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Rob Neyer

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Monday, October 1, 2001
What makes a pennant race great?
By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

I sat down to write an article about baseball's greatest pennant races, but then it occurred to me to ask, "What's a 'great' pennant race?"

Well, it seems to me that the best pennant race would involve three (or more) great teams, the lead going back and forth over the second half of the season (at least). There have been two, and only two, pennant races like that, and both occurred long before most of us were born. We'll get to them later. In the meantime, what other elements go into making a pennant race "great."

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First, and most obviously, you want to see a close finish. If two clubs are neck and neck from April through August, only to have one of them fall off the pace in September and finish seven games back ... well, that's not a great pennant race.

Second, you want to see the lead change hands a few times down the stretch. The 1964 National League pennant race was, of course, a thriller ... but not until the last couple of weeks, when the Phillies -- who spent August and most of September in first place -- lost 10 straight games while the Reds and Cardinals were winning virtually every day. The Cardinals wound up on top, with the Phillies and Reds just a game behind. A great pennant race, yes, but a bit lacking in at least this department.

And finally, you want to see great teams doing battle. As good as the Braves-Phillies race has been this season, neither club might reasonably be described as "great," so something truly special will have to happen if we're going to remember the 2001 National League East race as a great one.

Before we go any further, there are two seasons that deserve special mention: 1908 and 1949. Both years, the pennant races in both leagues weren't decided until the final day of the season. And in both years, the pennant race in one league mirrored that in the other league.

You probably know about the National League's pennant race in 1908, when the NL's three powerhouse clubs -- the Giants, Cubs, and Pirates, who between them accounted for every league title in the decade -- spent the second half of the season dueling for first place. Everyone remembers the Giants and Cubs because of Merkle's Boner, but what a lot of people don't remember is that the Pirates were in the race until the very end, too. The Cubs finished one game ahead of both the Giants and Pirates, and the three clubs combined for a .639 winning percentage.

Lost in all the drama, unfortunately, was a fantastic four-team pennant race in the American League. The fourth team was the St. Louis Browns, who finished 6 back but were within a game of the lead as late as September 6. By late September there was virtually a three-way tie for first place between Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. The White Sox faltered a tad and finished 1 out, but the Tigers and the Cleveland Naps kept winning, with Cleveland's streak including a perfect game tossed by Addie Joss. And so when the season concluded, Detroit claimed the pennant by the thinnest of margins: half a game.

Huh? How do you win a pennant by half a game? The Naps won 90 games, and so did the Tigers. But the Naps lost 64 games, the Tigers only 63, because Detroit had lost a game to rain and the rules of the time did not require a make-up, even when a make-up game might have resulted in another loss for Detroit and thus a first-place tie. And though it was too late for Cleveland, after the season both leagues adopted the so-called "1908 rule," which requires teams to make up any postponed games that affect first place.

In 1949, both leagues featured down-to-the-wire pennant races between two excellent teams.

In the American League it was the Yankees and the Red Sox, and the Red Sox owned a one-game lead over the Yankees when the two clubs faced off in a pair of season-ending games at Yankee Stadium. If the Sox could win just one of the games, they would take the pennant. They lost on Saturday, though, and then they lost on Sunday, too. Just as they had a year earlier (more on this later), the Red Sox had lost the pennant on the season's final day.

In the National League it was the Dodgers and the Cardinals, who had also engaged in wonderful pennant races in 1941, 1942 and 1946. Brooklyn and St. Louis were bunched together through July and August, but the Cardinals spent September in first place ... until the end of September, when it counted. The Cards owned a 1-game lead after the season's penultimate weekend, but then they lost four straight on the road, and by the time they posted a W on the season's final day, it was too late; they finished the season with 96 wins, one fewer than the Dodgers.

With those superlative seasons in mind, let's quickly run through some of the other greatest pennant races since 1901 ....

