When the subject of the greatest game in World Series history is brought up, several obvious choices are always mentioned. Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956 is usually at or near the top of everyone's most easily recalled list. The seventh game in 1955, when Sandy Amoros made his game-saving catch and the Dodgers won their first Series, and the fourth game in 1947, in which Cookie Lavagetto broke up Bill Bevens' no-hitter, are others that rank high among the alltimers of modern memory. If you are something other than a Dodger fan, of course, you may think first of the 1932 game in which Babe Ruth did or did not point to center field against the Cubs before hitting a home run there. St. Louis fans always mention Enos Slaughter's streak from first to home in 1946 against the Red Sox.
The fact is, there can be no "greatest" Series game to serve all the requirements of regionalism, excitement and human temperament. But there was one game—hardly ever mentioned among the most memorable—that has much to offer as a candidate for supergame. The fifth game of the 1920 Series between Brooklyn and Cleveland, if remembered at all, is usually mentioned only for Bill Wambsganss' unassisted triple play for the Indians in the fifth inning. Yet this was the game in which—thanks partly to the fact that it came early enough in Series history—more notable records were set than in any game in the postseason classic up to that time. There was, of course, Wambsganss' bizarre and spectacular play, but there were also the first grand-slam homer, the first home run by a pitcher and a couple of other obscure marks. If nothing else, the fifth game of the 1920 Series gave its successors something to shoot at. Billy Evans, the late American League umpire, once called the contest "an entire season...crowded into 8½ innings of play."
A game of such proportions was not out of keeping with the eventful 1920 season as a whole. The Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers had played a 26-inning game on May 1. And a young Yankee outfielder named Babe Ruth had nearly doubled his home-run record of 29, hitting 54. There were other, more sinister strains to the 1920 season. A fortnight before the Series opened, the 1919 Black Sox scandal broke, upstaging such news as the presidential campaign, the debate over the League of Nations and the census (105,683,000 "without colonies"). On Aug. 16 Carl Mays, a Yankee hurler who pitched with a deceptive underhand motion, had hit Ray Chapman, the Cleveland shortstop, on the head. Chapman died within 24 hours. A brief movement to throw Mays out of baseball sprang up—Mays had stirred a controversy the year before by quitting the Red Sox in midgame one day and then being sold to the Yankees—but quickly dissipated. But Cleveland was without the services of one of its regulars in its clash with the Dodgers.
Despite the turmoil, there was the usual interest in the World Series. National League champion Brooklyn had played in one previous Series, losing to the Red Sox four games to one in 1916. The American League champion Cleveland Indians were playing in their first Series.
October 10, 1971
Cleveland had won a three-cornered pennant race with New York and Chicago; at the end of the season only three games separated the teams. Tris Speaker, the former Red Sox outfielder, was Cleveland's playing manager and best (.388) hitter. Jim Bagby, a 31-game winner, headed a pitching staff that also included 20-game winners Stan Coveleski and Ray Caldwell.
The Indians, who wore black armbands during the Series in memory of Chapman, were a sober contrast to the daffy Dodgers. It was Brooklyn's seventh year under Manager Wilbert (Uncle Robbie) Robinson, and the Dodgers were perfect charges for the porky (5'8½", 215 pounds) absentminded leader, even to the extent that they became known for a few years as the Robins. (Once during a Giant game Robinson and several players not in the lineup that day had sprawled on the grass outside the foul lines to watch an eclipse of the sun through smoked glasses.) During the Series itself, Pitcher Rube Marquard was to be arrested for ticket scalping and Owner Charles Ebbets for handing out small test tubes of Prohibition whiskey. When they were serious, however, the Dodgers/Robins were good, winning the pennant that year by seven games over the Giants. Burleigh Grimes was their best pitcher (23-11), and Zack Wheat played the outfield, hitting .328.
The first game was played at Ebbets Field and may have been an augury of things to come. The Indians won 3-1 in a stiff wind that played tricks with the ball. George Burns set the tone by circling the bases on a pop fly that eluded two infielders and was subsequently thrown away, an event that Brooklyn starter Marquard, his teammates and the capacity crowd of 23,573 never fully recovered from. Brooklyn took the second game 3-0, and the story of the game was, as The New York Times commented, that "Grimes' spitball was working famously." The Dodgers won the third game 2-1 when singles by Zack Wheat and Hy Myers in the first inning batted across all the runs Pitcher Sherry Smith needed.
As the train carrying the Indian players pulled into Cleveland before the fourth game, Mayor W. S. Fitzgerald urged his constituents to support the club. "They will win the Series," he said, "if Cleveland backs them the way it backed the pennant fight. I ask that Cleveland...show in every way possible its appreciation." Home fans were appropriately stimulated, and the Indians reciprocated by squaring the Series with a 5-1 victory. The stage thus was set for climactic Game 5.
Spectators tolerated immense traffic jams as they traveled to the game in taxis, trolley cars and carriages. Gaily colored pavilions along the foul lines provided a colorful note at League Park. Some 6,500 new seats had been installed in the outfield, increasing the old wooden stadium's capacity to 28,000 for the Series. Outside the park spectators hung, more or less, from telephone poles, trees and rooftops. Horns, cowbells and auto sirens augmented the crowd's cheers as the managers and umpires briskly concluded their affairs at home plate and the game began.
Brooklyn appeared to be the logical favorite. Grimes had throttled the Indians on seven hits in the second game, and the losers had conferred anxiously over how to handle his spitter. Nor had Cleveland starter Jim Bagby been overpowering when he had faced Grimes the first time.
