Recently I read “1941: The Greatest Year in Sports” by Mike Vaccaro, the excellent columnist for the New York Post. Vacaro interweaves vignettes about the year in sports – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams .406 season, Whirlaway’s Triple Crown, Joe Louis over Billy Conn and more – with the shadow of war hanging over the world in 1941. Excellent read.
My favorite sports year is 1951 – my birth year. That was a great year for sports.
Start with “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth inning home run off Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds that gave the Giants the National League pennant over the Dodgers. At one point in August, the Giants trailed Brooklyn by 13 1/2 games, yet came all the way back to win a dramatic playoff game on what is generally regarded as the most memorable home run in baseball history,
The Yankees went on to beat the Giants in six games in the World Series. It was Joe DiMaggio’s final appearance in the Fall Classic; while Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays found October’s spotlight as rookies.
The year 1951 saw the first professional championship in North America for a team based West of St. Louis. The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cleveland Browns 24-17, gaining revenge for a last-minute loss to the Browns in 1950.
Earlier in the 1951 season opener, LA quarterback Norm Van Brocklin passed for 554 yards and five TDs in a 54-14 win over the New York Yanks. That record has stood up for more than 66 years.
The world of boxing witnessed the career intersection of two of the game’s all-time heavyweights. Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. In an October bout at Madison Square Garden, Marciano, age 27, knocked down Louis, 37, twice in the eighth round before the fight was called as a TKO.
The great golfer Ben Hogan overcame a near-fatal automobile accident in 1949, winning both the Masters and the US Open.
In the NBA, the New York Knickerbockers nearly overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Rochester Royals before losing in seven games. The Royals won the final game 79-75 on April 21. It was their first, and to date only, NBA Championship.
That same day, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup four games to one over the Montreal Canadians, with all five games going into overtime. Bill Barilko scored the Cup-winning goal; sadly it turned out to be his final goal. Barilko died in a plane crash during the summer in a fishing trip to northern Quebec.
Move over Bobby Thomson, you’ve got company. Meet Evan Longoria.
Go crazy folks! Go crazy!
Those were the words late announcer Jack Buck used to describe an implausible game-winning home run by shortstop Ozzie Smith in the 1985 National League playoffs.
Crazy sums up the final night of the baseball season, when the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals overcame improbably long odds and huge September deficits to waltz into the post-season as wild cards.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Colossal Collapse I
The Boston Red Sox became the first team in history to lose a nine-game September lead and fail to make the playoffs. Boston led Tampa Bay by nine games on September 3, but won just seven of 27 in September and allowed the Rays to win the wild card on the final day of the season.
Colossal Collapse II
While the Red Sox were melting down in the American League, the Braves were doing virtually the same in the National League wild-card race. The Braves were 9-18 in September. St. Louis trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 in late August, 8 1/2 on September 6, and by three with five games to play.
Until now, the Phillies were the poster boys for September ineptitude. In 1964, Philadelphia lost a 8 1/2 game lead in September. That year the foldin’ Phils led the Cards and Reds by 6 1/2 games with just 12 to go, then lost 10 in a row and ended up one game back in a tie for second with the Reds, despite winning their last two games. St. Louis went on to win the World Series.
Oh So Close
The Red Sox were one strike away from beating the Orioles and at least earning a tie and forcing a one-game playoff for the wild card before falling to the Orioles. Boston had been 77-0 this year when leading after eight innings.
The Rays, who overcame a seven-run deficit, were one strike away from falling to the Yankees before Dan Johnson’s home run tied the game in the ninth. Tampa won in the 12th inning on Evan Longoria’s second home run of the game. The Yankees had not blown a seven-run lead in the eighth inning or later since 1953.
And the Braves lost a one-run lead to the Phillies with two outs in the ninth before eventually losing in 13 innings.
The Shot Heard Round the World
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Longoria’s homer marked only the second time in history a walk-off home run in the final regular season game propelled a team into the playoffs. The other was Bobby Thomson’s famous home run that gave the New York Giants a win over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a playoff for the 1951 National League pennant.
Boston, You’re My Home
The Braves once called Boston home before moving to Milwaukee in 1953. Imagine that.
It’s gotta be tough being a Met fan these days. There’s not much to say – other than bag it — after the Mets’ blew it in September and failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
The collapse was historic. You have to go back to 1950 and 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers lost the National League pennant on the last day of the season to the Whiz Kid Phillies in 1950… and then followed that up by blowing a 13 1/2-game lead to the New York Giants and losing a three-game playoff to their arch-rivals on Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951…to find more baseball heartbreak in the same place.
Plenty of blame to go around with the Mets, but you can’t point the finger at Johan Santana. He was absolutely brilliant down the stretch, and would most likely have won the National League Cy Young Award if not for the Mets’ bullpen.
Amazingly, the Yankees and the Mets finished with identical 89-73 records this year. You have to go back all the way to 1993 — when the Mets finished last in the NL East and the Yankees second in the AL East — to find the last time New York didn’t have a team in the playoffs. It will be a quiet October in Queens and the Bronx.
As they said so many times in Brooklyn: “Wait Till Next Year.”