This day in baseball history — now that was a pennant race

Labor Day used to mark the beginning of the home stretch in baseball pennant races, back in the old days when we had pennant races rather than scrambles to make the playoffs. The American League standings on Labor Day 1967 promised a great pennant race.

Here is how things stood at the end of play on Monday, September 4:

Minnesota –
Boston 0.5
Chicago 1.0
Detroit 1.5

These standings were unchanged from the previous day, as the top four teams all split their Labor Day doubleheaders. The Tigers were unable to sweep lowly Kansas City, who came back from two runs down late in the nightcap to win 4-2 in Detroit.

The Twins, playing at home, missed out on a sweep of the Indians, who won the nightcap 2-1 in extra innings when Fred Whitfield narrowly beat Harmon Killebrew to first base on a ground ball fielded by Killebrew in foul territory. Chuck Hinton scored the go-ahead run on the play. Twins manager Cal Ermer was ejected for arguing Cal Drummond’s call at first base.

The White Sox, whose every game seemed to be a tight pitchers duel, split a pair of 3-2 decision with the New York Yankees. And, in Washington, Camilo Pascual did his former Minnesota teammates a big favor by pitching seven solid innings in a 5-2 victory over Boston in the first game of that twin-bill. Darold Knowles preserved the win with two scoreless and hitless innings of relief.

Looking ahead, the conventional wisdom, to which I subscribed, was that Chicago lacked the hitting to win the pennant. Boston had romance on its side, but seemed to lack pitching, as well as the big bat of Tony Conigliaro who was out injured for the remainder of the season.

Minnesota and Detroit looked like the two best bets, with Minnesota perhaps holding the advantage by virtue of the experience gained when they won the pennant in 1965.

Had we applied just one level of sophistication to the matter, we would have realized that Boston probably was the best bet. The Red Sox had the best runs scored/runs allowed differential (+96, Detroit was next at +70), and its pitching stats, which weren’t much worse than Detroit’s and Minnesota’s, could probably be explained by the configuration of Fenway Park.

But this was 1967, and we were still in the Dark Ages of baseball analysis.

The 1967 American League pennant race would redeem the promise of the Labor Day standings. It remained a four-team contest almost until the end, and a three-team contest until the final day of the season.

We will look in on it again from time to time in the coming days.

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