On Oct. 22, 1910, Jimmy Sheckard had the first walk-off hit in postseason history. Since then there have been 104 more by 97 more men.
These days, it seems as though a walk-off hit in the playoffs is almost a commonplace event. There has not been a playoff season without one since 1989. The period from 2003 through 2005 saw 14 walk-off hits—including 10 home runs—which is nearly a seventh of all postseason walk-offs in just three years.
Of course a big part of this is that there is now an absolute minimum of 24 games played postseason, a six-fold increase from n the days from when a World Series was the only chance for a player to achieve postseason glory.
Nonetheless, postseason heroics have been found in every era, and they’re worth looking back on, especially as we enjoy the World Series.
The first man to have a walk-off hit was Jimmy Sheckard. Were it not for his postseason heroics, Sheckard likely would be known only, for his outstanding name: Samuel James Tilden Sheckard. The historically knowledgeable among you will recognize Samuel Tilden as the man who was robbed of the Presidency in the 1876 election, which ended Reconstruction in the South. (Sheckard was born two years later in Pennsylvania, apparently to a loyal Democratic family.)
Sheckard was a strong-hitting, if undistinctive, left fielder for the Cubs, finishing with a career 120 OPS+. But on Oct. 22, 1910, he had the best day of his career. After a Frank Chance triple tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Sheckard stroked a single in the bottom of the 10th off Chief Bender to win the game for the Cubs.
Two early seasons, 1915 and 1916, saw walk-off hits but they remained a relatively rare event. In 1939, Bill Dickey hit a single to score Charlie Keller. This is notable not only for setting the tone in the sweep of the World Series by the 1939 Yankees—maybe the greatest pre-integration team—but also as the first walk-off hit by a Yankee.
Given their outstanding postseason history, it is little surprise the Yankees have had more walk-off hits than any other franchise, with 17. On the other hand, they are also the victim of the most walk-off hits, with 13.
Although a Yankee nemesis is the all-time leader in walk-off hits (we’ll get to him later), of the six players with two or more walk-offs, two, Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano, are Yankees. A third, Paul Blair, had one of his hits for the Yankees, the other for the Orioles.
As of this writing, there has not been a walk-off home run in the 2008 postseason. If that continues for the World Series, it will be the first year since 2002. In many ways, that would be more appropriate. It was not until 1949 that any player would manage a walk-off homer.
That man was Tommy Henrich, who ended a scoreless duel between Allie Reynolds and Don Newcombe by leading off the ninth with a home run to right field at Yankee Stadium. Just like Dickey’s hit a decade earlier, Henrich set the tone as the Yankees won the Series in five games.
Before getting back into the individual men who have the walk-off hits, it is fun to take a brief look at the percentages behind them. A huge majority of walk-off hits came in cases when the game was tied. It was not until 1947 and Cookie Lavagetto that a player had a walk-off hit to rally his Dodgers from a deficit against the Yankees.
Positionally speaking, pinch-hitters have the highest percentage of walk-off hits, followed by left fielders and, oddly given their light-hitting ways, shortstops. First baseman have hit only six walk-offs, even less than the DH.
Not surprisingly, Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees’ 17 walk-off hits, ranks first in parks that have seen a walk-off. With the closing of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park takes over as the “active leader” in walk-offs. At least a third of walk-offs have taken place in stadiums no longer open, with Shea Stadium (five) second to its crosstown neighbor among closed leaders.
Singles, not surprsingly, lead in type of postseason walk-off hits, with an overwhelming majority. Home runs are next, followed by doubles. No postseason game has ever been won on a walk-off triple. This is surely at least in part because runners would stop at second (or even first) base on such hits.
When it comes to postseason walk-off hits, special credit must go to David Ortiz. His struggles in this postseason aside, Big Papi has been a tremendous October clutch hitter. He is the only man with three walk-off hits and one of two—Bernie Williams is the other—with two walk-off home runs. His three hits are 30 percent of the Red Sox’ franchise total of 10.
(The Sox’ recent run of success has been good for their walk-off numbers; seven of their 10 postseason walk-offs have come since 2003.)
While it is easy to celebrate the men who hit the walk-offs in the postseason, we must also consider those on the other side, those who give them up. Multiple pitchers have had to endure the long walk back to the dugout, including a handful on two occasions. The “Unlucky Two” club includes Dennis Eckersley, Roberto Hernandez—who gave up his in back-to-back games of the 1997 NLDS—and Dan Miceli, the only pitcher to give up two walk-off home runs in October.
As long as baseball keeps playing postseason games, it will keep having walk-off hits. For home fans and players, this will represent euphoria while the visitors endure agony. But it is part of baseball going all the way back to Jimmy Sheckard, through Tommy Henrich and to the more recent series-winning heroics of men like Joe Carter and Aaron Boone.
While the World Series may not deliver a walk-off this season, there is always next year and more history to be made in the clutch.