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Yankees History: How the 1951 pennant was won

The two-time defending champion Yankees were in a tricky spot heading into the final series of the ‘51 season, but they pulled out quite the impressive run.

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

For the first time in a couple years, the Yankees are playing in an ultra-important series to end the regular season. The last time that they had genuinely major stakes this late was probably 2012, when they went into the final three games tied with the Orioles atop the AL East. The Yankees swept their final series while Baltimore dropped two of three, giving the Yankees a final two-game cushion.

Considering how often the Yankees have been contenders over their long history, there are plenty of examples of them playing in an important final series. Let’s dig back 70 years into the history books and take a look at one of their most impressive performances in a season-ending series that had serious implications.

In 1951, the Yankees went into the final three days of the season 2.5 games up. That sounds like not that precarious a position, but it was more complex than it seems. The two-time defending World Series champions were only one game up in the win column ahead of second-place Cleveland. While their competition only had two games to play over the final three days, the Yankees had to play five games thanks to rainouts. They had to play a doubleheader against the Red Sox on both the Friday and Saturday, before wrapping things up with one game on Sunday. Yes, pitcher usage isn’t what it is today, so it would take some doing to overuse the bullpen or whatever, but still. Even with the lead they had and the swing it would take to lose the pennant, that’s not an ideal situation.

As Cleveland got Friday, September 28th off, the Yankees were in action for the first of the two doubleheaders they had to play. In the opener, they sent Allie Reynolds to the mound, and got a literal all-time performance. Reynolds threw a no-hitter, his second of the season, striking out nine as the Yankees won 8-0. In the second game of the day, the Yankees fell behind 2-0, but hopped on Boston with seven second-inning runs and never looked back from there. They swept the first doubleheader of the series with an 11-3 win.

For as much buildup as I gave the potential trickiness of the Yankees’ situation, I have to admit: The pennant was actually clinched right then and there. Cleveland’s two games took place on Saturday and Sunday, and even if they took both, they could only max out at 94 wins. The win in game two on Friday took the Yankees to 95. As it happened, Cleveland ended up losing on Sunday, meaning the first win actually would’ve been enough. However, the Yankees weren’t done that weekend.

The Yankees wrapped up the weekend by winning all three remaining games, and only allowed one further run in them. Playing five games in three days, needing wins to assure themselves of the pennant, the Yankees won the series over the Red Sox by a combined score of 29-4.

The final margin in the AL pennant race ended up being five games over Cleveland. Even though the AL went down to the wire, the NL race was actually even more interesting, as that ended up being the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” Giants-Dodgers tiebreaker year. The Giants came out on top, meeting the Yankees in the World Series. In the Fall Classic, the Yankees actually fell behind twice, but won three straight in games four through six, clinching their third consecutive championship and 14th in franchise history.

If the Yankees want to stamp their place in the playoffs just as emphatically as they did in 1951, that would be ideal.