1967 American League
The best four-team race in major-league history. On July 22, the Chicago White Sox sat atop the standings, but the streaking Red Sox were just a half-game behind, and the Tigers and Twins were only two games off the pace. And that's essentially the story of the rest of that summer. On August 22, only one game separated the four clubs. On September 6, no games separated them, and on September 18 the Red Sox, Tigers and Twins all sported 85-66 records ... and the White Sox were only a half-game behind. Chicago finally faltered on the last Wednesday of the season, losing a doubleheader to the lowly Kansas City A's, and they were eliminated two nights later. As John Warner Davenport wrote in "Baseball's Pennant Races: A Graphic View,"

Going into the last two days of the season, the Twins held a one-game lead with 91-69, over the Red Sox (90-70) and the Tigers (89-69). The Tigers had two doubleheaders against California left to play at Detroit. The Twins and Red Sox, in another theatrical flourish by the schedule-maker, faced each other at Fenway Park in single games on Saturday and Sunday. Besides the standing-room crowds at Fenway, millions more watched the two games on national television.

Saturday, the Red Sox beat the Twins 6-4, while the Tigers split their two games with the Angels. So entering the season's final day, the Red Sox and Twins were tied, and the Tigers were just a half-game behind. If Detroit could sweep California in their doubleheader, the Tigers would finish in a tie for first with the winner of the game in Boston. And the Tigers won their first game, while the Red Sox were winning again, this time 5-3 to knock out the Twins. With the Sox sitting in their dugout and listening to the radio broadcast, the Tigers held a lead into their second game. But the Angels rallied late and eliminated the Tigers with an 8-5 victory. For the Red Sox, "The Impossible Dream" turned out to be possible after all ... if just barely.

1915 Federal League
The Federal League lasted only two seasons, but produced scintillating pennant races in each of them. In 1914, the Indianapolis Hoosiers grabbed the flag with a late rush in the final days of what had been a five-team race until mid-September. The Chicago Whales finished in second place, 2 games back.

The real show came in 1915, when the FL's pennant race ended in the closest finish ever, only half a game separating the top three teams. Again there was a five-team race, this time featuring the Pittsburgh Rebels, the St. Louis Terriers, the Kansas City Packers, the Whales again, and the Newark Peps (who were technically the defending champs, as they'd relocated from Indianapolis). All five teams occupied first place at some point in August, but in September the Rebels opened up a modest lead. By late September the Peps and Packers were both out of it, leaving the other three clubs to battle for the pennant. St. Louis won nine in a row and Chicago won nine of 10 as both clubs caught Pittsburgh.

On the last Saturday of the season, Chicago swept a doubleheader from Pittsburgh and St. Louis lost a single game in Kansas City, dropping both the Rebels and Terriers a half-game behind the Whales with one day left in the schedule. The Terriers won on Sunday, the last day of the season, but it did them no good as Chicago clinched the pennant with a split of their doubleheader with Pittsburgh. Oddly, St. Louis finished a half-game behind Chicago despite winning more games. The Terriers went 87-67 but finished .001 points behind the Whales, who went 86-66 after playing only 152 games, two postponed games never being made up. Among the Federal League's many problems, it had never adopted the American and National Leagues' "1908 rule."

1948 American League
On August 3, four American League teams -- the Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, and Athletics -- stood in a virtual tie for first place, each of them 18 games above .500. The A's fell back in September, but the other three clubs spent the last month of the season going back and forth with each other, and on September 23 all three sported 91-56 records. The Yankees went 3-4 from that point, and finished third. The Indians and Red Sox both went 5-2 -- the Indians lost on the last day of the season, the Red Sox won -- and so they faced off in a one-game playoff, the first in major-league history, at Fenway Park on Monday, October 4.

The playoff game was no contest, as Red Sox starter Denny Galehouse got knocked out early and Indians starter Gene Bearden, a rookie knuckleballer, pitched a complete game and allowed only five hits. The final score was 8-3, and the Indians went on to beat the Boston Braves in the World Series.

