The greatest pennant race ever, in reverse: 1951 NLby Chris Jaffe
September 24, 2012
Last week, I tried a fun exercise here at THT: pennant races in reverse. The notion was to run the season backwards to see how the storyline shifts when you stand a season on its head. After all, at the end of the season, all games count equally, but the narrative surely won’t be the same depending on how the games are ordered.
Last week’s column tried to show some of the most incredible finishes to pennant races if you make real life’s April games the final contests. This week, let’s see what happens when you run the most famous pennant race through the reverse cycle: the 1951 NL race.
The 1951 season is famous for the Giants scrambling back from a 13.5-game deficit to tie the Dodgers at the end of the year. The Giants then won the best-of-three game playoff on Bobby Thomson’s famous home run. It should be fun to see how this one ends up when reversed.
One key rule: the tie-breaking series must be kept at the end
The famous end-of-season three games to decide the race will be kept at the end. Please realize these weren't originally scheduled games, but ones added on when the regular season ended in a tie. If you make those end three games the first three games, the Dodgers and Giants won't end their 154 games tied yet would strangely keep playing. (Even stranger, one of the Dodgers' final three games would be against the Giants, but none of the Giants' last three games would be against the Dodgers. The Dodgers had an off day early in the year.)
Simply put, things don't make sense unless we leave those last three games at the end.
So here is one of the game’s greatest races in reverse:
1951 NL: Giants pull away early
What pennant race? Rarely has a race seemed so over so quickly as the 1951 NL. The Giants began the year winning their first seven straight. After one loss, they won five more in a row. A baker's dozen games into the season, New York led the league by four games.
And they didn’t slack off much after that. After splitting a May 13 doubleheader with the Phillies, the Giants were 21-6, the best team in baseball. Only the red-hot Redbirds (22-10) were even close, and no one expected St. Louis to keep this up.
Not that it mattered if St. Louis did keep it up. After losing the second game on May 13, the Giants improbably kicked it up yet another notch. For three weeks they couldn’t be beat, winning 16 straight. Here were the standings on June 1:
Teams W L Pct Back NYG 37 6 0.860 STL 30 20 0.600 10.5 BRK 26 22 0.542 13.5 BSN 25 23 0.521 14.5 PIT 20 26 0.435 18.5 CIN 19 28 0.404 20.0 PHI 15 29 0.341 22.5 CHC 16 33 0.327 24.0
Like I said, what pennant race?
Giants relax, Dodgers accelerate
The Giants could put it on cruise control and finish first, and that’s just what they proceeded to do. Over their next 50 games, they played exactly .500 ball, leaving New York with a record of 62-31 and exactly two-thirds of their games won.
To be fair, the Dodgers had gotten hot in the meantime, winning two thirds of their games, but they still clearly were trailing. Here were the standings on July 24:
Teams W L Pct Back NYG 62 31 0.667 BRK 60 39 0.606 5.0 STl 52 45 0.536 12.0 BSN 48 48 0.500 15.5 PHI 47 51 0.480 17.5 PIT 43 56 0.434 22.0 CIN 41 58 0.414 24.0 CHC 38 63 0.376 28.0
Give the Dodgers credit; they’d made sure it wasn’t going to be a complete laugher, but a big part of the reason the race looked close was because the Dodgers had played a half-dozen more games, and they still had won fewer while sitting eight back in that all-important loss column.
But those damn Dodgers kept winning. They took 20 of their next 26 contests and by late August had nearly caught the Giants. At the end of Aug. 22, both squads had 80 wins, but the Dodgers' four extra losses (45 to 41) kept them two games back. With 33 games left to play, the season was wide open.
Building the insurmountable lead
Just when it looked like a great fight to the finish would begin, the Dodgers finally fell off the furious pace they’d played over the last three months. Also, the Giants got their groove back.
On Sept. 11, the Giants traveled to Brooklyn for the first meeting between the teams in over a month. Brooklyn desperately needed a win to stay in it, but instead the Giants triumphed, 8-5. Here were the standings after that game:
Teams W L Pct Back NYG 94 46 0.671 BRK 88 54 0.620 7.0 STL 75 70 0.517 21.5 BSN 66 73 0.475 27.5 PHI 66 75 0.468 28.5 CIN 64 79 0.448 31.5 PIT 59 85 0.410 37.0 CHC 57 87 0.396 39.0
Brooklyn trailed by seven with just a dozen left to play. Yeah, that’s bad. Okay, so five of the games were against the Giants. That’s still really, really bad. Only an epic faceplant by the Giants would let the Dodgers have even a chance.
