The nine most dramatic pennant races in baseball history
By Dan Holmes September 22, 2012
For 68 seasons there were pure pennant races in the American and National Leagues, as only the first place team advanced to the World Series, with eight 8 or 10 teams vying for the flag. Then, starting in 1969, the leagues were split into divisions. Even though divisional races are still often called “pennant races”, they technically aren’t. The pennant race has gone the way of the scheduled doubleheader, Ladies Day, and outside umpire chest protectors.
But let’s take a look back at the most dramatic pennant races in baseball history, presented in chronological order.
1908 National League: Cubs, Giants, and Pirates
This was the year when the three great NL teams of that era: the Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates, battled each other all season long for the league flag. The three teams were easily the class of the league and they went down to the final weekend of the season in a duel for first place. On the morning of the final Friday of the season, the three teams were in a tie atop the standings, though the Giants led by percentage points because they’d played two fewer games due to rainouts and thus had one fewer loss. The Pirates won 13 of 14 games down the stretch but lost to the Cubs on the last Sunday to be eliminated. The Giants and Cubs had to replay a game that had ended in a tie weeks earlier after New York rookie Fred Merkle was called out for failing to advance and touch second base on a run-scoring hit. The Cubs won the makeup game at The Polo Grounds in front of an estimated 40,000 fans, the largest crowd to see a baseball game to that point in history. The baserunning mishap became forever known as “Merkle’s Boner.”
1908 American League: Tigers, Indians, and White Sox
While the NL was staging their dramatic pennant race, the American League has a barn0burner of their own. On October 5, with just a few days left in the season, the Tigers led the Indians and Sox by 1/2 game. The Tigers, led by 21-year old batting star Ty Cobb, lost the first two games of a three-game series to Chiacgo before winning on the final day of the season, 7-0. They won the pennant by a half-game because there was no rule at that time that teams had to make up games that were rained out or called by darkness. More than 100 years later, it remains the closest pennant race finish in history.
1915 American League: Red Sox and Tigers
Once again the Tigers and Cobb found themselves in a pennant chase with a rival. The Red Sox were a great team led by a talented pitching staff that included Smoky Joe Wood, Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, Carl Mays, Dutch Leonard, and Babe Ruth. In a game between the two teams in September, Cobb was nearly attacked by a mob at Fenway Park when he threw his bat at Mays after being hit by a pitch. The Tigers won that game, but lost the next three at Boston to fall back. Boston won the pennant with 101 victories, while Detroit became the first club to win 100 games and not finish in first place.
1934 National League: Cardinals and Giants
When asked his opinion of the crosstown Dodgers in the middle of the ’34 season, New York Giants manager Bill Terry quipped, “Id Brooklyn still in the league?” Those words came back to bit Terry when the Dodgers beat his club in the last two games of the season to deny them the pennant. The Giants needed only to win one of those two games to clinch at least a tie, but Brooklyn, charged by Terry’s words pounded the G-Men 5-1 on Saturday and won 8-5 in extra innings on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Cardinals went 13-2 down the stretch to steal the flag by a single game. The Cards were led by the Brothers Dean (Dizzy and Paul), who won eight of those 13 games and saved another.
1938 National League: Cubs and Pirates
The Bucs seemed to have a solid grip on first place from late July until mid-September, but then they faltered while the hard-charging Cubs refused to lose. Chicago went 17-3 starting in September 4 to inch within 1 1/2 games of Pittsburgh. The two met in a crucial three-game set at Wrigley Field starting on September 27. Chicago won the first game 2-1, behind Dizzy Dean. The next day the two teams were knotted in the bottom of the 9th innings as late afternoon darkness descended upon lightless Wrigley. The umps ruled that the 9th would be the final inning and if the game were tied it would have to be replayed the next day. Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett was batting with two outs and an 0-2 count when he turned on a fastball from Mace Brown and belted a homer into the left field bleachers for a dramatic walk-off win. The Cubs were in first place, the stunned Pirates lost the next day, and also lost three of four to the Reds to finish the season in second place, two games back of the Cubs.
