Rubber match

The World Series begins tomorrow. Never has it featured two teams that stumbled so badly at the end of the season. The St. Louis Cardinals were nearly overtaken by the Houston Astros in what would have been about the worst short-term collapse in the history of pennant races. The Detroit Tigers, in losing their division to Minnesota, did manage a fold of historic dimensions and were saved only because baseball now allows “wild card” teams in the playoffs.
But this is not to suggest that the Tigers and the Cardinals are similarly situated. The Tigers, playing in a tougher league, won 12 more games than the Cards. And they were more impressive in the playoffs where they won seven games in a row. Detroit therefore must be considered the heavy favorite, and are a threat to add significantly to the eight game World Series winning streak of American League teams. On the other hand, the only team ever to enter the Series with a worse record than St. Louis (the 1973 Mets) took an excellent Oakland team to seven games. And, more to the point, Detroit lost its three games (games it needed to win to hold off Minnesota) to the dreadful Kansas City Royals.
This is the third World Series meeting betweent these two clubs. The first two produced 7 game classics. In 1934, the Cards won, with the Dean brothers (Dizzy and Paul) winning two games each. The seventh game was lacking in suspense, though. Dizzy Dean (a 30 game winner) hooked up with Eldon Auker (who had won 15), and the Cards won 11-0. The game is best remembered for the “assault” by Tiger fans on Cardinal outfielder Joe Medwick. Down by nine runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, and irate over a hard slide by Medwick earlier in the game, fans hurled bottles, fruit, and whatever else they could get their hands on at the future Hall of Fame outfielder. The Commissioner stopped the game and ordered the Cards to remove Medwick.
The Series is also remembered for Dizzy Dean’s appearance as a pinch runner in game 4. Sliding into second to break up a double play, Dean was beaned and had to be helped off the field. Announcing that “the doctors examined my head and found nothing,” he came back to pitch the next day and lost a pitchers duel to Tommy Bridges. Two days later, he won game 7 with a complete game shutout.
The Cardinals were the strong favorites when the teams next met in 1968. They were the defending champions and had the seemingly invincible Bob Gibson set to pitch three games. Gibson had won five straight Series games and came into this Series with an astounding 1.12 ERA. I thought the Tigers were at least as good a team, though. They had won 6 more regular season games than the Cards, and in Denny McLain (the Major Leagues’ first 30 game winner since Dizzy Dean) they had a credible match-up against Gibson. I took good odds in several bets (including one with John) and went with Detroit.
At the end of game 4, that bet looked incredibly stupid. St. Louis was up 3 games to 1, and Gibson had beaten the ineffective McLain twice (two complete games, two runs allowed, the World Series strike out record in game 1). But Tiger manager Mayo Smith shortened his pitching rotation so that his other ace, Mickey Lolich, could work games 5 and 7 (if it got that far) and McLain could face someone other than Gibson in game 6. The Tigers rallied late to win game 5 and McLain went all the way in a 13-1 Detroit victory in game 6.
But Gibson was waiting for the Tigers in game 7, and Lolich had to pitch on short rest. The year before, Boston ace Jim Lonborg had faced Gibson under the same circumstances in the seventh game, and the Cards pounded him on route to a 7-2 victory.
Lolich, though, matched Gibson pitch for pitch, and they might still be playing if Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood (a premier defensive centerfielder) had not misjudged a Jim Northrup fly ball in the seventh inning. That play led to a three run Tiger outburst which broke the scoreless deadlock, and Detroit went on to win 4-1. Both starters went all the way. Lolich, on two days rest, pitched a five hitter and picked up his third win of the Series. Gibson’s Series winning streak ended at seven games.
I doubt that this year’s rubber match will produce that sort of excitement. But, as one-time Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar said when asked to sum up baseball in one word, “youneverknow.”