More outtakes from The Great Pennant Race Abstract...
The 1950 NL race (ranked 54th) is certainly the more famous of the two races in 1950. That season the Phillies jumped out to a big lead and still held leads of 9 game lead over the Dodgers and 7.5 games over the Boston Braves as late as the morning of September 19th. The Dodgers roared back winning 13 of 16 while the Phiilies won just 3 of 12 to put the Dodgers one game back with one to play on October 1st. Tied at one into the tenth, Dick Sisler hit a three-run homer off of a tiring Don Newcombe (Sisler hit Newcombe's 127th pitch of the afternoon) to defeat Brooklyn 4-1 and finally secure the pennant for the Phillies.
As great as that race was, the AL race of 1950 takes the second spot in our rankings. This is the case since the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, and Indians were all very good teams and all in the race at the beginning of September. All four teams would win 92 or more games and finish within six games of each other. The Yankees were helped by bringing up rookie southpaw Whitey Ford in late June (9-1, 2.81 ERA in 112 IP) with Joe DiMaggio making a late season comeback. By contrast the Tigers were hurt by the injury to Virgil Trucks and the Red Sox by the fractured elbow of Ted Williams sustained in the All-Star game while the Indians were swept in a September series by the lowly St. Louis Browns to knock them out of the race.
As with 1950, the 1964 NL race (Race #5 ranked 7th) is the more famous of the two races for that season but the 1964 AL race ranks just above it at number six. That race featured three teams with 97 or more wins including the Yankees (their last pennant until 1977), White Sox, and Orioles all of whom finished within two games of one another.
1964 was Yogi Berra's lone season as Yankee skipper in the 1960s (he would also manage the team in 1984 and the beginning of 1985) and the Bronx Bombers found themselves un-customarily struggling, four and half games out on August 29th and trailing both the Sox and Orioles. Then they caught fire. Most attribute the turnaround of the Yanks to the famous "harmonica incident" where utility infielder Phil Linz, "assisted" by Mickey Mantle, was reprimanded and fined by Berra for playing the harmonica on the team bus following a four game sweep at the hands of the White Sox on August 20th. While that makes for a good story, it should be noted that following the incident the Yanks immediately dropped two games to the Red Sox and won just 7 of their next 13 before reeling off 23 wins in their final 30 games (and an 11-game winning streak from September 16-26) to finish a game ahead of the White Sox and take the pennant*. No, the turnaround can more likely be attributed to the recall of Mel Stottlemeyre in August who would go on to win 9 games, and the purchase of Pedro Ramos from the Indians to shore up the bullpen on September 5th who would pitch 21.7 innings giving up 13 hits while striking out 21 and walking not a batter down the stretch.
The natural corollary to the stories of 1950 and 1964 is to rank the years with the greatest total Race Scores and so here are the top 20 seasons where it could be argued that baseball fans enjoyed the best pennant races.
Rank Year Races Score
1 1908 2 142.7
2 1964 2 132.7
3 1950 2 104.8
4 1928 2 90.2
5 1915 2 84.0
6 1980 3 79.8
7 1916 2 78.8
8 1977 2 78.4
9 1924 2 76.7
10 2004 3 76.5
11 1962 2 76.3
12 1985 4 75.1
13 1949 2 74.0
14 1948 1 72.0
15 1920 1 71.2
16 1978 3 71.2
17 1982 4 70.8
18 2007 4 69.4
19 1993 2 62.9
20 1909 2 62.2
Special mention should be made here of 1981 whose eight "races" totaled a score of 71.2 which would have tied for 17th place. The first half races scored a 41.5 while the second half was at 29.7. The best of those was the first half AL West which placed 101st overall and which saw the A's finish 1.5 games ahead of the Rangers and two and half over the White Sox. Of course, neither the fans nor the players understood that the games completed before the strike would have such consequences on the postseason and so it is difficult to construe these as true races.