1948 American League: Indians, Red Sox, and Yankees
Like the 1908 NL race, this one featured three excellent teams with many stars. The Indians were led by Bob Feller and shortstop/manager Lou Boudreau; the Red Sox had Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr; while the Yanks relied on Joe DiMaggio and Ypgi Berra. All would later earn spots in the Hall of Fame, and they played key roles in this pennant drama. With a week left, all three teams were tied with a 91-56 record. The Indians won four straight (two of them victories by Feller) to move two games ahead. But when they lost two of three to Detroit while the Red Sox swept the Yankees in the final weekend, it left Cleveland and Boston tied atop the standings. For the first time in history, a one-game playoff was needed to decide the pennant. Played at Fenway Park on October 4, the Indians crushed the BoSox 8-3, behind two homers by Boudreau.
1949 American League: Yankees and Red Sox
This time the Yankees didn’t fade at the end as they had the previous season. With two games to go, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by one game as the two teams met at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks rallied from a 4-0 deficit to beat the Sox in the first game, with Johnny Lindell’s homer in the 8th inning providing the winning margin in a 5-4 victory. In the finale, the game was 1-0 until the Yanks erupted for four runs in the 8th inning to forge a 5-0 advantage. Boston manager Joe McCarthy (who had guided the Yanks to several pennants as their skipper), was criticized for using three pitchers in that inning, one of them the injured Tex Hughson. The strange decision proved costly when the Sox scored three runs and had the tying run at the plate in the ninth, only to lose, 5-3. The Yanks won the pennant and went on to win the first of their record five straight World Series titles.
1951 National League: Giants and Dodgers
Most people know a lot about this race, so I won’t get into it too much. The short story is that the Brooklyn Dodgers held a huge lead over the Giants (13 games as of August 11). Then the Giants went on an incredible tear, winning 16 straight and 37 of 44 to finish the season tied with the Dodgers. The NL scheduled a best-of-three series for the first time to decide the pennant. The Dodgers won the first game at Ebbets Field, but the Giants won Game Two in a 10-0 rout. New York trailed Game Three by two runs in the bottom of the ninth when Bobby Thomson belted a three-run homer to win the pennant in one of baseball’s most dramatic moments. The Giants amazing comeback was complete as Thomson rounded the bases triumphantly at The Polo Grounds.
1962 National League: Giants and Dodgers
As in ’51, the Giants stalked the Dodgers and caught them in September, but this time with both teams on the west coast. This time the Giants came from 5 1/2 games back in early August, winning 6 of 7 head-to-head with LA. The two teams finished tied again at the end of the regular schedule (each with 101 wins) and were forced to play a three game series. The Giants pummeled Sandy Koufax to win Game One, 8-0. In the second game, the Dodgers speedster Maury Wills scored on a sacrifice fly by Ron Fairly to win in the bottom of the ninth, 8-7, forcing a third contest. Playing at Dodger Stadium, the Giants trailed 4-2 to in the 9th inning. But Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda delivered RBIs to tie the game and the go-ahead run scored on a bases-loaded walk to Jim Davenport by reliever Stan Williams. The Giamts tacked on another run to stun LA and win the pennant, 6-4.
1967 American League: Red Sox, Tigers, Twins, and White Sox
In the last true pennant race, four teams shifted around at the top of the standings. On September 18, three teams were tied in first and the fourth team was just one half-game back. Eventually (but not until the final Thursday of the season) the White Sox faded, leaving the Twins, Red Sox, and Tigers to duke it out. After several of their games had been rained out, the Tigers were forced to play doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday to finish their schedule. Meanwhile, Minnesota battled Boston in Fenway Park. The Tigers split their Saturday twinbill with the Angels while Boston beat the Twins to move into a tie. Detroit trailed by a half-game and needed to win both games on Sunday to force a one-game playoff with whichever team won in Boston. The Red Sox scored five runs in the sixth to erase a 2-0 Minnesota lead and held on to win 5-3, eliminating the Twins. Detroit won their first game, and led game two 3-1 in the second inning before the Angels jumped on Denny McLain and four subsequent relievers for seven runs in three innings. They won 8-5, retiring Dick McAuliffe on a double play (the only one he grounded into all year) in the 9th with two runners on base.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.