Forty years ago today was a great World Series game from arguably the most closely played Fall Classic of them all. The game itself isn’t especially well remembered, but it has one play that’s on the short list of the greatest defensive moments in any October.
Oct. 15, 1972, was Game Two of the 1972 World Series. The favored Cincinnati Reds hosted the AL champion Oakland A’s. The A’s had surprisingly won the first game, 3-2 (the first of a record six games decided by one run in this World Series), on the strength of a pair of home runs by little-known catcher Gene Tenace. The Reds badly wanted to win Game Two. Teams that drop the first two home games in a World Series have awful odds to win it all.
Oakland, however, took an early lead, scoring one in the second inning on an RBI single by ace pitcher Catfish Hunter. In the third, Oakland got an additional run from a solo shot by leftfielder Joe Rudi. The A’s made the 2-0 lead stick, maintaining it into the ninth.
In the ninth, Hunter began to tire, though. First he allowed a leadoff single to Tony Perez. Then he let a pitch go that nearly cost the A’s the lead. Cincinnati’s Dennis Menke connected on a Hunter pitch with a massive shot that went deep to left. For a little bit, it looked like the ball might go out for a two-run homer, but it didn’t quite have enough to go over the fence.
Instead it went to Rudi, who was about to make an all-time great circus catch. It wasn’t just an ordinary catch at the wall as several factors made it worse. First, this was back in the day when World Series games were still played during the day and wouldn’t you know it, the sun was glaring right in Rudi’s eyes as he looked for the ball. Yeah, he had his sunglasses on, but still, it’s the sun. Second, based on the angle and where Rudi was, he had to catch it backhanded. Third, the ball wasn’t just by the wall, it was headed for the top of the wall, so Rudi would have to jump to catch it.
Rudi fought the sun and made a backhanded catch while crashing into the wall in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. If he hadn’t, a run would be in, and the tying runner would stand in scoring position.
As it happens, Hunter was still shaky, and the second out was recorded on another sensational defensive play, this time by first baseman Mike Hegan, who recently had entered the game as a defensive replacement. Though it isn’t as well remembered, A’s manager Dick Williams later said it was an even better play than Rudi made.
The runner on first advanced to second, though, and a few minutes later scored on a Hal McRae single. Hunter had faced four batters: two had gotten hits and the other two should have. Well, with that in mind, Williams went with reliever Rollie Fingers, who safely got the last out.
Without those defensive gems, the A’s lose the game. With just one gem, the game at least goes into extra innings. That’s key, because the Athletics won the Series in seven games so any additional loss would have cost them the championship. Rudi’s catch wasn’t just great, it was critical. For that matter, so was Hegan’s more overshadowed play.
Actually, there is one other thing that happened in Cincinnati that day, one that arguably overshadows both moments. When Ken Burns made his PBS miniseries Baseball, he showcased neither moment just mentioned but did highlight the day’s pregame ceremony.
In that ceremony, baseball paused to honor the dying and nearly blind Jackie Robinson, who had integrated baseball 25 years earlier. He gave a brief speech saying how glad and honored he was, but said he would feel even happier and more honored when he could look down in a team’s dugout and see a black manager in the big leagues.
It would prove to be Robinson’s last public appearance, as he died nine days later. Thus, Rudi’s catch wasn’t the only thing that happened on Oct. 15, 1972; it was also the date of Jackie Robinson’s final public words.
Aside from that, many other events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim the list:
2,000 days since Padres ace Jake Peavy fans 16 Diamondbacks, including nine in a row at one point, but San Diego loses anyway, 3-2.
3,000 days since Eric Valent hits for the cycle.
6,000 days since Rafael Palmeiro hits for the cycle.
6,000 days since Alex Rodriguez enjoys the first multi-home run game of his career.
8,000 days since major league baseball announces that Roger Clemens will be suspended for the first five games of 1991 for mouthing off an the umpire in the 1990 ALCS.
9,000 days since Pascual Perez throws a five-inning no-hitter in a rain-shortened game.
9,000 days since Dave Stieb throws his second career one-hitter. He’s one out from a no-hitter when a ball takes a bizarre bounce over the second baseman’s head for a single. The ball hit where the dirt met the turf in the Skydome and skyrocketed well over the fielder’s head.
10,000 days since Cleveland trades shortstop Johnnie LeMaster to the Pirates. A few weeks earlier, the Indians received LeMaster in a trade with the Giants. All three teams LeMaster plays for this year—the Giants, Indians, and Pirates—will finish in last place.
15,000 days since one-time Reds ace Jim Maloney appears in his last game.
25,000 days since Claude Passeau pitches 14 innings in one game without striking out any batters. It’s the last time any pitcher has gone 13 innings or more in a contest with zero punchouts.
25,000 days since Hall of Fame Lou Boudreau has three sacrifice hits in one game.
30,000 days since Hall of Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann enjoys the 10th and last of his multi-home run games.