The greatest choke job that never happened
But in what looked like nothing more than a moral victory, the Dodgers took the remaining two games in the series from their rivals. Yippee. Now they trailed by five games with 10 to play.
Then the Giants went to Boston to play the lowly Braves and promptly lost both games while Brooklyn split its series with the Phillies. Now Brooklyn trailed by four, but they only had eight games left. The math still sucked.
But those Giants couldn’t seem to beat anyone. Immediately after the Boston series, the Giants lost the first two in a three-game set to the Phillies. That made six straight losses in the midst of the season’s crunch time. The Dodgers, however, had missed a great chance to take advantage of things, losing two straight to Boston. Brooklyn was 91-58, four games behind the 94-52 Giants. And Brooklyn had just five games left to make up the difference.
The next day, the Dodgers had to face Braves ace Warren Spahn, and they just could not lose. They dare not lose. Spahn kept Brooklyn’s hitters at bay, but after nine innings it was all tied up, 1-1. The game pressed on, and so did Spahn. Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen pulled his starting pitcher, Joe Hatten, after 11 brave innings, but Spahn endured. Finally, in the bottom of the 16th, Brooklyn scored an unearned run for a 2-1 win. As an added bonus, the Giants also lost that day (their seventh straight defeat).
The Dodgers needed that. Because now, for the first time ever, they could claim to be masters of their own fate. Sure, they trailed by three games with almost no season left to play, but they were about to go to the Polo Grounds for a three-game set to determine the pennant.
For the Giants, it was simple. Win one game and the worst-case scenario was to end the season in a tie with Brooklyn. Win one game in this series, and then the Dodgers have to win out the rest of the way while the Giants lose out. All New York has to do was win just one measly game.
They didn’t. Improbably, incredibly, bizarrely, the Giants got swept on their home turf. Those losing streak was a never-ending 10 games long.
The first game of the series broke New York’s back. They led 3-1 after seven, only to see the Dodgers score one in the eighth, another in the ninth to tie it, and one in the tenth to win it. After that series from hell was over, here were the standings at the end of Sept. 27:
Teams W L Pct Back NYG 94 56 0.627 BRK 95 57 0.625 STL 81 72 0.529 14.5 BSN 74 76 0.493 20.0 PHI 72 80 0.474 23.0 CIN 68 83 0.450 26.5 PIT 62 90 0.408 33.0 CHC 60 92 0.395 35.0
Brooklyn was tied. Technically, New York led due to winning percentage, but the way they were playing, who could give them the edge? Ten straight losses and they had coughed up a seemingly sewn-up pennant. It was the greatest choke job of all time.
On Sept. 28, the game differential would finally get cleared out as the Dodgers had the day off while the Giants played a doubleheader against the Braves. If they lost the first game, the Dodgers would have the lead in the pennant race for the first time all year.
The Giants didn’t just lose, the loss looked like the sort of thing that would end their last bit of fight. New York’s starting pitcher, Jack Kramer, couldn’t even get out of the first, allowing five runs. New York’s offense gamely fought on, but the bullpen wasn’t much better than Kramer. After four innings, New York trailed, 9-4.
But the Giants showed more fight than they had in quite some time. They battled back and, thanks to a big five-run top of the eighth, took a 10-9 lead. They were six outs from reestablishing a lead in the race. Instead, Giants relievers Monty Kelly and Dave Koslo immediately gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth. Boston led again, 12-10.
That’s the real dagger, right? That’s what you can’t bounce back from, right? Wrong. New York came back yet again with a pair in the ninth to tie it, 12-12. Extra innings beckoned, and that’s where the Giants lost, 13-12, on a bases-loaded single by Earl Torgeson off Koslo. If Koslo was a smart man, he’d assume a disguise next time he walked around in New York City.
The Giants had just lost their lead in the pennant race, and they did it despite a pair of gritty, late-game comebacks. What’s more, they’d now lost 11 consecutive games. They were the best team in history ever to lose that many in a row. (Note: that is still true. Even now, 61 years later, no team with a better winning percentage than the 1951 Giants has ever lost 11 straight). And the Giants did it at the worst time possible.
The Giants couldn’t possibly come back. Aside from all of the above, the Braves had superstar Spahn slated to go in the second game, as if things didn’t look bleak enough for the Giants.
