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A Brief History of MLB’s Weirdest Pennant Races

Be glad your team doesn’t have to overcome anything like this

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Every team suffers setbacks throughout the course of a 162-game season. Everyone goes through slumps, everyone runs into a buzz saw of an opponent, everyone deals with injuries. The Mets, for instance, are very much in the thick of the pennant race despite losing Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz to injuries, but so are the Nationals, who are without Stephen Strasburg, and the Dodgers, who lost Clayton Kershaw for two and a half months. The Mets haven’t overcome some cosmic injustice; they’ve just dealt with normal baseball adversity. It could be worse, or at least weirder.

As it happens, the history of professional baseball, which stretches back to the 1870s, is long enough that there’s been ample opportunity for weirdness, and for things well outside the normal realm of sports, to pop up and influence a pennant race. These stories stop short of the supernatural, since the Cardinals didn’t really win the NLDS (and ultimately, the World Series) in 2011 because a squirrel put a hex on Roy Oswalt. The Wikipedia entry for the Rally Squirrel does, however, contain this magnificent bit of prose: “[Phillies manager Charlie] Manuel later avowed that, if he had a firearm, he would have shot the obstreperous rodent.”

Here are six examples of unexpected and unusual events that affected pennant races and transcend what we’d ordinarily consider to be business as usual.

1894: The Boston Beaneaters Lose Their Ballpark

Back in the early days of baseball, when Bartolo Colón was just a rookie, there were no modern ballparks as such, no $500 million concrete-and-steel Xanadus built on twice five miles of taxpayer-funded ground. In 1894, the Boston Beaneaters played at the South End Grounds, a wooden ballpark that seated a little over 5,000 fans. And during a game against the Baltimore Orioles on May 15, it caught fire and later burned to the ground.

The original report blamed two kids, who allegedly lit a peanut bag on fire and dropped it under the bleachers, but the fire marshal eventually concluded that a carelessly discarded cigarette caused the blaze, which could not be put out because the owners hadn’t paid $15 to have the water turned on at a nearby fire hydrant. The conflagration then spread to surrounding buildings, and what became known as the Great Roxbury Fire ultimately destroyed some 200 buildings in total.

While smoking can kill, it didn’t necessarily have the same effect on the Beaneaters’ season. It’s tough to imagine what would happen if a modern MLB team’s stadium was destroyed midseason, but the Beaneaters simply moved over to the vacant Congress Street Grounds and kept playing the next day. The Beaneaters went 36–17 over the two months it took to rebuild the South End Grounds, but they fell off in August and September and finished eight games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the National League standings.

1920: The Black Sox Investigation

The line doesn’t go straight from throwing the 1919 World Series to eight players getting banned for life to Field of Dreams. It took two years to investigate and prosecute the gambling scheme, so in 1920, seven of the conspirators were back on the White Sox roster, trying to defend their American League crown.

Chicago went into the final week of the season half a game behind the Indians, until, on September 28, 1920, a grand jury indicted the eight so-called Black Sox for conspiracy after Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson confessed to throwing the World Series, prompting the famous-but-possibly-apocryphal “Stay it ain’t so, Joe” story.

And the Dodgers thought Yasiel Puig was a distraction.

Owner Charlie Comiskey suspended the seven players still on the team, including Cicotte and Jackson, and without them, the remaining White Sox lost two of three to St. Louis and finished in second place.

1949: Boston’s Two-Man Rotation

David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 chronicles the pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees. It’s a classic and probably the most important book to my development as a young baseball fan. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

One of the main narrative hooks is the involvement of Joe McCarthy — the Hall of Fame manager, not the hard-drinking, Red-baiting, Edward R. Murrow–fighting, Manchurian Candidate–inspiring Republican senator of the same name. Over 16 years as manager, McCarthy led the Yankees to seven World Series titles, but he resigned in 1946, and in 1948 he took over the Red Sox, leading them to a tie in the American League and a one-game playoff with the Indians, which they lost when McCarthy started 36-year-old Denny Galehouse over second-year phenom Mel Parnell. “[Red Sox fans] had always thought that McCarthy, who was a former Yankee manager after all, had never fit in very well in Boston,” Halberstam wrote. “One sportswriter … received five thousand letters criticizing McCarthy and suggesting that Galehouse be traded.”

In 1949, Boston got back to a de facto one-game playoff, thanks to an 11-game winning streak from September 13 to 27 behind Parnell and Ellis Kinder. That’s not an exaggeration: Either Kinder or Parnell appeared in nine of those 11 games, and the pair combined to go 7–0 with two saves over that span. Of the 99 innings thrown by Boston pitchers during the winning streak, Kinder and Parnell were responsible for 62 between them.

After the streak, however, Kinder and Parnell burned out. On September 28, they failed to salvage a 1–1 game against Washington, and on September 30, Kinder earned a six-out save in an 11–9 game despite allowing two runs. On October 1, Parnell took the mound against the Yankees with a chance to clinch the pennant, but he gave up four runs in four innings and took a no-decision, setting up a winner-take-all game the next day.