1993 National League West
It's been called "The Last Pure Pennant Race," and I'm inclined to agree.

After losing to the Pirates on July 22, the Atlanta Braves found themselves 10 games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants. But the Braves won eight of their next nine games to close out July, they won 19 of 26 in August, and after winning eight of their first 10 games in September, suddenly the Braves found themselves tied with the Giants atop the National League West standings. Atlanta quickly grabbed first place, and with the help of San Francisco's eight-game losing streak the Braves upped their lead to four games by the middle of the month. But then the Giants rallied, winning 14 of 16.

And so entering the final day of the regular season, the Braves and Giants were tied with 103-58 records. The Braves would host the first-year Rockies in Atlanta, while the Giants were in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers, three time zones away. With their game starting three hours earlier than the Giants, the Braves desperately wanted to put pressure on the Giants by putting a win on the scoreboard before the Giants even started. And that's just what they did, as Tom Glavine and Greg McMichael combined to beat the Rockies 5-3. If the Giants could be the Dodgers, there would be a one-game playoff the next day. If the Giants lost, the Braves would be champs for the third straight season.

The Giants lost. Rookie Salomon Torres didn't escape the fourth, and then the San Francisco bullpen got hammered. Final score? Dodgers 12, Giants 1, and the 103-win Giants were finished.

Why do some call it "The Last Pure Pennant Race"? Because in all likelihood, we won't see its like again. These days, if two teams like the Braves and Giants are in the same division, by mid-September both will be assured of a postseason berth; one will win the division, the other the Wild Card, and neither will care much which does what.

Pennant races featuring great teams?

They're a thing of the past.

1951 National League

If you're reading this, you probably know all about it. At the close of play on August 11, the New York Giants were in second place ... but they trailed the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games. The next day, however, the Giants began a 16-game winning streak that included a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, and suddenly the lead was merely five games. The race stabilized at that point, however, and Brooklyn led the Harlemites by six or seven games through the middle of September. But on September 18 the Giants won their fifth straight, the Dodgers lost, and the gap was only three games.

The Giants lost their next game, on September 20 ... and didn't lose again. They'd won six straight, then lost, then ripped off another seven consecutive victories. Through all this the Dodgers weren't playing poorly, but they weren't playing particularly well, either. With the Giants idle on the season's final Friday, the Dodgers lost in Philadelphia and the unthinkable (to Dodgers fans) had happened: with two days left to play, the two New York clubs were tied with 94-58 records. Both teams won on Saturday, and the Giants eked out a 3-2 victory over the Braves on Sunday. Then the Giants waited for results from Philadelphia, where the Dodgers and Phillies went to extra innings. Finally, in the top of the 14th Jackie Robinson homered to give the Dodgers a 9-8 lead, and that was how it ended. The race was still tied, and five years after the Dodgers and Cardinals met in a best-of-three playoff for the National League pennant, the Dodgers and Giants would do the same.

You know the rest. Brooklyn and New York split the first two games, and then came Bobby Thomson with The Shot Heard 'Round the World.

1959 National League
By early July, it was a three-team race between the Dodgers, the Giants -- both of those clubs were in just their second season on the West Coast -- and the Braves. The Giants had the lead throughout, and by September 20 the club was ready to start printing World Series tickets. That weekend, though, the Dodgers visited San Francisco and knocked the Giants out of first place with a three-game sweep at Seals Stadium, outscoring the Giants 17-6. That same weekend the surging Braves also passed the Giants, and the last week of the season saw Los Angeles and Milwaukee see-sawing in the standings

On the season's final Saturday, the Dodgers lost and the Braves won, resulting in a tie for first place. And both teams won on Sunday, necessitating a best-of-three playoff series for the National League pennant. The Dodgers took the first game 3-2, and won the second 6-5 in 12 innings to advance to the World Series (where they beat the White Sox).