30,000 days since the Cubs and Cardinals have probably the greatest game in their storied rivalry. The Cardinals top the Cubs, 8-7, in a 20-inning marathon in the middle of the 1930 pennant race, a race both teams are heavily involved in.
1884 Old Hoss Radbourn notches his 59th and final victory of the season.
1892 Reds pitcher Bumpus Jones throws a no-hitter in his debut, allowing him to beat the Pirates on the last day of the season.
1899 Hall of Fame second baseman Bid McPhee appears in his last game.
1909 Mel Harder is born.
1910 The Browns fire manager Jack O’Connor, reportedly because he let his team lay down on the last day of the season to help Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie win the batting title.
1910 Ginger Beaumont, center fielder, plays in his last game.
1912 In Game Six of the World Series, Red Sox star Smokey Joe Wood is so thoroughly trounced by the Giants that rumors swirl the fix was in. The Giants cruise to an 11-4 win. Boston centerfielder Tris Speaker pulls off an unassisted double play in the eighth inning.
1923 The Yankees claim their first world championship by beating the Giants, 6-4, in Game Six. The Yankees trail for most of the day, but a five-run top of the eighth gives them victory.
1925 It’s maybe the strangest Game Seven of them all. Conditions are wet, and muddy—normally the game would be called for weather. But it’s Game Seven, so it soldiers on. And Washington ace Walter Johnson gets the worst of it. He begins the day with a sore groin, so the opposing Pirates keep bunting against him to aggravate it and take advantage of his limited range. Johnson wears down and gives up the lead in the top of the eighth. When the Senators tie it in the bottom half of the frame, Johnson gives it up for good in the ninth for a 9-7 loss. The Pirates become the first team to lose three of the first four World Series contests only to rally to capture the ultimate prize.
1928 The Senators sign Walter Johnson to a three-year contract to manage the team.
1937 The Yankees release longtime second baseman Tony Lazzeri.
1943 The Red Sox release Al Simmons.
1945 Jim Palmer is born.
1946 In Game Seven, the Cardinals top the Red Sox, 4-3, for the title. The game is most famous for Enos Slaughter scoring from first on a single.
1952 The Red Sox release player-manager Lou Boudreau. He’ll still manage, but he’s done as a player.
1961 The groundbreaking ceremony for Shea Stadium happens.
1964 The White Sox trade pitcher Rudy May to the Phillies. He’ll last until the early 1980s.
1965 The A’s release Satchel Paige, who pitched once for them at age 59.
1965 The Giants release what’s left of Warren Spahn.
1968 It’s the AL expansion draft. The Seattle Pilots take Don Mincher from the Angels, Tommy Davis from the White Sox, Ray Oyler from the Tigers, Gary Bell from the Red Sox, Lou Piniella from the Indians, Steve Barber from the Yankees, and Mike Marshall from the Tigers. The Royals get Wally Bunker and Moe Drabowsky from the Orioles, Dick Drago from the Tigers, and Hoyt Wilhelm from the White Sox.
1969 The Mets are one victory from a miracle world title after they beat the heavily favored Orioles, 2-1 in 10 innings, in Game Four of the World Series. This game is most famous for a dramatic diving catching from the normally fielding-impaired Ron Swoboda.
1973 A’s owner Charles O. Finley forces second baseman Mike Andrews to sign a phony medical report to get him off the team’s postseason roster after a pair of Andrews errors costs them an earlier game in the Series.
1975 The Red Sox top the Reds, 5-4, in Game Four. Luis Tiant grinds out a gutsy win by throwing 163 pitches when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
1980 The Phillies scores four times in the bottom of the eighth for a 6-4 win over the Royals in Game Two of the World Series.
1986 It might be the greatest game of all-time: the Mets top the Astros, 7-6 in 16 innings, in Game Six to claim the NL pennant (and avoid facing the seemingly unstoppable Houston ace Mike Scott in Game Seven).
1988 Jack Buck can’t believe what he just saw. A hobbled Kirk Gibson hits one of the most famous home runs in history, a two-run, pinch-hit blast off Oakland’s uber-closer Dennis Eckersley for a 5-4 Dodgers win in Game One of the World Series.
1997 The Indians beat the Orioles, 1-0 in 11 innings, in Game Five of the ALCS to clinch the pennant. Baltimore can’t score despite getting 10 hits.
1999 the Cubs release aging third baseman Gary Gaetti.
1999 The Braves top the Mets, 1-0, despite getting just three hits in Game Three of the NLCS.
2000 Roger Clemens throws a complete-game, one-hit shutout for the Yankees in a 5-0 win over the Mariners in Game Four of the ALCS.
2003 The Cubs, being the Cubs, blow it. They lose to the Marlins, 9-6, in Game Seven as Kerry Wood doesn’t have his stuff. The Cubs led the NLCS three games to one but blow lost the last three.
2010 The Yankees top the Rangers, 6-5, in Game One of the ALCS, overcoming a 5-0 Rangers lead. The Yankees have a five-run eighth in which seven straight men reach base.