The 2010 season almost presented us with a dramatic re-match between the 2009 pennant winners, the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. Almost, but not quite, as each league’s defending champion, despite being heavily favored, fell to an upstart challenger in the LCS.
Every year provides multiple potential World Series confrontations that fail to materialize, and in the modern multi-tiered playoff arrangement, the near-misses are particularly many. Recently a THT reader, Joe Hedio, emailed with an idea for an article that identifies some of the more intriguing non-matchups throughout history. Joe even suggested a few, but we won’t give those away quite yet, because they’re so good they’re included below.
So, thank you, Joe! Let’s proceed.
10: 1922, New York Giants vs. St. Louis Browns
Most historically-inclined fans are aware that the woebegone St. Louis Browns, a perennial tail-ender in the American League, won just a single pennant in their 52 seasons of operation. Moreover, that flag was captured in the topsy-turvy wartime season of 1944, and is thus generally dismissed as an amusing fluke. But what fans may not realize is that the Browns did manage to put together one genuinely superb team, way back in 1922.
The ’22 Browns are largely forgotten because they didn’t win the pennant, instead finishing in second, an excruciating single game behind the league-champion New York Yankees. Yet those Browns were probably a better ball club than that year’s edition of the Yanks, who were without the services of superstar Babe Ruth for six weeks due to a suspension. The Browns presented a distinctly superior Pythagorean record (98-56 versus 91-63), and outscored the Yankees 105-100 in their 22 head-to-head contests that year—yet the pennant flew in New York because the Browns somehow went just 8-14 in those games.
St. Louis was led by three tremendous performers: Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler hit a staggering .420 and also led the majors with 51 stolen bases, left fielder Ken Williams led the league with 39 home runs and had 37 steals (becoming the first 30-30 man in major league history), and ace pitcher Urban Shocker had 24 wins and a 140 ERA+ in 348 innings.
The actual World Series that fall wasn’t much of a contest, as John McGraw’s Giants pulled off a sweep while stifling Ruth to the tune of 2-for-17 and no homers. One wonders whether those robustly talented Browns would have put up a tougher fight.
9: 1977, Philadelphia Phillies vs. Kansas City Royals
But neither the Yankees nor the Dodgers were any slam-dunk to make it to the World Series that year. Reggie’s Yanks barely survived a five-game struggle of a League Championship Series against the Royals, in which Kansas City scored 22 runs to New York’s 21 (and in which Mr. October produced just two singles in 16 at-bats). Los Angeles defeated the Phillies in four games in the NLCS, but that was only due to a painful Philadelphia unraveling in the ninth inning of Game 3, in which after two were out and the bases empty, the Phils coughed up three runs to squander a 5-3 lead.
Both the Royals and the Phillies had better regular season won-lost records than the Yankees or Dodgers. Kansas City and Philadelphia would eventually meet in the 1980 World Series, but those two excellent ball clubs might well have hooked up a few years earlier.
8: 1948, Boston Braves vs. Boston Red Sox
Though the Braves and Red Sox co-occupied Beantown for more than half a century, they never managed to hook up for a “T Series.”
But they came oh-so-close in 1948, as the Red Sox tied for the American League pennant, only to lose a single-game playoff to Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians. The Bosox had come on with a summer charge following a dismal start, and held first place from late August until the season’s final week. The 1948 season is well-remembered for that great American league pennant race, but the Indians-Braves World Series, won by Cleveland in six games, wasn’t particularly dramatic.
In Ted Williams’s long and storied career, he appeared in just one Fall Classic (that of 1946), and he hit miserably. Teddy Ballgame might have gotten another shot, this time squaring off against the cross-town “Spahn-and-Sain-and-two-days-of-rain” Braves with two great aces.
7: 1985, New York Mets vs. New York Yankees
There were lots of “Subway Series” back in the day, either Yankees-Giants or Yankees-Dodgers. But it wasn’t until 2000 that we witnessed our first Post-Expansion Big Apple-Exclusive Fall Classic, and it was an anticlimax: neither of that year’s New York teams were all that great (the Mets were a Wild Card, and the Yanks were an 87-win champ in a weak division), and the Series, apart from a weird moment from the ever-weird Roger Clemens, was a five-game yawnfest.
But we might have had one 15 years earlier, and it would have pitted two meaningfully better contestants. The ’85 Yankees won 97 games, and the ’85 Mets won 98, but each team finished a close second in their respective divisions, and in those pre-Wild Card days that meant you watched the postseason from your living room couch.
Both New York rosters were star-studded: those Yankees featured Rickey Henderson scoring 146 runs and Don Mattingly driving in 145, while those Mets were the brash Carter-Strawberry-Hernandez bunch that would win the Series a year later, yet it was the ’85 edition that had Dwight Gooden at his stunning 24-4, 1.53 ERA peak.
