The New York Yankees have long made a habit out of torturing their rivals, the Boston Red Sox. The worst day in the history of the Red Sox might be October 2nd, for the Yankees robbed them of pennants on the final day of the season 29 years apart. While the 1978 AL East comeback completed on October 2nd has been well-documented, the Yankees' late-season rally against the Red Sox after falling out of first was similarly remarkable. Since that comeback is not as embedded in our memories as the '78 renaissance, let's look back to a time when the "Curse of the Bambino" was not even a term used by the media yet.
New managerial hire Casey Stengel proved himself to be no fool at the job in his first season as the skipper of the Yankees. The team overcame a bone spur injury to star center fielder Joe DiMaggio that forced him to miss every game until June 28th, and they led the American League every day of the season through late September, though the lead never grew larger than six games. The Red Sox, managed by former Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, stayed close throughout the campaign, led by AL MVP Ted Williams and his near-Triple Crown season (Williams led the league in homers , RBI , and in hitting through September 30th with a .344 mark). Boston lost a seven-game World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in '46, and they lost a playoff game with the Cleveland Indians to miss the '48 World Series. They had not been in first place all year by September 24th, the Red Sox trailed by one game, and they began a three-game series against the Yankees with the first two held at Fenway Park and the last in Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio was again sidelined, this time with pneumonia, but it was still a shock that the Red Sox took all three from the Yankees. A four-run eighth in the last game that keyed the Red Sox to a 8-7 victory and first place seemed to be the straw that officially broke the Yankees' back.
Fortunately, there were still five games left in the season for the Yankees to make a comeback, although the schedule did not favor them. They had to play three games against the over-.500 Philadelphia Athletics while the Red Sox got to play three against the 100-loss Washington Senators. A surprising loss by Boston to the Senators in the second game forced the Yankees and Red Sox into a tie with three games remaining as the Yankees won both of their games. However, a 4-1 loss to the Athletics assisted by Philadelphia first baseman Ferris Fain's third home run of the season, a three-run shot, put the Yankees a game behind Boston entering the season's final series. The Red Sox nearly blew a six-run lead in their game, but a ninth inning bases-loaded double play allowed them to hold on and beat the Senators 11-9. The Yankees and Red Sox met for a scheduled two-game series at Yankee Stadium to end the season, and Boston needed to win only game to clinch the AL pennant.
Stengel started reliable Allie Reynolds against Boston ace Mel Parnell in this must-win game on October 1st, but he had absolutely no control. Two singles, a wild pitch, and a sacrifice fly by shortstop Vern Stephens gave Boston a 1-0 first inning lead, and it got worse when Reynolds walked the bases loaded in the third. Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr singled in a run, and Stengel had to remove Reynolds before it got any worse. With the season on the line, Stengel turned to his best pitcher, ace reliever Joe Page. Affectionately known as "Fireman" for his ability to get out of countless pitching jams, Page led the league in games pitched for the second straight season with 60, and although the statistic was not yet invented, he saved 27, an AL record. The lefty reliever had a 2.59 ERA and a 156 ERA+ in 135.1 innings, and he was considered so important to the team that he finished in third place for AL MVP voting. Page did not get off to a great start in this game though, as he walked in two runs to give Boston a 4-0 lead.
After this opening stumble though, Page was nearly perfect the rest of the way, striking out catcher Birdie Tebbetts and Parnell to end the frame and allowing just two baserunners for the remainder of the game. Meanwhile, the Yankees rallied, with DiMaggio finally back in their lineup for the first time since September 17th. He led off the fourth with a ground-rule double, then scored on a Hank Bauer single. Left fielder Johnny Lindell singled Bauer to third, and he came home on a Jerry Coleman sacrifice fly to half the score. The Yankees led off the next inning with three straight singles against Parnell, forcing him from the game with a 4-3 precariously hanging in the balance. An infield single by DiMaggio off reliever Joe Dobson's glove loaded the bases, but the Red Sox escaped the inning in a tie thanks to a double play turned on a Billy Johnson grounder to short and a Bauer flyout to end the threat. The score stayed tied until the eighth, when Lindell jumped on a high fastball from Dobson and sent it beyond the left field foul pole for his sixth homer of the season. The Yankees won the game 5-4, and the two teams headed to the final game of the season still tied atop the AL.
