Baseball’s Ultimate Games provide the great drama of the sport

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Through 2020, there have been 139 Ultimate Games in modern baseball history (since 1903). 40 Ultimate Games have occurred in the Fall Classic (most recently in 2019), 29 in the League Championship Series (last in 2020 in both leagues), 36 in the Division Series (one in 2020), three as special pennant-playoffs (1948 AL, 1951 and 1962 NL), four on the final day of the regular season (1908 in both leagues, 1949 AL, and 1982 AL East), six as Wild Card playoffs (1998 NL, 1999 NL, 2007 NL, 2013 AL, and two in 2020), 16 as scheduled one-game wild card games (started in 2012), and five as division championship playoffs (1978 AL East, 1980 NL West, 1995 AL West, 2008 AL Central, and 2009 AL Central).

The History of Ultimate Games

The true Ultimate Game is the climactic game of the World Series. There have been 40 seventh game clashes as of the 2020 Fall Classic. Some have been classics, some have been duds. All have had one element in common: finality. Both teams had to win, but only one could. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the first team to win a Game Seven, in 1909 they defeated the Detroit Tigers, 8-0. In the Fall Classic, 15 of the 40 seventh games have been decided by one run, and seven times the winning team scored the deciding run in the final inning.

On five occasions, a World Series Ultimate Game has gone to extra-innings: in 1912, Game Eight (which was really Game Seven, because there had been a tie in Game Two), went 10 innings, before the Boston Red Sox pulled it out thanks to an error by New York Giants outfielder Fred Snodgrass; in 1924, the Washington Senators and Giants battled 12 innings, with the Nats prevailing 4-3 behind the stellar relief pitching of Walter Johnson; in 1991, Jack Morris of the Minnesota Twins willed himself to a complete-game, 10-inning, 1-0 shutout over the Atlanta Braves; in 1997, the Florida Marlins eked out an 11-inning, 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians; and in 2016 the Cubs victimized the Indians again by winning in ten innings, 8-7.

The longest drought between Ultimate Games occurred between 1912 and 1924, when every World Series was decided under the maximum. However, the 1924 Series (won by the Washington Senators), marked the first of three consecutive seven-game World Series. That streak would be topped in the 1950s when four straight World Series went to a seventh game. The Yankees were involved in all four of those Game Seven Ultimate Games, winning two and losing two.

The most lopsided World Series Ultimate Games occurred in 1909 (Pirates 8-0 over Tigers), 1934 (Cardinals 11-0 over Tigers), 1945 (Tigers 9-3 over Cubs), 1956 (Yankees 9-0 over Dodgers), and 1985 (Royals 11-0 over Cardinals).

Predictably, the number of Ultimate Games has increased with the arrival of the playoffs in 1969. In fact, 107 of the 139 Ultimate Games in baseball history (through 2020) have occurred in the playoff era. Of those, 94 were a direct result of the added playoff rounds. The longest stretch with at least one UG is the current string of 1995-2020 (26 years and counting). With wild card games built into the system, that streak will continue year-after-year into the future.

During the 1970s, fans were treated to five World Series Game Seven Ultimate Games, two of which were won by Pittsburgh, and two by Oakland. The other Ultimate Game in the Fall Classic was one of baseball’s most famous games – Game Seven of the 1975 Series, between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox. The Baltimore Orioles were 0-3 during the decade in Ultimate Games, while the A’s were a perfect 4-0. Marquee years for Ultimate Games were 1972 and 1973, when every post-season series went the distance.

The 1980s produced 17 Ultimate Games, four of them in the World Series. The first season in baseball history with four ultimate games was the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. That year, three of the four manufactured playoff series between first and second half division leaders produced a game five. Subsequently, the NLCS went the distance as well. 1982 produced three Ultimate Games, with the Milwaukee Brewers taking part in all of them. The Brewers won their division on the last day of the regular season, took Game Five of the ALCS over the Angels, and then lost Game Seven of the World Series to St. Louis. The ’82 Brewers remain the only club to compete in three Ultimate Games. It is theoretically possible for a team to play in five Ultimate Games in the modern format: a one-game playoff to decide a wild card, the wild card game, game five of the LDS, game seven of the LCS, and game seven of the World Series.

Since 1990, there have been 76 Ultimate Games (through 2020), with nine World Series Game Sevens. The added round of divisional playoffs, which began in 1995, has proved to be a dud as far as Ultimate Games. Through 2020, there had been 98 division series, but only 33 had went to a game five. In contrast, 38 of the division series had ended in a sweep.

Oddly, since the advent of the division series, drama in the League Championship Series has suffered. Only 13 LCS series out of 52 have gone to a seventh game since 1995.

Going back historically, the Boston Red Sox have lost four straight Ultimate Games in the World Series, beginning in 1946 when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. The New York Yankees have appeared in the most Ultimate Games (31), winning 17, also a record.

Winner Take All Games OR Ultimate Games

Total Ultimate Games (1903-present): 139, through 2020.

