Within the next few days, as the League Championship Series in both leagues advance to their later stages, “hero opportunities” will arise.
While many players have done many things in critical situations in the history of baseball, there have only been five hitters who have delivered a walk-off home run to win a pennant.
We’re talking the “walk-off, pennant-winning home run”, one of the most rare events in the annals of baseball.
The first time it happened was in one of the most famous games in baseball history, in 1951 when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers squared off in the finale of a three-game playoff for the National League flag. Prior to that series, when there had been a tie for first place in either league, there had been a one-game playoff. In ’51, as a capper to what was a remarkable fight for the pennant during the regular 154-game season, a best two-out-of-three format was selected.
In Game Three, at the famed Polo Grounds in New York, the Dodgers, who had squandered a 13-game lead to put themselves into the playoff, led the Giants 4-1 entering the bottom of the ninth. Their ace, big Don Newcombe, was on the mound. Some fans were shuffling out of the ballpark, but when Alvin Dark and Don Mueller opened the inning with singles, many of them scurried back to their seats. With one out, Giants’ first baseman Whitey Lockman stroked a line drive into left-center field to score Dark and cut the lead to two runs. In this tense spot, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen pulled Newcombe and inserted Ralph Branca into the game. Branca had started just two days earlier in Game One of the playoff series and lost. In that game, the tall right-hander had allowed a two-run homer to Giants slugger Bobby Thomson. Guess who strolled to face Branca in this spot?
Branca felt confident facing Thomson, a right-handed hitter he’d seen many, many times. On his second pitch, Thomson swung and sent a fly ball to deep left field for a three run homer and a 5-4 victory.
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” screamed radio broadcaster Russ Hodges.
Indeed they had, and Dressen’s use of Branca on short rest and to face the same batter who had homered off him earlier in the series opened him up to second-guessing. It was the first walk-off homer to send a team to the World Series. The Dodgers had to walk out to deep center field at the Polo grounds to get to their clubhouse. That journey, Brooklyn second baseman Jackie Robinson later said, “was the longest walk of my life.”
Milwaukee is a great baseball city, their fans love the game even though their Brewers have never won a World Series and only once have advanced to the Fall Classic. But there was a great team in “Suds City” long before the Brewers ever took the field, a team that would have made “The Fonz” proud. The golden era of big league baseball in Milwaukee was the 1950s, a decade that many experts feel is the best in baseball history. Milwaukee boasted the Braves, one of the NL’s most exciting teams with sluggers Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, not to mention Joe Adcock, one of the strongest players in the game.
Even though the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants got most of the headlines (and pennants) in the NL in the ’50s, the Braves gave them a run for their money. With their formidable offense and great pitching staff led by Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Johnny Sain, Milwaukee finished in second place in 1953, 1955, and again in 1956, each time losing out to the Dodgers. In ’56 they blew a 3 1/2 game September lead and were eliminated on the final day of the season. They were determined to win the flag in 1957. On September 23, the Braves had a five-game lead with less than a week left in the season and were at home facing the Cardinals. A victory would clinch the pennant. The teams battled to a tie into extra innings, Burdette tossing 10 innings and allowing just a pair of runs. It was 2-2 in the bottom of the 11th and Billy Muffett was on the mound for St. Louis. After getting an out, Muffett surrendered a single to Johnny Logan. Mathews followed with a fly ball to center for the second out. That brought up Aaron who had hit 42 homers already and was on his way to winning his first MVP award. Aaron swung at a Muffett fastball and belted it to center field, deep beyond the wall. The crowd of more than 40,000 erupted as Hammerin’ Hank circled the bases for a 4-2, game-ending home run. The Braves had clinched their first pennant in Milwaukee in just their fifth season in the city. Aaron’s homer remains the only walkoff homer to clinch a pennant in a regular season game, as opposed to a postseason contest.
Nearly two decades later, in another New York borough, another New York team got a walk-off homer to win the pennant. The scene was Game Five of the 1976 American League Championship Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees in The Bronx.
The Royals, a young team with a pesky lineup and aggressive style of play, had pushed the series to a deciding fifth game the night before by winning a slugfest. In Game Five the Royals put the pressure on immediately, plating two runs in the first inning against Ed Figueroa. But the Yanks, in the postseason for the first time in a dozen years, responded with two runs in the first of their own, the second coming on a sacrifice fly by first baseman Chris Chambliss.
