As most alert TAS readers know, the World Series starts Wednesday night. Always a high point in my television year. Perhaps the high point. But though I enjoy this championship event, I always watch it with a tinge of sadness, knowing as I do that the final out of the last game of the Series begins the Great Void, those baseball-free months that seem to go on forever.
The Great Void is not as long as it used to be. Since we’ve added so many layers to the playoffs, they last all of October (have even spilled into November twice). In the old days with just the Word Series after the regular season, baseball was done before the middle of October. We now have that world baseball tournament in March, so there is baseball to watch earlier than there used to be. And the 162-game Major League season begins in the first week of April now rather than the second or even third, as was the practice under the old 154-game scheme.
There’s a cable channel, MLB, with baseball programming of some kind, if not actual games, all year. I check in there when I need a fix. I usually do pretty well until January, what with football and the holidays to divert me. After this I’ve been known to develop restlessness, some attention deficit, and facial tics. In bad years there can be night sweats.
But, as you will never hear Bill O’Reilly say, enough about me. This year’s World Series is between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, two fine old franchises with magnificent histories and large, devoted fan bases. Just mention Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Gibson, Louie Tiant, Lou Brock, Dewey Evans, and baseball aficionados grow misty-eyed and reach for their anecdotes. Bystanders’ only choices are to listen or flee.
The Sawks and Cardinals have played three World Series, two of them very entertaining. The 2004 BoSox/Cardinals face-off need not detain us long, as in fact the Cardinals did not detain the Red Sox at all that year. Not only did the Cardinals lose four straight to the inevitable Sox, who were avenging an 86-year championship drought, but they never led the Sox at any point in any of the four games. Never laid a glove on ’em.
The 2004 post-season was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Full of more impossible things than an Obama speech. The Sox, down three games to none in the American League Championship Series and given last rites by everyone who knows anything about the Grand Old Game, staged the greatest comeback since Lazarus (but without the same kind of intervention). They beat the stunned Yankees four straight to win the American League Pennant and went into the World Series with more momentum than Halley’s Comet. The Cardinals were helpless before it. Baseball road kill. They were more props than participants in New England’s long awaited jubilee. The Sawks were world champions for the first time since the last year of World War I.
My Northeastern sources tell me that right after this Series concluded, undertakers across New England began working overtime ushering out old-timers who had been clinging to life, waiting for the Sox to be champions one more time. I can’t confirm this. But it does not seem implausible.
The 1946 and 1967 Series between the two teams, both of which went seven games, were more competitive and suspenseful. Of course I didn’t see the ’46 Series, being only four at the time, and TV even younger than I was. But I’ve seen clips of this Series, the decider of which was the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter’s daring dash home from first on Harry Walker’s single in the bottom of the 8th in game seven.
It was a great time in America, 1946. The war was over and the boys were back in town. Baseball continued during the war. But it was a watered down product on the field, featuring 4-Fs, guys too old to be drafted, and guys who wouldn’t have to shave yet for a couple of years. Had the war lasted another year, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler may have had to resort to women, children, and the clergy. Things got so bizarre during the war that the St. Louis Browns, perhaps the most woebegone franchise in the history of Major League sports, won the American League Pennant in 1944. But 1946 was the real deal again, and Americans were enjoying what was indeed the national pastime in that era.
Through the 8th inning of the final game, the ’46 Series was as even as they come. Three games apiece. And three runs apiece as the bottom of the 8th began. Then, with two outs and Slaughter on first, Harry Walker lined a base hit to center which ignited one of the most daring and dramatic plays in World Series history. No one was surprised that the speedy and aggressive Slaughter could take third on a liner to center. What took everyone by surprise, not the least BoSox shortstop Johnny Pesky, was that Slaughter ran a red light at third and sped to the plate.
As he handled the throw from center fielder Leon Culberson, who had replaced the slicker fielding Dom DiMaggio the previous inning after DiMaggio sprained his ankle, Pesky hesitated slightly before throwing home. The throw wasn’t close enough to even make a play on Slaughter and the Cardinals took a 4-3 lead. The run proved to be the winner when the Sox couldn’t score in the 9th. Left-hander Harry “The Cat” Brecheen picked up his third win of the Series and the Cardinals picked up a world championship.
For years, Pesky, a fine ballplayer and a true gent who died last year at 92, was criticized for this hesitation. But Slaughter’s run took everyone by surprise. And in the bottom of the 8th this was not a walk-off situation. Pesky had to try to keep Walker from advancing to scoring position at second. When the ball came to Pesky, he was probably thinking more about Walker than Slaughter. As I look at the film clips, I don’t think an accurate and immediate throw from Pesky would have gotten Slaughter, who had taken off to steal second as the pitch was delivered to Walker. It was just an electric play that will remain on everyone’s list of Great World Series Moments (not so great in New England, of course).
The 1967 World Series didn’t have one iconic play in it like Slaughter’s sprint, but it was pretty dramatic how the “Impossible Dream” Sawks wound up in post-season that year, surviving a four-way, down-to-the-wire race by one game. By comparison the Cardinals cruised, winning their league race by 10 ½ games.
In the Series, fans were treated to dominating pitching from Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who won three for the Cardinals. In 27 innings, Gibson allowed the Sawks only three runs on 14 hits. Larcenous Lou Brock hit .414 and stole a Series record seven bases. Yastrzemski, a triple-crown winner that year, hit .400 for the Sawks with three dingers. But it was not enough. Sawks ace Jim Lonborg, with two wins, started the 7th game on two days rest, but was bombed in a 7-2 loss. A championship for St. Louis again.
Wednesday’s two teams have a lot to live up to in order to match the excitement of their ’46 and ’67 meetings. But who’s to say they can’t do it? If all it took were facial hair…. Be there for first pitch. I will.
Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.