Most Recent Ultimate Game: Game Seven of the 2020 NLCS, Dodgers over the Braves..

Ultimate Games in World Series: 40; most recent was Game Seven of the 2019 World Series. 39 of these games were Game Seven of the series. One game (1912, Boston Red Sox vs. New York Giants) was Game Eight, due to a tie game. The home team has a 20-20 record in these games.

Ultimate Games in League Championship Series: 29; most recent was Game Seven of the 2020 NLCS. 10 of these Ultimate Games occurred when the format was five games, 19 have happened since. The home team is 18-11. 15 of the games were won in come-from behind fashion, and twice the games went extra-innings (1980, Philadelphia over Houston; and 2003, Yanks over Red Sox).

Ultimate Games in Division Series: 36; The first division series were played in 1981 due to the players strike, which split the season into first and second-half winners. In 1981, 2001, 2011, and 2014 there were three division series Ultimate Games, and in 2012 all four series went to a fifth game. The home team is 15-21. Just one game has gone extra-innings (1995, Seattle over Yankees in 11 innings).

Ultimate Games in Three-Game Playoffs for Pennant: Two; the 1951 and 1962 National League Pennants were decided in three-game playoffs, each time won by the Giants over the Dodgers. The Giants won at home in ’51 (on Bobby Thomson’s famous homer), and on the road in ’62 (with four runs in the top of the ninth to erase a 4-2 deficit).

Ultimate Games in One-Game Playoff for Pennant: One; the 1948 American League Pennant playoff game between Cleveland and Boston. The Indians prevailed 8-3, on the road in Fenway Park.

Ultimate Games in One-Game Playoff for Division Title: Five; in 1978 between the Yankees (W) and Red Sox for the AL East title, in 1980 between the Astros (W) and Dodgers for the NL West title, in 1995 between the Mariners (W) and Angels for the AL West title, in 2008 between the White Sox (W) and Twins for the AL Central, and in 2009 between the Twins (W) and Tigers for the AL Central. The Yankees in ’78 are the only road team to win in this type of game.

Ultimate Games in One-Game Playoff for a Wild Card spot: Four; three in the National League, in 1998 when Chicago defeated San Francisco at Wrigley Field, in 1999 when the New York Mets beat the Reds in Cincinnati, and in 2007 when the streaking Rockies defeated the Padres in one of the most thrilling games in recent years. Also, in 2013, the Rays defeated the Rangers in a one-game play-in game for the AL Wild Card.

Ultimate Games as One-Game Wild Card Playoff: 16; starting in 2012 MLB began awarding two wild card spots, both teams are considered to be playoff teams. So far the home team is 7-9 in these games. The Royals victory over the A’s in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game, and the Blue Jays win over the Orioles in 2016, are the only wild card games to go into extra innings thus far.

Ultimate Games in Third Game of a Best-of-Three Wild Card Playoff: 2, both in the pandemic-impacted year of 2020.

Ultimate Games in Final Game of Regular Season (not a playoff): Four; most recent was the final game of the 1982 season when Milwaukee defeated Baltimore to win the AL East by one game. This rare regular season Ultimate Game occurred in both the NL and AL in 1908. On October 6, the Tigers beat the White Sox in South Side Park in Chicago, 7-0, to win the pennant by 1 1/2 games. Two days later, in front of a reported 250,000 fans inside and surrounding the Polo Grounds in New York, the Cubs defeated the Giants, 4-2. The Cubs finished one game in front of the Giants.

Most Ultimate Games in One Season: Six in 2012 and 2019. The 2020, 2017 and 2015 seasons had five Ultimate Games. There were four in 1981, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2013, and 2016. With the addition of the one-game Wild Card Game in 2012, there are guaranteed to be at least two Ultimate Games each year.

Most Consecutive seasons with at least one Ultimate Game: 26; 1995-2020 (current)

Longest drought between Ultimate Games: 12 seasons; 1912-1924.

World Series Ultimate Game Standings: The National League holds a  24-16 advantage over the American League.

Most Ultimate Games, Franchise: 31; New York Yankees, who have a record of 17-14 (5-6 in World Series Game Sevens). In 2017 the Yankees played in three Ultimate Games, winning two. The St. Louis Cardinals have played the second most Ultimate Games (21 through 2020), winning 14 times (eight times in Game Seven of the Fall Classic, which is a record).

Most Ultimate Games by One Team in the Same Season: Three; 1982 Milwaukee Brewers and 2017 New York Yankees. The Brewers won the AL East title in an Ultimate Game on the last day of the regular season (Game #162). In the ALCS they won the deciding fifth game, and in the World Series they lost in seven games. The 2017 Yanks won the wild card game, defeated the Indians in Game Five of the ALDS, and lost to the Astros in Game Seven of the AL Championship Series.

Fewest Ultimate Games, Original Franchise: The Philadelphia Phillies have played in just two Ultimate Games, defeating Houston in the 1980 NLCS, and losing to Montreal in the 1981 NL East Division Series.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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