In the end, the Fall Classics stand the tallest
All great sporting festivals have legitimate claims on our attention and affection.
The Stanley, World, and America’s Cups are invariably brilliant. Wimbledon is wonderful. Nothing’s bigger than the Olympics, no field larger than the Marathon’s, no single day more charming than The Derby. There are Bowl Games, Final Fours, NBA grand-finales, The Game. Corporate America dissolves into silly-putty over the Masters. While its wretched pomp and hype turn me off, the Super Bowl brings this Republic to a standstill a few hours every year.
Yet in the end, it’s the World Series – 112 years old and counting – that most endures as a pure affair of the heart, at least for those who doggedly cling to the tired notion that baseball remains our national pastime. As a devout believer, I’m not looking for an argument on that issue. It’s enough that the timeless Fall Classic bears on, unchanged in its essentials, and still a slice of pure Americana.
So, here we are, grinding through another autumnal-epic still raging quite provocatively as this is written, thank you. It seems a reasonable time to do something I’ve long wanted to do: list my all-time favorites. It’s a batch including classics staged well before my time and gems I’ve liked best among those I’ve attended and covered. It’s a sentimental journey.
1912 Red Sox-Giants: A rollicking festival climaxing America’s boisterous ragtime era. It was the first great Series and it rather set the measure of the Red Sox myth that persists to this day. Christy Mathewson versus Smokey Joe Wood! They were fully the glory of their times. A case is easily made for this eight-game beauty having been the greatest WS ever.
1919 White Sox-Reds: Flip-side of the coin, no question. But if you revel in the history of this business, the dark tale of how it was so deeply corrupted remains the most fascinating.
1924 Senators-Giants: The first beamed nation-wide on the “rahdio.” Ancient Walter Johnson charms the nation, lugging the Nats to victory virtually on his back. Winning run in Game Seven crosses when Earl McNeely’s harmless grounder strikes a pebble and pops over Freddie Lindstrom’s head. Vintage series stuff!
1929 A’s-Cubs: My grandmother’s best childhood friend was Thomasine McGillicuddy, first cousin of Connie Mack. So once, when the A’s came to town, she had me meet the old-boy at Thomasine’s Brookline home and it’s my dim memory that he was indeed quite old, gaunt, and not very chatty. I like to think we discussed the ‘29 Series, which was near the last of his finest hours, and his famous decision to pitch ancient and broken-down Howard Ehmke, long considered the boldest move in Series history. But it probably didn’t happen. After all, I was only seven years old.
1947 Yanks-Dodgers: Now eight and wising up. Series featured Bevens’s near no-hitter, Gionfriddo’s amazing catch of Joe D’s blast, and Jackie Robinson’s historic debut, although I wonder how many then understood the gravity of that moment. It was the first series ever televised. No doubt I caught flickering images in an Arlington Center store window where they sold Philcos. Maybe!
1948 Indians-Braves: All the kids loved the Braves, who warmly opened their gates to the Knot Hole Gangs from the region’s parks. Many never forgave the Red Sox for folding, thus depriving us of a subway-series. Lovely Miss Starr was our fourth-grade teacher. Amazingly she brought her radio to school and suspended classwork in favor of Game One. You could have heard a pin drop as Johnny Sain was out-dueling Bobby Feller, 1-0.
1950 Yanks-Phils: Horizons are broadening as an 11 year old discovers to his amazement it’s not just about the home team. I fell in love with “The Whiz Kids.” The estimable Robin Roberts became an all-time hero while Del Ennis, Granny Hamner, Curt Simmons, and Willie Jones , pricelessly nicknamed “Puddinhead,” were much favored, too. Alas, my Phillies met the almighty Yankees in the Series. Down and out in four straight! I was crushed.
1960 Pirates-Yanks: Senior year at Holy Cross and the only TV set on campus was in Kimball, above the dining hall. By the sixth inning, when all that magnificent afternoon’s madness was soaring, lads were pouring from classes into Kimball and by the 8th there had to be a thousand spilling out onto the Quadrangle; half from Greater New York, bellowing for the Bombers, and the rest from elsewhere pleading for the Bucs. I will take the joyful memory of dear Bill Mazeroski rounding the bases at the end to my very grave.
1964 Cards-Yanks: On a Saturday night, Anne and I, then dating, were at a party at the home of Jack Craig (then of the Ledger, later of the Globe) when it occurred to us that seeing WS Game 4 the next afternoon in the Bronx might be amusing. So we ambled to Park Square, caught the overnight bus to the Big City, breezed by St. Pat’s for Mass, bought a Times, took the tube to the old Stadium, arriving just as the bleacher ticket windows were opening. Our reward was nifty seats 400 feet from the plate, and a bit of a classic. A grand slam by the Cardinals’ Ken Boyer stunned the Yankees, greasing the skids for the WS defeat that ended their greatest era of dominance. This is what was possible in 1964. I remember it well.
1967 Cards-Sox: Dragooned from the news side to help out in sports when the Sox took off that summer, it was a helluva way to break into the dodge. In that series, the magnificence of Yaz continued to be unforgettable. But it was Gentleman Jim Lonborg who stole that show in my book. Bone-weary but unbowed, he finally ran out of inspiration mere innings short of carrying the team to their so-long-sought redemption in what was almost the finest pitching performance of the modern era. Lonborg came so close and with such unforgettable valor. It was heroic.
1975 Reds-Red Sox: This was the “Moveable Feast” that proclaimed the game’s revival, launching the modern era and a joy to be right at the center of, although not many of us sensed we were brinking on historical departure. Boston should have won, of course, and would have if hopelessly over-matched Manager Darrell Johnson had been lucid, or if Spaceman Lee had not reverted to his childish antics at precisely the wrong moment. I can recall departing the ballpark late after the last game with Clif Keane and Jake Liston, two redoubtable characters of the old newspaper school, with Clif snorting, “He [Lee] broke the old man’s heart.” To which old Jake nodded sagely. The “old man” was, of course, Tom Yawkey, whom we never saw again.
1977 Yanks-Dodgers: Nothing like a coast-to- coast series with Billy Martin and Tommy LaSorda, at their heights, as masters of ceremony. It was the greatest series for great conversation, starring mainly the illustrious Roger Angell and punctuated in the end by Reggie Jackson’s titanic homer binge; three in Game Six. Billy didn’t mock Reggie that evening.
1986 Mets-Sox: Starting the bottom of the ninth of Game Six, word floated up to Shea Stadium’s pressbox that Boston’s clubhouse was loaded with champagne. The Mother of series victory parties loomed. So after the first Met got retired, half the press box emptied and after the second, the stampede was on, with everyone yearning to witness the magic moment. But someone – and I think it was the late, great Willie McDonough – said to me, “Let’s just wait and see what happens.” With only a smattering left in the press box the next Met dropped a looper in for a single, then another followed with a flare, then another did the same, and there was a wild pitch, and a pitching change, until finally Mooky Wilson dribbled a quirky nubber in the direction of Billy Buckner. No champagne sprayed that night!
In its curious way, the World Series stakes out the days of our lives. Where will wacky and improbable 2013 rate? We’ll know soon enough.