With new life, the Yankees started 20-game winner Vic Raschi, the "Springfield Rifle" who led the starting staff with 265.2 innings and had pitched to a 3.35 ERA. The sidearmer from Massachusetts was a fine pitcher, and Stengel had another capable starter waiting in the wings in Eddie Lopat if Raschi did not have it. Boston countered with righthander Ellis Kinder, a 20-game winner himself whose numbers were very close to Raschi's (245 innings and a 3.45 ERA). Kinder was 35 years old and nicknamed "Old Folks" because he did not make his MLB debut until he was 31 with the lowly St. Louis Browns, but he blossomed in Boston when "Marse Joe" traded for him. On the first batter he faced though, Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto, he cautiously pitched to a full count before "The Scooter" smashed a line drive down the left field line for a triple. Rizzuto finished behind only Williams in the AL MVP voting for a reason, as many writers viewed him as the sparkplug to a Yankees offense that managed to score 829 runs and hit .269/.362/.400 even without DiMaggio for most of the season. He scored on a groundball to second by "Ol' Reliable," Tommy Henrich, and the Yankees had a 1-0 lead.
The score stayed at this slim margin for seven innings, as Kinder and Raschi capably dueled deep into the ballgame. Through eight innings, the Red Sox managed just two hits against Raschi and still trailed as the game moved to the bottom of the eighth. McCarthy pinch-hit for Kinder in the top of the inning even though he had allowed only three hits after Rizzuto's triple. Instead, Parnell entered the game without any days of rest, and it was evident that he had nothing left in the tank. Henrich crushed his second pitch for a solo homer to right field, his 24th of the season. Catcher Yogi Berra singled, and Parnell was removed in favor of reliever Tex Hughson, who was unknowingly appearing in his final career game. Hughson got "Joltin' Joe" to hit into a double play, but two singles and a walk loaded the bases for Coleman. The future San Diego Padres broadcaster hit a sinking fly ball toward right fielder Al Zarilla that he dove for, but missed. Coleman was thrown out at third base, but all three runners came around to score and the Yankees held a commanding 5-0 lead entering the ninth. All hope seemed lost for the once-pennant favorite Red Sox, who now faced the dominant Raschi with three outs left in their season.
Wins over competitive Red Sox teams never seem to come easily though. After third baseman Johnny Pesky fouled out to Berra, Raschi walked the dangerous Williams and he moved to second on a wild pitch. Stephens singled, and both runners came around to score when Doerr tripled over DiMaggio's head in center field. In pain and exhausted, DiMaggio realized that the Yankees' best chance of winning would come if he was out of the game. He removed himself, and right fielder Cliff Mapes moved to center as Gene Woodling entered the game in right. Zarilla flew out to Mapes, but to shallow for Doerr to score on Mapes's terrific arm. First baseman Billy Goodman rendered the point moot by singling to center to score Doerr.
The catcher Tebbets now stepped to the plate as the tying run, although he had not homered all year. Just like Carl Yastrzemski would do exactly 29 years later at the end of the '78 playoff, Tebbetts lifted a foul pop-up. The first baseman Henrich needed a few steps to track the twisting fly ball, but he caught it next to the fences separating the field and the stands. The Yankees won the pennant in a thrilling 5-3 victory. Stengel declared that the team was "the fightingest bunch of guys who ever walked on a ball field." Adding insult to injury, Williams's 1-for-5 over the previous two games made him lose the Triple Crown as the batting title fell to Detroit Tigers third baseman George Kell, who went 3-for-5 against the Indians and won the race, .34291 to .34276. "The Splendid Splinter" finished a hit shy of his unprecedented third Triple Crown.
The Yankees took a five-game World Series from the Brooklyn Dodgers, who also needed until the final day of the season to secure the pennant, the first time both leagues' pennant races had gone down to the wire in such a way since 1908. Although the World Series victory was the 12th in the team's history, it was Stengel's first. He would win many more in the years to come, but he never had a pennant race as thrilling as the days of '49.
Further sources: Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.