6: 1920, Brooklyn Robins vs. Chicago White Sox
The infamous 1919 “Black Sox” very nearly repeated as pennant winners in 1920. They still had their great stars on hand, and were smack in the midst of a terrific season-long three-way battle with a New York Yankees team that featured newly-acquired Babe Ruth, and a deep, well-balanced Cleveland Indians ballclub led by dynamic player-manager Tris Speaker.
Following Aug. 10, the White Sox were never as many as three games out of first place, and were in the top spot much of the time. But on Sep. 28, in the season’s climactic final week, a bombshell exploded, as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte confessed to a Chicago grand jury their involvement in the previous year’s Series-fixing scheme.
White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey reacted by immediately suspending all of his implicated stars. A decimated Chicago lineup lost two of its final three games, and finished in second, two games behind the Indians, who claimed their first pennant.
5: 1964, Philadelphia Phillies vs. Baltimore Orioles
The ’64 Phillies season-ending collapse is well-known: leading the league by 6.5 games on Sep. 20, they then dropped ten straight by a combined score of 65-35, and with that lost the chance to play in just their third World Series in franchise history.
Less well-remembered is the fact that the 1964 American League presented a remarkably dramatic pennant race as well. The New York Yankees prevailed, capturing their fifth straight flag and 14th in 16 years, but they did so in anything but dominating fashion. The ’64 Yanks performed sluggishly for much of the season, and were 5.5 games out in late August before catching fire down the stretch and achieving an eventual one-game margin of victory over the second-place Chicago White Sox.
The AL team that spent most of the year in first was the eventual third-place finisher, the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s didn’t execute a face-plant like that of the Phillies, but their good-but-not-great 18-13 mark in Sep./Oct. just wasn’t enough to keep pace with the Yankees, who were 25-9 over the same span.
But like the Phillies, the Orioles were a franchise lugging the baggage of a dreadful history: the Orioles had long been, of course, none other than the St. Louis Browns, transplanted to Baltimore and re-named a mere decade before 1964. Had the Phils and O’s held their leads and matched up in the ’64 Series, it would have pitted opponents with just three Fall Classic appearances between them, and a won-lost record of 3-12 in those rare opportunities.
4: 2001, Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Seattle Mariners
The 2001 Diamondbacks weren’t a great all-around ballclub, but they had a core strength of two sensational ace pitchers in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Arizona rode those two mighty stallions to a seven-game, dramatic-final-inning-clinched World Series victory over the heavily-favored New York Yankees, who’d taken four of the previous five Fall Classics.
But the Arizona margin of victory probably shouldn’t have been that close, as the D-backs outscored the Yanks by a whopping 37-14, yet lost back-to-back extra-inning one-run games. And the Yanks probably shouldn’t have been their opponent anyway, as New York had reached the World Series only by pulling off an upset of their own in the ALCS, a shocking four-games-to-one dismissal of the Seattle Mariners, owners of the all-time-record 116 regular season victories.
Those 2001 Mariners were something of a one-year wonder, but what a wonder they were: best in the league in virtually every statistical category, most of them by a fat margin. Prior to the ALCS, all season long Seattle had lost as many as four out of five games just once, and that was in late September when they’d already clinched the division and were in regular-resting cruise mode.
3: 1998, Atlanta Braves vs. New York Yankees
The American League team whose regular season win total Seattle eclipsed was none other than the 1998 Yankees, a 114-48 monster. Unlike the ’01 Mariners, the ’98 Yanks didn’t stumble in the postseason, as they swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, handled the Cleveland Indians in six games in the ALCS, and swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series, to capture an all-time record 127 total season victories.
Yet there was a team in 1998 that could plausibly have faced off against those Yankees eye-to-eye: the National League Eastern Division champion Atlanta Braves, who’d gone “only” 106-56 in the regular season, and whose 106-56 Pythagorean record nearly matched the Yankees’ 108-54. This Atlanta edition was the most impressive of all in that franchise’s amazing run of postseason-qualifying ball clubs. A Braves-Yankees World Series in 1998 would have been a “clash of the titans” rarely staged in history.
It didn’t come about simply because the Braves’ bats went dead in the NLCS. Against a less-than-overwhelming Padres’ pitching staff, in their four losses in that series the Braves scored a total of three runs.
2: 1984, Chicago Cubs vs. Detroit Tigers
Here it is 2010, and the Cubs still haven’t reached the World Series since 1945, or won it since 1908. More than a quarter-century ago, the Cubbies were already conspicuous for their sustained absence from the Fall Classic.
