugh double in the bottom of the ninth.

Both managers were determined to let their starters take it all the way. (manager Bucky Harris‘ willingness to leave Johnson in later cost the team the title in the 1925 World Series, but that’s another story). Both Johnson and New York’s Art Nehf battled through rough spots to guide their teams into the 12th inning.

In that frame, Johnson fell apart, as the Giants scored two runs and eight batters came to the plate. However, the equally tired Nehf also had problems. He allowed one run, and another batter made it to third base, 90 feet from a newly tied game, with Washington’s best hitter, Goose Goslin, at the plate. No magic tonight. He grounded to second. It remains one of the rare times in a World Series where both teams scored in the same extra inning.

2) TIE: 1948: Braves 1, Indians 0. 1949: Yankees 1, Dodgers 0. 1950: Yankees 1, Phillies 0. If my notes are correct, there have only been five 1-0 games among World Series Game Ones. Amazingly, three came in consecutive years. All featured two-hitters, tying each other for the fewest hits allowed in any World Series Game 1. Though the Yanks played in two of them, six separate starting pitchers faced off in these games.

The best was in 1948. The Indians and Braves combined for only six hits. The bottom of the eighth was the only time anyone made it to third in the entire game. Bob Feller pitched a two-hitter only to lose to Johnny Sain.

The only run in that game never should’ve scored. Feller tried to pick off the runner, but the ump called him safe. Photographs later showed he had in fact been out on the play.

The next year, Don Newcombe struck out 11 Yanks, and didn’t let a single runner make it past second base … until an aging Tommy Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off home run.

In 1951, Vic Raschi retired the first 14 Phillies he faced. Only one man made it past first base against him. For the Phillies, MVP/Relief Ace Jim Konstancy started his first game of the year. He was good, but not good enough, allowing only one run despite not striking out a single batter. Like I said, the decade after WWII was the golden age for Game Ones.

1) 1988: Dodgers 5, A’s 4. Well, yeah. Can’t top this one. As I’m sure 95% of the readers out there know, it’s famous for the Kirk Gibson homer. The scene: bottom of the ninth (of course), Dodgers down to (naturally) their last out, with the tying run on base and (what else) the winning run at the plate.

Gibson, performing the rare trick of limping on both legs at the same time, fouled off everything he could against Oakland relief uber-ace Dennis Eckersley. Having finally worked the count full, Gibson takes a step out and grins. He remembers the team’s scouting report that if Eck had a full count, he’d throw a backdoor slider. Gibson settled in, and got the pitch he’d been told about. Home run.

The greatest moment in any Game One, and generally seen as the shot that keyed one of the most unlikely upsets off all time.

Really, looking over the list, it’s striking how few moments from Game Ones are really remembered. And ya know what? Not many are remembered from Game Twos, either. But that’s for another time.

References & Resources
This thread at Baseball Think Factory based on my previous column inspired this article. The denizens at BTF mentioned how Game 6s are often better than Game 7s, leading to some discussion of the best games of each Game # in baseball history.

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