In terms of pure joy, there are few baseball experiences more fun that watching your team win a game that they had no right to take. There have been dozens of more important Yankees wins over the years, but as far as memorability go, the “Luis Castillo dropping the ball” game comes to my brain more than many of them.
On April 26, 1920, the Yankees won a game that they had no right to win that arguably rivals the Castillo moment.
Early on in the 1920 season, the Yankees were 3-5 and without their big-name offseason acquisition Babe Ruth, who was out with some knee issues. Even beyond that, he had gotten off to a slow start, OPSing just .534. It was a season to remember for the Bambino, but he wasn’t to that point just yet.
On April 26th, New York opened up a home series at the Polo Grounds against the Washington Senators, who were led by former Yankees (née Highlanders) manager Clark Griffith. Washington had similarly gotten off to a meh start to the season, coming into the game at 4-4.
Despite not having Ruth in the lineup, the Yankees’ offense got off to a good start in the bottom of the first. The Yankees’ No. 2 hitter, Roger Peckinpaugh, homered in the second at-bat of the game, giving his team a very early lead.
Yankees starting pitcher Herb Thormahlen held that lead for a while, although he had to work around some baserunners in nearly every inning. However, eventually letting people on base came back to haunt him. In the fifth, with the score still 1-0, Thormahlen walked the first two hitters of the inning. The opposing pitcher, Eric Erickson, was due up next, and it seemed like Thormahlen would get at least one easy out as Erickson laid down a sacrifice bunt. However, the Yankees’ starter fielded the ball, but nearly sent the ball into the stands with his throw. The error got past first baseman Wally Pipp and allowed both base runners to come around and score, putting the Senators in front.
After that, the Yankees had their chances to answer back, but they were struggling to come up with the one big hit to push more runs across. They left two runners on base in both the fifth and eighth innings, with the tying run getting within 90 feet of home in both instances. That left the score still at 2-1 as the game moved to the bottom of the ninth.
Down to their last three outs, the Yankees got off to the perfect start as both Bob Meusel and Ping Bodie both singled. At that point, skipper Miller Huggins sent Ruth up to take some hacks in the on-deck circle and appear to be preparing to come in as a pinch-hitter. The move ended up just being a bluff to intimidate Erickson, and Muddy Ruel made his regularly scheduled at-bat. The light-hitting catcher attempted to lay down a bunt to get both runners into scoring position, but that backfired. His bunt just popped up into the air and Erickson was able to make the catch for the first out, with no runners moving up.
At that point, the pitcher Thormahlen was due up and Huggins decided to follow through with the threat and actually did send Ruth to the plate this time. The slugger made decent contact, but the ball eventually died and ended in a fly out. While the ball was deep enough for both runners to move up, the Yankees were now down to their last out.
That left the game up to Aaron Ward, who was having a good day with three hits already. Understandably uneasy with him, Erickson was cautious and eventually walked Ward to load the bases. That brought Peckinpaugh to the plate. During that at-bat, Bodie — the runner on second and a man who once had a spaghetti eating contest against an ostrich — strayed a little too far off the base. Senators catcher Patsy Gharrity fired down a throw to second, but it went flying into center field. That allowed Meusel to score and for both other runner to move up a base.
Peckinpaugh’s plate appearance ended in a walk, loading the bases again and bringing Pipp to the batter’s box. While Pipp made decent contact on a ball, it went right towards Washington shortstop Jim O’Neill, for what seemed destined to be the final out of the inning. However, O’Neill fumbled with the ball. By the time he recovered and sent it over to second for a possible force out, Peckinpaugh safely slid in to beat the throw. He was safe and — more importantly — Bodie was safe at home, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win.
After being down to their final out, the Yankees had come back to win thanks to two different errors. Luis Castillo, eat your heart out.
New York Times, April 27, 1920