Bagby managed to survive a shaky first inning without harm, though he almost allowed a run when he uncorked a wild throw that Catcher Steve O'Neill just managed to save. Charlie Jamieson led off for Cleveland in the first with a single. Wambsganss, or Wamby as he was popularly known, attempted to sacrifice but had to hit away when the count went to two strikes. He singled, Jamie-son moving to second. Speaker also tried to sacrifice and got credit for a single when Grimes slipped trying to field his bunt. The bases were loaded, nobody out. The cleanup hitter, 28-year-old Rightfielder Elmer Smith, stepped in. He had just had his best season, hitting with both power (37 doubles, 10 triples, 12 home runs) and frequency (.316).
A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter stationed outside his building where a tally board had been set up spotted among the crowd of 7,000 a pretty young woman with a red velvet hat. "Oh, Elmer Smith!" she was reported saying. "Oh Elmer, put it over the fence! Just once!"
A man standing with the lady chided her, "A little single would be good enough."
Smith, a left-handed hitter, missed the first two pitches and took a ball. The fourth pitch came in waist-high, and he met it squarely. Looking, as one report termed it, like "a quinine pill," the ball arched high over the infield, the outfield and the right-field fence, landing on the far side of Lexington Avenue. It was the first grand-slam home run in World Series history.
Though it was only the first of many records that day, the slam would have sufficed for most of those who witnessed it—certainly for the Dodgers, whose troubles were only starting. Despite Ruth's heroics, homers were comparatively rare at the time, and grand slams were grist for an entire season. A Series grand slam was cause for ecstasy. Men and boys vaulted over the stands to do war dances on the outfield grass. Strangers clapped each other on the back. A vendor at the Plain Dealer impulsively handed out free sandwiches. The reaction of the lady in the red velvet hat is not recorded.
The Indians finished Grimes off with one out in the fourth. Doc Johnston was on third and Steve O'Neill—who had just set the game's least memorable record by taking his fifth intentional walk of the Series—was on first. Grimes had passed O'Neill to get to Pitcher Bagby, but it was no day to be playing percentages. Bagby's fly disappeared between the temporary stands in right center and the right-field fence, the first Series homer by a pitcher. There was, as The New York Times put it, "wild, barbarous applause."
When Jamieson followed with a single, Grimes, who had allowed nine hits and seven runs in 3‚Öì innings, was lifted. For Grimes, who had won 23 games during the season, his reversal of form was as puzzling as it was humiliating. What he and the Dodgers learned later was that the Indians had "keyed" on Grimes' spitter. Larry Gardner, the Indian third baseman, told how the Indians had picked up the giveaway sign—a habit of Brooklyn's Second Baseman Pete Kilduff of picking up a handful of dirt between pitches. He quickly discarded the dirt on all pitches, except when Grimes was about to throw his spitter. On those occasions he held onto the dirt until the last moment. Indian First Baseman George Burns detected his quirk and tipped off his teammates. (After the Series, Grimes—aware he was being had—went to the Cleveland dressing room and asked the players how they had done it. "We gave him the mystery business," Gardner said years later. "Told him it was a secret, but we'd keep it in the lodge. Grimes scratched his head and walked out.")
By going to the showers Grimes missed the prize moment of the game and Series, the only triple play in Series history. Indeed, it was Grimes' replacement, Clarence Mitchell, who hit into the play in the fifth inning. The situation was as follows as Mitchell came to bat:
Kilduff was on second and Otto Miller on first, with no one out. With the runners moving, Mitchell hit a high line drive over second. Wambsganss, who had moved over to cover the bag, had plenty of time to set himself and jump. He caught the ball and came down almost on top of the base, easily doubling up Kilduff. Miller, meanwhile, had almost reached second and had no time to stop before he crashed into Wamby. It not only was the first unassisted triple play in Series history, but the first in any ball game since Cleveland's Neal Ball had managed the feat on the same field in 1909.
Unlike the grand slam, which produced spontaneous eruptions all over Cleveland, the triple play, according to reports, left spectators mute for a full minute. When they recovered, there was another round of, well, wild, barbarous applause. The Indians coasted to an 8-1 victory after that to take a 3-2 lead in the Series. There was one further humiliation for the Dodgers that day. Mitchell hit into a double play his next time at bat, creating another record of sorts: being responsible for five outs in two trips to the plate. The Indians executed two additional double plays, making it a long afternoon for the Dodgers, but a short one for Bagby. The entire game took only an hour and 49 minutes, which probably set another record—for amount of excitement per minute.
If there were a record for luckiest winning pitcher in Series history, Bagby might have set that one, too. He won the game while giving up 13 hits. An important factor, obviously, was the support he got from his fielders, though they were guilty of two errors at non-crucial times.
The Oct. 11 papers put the triple play in better perspective than biographers have. It received only equal billing with the grand slam, and Cleveland's go-ahead win amid all the records was considered the biggest news of all. The remainder of the Series was anticlimactic. The Indians took the next two games and the Series, which in that year it took five to win.
"Kilduff and Miller," wrote Ring Lardner, "got base hits off Bagby, the master mind, and Mitchell cleared the bases with a line drive to WWaammbbssggaannss. An expert cuckoo sitting in the press box told me that it was the first time a man named Wambsganss had ever made a triple play assisted by consonants only."
"The only credit I really take," said Wamby afterward, "was in making the catch." Humility came easy to the man who that year had led all American League second basemen in the commission of errors.