Heading into September 12, 1940, the Yankees stood one game back of the Tigers for first place in the American League. The two teams, plus the Indians, were in the middle of a tight three-team race. The Red Sox and White Sox remained in reach, technically speaking, but they were barely hanging on.
As the schedule would have it, the Yankees then headed to Detroit for a three-game series against the Tigers. With Cleveland having to play Boston, the following three days would essentially decide American League.
The Yankees gave the start to Atley Donald. After allowing a walk, a single, and a wild pitch in the first three at-bats of the game, Donald settled down and managed to escape having surrendered only one run in that first inning. He then went on to allow just three baserunners in the next four innings, precisely as the Yankees took the lead.
A third inning triple from Joe DiMaggio scored two runs to put New York ahead. A Hank Greenberg home run tied the game for Detroit in the sixth inning, but the Yankees then immediately recaptured a one-run lead in the top of the seventh.
Donald came back out for the seventh inning and quickly got a fly ball for the first out. He walked the next batter he faced, but then managed to get Greenberg to hit a ground ball. Red Rolfe fielded the grounder and threw to second to get the force out. Joe Gordon, however, overthrew the ball to first base, allowing Greenberg to reach on the error.
The right-hander came unglued after that. He gave up one single to tie the game. After an intentional walk, he allowed two more singles, each plating a run. He was replaced by Marv Breuer, who allowed one more run before finally escaping the inning.
DiMaggio reached on an error in the top of the ninth, but any rally hopes stopped there. The Tigers won the series opener 6-3. The teams split the remaining two games of the series, and the Yankees ended it two games back of Detroit. Cleveland took two out of three from the Red Sox and remained half a game back of the Tigers.
The Yankees went 12-7 following the September 12th game, including an eight-game win streak. That mark was one of the better records in all of baseball over that time. The Tigers, however, put up a similar winning percentage over that time.
After an extra innings win over the Senators on September 29th, the Yankees finished the season with an 88-66 record.In first place stood the Tigers at 90-64, two games ahead of the Yankees.
Who knows if everything plays out the same if the Yankees win the September 12th game. Just doing this reductively, however, if Joe Gordon had not thrown the ball away and the Yankees won that game, they and the Tigers would both have finished tied for first at 89-65.
If you remember, the Indians were also in this race. They went 11-7 after September 12th, also staying around in the race. Their final record was 89-65. Not only did that error possibly knock out the Yankees, it eliminated Cleveland too.
The Tigers went on to play a tightly-contested, seven-game World Series against the Reds. Cincinnati won a one-run Game Seven at home to clinch the series. Detroit had a good offense that year, but maybe one of the other two teams would have been able to score more than one combined run in the final two games with a 3-2 series lead.
There are undoubtedly other errors that happened more recently that are far more frustrating to us as current day fans. This error, though, genuinely impacted three, maybe even four, teams.