1920 American League
Some pennant races are great not only because of what happens in the standings, but also because of how things happen. Entering the 1920 season, the Chicago White Sox -- who had won the pennant somewhat handily in 1919 -- again were considered the favorites in the American League. And after spending most of the season chasing the Indians (who finished second in 1919) and the Yankees (who enjoyed the services of a young fellow named Babe Ruth), the White Sox surged into first place in early August. Cleveland and New York stayed close, though, and in mid-September both clubs passed Chicago in the standings. The Yankees' pennant hopes took a big hit on September 17 and 18 when they lost a pair of games to the White Sox, who were in the middle of a stretch that saw them win 10 of 11. But the Indians were hot, too.

On September 28, two bad things happened to the White Sox: the Indians beat the St. Louis Browns, thus extending their lead over Chicago to a full game; and eight White Sox players were indicted for suspicion of fixing the 1919 World Series. All eight of the indicted players were immediately suspended for the club's three remaining games, only one of which the remaining Sox managed to win. Meanwhile, the Indians had six games left and won four of them, resulting in a two-game edge for Cleveland at season's end.

Aside from losing some of their best players -- including Shoeless Joe Jackson and ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte -- in the season's final week, the White Sox might have had another problem in 1920. After the story about the fix came out, there were suspicions that the crooked players had also thrown games here and there during the 1920 season, and cleaned up by betting against themselves. Given that such chicanery could easily have cost the players a trip to the World Series, and the extra money that would have meant, it wouldn't have made a lot of sense for the White Sox to lose regular-season games on purpose. But then, criminals aren't always the smartest sort.

The Indians had their own adversity to deal with. On August 16, their star shortstop, Ray Chapman, died shortly after being struck by a fastball thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. A few weeks later, rookie Joe Sewell took over at shortstop, batted .329 and scored 14 runs in 22 games, and eventually earned himself a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

1978 American League East
One-game playoff. Bucky Dent. The Green Monster.

The Red Sox owned a 14-game lead over the Yankees on July 19, but that lead dropped to 6 games by August 1. And on September 10, the Yankees completed a four-game sweep -- the infamous "Boston Massacre" -- at Fenway Park, and the two teams were tied atop the East standings. Six days later, the Sox trailed the Yanks by 3 games. But here's what makes this one great ... Boston fought back, and won their last eight scheduled games, and pulled into a tie with New York on the season's final day. That necessitated the one-game playoff, and made Bucky Dent a villain in New England.

1962 National League
Just as they had 11 years earlier, the Dodgers and the Giants engaged each other in a fight to the death for the National League pennant, and September was a month of streaks for both clubs. The Giants opened September with eight straight wins, but followed that skein with six straight losses. The Dodgers won seven straight beginning on September 8, but closed the regular schedule with four straight losses at Dodger Stadium, their shiny new home. And while the Dodgers were losing their last game, the Giants, thanks to a homer from Willie Mays, were winning. The result? A first-place tie, and the National League's fourth pennant playoff since 1946 (all of them involving the Dodgers).

Mays homered twice and Billy Pierce pitched a shutout in the first playoff game as the Giants won 8-0, but the Dodgers evened the series with an 8-7 victory the next day. That set up a winner-take-all third game, which the Giants won with a four-run rally in the ninth inning.

1956 National League
You don't often hear about this one, but the Brooklyn Dodgers (the 1955 World Champs), Milwaukee Braves (two-time future champs) and Cincinnati Reds (upstarts with some serious power) spent the entire season within five games of each other. The Braves opened up a modest lead in early September, but on the 11th the Dodgers beat the Braves to forge a first-place tie. Entering the final weekend, the Braves owned a one-game lead over the Dodgers. But on both Friday and Saturday in St. Louis, the Braves lost one-run games to the Cardinals, while the Dodgers were winning two from Pirates to clinch at least a tie. The Braves won on Sunday, but it did them no good as Brooklyn's Don Newcombe beat Pittsburgh to gain his 27th victory of the season and, more importantly, seal the last pennant the Dodgers would win before moving to California.

Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at rob.neyer@dig.com





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