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The Yankees’ missed opportunity of 1948

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The late 40s/early 50s were a dominant era in Yankees history. It also could have been an even more legendary era had two games gone differently.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees

With two games to play in the 1948 season, the Yankees were one game back of the Indians for first place in the American League. They were tied with the Red Sox, who they just happened to be facing in Boston in the final two games of the season. While the Yankees still needed Cleveland to drop at least one of their last two games against the middling Tigers, their fate was still partially in their hands.

In the penultimate game of the season, the Yankees started Tommy Byrne. While this was neither the year he made the All-Star team nor the one he got MVP votes in, this was arguably Byrne’s best season. He put up his best career ERA+, excluding 1954 when he only pitched five innings. This day would not be one of his best.

Byrne gave up a two-run home run to Ted Williams in the first, and was responsible for two more runs in the third, despite getting removed in the middle of the frame. In total, he allowed four runs on three hits and five walks. Walks would go on to become a recurring problem for Byrne, as he led the league in free passes the following three years.

None of that would matter all that much, as the Yankees were held to one run on five hits. The Red Sox won the first game of the series 5-1. Things got worse elsewhere as the Indians beat the Tigers, eliminating the Yankees. The possibilities of a great comeback to win the AL were dashed in 18 total innings of baseball.

The Yankees could save face the next day by beating the Red Sox to at least eliminate them. The rivalry hadn’t yet ascended to its peak in 1948, but it was still 30 years after the Red Sox’ last World Series title, and 29 since the sale of Babe Ruth. Knocking them out in that fashion still would have been ranked prominently among the times the Yankees ruined a potential championship season for Boston. Not as famous as Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone, but it would have been notable nonetheless.

The Yankees dropped the ball there, too. Joe DiMaggio went four-for-five with two doubles, yet the Yankees still lost. Another starter couldn’t even last past the third, as Bob Porterfield was knocked out after 2.1 innings, with the Yankees ultimately falling 10-5. To make matters worse, the Tigers managed to take a game from Cleveland. The Indians and Red Sox tied for the AL pennant, and would go to a one-game playoff.

Cleveland ended up winning the playoff and the World Series against the Boston Braves. The chant from the late 90s and 2000s would still be “1918” instead of the clunkier “1948.”

The Tigers’ win on the final day meant it would have been the Yankees in the one-game playoff had they won the two games against the Red Sox. While a one-game playoff would obviously be not much more than a coinflip, the Yankees won the season series 12-10 against Cleveland that year. Meanwhile, the NL-champion Braves only won 91 games. The Yankees probably would have been the favorite in the World Series against them.

A World Series win in 1948 would have turned that already historic era in Yankees and baseball history into the stuff of legends. The Yankees had won the previous World Series in ‘47, and then won five-straight from ‘49-53. The five consecutive World Series titles is already the record, while seven straight would be a virtually unbreakable record for baseball. It’s hard to know considering that it’s never happened, but that achievement would probably be mentioned alongside the 1972 Dolphins, or whatever other notable team achievement you want to mention here, in all of sports lore.

The Yankees got some revenge in 1949, winning the final game of the season against Boston in New York, breaking a tie with Boston. While the end of the 1948 season would have been tough to go through, the Yankees got the last laugh in that era.

All historical box scores, standings, and stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.