Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

The six craziest things that have decided an MLB pennant race

Pennant race season is both the most thrilling and most anxiety-inducing time of year -- the fates of franchises riding on every pitch. But as much as we love watching the best players and teams in baseball battle it out for the right to play in October, even we have to admit that it's not always the actual play that decides things.

It's baseball, after all: Weirdness is bound to happen, even when the stakes are highest. The six examples below prove that fact.

1894: The Boston Beaneaters lose their ballpark

At the start of the 1894 season, the Beaneaters called Boston's South End Grounds home. The Grounds were pretty state of the art, even featuring a grandstand with a second deck. Alas, like every other ballpark, it was made of wood, and on May 15 it caught fire and burned to the ground. (The fire marshal would later blame a carelessly discarded cigarette; no one was injured, though about 200 buildings were destroyed in the blaze.)

If you'd assume that losing a home park mid-season would affect a team's pennant chances, you'd be correct ... just not how you might think.

Park

As it happened, there was an available field not too far away: the Congress Street Grounds, empty since the Boston Reds disbanded in 1892. Congress Street had some very weird dimensions -- the left and right field foul poles sat just 250 feet away (!) from home plate -- and the Beaneaters had just the offense to take advantage. On May 30, slugger Bobby Lowe became the first player in MLB history to hit four homers in a game, and Boston went 36-17 overall and 19-7 at home in two months at its new park.

While the team was taking the NL by storm, though, its old park was being rebuilt. The South End Grounds reopened for business on July 20, and the Beaneaters collapsed -- finishing a full 10 games back of the Dodgers. The team still holds the record for runs scored in a season, though: 1,220, a whopping 9.24 per game.

1908: Merkle's Boner

The Cubs and Giants went back and forth down the stretch of the 1908 season, culminating in a showdown at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 23. With the two teams tied atop the NL standings, the eyes of the baseball world were on them ... and they saw quite possibly the weirdest and most controversial ending in MLB history.

Tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Giants shortstop Al Bridwell stepped up with two outs and runners on the corners. Bridwell delivered, smacking a single to center that everyone thought had won the game ... everyone including New York rookie Fred Merkle.

Merkle

Merkle was on first when Bridwell singled, and as fans stormed the field to celebrate, he immediately headed for the dugout rather than touching second. According to Rule 59 of the MLB rulebook, that was a problem:

Provided, however, that if [a baserunner] reach home on or during a play in which the third man be forced out or be put out, before reaching first base, a run shall not count.

Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers screamed for the ball and then stepped on the second-base bag -- which home-plate ump Hank O'Day ruled to be the final out of the inning, wiping out the run. With thousands of now-livid Giants fans on the field, O'Day suspended the game, and the Cubs went on to win the pennant and the World Series.

1938: The Homer in the Gloamin'

The Pirates looked like the team to beat in the NL for most of 1938, but a scorching September put the Cubs just 1 1/2 games out heading into the final series of the year: Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field, the pennant on the line. 

Game two of that series went to the ninth tied at five -- where, in the days before stadium lights, darkness became an issue. Visibility was iffy at best in the bottom half, but the umpiring crew decided to let the Cubs bat and postpone the game if it were still tied heading into extras. 

Hartnett

Pirates pitcher Mace Brown, figuring that Chicago's batters could hardly see anything anyway, promptly started firing fastball after fastball. And it worked, at first: Brown sat down the first two hitters with ease, and it looked like we were destined for a double-header for all the marbles the next day. 

Gabby Hartnett, however, had other ideas. With hardly any daylight left, Hartnett drove one deep into the bleachers in left-center to give the Cubs a dramatic win -- the "Homer in the Gloamin'", as AP sports reporter Earl Hilligan dubbed it. Chicago won the next day to take the pennant.

1964: Keep an eye on home plate

You may have heard about the collapse of the '64 Phillies before: Up by 6 1/2 games with just 12 left to play, Philly dropped 10 straight to lose the pennant by a single game. 

What you may not know is that the story gets worse when you look under the hood. The start of that 10-game skid was a 1-0 loss to the Reds -- in which the only run scored was a straight steal of home by Cincy rookie third baseman Chico Ruiz. (For context, Ruiz stole 34 bases in his entire eight-year career, while getting thrown out 16 times.) 

But wait, there's somehow more! Two days before Ruiz's heroics, the Phillies and Dodgers battled into the bottom of the 16th inning ... where seldom-used reliever Morrie Steevens allowed L.A.'s Willie Davis to, yes, pull off a walk-off steal of home. Guard home plate either time, and Philly still goes to the World Series.

1973: Ya gotta believe

In the middle of the '73 season, confidence shaken after some rough outings, Mets reliever and all-around oddball Tug McGraw met with motivational speaker Joe Bandamo. Bandamo gave him some advice: "You've got to believe." And thus the mantra of the 1973 Mets was born -- the rallying cry for a team that went from the NL basement to a 19-8 September to a division title.

Amazingly, though, McGraw's motivational gambit wasn't even the weirdest part. That came on Sept. 20, with New York and Pittsburgh -- separated by just 1 1/2 games in the NL East -- locked at three in the top of the 13th inning. Pirates outfielder Dave Augustine lifted a fly ball deep to left that looked like it would give Pittsburgh the lead, but the ball bounced off the top of the wall ... and right into the glove of Mets left fielder Cleon Jones, who started a 7-6-2 relay to throw out Richie Zisk at the plate and keep the game tied. 

The Mets walked off in the bottom half and went on to win the NL East, and they eventually made it all the way to the World Series.

2011: Game 162

It might be the single greatest day in Major League history: three hours, four games, two postseason spots up for grabs. The Rays began September 9 1/2 games back of the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card spot, and though Tampa Bay had managed to draw back even with Boston heading into the season's final day, it quickly found itself in a 7-0 hole at home against the Yankees. Boston, meanwhile, took an early lead in Baltimore, and the drama appeared to be done.

Oh, how naive we were. The Rays put up a six-spot in the eighth to draw within a run, but they would have to complete the comeback in the ninth against Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest closer of all-time ... or they would have, if New York wasn't determined to rest him. With the AL East sewn up, manager Joe Girardi was determined to rest his best relievers, no matter how dicey things got. So it was Cory Wade who gave up the game-tying homer to Dan Johnson:

And it was Scott Proctor -- in his third inning of work, after the O's had already come back to walk off the Red Sox -- who gave up the game-winner to Evan Longoria: