SEPTEMBER HITS BASEBALL LIKE A COLD SHOWER. After the jaunty optimism of spring—when even the Indians are allowed to think that this, at last, is going to be their year—and the casualness of summer, the sport is suddenly slapped awake. The arrival of September means that only five weeks remain in the regular season (baseball's Greater September includes the first week of October) and the pennant races shift into high gear. Long-rested injuries finally heal, or teams that were healthy all season suddenly fall apart. Deals are made, heroes are born and goats' horns sprout. Sometimes history is made.
If so far it has been a team's year, well, this month comes complete with every reason ever invented for choking (keep swallowing. Cardinals). For the contenders, which, history tells us, could be any team within 10 games of first place (are you listening Rangers, Mariners, Reds and Brewers?), September games have the potential to become nothing less than supernatural. Scoreboard watching becomes a sport unto itself—"The Angels have been up a long time in the fifth"—and the numbers in the loss columns become all-important.
On the field a September fervor grips the players. The Reds' Dave Parker calls it "panty-hose time."
"You know, no nonsense."
Last season all the races were decided early, but this September promises to be one of the most exciting in years, with hot chases in all four divisions. The Cardinals, first in the National League East since April 18, saw their lead shrink from 9½ games on July 23 to 3½ on Labor Day morning, and they still have 12 games, including their last six, left to play against the second-place Mets and third-place Expos. In the AL East the Tigers and Blue Jays will face one another on the final two weekends of the season, while the Yankees play their last seven games at home. In the NL West the Reds and Astros finish the season in Houston, although right now each team is more concerned about the rampaging Giants, the division leader by 5½ games. And while the AL West is always a couple of small losing streaks from being a six-team slag heap, every member of the division should remember that the 1973 Mets were last in the NL East on Aug. 28 and finished the season a mere three games above .500, but made it to the seventh game of the World Series.
"In September you keep thinking time is running out," says Red Sox catcher-turned-broadcaster Bob Montgomery, "and then you think about what you should have done in some game two months before." And then, suddenly, comes a final determining instant—a home run, a wild pitch, a diving catch—and what happened two months before becomes ancient history.
Ah, Bucky Dent. One can only guess who history's hero might be this September. Will it be Jack Clark, Will Clark, George Bell, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Darryl Strawberry or even Reggie Jackson in his last hurrah? We know the Tigers will be in it to the end because their rotation keeps coming around to Jack Morris. Likewise for the Royals with Bret Saberhagen; the Angels with Mike Witt; the Mets with Dwight Gooden; the Astros with Mike Scott.
Certain stars flourish in September whether their teams are in pennant races or not. Twenty-year-old Stan Musial came up in September 1941 and batted .426. Six times he exceeded .400 for the last month; his September average was .344. During his career, the Cards won four pennants and made runs at four others. Eddie Murray, who has helped the Orioles win or almost win six division titles, is this generation's Musial, with a .318 average and 64 homers vouching for his September swing. Carl Yastrzemski hit better than .300 in four of his seven pennant races. His September in 1967—19 RBIs and .448 in the final 19 games, culminating in a 7-for-8 performance on the final weekend—was perhaps the best of all stretch drives. Among other things, it lifted the Red Sox to their first pennant in 21 years. Mike Schmidt clinched the 1980 division title for the Phillies with his 13th Greater September homer, including an amazing four in the four regular-season games of October. Joe Morgan, after being benched in August 1983, had four hits on Sept. 19, his 40th birthday, and four hits the next day; he batted .338 in his final month as a member of the Phillies. They won the division that year, too.
Then there have been the September flashes, the unlikely heroes (here's Dent again) who were just everyday ballplayers or minor leaguers in August. There was Dodger rookie Dick Nen, whose ninth-inning homer on Sept. 18, 1963, completed a series sweep of the Cards that broke their back. And utility infielder Ducky Schofield, who, while filling in for the injured Dick Groat, batted .403 in September '60 to lead the Pirates to that memorable pennant. In mid-August '64 the Yankees trailed the White Sox by 3½ games when, with Whitey Ford injured, Mel Stottlemyre came up from Richmond and went 9-3 to lead New York to the pennant. Marty Bystrom joined the Phillies from the minors in September '80 and went 5-0. Bob (Hurricane) Hazle came up to Milwaukee on July 28, 1957, batted .403 the rest of the season as the Braves cruised to the pennant and the next spring was sold to the Tigers. On Sept. 27, 1940, 30-year-old Detroit rookie Floyd Giebell beat Bob Feller 2-0 before 45,553 in Cleveland to eliminate the Indians and clinch the pennant for the Tigers. Giebell never won another game.
And there have been Greater September disasters that have made lifetime goats of otherwise fine men and heroic performances that were eclipsed by greater or more timely ones. Never forgiven, despite all else they accomplished, were: Fred Merkle, whose failure to touch second base in 1908 cost the Giants a pennant; Ralph Branca, whose pitch to Bobby Thomson in '51 became the Shot Heard Round the World and cost the Dodgers a pennant; and Mike Torrez, who threw the pitch that Dent hit out in the Yankees-Red Sox one-game playoff in '78. Gene Mauch, currently the manager of the Angels, has worn the numerals 1964 across his forehead like a mark of dishonor for having presided over the Phillies that year, when they lost the pennant after having had a 6½ game lead with only 12 left to play. How often does Mauch think about '64? "Every day," he says.
Thomson's homer off Branca obscured what Jackie Robinson had done just to get the Dodgers into the three-game playoff against the Giants. New York had been 13½ games behind Brooklyn on Aug. 12, but after beating the Braves on Sept. 30, the last day of the regular season, the Giants were half a game ahead of the Dodgers, awaiting the outcome of Brooklyn's game in Philadelphia. There, in the bottom of the 12th inning, the game appeared to be over when the Phillies' Eddie Waitkus hit a line drive up the middle with the bases loaded. An excited Western Union operator in the press box prematurely sent out the message that the Dodgers had lost and the Giants—as broadcaster Russ Hodges would scream correctly three days later—had won the pennant. But second baseman Robinson made a miraculous diving catch of Waitkus's drive and then homered in the top of the 14th to win the game for the Dodgers and force the playoff.
As Robinson's heroics were forgotten, so was the terrible slide of the 1950 Phillies, thanks to a single play. Had it not been for Richie Ashburn. no one would remember the Whiz Kids, and manager Eddie Sawyer's name would have been mud in Philadelphia for a generation. The Phillies had a 7½ game lead with nine to play, but by the time they arrived at Brooklyn's Ebbetts Field on the season's last day, the margin had dwindled to a single game. Sawyer started Robin Roberts for the third time in five days. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers should have won it then: After Cal Abrams walked with none out and Pee Wee Reese advanced him to second with a base hit, Duke Snider singled. Ashburn, playing a shallow center, fielded the ball. Inexplicably, Dodgers third base coach Milt Stock sent Abrams home, and Ashburn threw him out. Roberts then retired Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges, and Dick Sisler won it for the Phillies with a three-run homer in the 10th.
As we wonder whether Mattingly or one of the Clarks will reenact Yastrzemski's 1967, or whether a Scott or Morris will have a 5-0 September run, let us rank the 10 greatest pennant races of all time:
1951: The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff
The Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, including 16 straight and their final seven, to tie the Dodgers. In the third game of their playoff, the Giants trailed 4-1 in the ninth, then made it 4-2 and had two men on when Branca came in to face Thomson, who had batted .427 since Aug. 20. The rest, Russ Hodges fans, is history.
1978: Athens and Sparta
In July, when the Red Sox led the Brewers by 10 games and the injury-riddled Yankees by 14½, the Boston Herald ran a series on the "SuperTeam." Then the Sox were beset by injuries, the Yanks got healthy, and New York swept four in Fenway to pull even. At one point the Yanks opened a 3½ game lead. Ultimately, the teams met in Boston for a one-game playoff to decide the AL East title. If Yankee rightfielder Lou Piniella hadn't made two terrific plays and Rich Gossage hadn't got Yaz to pop up with two on in the ninth—and if Dent hadn't hit that three-run homer—people would remember that Boston won its last seven regular-season games.
1920: Death Followed by Guilt
All season long this was a high-speed chase involving the Indians, White Sox and Yankees. Along the way, Babe Ruth changed the game by hitting 54 homers (the previous record: 29). On Aug. 16 first-place Cleveland was leading Chicago and New York by 1½ games when the Yankees' Carl Mays struck the Indians' star shortstop, Ray Chapman, with a pitch. Chapman died the next day. The Indians reeled for the rest of the month, when they expanded their roster with the usual supply of late-season rookies, including a shortstop named Joe Sewell and a lefthanded pitcher named Duster Mails. Sewell soon took over Chapman's position, batted .329 and ended up in the Hall of Fame, while Mails went 7-0. As Cleveland and Chicago prepared to meet in Cleveland's League Park for a showdown series beginning on Sept. 23, Chicago buzzed with rumors that a grand jury was preparing indictments against Ed Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson and six other 1919 White Sox players for throwing that year's World Series. Now, in the second game against Chicago, Mails pitched a 2-0 shutout. Still, on Sept. 28 the White Sox were only a half-game out with three to play when eight White Sox players were suspended by owner Charles Comiskey after Cicotte's confession revealed they had been involved in the fix. The Indians clinched the pennant on Oct. 2.
1908: Merkle and Addie Joss
Giants first baseman Fred Tenney woke up with lumbago on Sept. 23, so a rookie named Fred Merkle took his place. Only percentage points separated Chicago and New York as they met at the Polo Grounds that day. When the Giants' Al Bridwell got a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth with Moose McCormick on third and Merkle on first, fans poured onto the field, thinking McCormick had scored and New York had won 2-1. Problem was, Merkle, figuring the game was over, never bothered to touch second base, a dereliction noted by Cub second baseman Johnny Evers, who called for the ball. But, as legend has it, the ball was lost in the crowd of fans, and a wrestling match over it ensued between Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker and New York's Joe McGinnity. Finally Evers came up with a ball—no one knows for sure whether it was the right one—and stepped on second. Merkle was called out and McCormick's run was nullified. The game was declared a tie and replayed on Oct. 8, when Mordecai (Three Fingered) Brown beat Christy Mathewson 4-2 to put the Cubs en route to their last world championship.
That year's American League race, a four-team affair among Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia, was equally compelling. The White Sox were shocked by the Indians in the final week when Addie Joss's perfect game beat Ed Walsh's 15-strikeout performance, 1-0. But three days later the Browns knocked the Indians out of the race, and the Tigers won the pennant by a half-game.
1967: The Impossible Dream
The American League had the best four-team race ever, with the Red Sox, Twins, Tigers and White Sox separated by 1½ games with four days to play. Boston, the ninth-place finisher in 1966, beat the Twins the last two days as Yastrzemski went 7 for 8 with two homers and made stellar plays in leftfield. The Tigers lost to California in the second game of a last-day doubleheader to complete the season that brought back a fervor for baseball in New England.
1934: Is Brooklyn Still in the League?
That was how Bill Terry, manager of the defending champion Giants, responded to a question about the Dodgers before the season. New York occupied first place for 127 days in 1934. But the Cardinals, behind the pitching of the Dean brothers, who beat the Giants 12 times during the season, went 21-7 in September. On Sept. 21, St. Louis climbed to within three games of New York by sweeping a doubleheader from the Dodgers. Dizzy Dean threw a 13-0 three-hitter in the opener, and Paul had a 3-0 no-hitter in the nightcap. The Cards then swept the Reds in the last two games of the season, while New York lost a pair to—yes—Brooklyn, which was still in the league.