Now, McCarthy isn’t the only manager to lean on two pitchers in a pennant race and have it come back to bite him. What makes this situation special is what Kinder did the night before.

Summer of ’49 is about baseball broadly, but about the drinking habits of the Boston Red Sox in particular, and Kinder was one of the hardest drinkers. On the eve of the biggest start of his life, he stayed out past 4 a.m. Nevertheless, Kinder went seven innings and allowed only one run. Parnell relieved him and allowed another run without retiring a batter, and Tex Hughson let in three more, staking the Yankees to a 5–0 lead the Red Sox couldn’t erase. Kinder took the loss.

In modern times, for as intense and terrifying as a winner-take-all game can be, at least fans can assume that their starting pitcher probably will be sober.

1950: Curt Simmons Goes to War

In September 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies were in contention for their first pennant in 35 years. Much of the team’s success came down to the strength of its pitching staff: 33-year-old relief ace Jim Konstanty won the NL MVP that year, while their rotation included four starting pitchers aged 26 or younger who posted an ERA+ of 110 or better. Hall of Famer Robin Roberts was the star, but the Phillies also relied heavily on their no. 2 starter, 21-year-old lefty Curt Simmons, who was second on the team in innings pitched (214.2) and led the team in strikeout rate (6.1).

But 1950 also marked the start of the Korean War, and Simmons, who was in the National Guard, was called up to active duty after his start on September 9, and while he took a no-decision after 6.2 innings of work, the Phillies won 7–6 on a walk-off single by Willie “Puddin’ Head” Jones. In Simmons’s absence, the Phillies went 9–10 to end the season, nearly blowing a 6.5-game lead in the process, and then were swept by the Yankees in the World Series. Simmons missed the 1951 season but came back to finish a big league career that would eventually span 20 seasons, including three All-Star appearances and a World Series title with the Cardinals in 1964.

1951: The Giants Steal the Pennant

I used to think the 1940s and early 1950s were so celebrated because they were dominated by teams from New York, placing the game’s biggest moments in the media capital of the country, but apparently crazy shit just happened all the time back then.

The greatest late-season comeback in baseball history took place in 1951. The Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13.5 games in August, but finished 37–7 to force a three-game playoff against Brooklyn. Bobby Thomson then won the series with probably the most famous non-World Series home run in baseball history.

But the Shot Heard ‘Round the World might have never happened if the Giants hadn’t been aggressively stealing signs through the last two months of the regular season.

Sixty years before Toronto’s Man in the White Shirt, the Giants set up the following system: At the Polo Grounds, the Giants clubhouse was out past the center-field wall. Backup infielder Hank Schenz would sit in the clubhouse and spy on the opposing catcher via telescope through the clubhouse window. Polo Grounds electrician Abraham Chadwick ran a wire from a buzzer in the clubhouse to the bullpen phone, which allowed Schenz to signal to the Giants relief pitchers whether a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming: one ring for a fastball, two for an off-speed pitch. From there, someone in the Giants bullpen — which could be seen easily from home plate — would relay the sign to the batter.

The Dodgers might worry about Kershaw’s back issues or fear Even Year Bullshit, but they should be grateful the Giants haven’t resorted once more to Odd Year Espionage.

1981: The Strike Ousts the Reds

Somewhere along the line it became accepted wisdom that the Montreal Expos were the specific victims of the 1994 strike, as if they absolutely would have won the World Series if it hadn’t been canceled and that the team’s departure for Washington a decade later was a direct result of that lost World Series.

But while the Expos were in first place when the season ended on August 12, and a title might have revitalized interest in baseball in Montreal had it happened, it’s not like 27 other teams didn’t have their seasons canceled, too.

That wasn’t the case in 1981, when a midseason strike led to the cancelation of about eight weeks’ worth of games in June, July, and August. Instead of attempting to make up part of the schedule or treating the two halves of the season like one entity, MLB split the season in two, with the first-half champion of each division playing the second-half champion in a best-of-five divisional series, and the winner advancing to the previously scheduled league championship series.

In the National League, the Phillies and Dodgers won their respective divisions in the first half, while the Expos and Astros won their divisions in the second half. However, none of those four teams had the best record in the division overall. In 1981, the Cincinnati Reds had the best record in baseball by 2.5 games, but missed the playoffs entirely, while eight teams with worse records got in. The overall NL East champion Cardinals also missed the playoffs, despite finishing two games ahead of the Expos and 2.5 games ahead of the Phillies overall. Don’t blame the strike for Montreal’s lack of a title — blame Steve Rogers for elevating a 3–1 sinker to Rick Monday in Game 5 of the 1981 NLCS.

It’s a shame that the Expos had the best record in baseball in 1994 but didn’t get to play in the playoffs, but they’re not alone — the 1981 Reds know exactly how that feels.