But heading into the 1984 postseason, things looked quite promising for Chicago. They’d run away with the National League East championship, and were squaring off in the NLCS against a San Diego Padres team that, it must be said, just wasn’t impressive.
And as the Cubs waltzed to easy victories in the first two games of the best-of-five, it seemed to be all set. No team had ever squandered a two-games-to-none advantage since the Championship Series format was introduced in 1969.
Until now, that is: the Cubs managed to pull off that ghastly feat, and gained style points along the way by blowing a lead in all three games.
Had the Cubs not let that sure thing get away, they’d have faced the Detroit Tigers, the very team they’d met in the World Series way back in 1945. Instead, the Tigers handled the Padres without difficulty in five games.
1: 2003, Chicago Cubs vs. Boston Red Sox
Nearly two full decades later, and the Cubs’ only subsequent postseason appearance had been a three-and-out pasting (combined score: 15-4) in the 1998 NLDS at the hands of the powerhouse Braves we met above. Yet once again, as the 2003 postseason progressed it began to seem as though this might finally be the Cubs’ year.
This wasn’t an overly impressive Chicago team, to be sure; they’d squeaked in as an 88-74 division champ. But their key strength was manifested in no fewer than three power-pitching starters (Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano), the single asset that seems most useful in October baseball. And in the NLDS, facing off against none other than the ever-present, ever-ominous Braves (who’d gone 101-61), the ’03 Cubs fashioned a five-game victory resting entirely on the strong shoulders of Wood and Prior, who combined to go 3-0 with a 1.48 ERA, allowing just nine hits in 24 innings.
Meanwhile in the American League were the Wild Card-winning Boston Red Sox, doggedly struggling against a legacy nearly as dreary as that of the Cubs: the Red Sox, of course, had reached the World Series a few times in recent decades, but hadn’t won it since 1918. In their ALDS round, they found themselves facing the Oakland Athletics, whose core strength was, you guessed it, starting pitching.
And when the Red Sox lost the first two games, hope seemed lost. But this Boston ball club pulled out grindingly close victories in the next three games, becoming just the fourth team in major league history to win a best-of-five series after being down 2-0.
Could a World Series matchup between the Cubs and Red Sox actually be taking form? Pundits far and wide struggled to grasp the implications. Would the Laws of Physics allow a Cubs or a Red Sox World Series triumph? Could both World Series contestants somehow lose? Was this all a Sign of the Apocalypse?
No writer of fiction could invent an ensuing pair of League Championship Series as profoundly cruel to Chicago and Boston fans. For the Cubs, it wasn’t enough to blow a three-games-to-one lead to the Florida Marlins, as they had to do it by blowing leads at home in both Game 6 and Game 7, with that Game 6 being the infamous “Steve Bartman Game” in which a seemingly innocuous instance of fan interference suddenly opened the floodgates to an eight-run eighth-inning Cub implosion.
For the Red Sox, it was clawing back against the arch-enemy New York Yankees from a two-games-to-one deficit, and then a three-games-to-two deficit, to force a seventh game. It was then taking a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, only to see Boston manager Grady Little fail to relieve tiring ace Pedro Martinez as he rapidly melted down, surrendering in the space of nine batters beginning with two outs in the seventh: a home run, a single, another single, a double, yet another single, another double, and yet another double. By the time Little finally took action the game was tied, and the game, the series, and the season would be lost on a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eleventh.
So it was that the World Series showdown between ne’er-do-wells vaporized. What might have transpired had they met?
The leading theory was one originally proposed in addressing the perplexing question of, which natural force is stronger: that of a cat landing on its feet when falling, or a piece of buttered toast landing buttered-side down? Scientists of many disciplines have wrestled with this issue for many decades, and it’s never been satisfactorily resolved.
Laboratory studies have been undertaken, in which a slice of buttered toast is rubber-banded to the back of an ordinary housecat, buttered-side up. The cat is then held sideways, and dropped from a reasonable height, say five feet, onto a soft, safe surface, such as a shag carpet. What will happen? Will the cat’s instinct to right itself and land feet-first prevail, or will the toast’s powerful need to land buttered-side down all over that carpet force the cat’s feet into the air?
None of these tests have ever resolved the question, as what happens in every experiment is that neither happens. The cat doesn’t land feet-first, nor does the toast land buttered-side down. Instead the two forces exactly cancel one another out, and the cat and the toast simply hover in mid-air, perpetually. This has been taken as proof that neither force can override the other; they simply co-exist in a state of balanced tension, forever.
Thus most analysts projecting the results of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series have similarly theorized that since neither team could possibly win, neither team could possibly lose, either. The most persuasive predictions foresee an endless series of tie games, going eternally into extra innings until cancelled by rain, curfew, and/or power failure.