The Yankees built a 6-3 lead, but in the top of the 8th, Kansas City got two runners aboard and they both came in a batter later when George Brett belted a letter-high fastball deep into the right field stands. The game was tied, the stage was set.
The game was still deadlocked when the action started in the bottom of the ninth inning. Mark Littell, in his third inning of relief, toed the rubber to face Chambliss. It didn’t take long, as Chambliss jumped on the first pitch and lofted a home run a few feet over the fence in right-center field to win the pennant, 7-6. Remarkably, Chambliss had to transform himself into a football player as he rounded the bases because the field was flooded with thousands of fans celebrating the victory. It was the first Yankee pennant in 12 seasons and fans in The Bronx were ecstatic. Chambliss was knocked down as he rounded second base, wrestled himself through a scrum as he approached third base, and shoved fans away as he found his way to home plate. He eventually touched the dish and the Yanks were on the way to the Fall Classic.
In 2003 Yankee Stadium was again the sight of a pennant-winning blast for the home team. As an epic playoff series between the Red Sox and Yankees unfolded it became clear that something dramatic was going to decide the winner. The Sox sent ace Pedro Martinez to the mound in Game Seven of the ALCS trying to vanquish their foes and it looked like they would do it. Boston held a 5-2 advantage in the 8th inning and Martinez had two outs, but then Yankee magic came calling. The Bombers started a rally and Red Sox manager Grady Little inexplicably left Pedro in the game even as it became obvious he was exhausted. Before the smoke cleared, the game was tied. It stayed that way through the 9th and 10th innings. Mariano Rivera kept the Sox at bay in the top of the 11th and the nervous crowd at Yankee Stadium watched as the game turned to the bottom of the frame. In a replay of ’76, Aaron Boone made history quickly as the leadoff hitter, blasting a pitch from Tim Wakefield into the left field seats to win the pennant and send the crowd into a frenzy. The Yankees had broken the hearts of the Red Sox again, winning the pennant in dramatic fashion to put an exclamation point on a grueling seven-game playoff series.
Three years later, the most recent pennant-winning walk-off homer occurred, but it did not involve a New York team. It took place in the heart of America, but was hit by a wildly popular player born in Venezuela.
The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers were battling in the ALCS (now a best-of-seven series) in Detroit in Game Four. The Tigers had won the first three games and stood at the precipice of reaching the World Series. Their fans were poised to celebrate, since only a few years earlier the franchise had suffered through a 119-loss season. Now, armed with a fantastic young pitching staff and a veteran offensive attack, Detroit was the favorite. The A’s were the underdog, low-budget team who had their backs against the wall.
Oakland came out swinging against Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman, scoring twice in the first and taking a 3-0 lead after four innings. Fueled by a thunderously loud crowd, the Tigers rallied for two runs in the fifth and in the sixth, when Magglio Odronez led off the bottom of the frame with a line drive home run to left, the game was tied.
Ordonez, born in Venezuala and one of the most popular players in the game, was appearing in his second post-season but finally getting a chance to show the entire country what sort of player he was. Six years earlier, in a short series in the playoffs with the White Sox, Ordonez had struggled at the plate. This time, he was more aggressive at the plate.
When each team was unable to capitalize on bases loaded opportunities, the game went to the bottom of the ninth tied. Oakland closer Huston Street, just 22 years old, took the ball. He got two quick outs and it looked like the game would go into extra innings. But Craig Monroe hit a line drive to center, and then Placido Polanco hit a line drive to right field to put two runners on for Ordonez. The mop-haired right-hander settled in and took Huston’s first pitch low for ball one. With Comerica Park rocking, the next pitch was on the inside part of the plate, a fastball. Ordonez whipped his bat through the zone and sent it hurtling high and deep into the left field stands. The three-run homer gave Detroit a 6-3 victory and their first pennant in 22 seasons.
Those five men: Thomson, Aaron, Chambliss, Boone, and Ordonez, are the select group who know what it feels like to round the bases with a home run that won the pennant and punched the ticket for his team to the World Series.