One of the most frequently reported moments in World Series play occurred in 1926 when the aging Grover Cleveland Alexander came out of the St. Louis Cardinal bullpen to strike out New York Yankee rookie Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded to save both the game and the Series for the Cardinals. Of the many stories that have been written about the incident, most tend to confirm the legend that the hard-drinking Alexander, who had beaten the Yanks the day before, was suffering from a post-celebration hangover. But listen to the account of an eyewitness, Les Bell, now 76 but then the Cardinals' 24-year-old third baseman:
I can see him yet, walking in from the leftfield bullpen through the gray mist. The Yankee fans recognized him right off, and you didn't hear a sound from anywhere in Yankee Stadium as they sat still and watched him. And he took his time. Grover Cleveland Alexander was never in a hurry, and especially not this day. It was the seventh inning of the seventh game of the World Series and we were leading 3-2. Alec had won two games for us already and he was coming in now to face a tough young hitter with two out and the bases loaded.
I can still see him walking that long distance. He just came straggling along, a lean old Nebraskan, his face wrinkled, wearing a Cardinal sweater, his cap sitting on the top of his head and tilted to one side—that's the way he wore it. We were all standing on the mound waiting for him—me and Rogers Hornsby (who was our manager and second baseman) and Tommy Thevenow and Jim Bottomley and Bob O'Farrell. When Alec reached the mound Rog handed him the ball and said, "There's two out and they're drunk [meaning the bases were loaded] and Lazzeri's the hitter."
"O.K.," Alec said. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to throw the first one to him fast."
October 8, 1978
"No, no," Rog said. "You can't throw him a fastball."
Alec said patiently, "Yes I can. If he swings at it he'll most likely hit it on the handle, or if he hits it good it'll go foul. Then I'm going to come outside with my breaking pitch."
Rog looked him over for a moment, gave a slow smile and said, "Who am I to tell you how to pitch?"
To show you what kind of pitcher Alec was and the kind of thinking he did, he said, "I've got to get Lazzeri out now. Then in the eighth I've got to get Dugan, I've got to get Collins and I've got to get Pennock or whoever hits for him—one, two, three. In the ninth I've got to get Combs and I've got to get Koenig, one, two, so when the big son of a bitch comes up there [meaning Babe Ruth, of course] the best he can do is tie the ball game." He had it figured out that Ruth was going to be the last hitter in the ninth inning.
So we all went back to our positions and Alec got set to work. He had gone nine the day before, and if he got out of this jam he still had two more innings to go. He was nearly 40 years old—but, doggone, there wasn't another man in the world I would have rather seen out there at that moment than Grover Cleveland Alexander.
After Alec had pitched the sixth game, Hornsby said to him and Bill Sherdel, another of our pitchers, "Alec, you're in the bullpen tomorrow and, Sherry, so are you."
Sherdel just nodded, but Alec said, "All right, Rog. But I'll tell you, I'm not going to warm up in the bullpen. I've got just so many throws left in this arm. I'll take my warmup pitches on the mound."
And that's the way it was left. So when you hear those stories about how Alec didn't think he might have to pitch the next day and was out all night celebrating and how he was hung over when he came in, that's a lot of bunk. I saw him around the hotel the night before, for goodness sakes. I don't say he didn't have a drink, but he was around most of the night.
Jess Haines started the seventh game for us and he pitched just fine until the seventh inning. Haines was a knuckleball pitcher; he threw the knuckler hard and he threw it just about all the time. His fingers had blistered from all the wear and tear, so when Lazzeri—who had batted in 114 runs that season—came up, he called a halt. Rog and the rest of us walked over to the mound.
"Can you throw it anymore?" Rog asked him.
"No," Jess said. "I can throw the fastball but not the knuckler."
"Well," Hornsby said, "we don't want any fastballs to Lazzeri."
We had been throwing Lazzeri nothing but breaking balls away and we'd been having pretty good luck with him.
So Rog said, "O.K., I'm going to bring in Pete," which is what we sometimes called Alexander.
So in came Alec, shuffling through the gloom from out in leftfield. He took his time at everything, except when he pitched. Then he worked like a machine. That arm going up and down, up and down. If you didn't swing at the first pitch it was strike one, you didn't swing at the second pitch it was strike two. His control was amazing, just amazing.
He took four warmup pitches on the mound—that's all—and he was ready. Alec was a little bit of the country boy psychologist out there. I guess a lot of the great pitchers are. He knew it was Lazzeri's rookie year, and that here it was, seventh game of the World Series, two out and the bases loaded and the score 3-2. The pressure was something. Lazzeri had to be anxious up there. This is not to take anything from Lazzeri—he was a great hitter—but he was up against the master. And don't think when Alec walked in he didn't walk slower than ever. He wanted Lazzeri to wait as long as possible, standing at the plate thinking about the situation. And he just knew Tony's eyes would pop when he saw his fastball.
There are so many legends associated with that strikeout. They say that Hornsby walked out to leftfield to meet Alec, to look in his eyes and make sure they were clear. And so on. All a lot of bunk. It's too bad they say these things. If you stop to think about it, no man could have done what Alec did if he was drunk or even a little soggy. Not the way he pitched that day, and not the way his mind was working. Everybody knows that he was a drinker and that he had a problem with it, but he was not drunk when he walked into the ball game that day. No way.
So he got to work. The first pitch he threw to Lazzeri was low, a ball. The second crossed the plate for a called strike. Lazzeri then jumped on the third pitch, a fastball high inside, and hit the hell out of it, a hard drive down the leftfield line. For 50 years that ball has been just curving foul, missing being a homer anywhere from an inch to 20 feet, depending on who you're listening to or what you're reading. But I was standing on third base and I'll tell you—that ball was foul all the way.
Then you should have seen Lazzeri go after a breaking ball on the low outside corner of the plate. He couldn't have hit it with a 10-foot pole.
He had struck out, and Alec shuffled off the mound toward the dugout. I ran by him and said something like, "Nice going, Alec." He looked at me with just the shadow of a smile on his lips. Then he took off his glove and flipped it onto the bench, put on his Cardinal sweater and sat down.
A lot of people think the Lazzeri strikeout ended the game. You'd be surprised how many I've spoken to through the years think it was the ninth inning. But, heck, we still had two innings to go.
Alec handled them like babies in the eighth—one, two, three. In the ninth he got the first two men—I threw them out from third base—and then Ruth stepped in, with two out and nobody on, just as Alec had wanted it. It would be nice to say that Alec struck him out to end it, and he nearly did. He took Babe to a full count and lost him on a low outside pitch that wasn't off by more than an eyelash.
Ruth got to first and then, for some reason that I've never been able to figure out, he tried to steal second. Bob O'Farrell gunned the ball down to Hornsby, Rog slapped the tag on Ruth and that was it.
We all froze for a second, then rushed at Alec. We surrounded him, the whole team, and pounded him around pretty good. He kept nodding his head and smiling and saying very softly, "Thanks, boys, thanks."
So many other things have come and gone now. It's a long time ago, isn't it? More than 50 years. But whenever I think of Alec walking in from leftfield, it seems like yesterday.