1908 takes the top spot as the less famous AL race takes 13th in our rankings. Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago battled it out and finished within a game and half of each other. The Naps (as the franchise was then known in honor of their player-manager Nap LaJoie) won 16 of 18 to edge in front of Detroit in late September punctuated by Addie Joss's perfect game on October 2nd against the White Sox whose hurler Ed Walsh himself struck out 15. The Tigers, however, would take the pennant by a half game on the final day with a win over Chicago. A controversy ensued because the Tigers were not required to make up a rainout causing the powers that be to establish a new rule requiring all ties and rainouts affecting a pennant race to be replayed.
Well, sort of.
The 1938 season was interrupted for several days in the wake of the strongest hurricane to hit New England in recorded history and that took an estimated 600 lives. Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, after play resumed on September 22nd the Cubs went on to win ten in a row on their way to the NL pennant (discussed below). What is not coincidental, however, is that on September 18th the approaching hurricane caused both the Cubs and Pirates to play tie games. Due to the hurricane the games were not able to be replayed and under the rules of the time the games were not allowed to be played after the last scheduled game of the season. The rule was changed in 1951 in the AL and 1955 in the NL making 1938 the last season in which un-played games affected the outcome of a race.
Of interest here as well is the 1915 season in which the Federal League race (ranked 21st) edges out the AL race (ranked 22nd) 42.5 to 41.5 but that together rate the season as the 5th best. In the AL the Red Sox won 101 games by the pitching prowess of Babe Ruth and Smokey Joe Wood and edged out the Tigers by 2.5 games who themselves won 100 times. But in the Federal League something happened that had never happened before and didn't happen again until 2001 – the two teams at the top finished in a tie by the traditional method of measuring games behind.
Team Name G W L T PCT GB RS RA
Chicago Whales 155 86 66 3 0.5658 - 640 538
St. Louis Terriers 159 87 67 5 0.5649 - 633 527
Pittsburgh Rebels 156 86 67 3 0.5621 0.5 592 524
The Whales, led by player-manager by Joe Tinker, edged out the St. Louis Terriers and aging star pitcher Eddie Plank by .0009 as the winner was decided on percentage points since the league did not have a rule for the playing of tie breakers. 1915 was the second and final season of the Federal League as a settlement ensued whereby the Federal League owners of the Chicago and St. Louis franchises purchased the Cubs and Browns with the happy result that what would become Wrigley Field was brought into the NL.
In 2001 the NL Central (ranked 67th) duplicated the feat of the Federal League when the Astros and Cardinals finished with identical 93-69 records. Of course, the addition of the Wild Card in 1995 has typically made the playing of tie breakers unnecessary although of course the tie-breaker between the Rockies and Padres last season for the Wild Card was a great end to a season which saw that 2007 NL West battle rank 36th (32.7). That unhappy result was duplicated in both the 2005 AL East (ranked 51st) and the 2006 NL West (ranked 107th).
Since divisional play began in 1969 the best overall set of races can be said to be 1985 where all four races earned Race Scores greater than zero. In particular the AL East (ranked 45th) and the NL East (ranked 53rd) were excellent. In the AL East the Blue Jays, led by their outfield of Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, and George Bell, captured their first flag winning 99 games and edging out the Yankees by beating them on the season's penultimate day 5-1. The AL West race was no slouch either as the Royals slipped past the Angels by winning three of four head-to-head matchups in the season's final weekend. In the NL East, the Cardinals edged the Mets by three games on the strength of a running attack that featured 314 stolen bases. In a 2005 article yours truly calculated that the version of "Whitey Ball" employed in 1985 contributed just over 30 runs to the Cardinals offense, a total that translates to about three wins and exactly their margin over the Mets.
* The White Sox eventually finished second on the strength of their pitching and the Orioles third on the performance of MVP Brooks Robinson but both teams were hurt by losses to poor teams down the stretch. The Sox dropped five of seven in one stretch to Washington, Cleveland, and Minnesota and the Orioles split a four game set with Kansas City and two of three to Minnesota in the final weeks.