1964: The Phillies Phold and More
Cincinnati's Chico Ruiz stole home in the 10th inning on Sept. 21 to beat Philadelphia 1-0 and mark the beginning of the Phillies' slide from the penthouse to the outhouse. Meanwhile, St. Louis owner Gussie Busch, who had already fired general manager Bing Devine, decided not to bring back manager Johnny Keane for 1965. Yankee general manager Ralph Houk likewise decided that Yogi Berra was the wrong man to run the struggling Bombers. Well, the Cardinals won the National League pennant, and the Yankees the American; Keane beat Berra in the Series; Keane quit, though the Cards asked him to stay; Berra was fired; Houk hired Keane to skipper the declining Yanks for '65 and fired him in '66; Berra became the manager of the Mets in '72 and won the National League pennant in '73.
1969: The Miracle Mets
The first inkling came in July when Tom Seaver got within two outs of a perfect game against the first-place Cubs in Shea Stadium. A week later spray-hitter (or, rather, non-hitter) Al Weis hit two homers in consecutive New York wins at Wrigley Field. The Mets were 9½ games back in mid-August and 2½ out on Sept. 8 before they swept a pair from the Cubbies in New York. On Sept. 10 they moved into first place to stay.
1942: The Stallions of September
For those who believe that George Steinbrenner's childish fits of hysteria cripple the modern-day Yankees, there's the example of the equally mercurial Dodger boss, Larry MacPhail, who in mid-August 1942 called a team meeting to lambaste his players—even though they led the second-place Cardinals by eight games. St. Louis went 21-4 in September and won the pennant by two games over Brooklyn.
1959: Welcome to L.A.
The Giants had a two-game lead over the Dodgers and the Braves with eight to play. But they lost three straight at home to L.A., and when the Dodgers' Roger Craig (how's that, San Francisco fans?) beat Chicago on the final day of the season, the Giants were eliminated and Los Angeles had forced a playoff with Milwaukee. The Dodgers swept the best-of-three playoff, rallying for three runs in the ninth inning of Game 2 to tie before winning on Felix Mantilla's error in the 12th. The Dodgers went on to triumph in the first World Series that visited a city west of St. Louis.
Mantilla will probably never forget that error, as Stock, Branca and Merkle could never forget, and as Hartnett, Dent, Yastrzemski, Hazle et al. will never be forgotten. Who might it be in '87: Bell? Robby Thompson? Luis Polonia? Steve (Great) Lake? Let's all sit back and watch Greater September.
SEPTEMBER 8, 1964
The Phillies lost in the Dodger 3-2, but still led the NL by six games. They would ride high for another two weeks before their great fall.
SEPTEMBER 9, 1957
Leo Durocher's Cubs, 7-1 loser tothe Mets, spent their last day in first place. Their lead over New York, once 9½ games, fell to a half.
SEPTEMBER 22, 1957
Milwaukee's Bob (Hurricane) Hazle raised his average to .407 with four straight hits, including a 10th-inning homer to beat the Cubs.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1908
Merkle's failure to touch second base on Al Bridwell's hit helped the Giants to lose a pennant, but it made the name Merkle immortal.
SEPTEMBER 24, 1920
With the Indians closing in on a pennant, rookie Mails threw a 2-0 shutout at the pursuing, soon-to-be scandal-ridden White Sox.
SEPTEMBER 27, 1940
Giebell was held aloft after he won 2-0 before 45,553 in Cleveland to clinch the pennant for Detroit. He would never win another game.
SEPTEMBER 28, 1938
Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin with two out in the ninth at Wrigley Field beat Pittsburgh 6-5 and put the Cubs on top to stay.
OCTOBER 2, 1978
Dent became a permanent villain in New England by popping a three-run homer in the Yankees' 5-4 playoff win over the Red Sox.
OCTOBER 3, 1951
Thomson hit the most famous pennant-race home run, off the Dodgers' Branca in the Polo Grounds, and "the Giants win the pennant!"