But that’s the funny thing about assuming events in advance. Teams rarely let the narrative dictate their play.
The Giants still had another game left to play that day, and Spahn be damned, the Giants beat him, 4-2. (Spahn just was having no luck playing the spoiler in this pennant race). Now both Giants and Dodgers stood at 95-57. As bad as things had been for New York, as bad as the losing streak was, it was over, and it made no difference. The Giants could still master their own fate.
That’s how things stood when Sept. 29 began, but it isn’t how they stood when the day ended. The Giants lost to the Braves, 8-5. Meanwhile, the freshly rested Dodgers beat the Phillies, 4-3.
Now Brooklyn was full master of its own destiny. The Dodgers entered the last day of the season up by a game. Win, and they’re in. Lose, and they could back into the postseason if the Giants blew another one.
The Dodgers, however, couldn’t seize the day. They had to face Philadelphia ace Robin Roberts, who stopped them cold, 5-2. Now the Dodgers needed the Giants to lose.
For the Giants, it all came down to nine innings of redemption, and they took full advantage of it. Pitching in the biggest game of his life, Larry Jansen came up big for the Giants, throwing a complete-game shutout for a 5-0 win. The Giants had lost 11 straight down the stretch—including five to the Dodgers—but had won two of their last three to force a best-of-three playoff.
The exact same events, but it's a completely different story
Now comes the part you should be familiar with. But just think how wildly different the story is heading in. Real-life 1951 saw the Giants rally back to catch the Dodgers at the end of the season. Reverse-life 1951 sees the Giants engage in a flop as epic as their actual comeback. The storyline is entirely flipped.
But the three-game playoff was the same. In the first game, the Giants win 3-1. Finally, a win over the Dodgers! The late-season whammy that Brooklyn had over them is finally broken. Their fans can start to breathe a bit. All the Giants have to do now is win one of two.
In the second game, the Dodgers need a win to stay alive, and by God do they get it, a 10-0 trouncing. All the drama, all the back-and-forth, and it all comes down to one winner-takes-all game.
Perhaps you know how it goes. Brooklyn scores early to take a 1-0 lead, but the Giants tie it in the bottom of the seventh, 1-1. Will it go into extra frames? Not likely, because in the top of the eighth, the Giants convert four singles and an intentional walk into three runs. Brooklyn leads, 4-1. Now, after being left for dead less than a month ago, Brooklyn is six outs from a wildly unlikely pennant.
The deflated Giants can’t even hit the ball out of the infield in the bottom of the eighth, and are set down in order, 1-2-3. Cases of champagne are probably being delivered to the Dodgers clubhouse as the Giants head into the bottom of the ninth needing at least three runs to avoid being known as the greatest chokers in sports history.
Alvin Dark singles to lead off. Well, at least they’re showing some fight. Next, Don Mueller singles Dark to third. That’s nice, at least they’ll get the tying run to the plate. The Giants pull Mueller for pinch-runner Clint Hartung, but then Monte Irvin fouls out to deflate the slim hopes the Giants faithful has let. But Whitey Lockman gives them a jolt by doubling home Dark. With Muller and Lockman both in scoring position, a single could tie the game, and there’s still just one out.
Hold on, folks, the pennant race isn’t over yet.
Up to the plate comes Bobby Thomson.
Rather than just describe what happened next, let’s give you the famous words that Giants broadcaster used when calling Thomson’s at-bat in the all-important game:
Bobby Thomson... up there swingin'... He's had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line... One out, last of the ninth... Branca pitches... Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner... Bobby hitting at .292... He's had a single and a double, and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center... Brooklyn leads it 4-2...Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances... Lockman with not too big of a lead at second, but he'll be runnin' like the wind if Thomson hits one... Branca throws... [audible sound of bat meeting ball]
There's a long drive... it's gonna be, I believe...
THE GIANTS DIDN’T BLOW THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS DIDN’T BLOW THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS DIDN’T BLOW THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS DIDN’T BLOW THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they're goin' crazy, they're goin' crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!''
At least, that’s how it would’ve sounded if you ran the 1951 National League pennant race in reverse.
In reality, the 1951 NL pennant race was the greatest one ever. If you flip it around, it still might be the greatest one ever but with a very different narrative.
References and Resources
Baseball info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
Russ Hodges transcript came from Wikipedia.
To date games, I took the number of games the Giants had played by Day-X, and assigned that to the standings here.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.