A look at baseball’s best-of-three series before 2020

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The 2020 season is the first time Major League Baseball has scheduled best-of-three playoff series. But it’s not the first time a three-game playoff has been used. Four times between 1946 and 1962, the pennant was decided that way.

Each time a best-of-three series was used in the past, it was to determine the pennant winner in the National League. Each time, the Dodgers were involved.

1946: Redbirds offense is too much for Brooklyn

The National League had previously stated, as early as the mid-1930s, that in the case of a tie for the pennant at the end of the regularly scheduled season, a one-game playoff would not do. With that promise hovering over the season, two rivals duked it out in 1946.

The Cardinals and Dodgers danced intimately throughout the summer and into the fall: keeping each other in sight, neither club able to shake the other. Both teams ended the season with a loss, squandering a shot at clinching. As a result the National League would have their first three-game playoff to determine a champion.

With one week left in the season, a coin toss was held in New York at the office of league president Ford Frick. The Cardinals were represented by owner Sam Breadon, who hollered “heads” as Frick tossed the coin into the air. It was tails. Dodger representative (and manager) Leo Durocher chose to host the second and third games, giving the opener to the Redbirds at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.

It didn’t matter where the games were played: the Cardinals were a better (and healthier) team. In Game One, big Howie Pollet, a lefty having his best season, handcuffed Brooklyn for a 4-2 win. The Dodgers were without sparkplug outfielder Pete Reiser, who broke his leg late in the season. In Game Two at Ebbets Field, the Cards pounced on the home team for am 8-4 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Cardinals were rewarded with their fourth pennant in five seasons. Less than two weeks later they won Game Seven over the Red Sox to capture their third World Series title of the decade. But not every observer was impressed.

The Sporting News wrote: “If Pete Reiser had been available every, Brooklyn would have won the pennant by eight games.”

1951: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

In August (yes, AUGUST!) the Giants were 13 games behind the Dodgers. There may not have been plans for Brooklyn to print World Series tickets, but there could have been. Over the last seven weeks of the season, the Giants made a terrific charge at first place, while the Dodgers stumbled. On the morning of October 1, the two teams were tied with 96 wins, the Giants having won seven straight to close the schedule.

Both teams were in New York, and Game One of the playoff took place at cozy Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The G-Men kept rolling, winning 3-1. The next afternoon across town in Staten Island at the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers cruised to a 10-0 laugher behind Clem Labine. The third game would be played in the same venue on October 3rd.

The Dodgers led 4-1 in the ninth with ace Don Newcombe on the hill. But the strong-armed hurler was pitching his 273rd inning and he tired, allowing hits to three of the first four batters. Manager Chuck Dressen waved Ralph Branca into the game with two men on base, one out, and a two-run lead.

“I used up a lot of energy at the end of the season,” Newcombe said years later. “In that final game in the Polo Grounds, my shoulder was one big pain.”

You might know what happened next: Bobby Thomson launched a fly to left field that found the seats and the Giants completed their amazing comeback to snatch the pennant from Brooklyn. Branca walked solemnly from the field, forever marked as a footnote in history. Thomson’s home run was dubbed “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

1959: Dodgers end Braves dynasty with two tight victories

The best team that most people forget about might be the Milwaukee Braves of the 1950s. The Henry Aaron-Eddie Mathews-Warren Spahn-led team won pennants in 1957 and 1958, ending the dominance of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1959, it looked like the Dodgers had the pennant locked up in early September when they grew their lead to 4 1/2 over Milwaukee. But Hammerin’ Hank & Crew went 15-5 to close out the season to finish in a dead heat with Los Angeles.

Dodgers skipper Walt Alston started unheralded Danny McDevitt in Game One in Milwaukee. He staggered out of the game after recording only four outs and with the Bases loaded. But the Brewers failed to get the big hit to crack the game open, and they waited all afternoon for that hit. Twenty-three year old Larry Sherry pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings of relief and the Dodgers eked out a 3-2 victory. But he was just the first young flamethrower to star in the series.

The next day at LA’s Coliseum, the Dodgers won in dramatic fashion, rallying for three runs in the ninth to stave off defeat. Twenty-two year old Stan “Big Daddy” Williams tossed three shutout innings and Carl Furillo won the pennant in the bottom of the 12th when shortstop Felix Mantilla (normally a second baseman) made a throwing error on an infield single. The Braves failed to win a third straight pennant, and the Dodgers won their first flag in California.

The fault for their collapse was blamed on the absence of second baseman Red Schoendienst, a steadying force in the infield. Red contracted tuberculosis and appeared in only five games. His replacements were unable to provide the punch the Braves needed from that spot.

“We were a tired ballclub by [the end of the season]”, manager Fred Haney explained. “We’ve been in the thick of the race every year for a while now.” The Braves had lost the pennant on the final day of the season in 1956, making it four consecutive seasons of tense games for the team.

A few days after winning the playoff, the Dodgers were crowned world champions after beating the White So in the Fall Classic.

1962: Giants defeat the Dodgers again in three

Eleven years after the Miracle of Coogan Bluff, the Giants vanquished their hated rival the Dodgers in three games again, this time on America’s left coast. In Game One, Willie Mays clubbed a pair of home runs, the first one off Sandy Koufax, who lasted just two batters into the second inning. The Giants won that contest 8-0 at Candlestick Park.

The following afternoon the teams squared off 380 miles south at new Dodger Stadium. The Giants led 5-0 entering the bottom of the sixth, but after Jack Sanford walked the leadoff man, manager Al Dark panicked. Crapped his pants is more like it: he removed Sanford and went to a tired bullpen. The Dodgers sent ten men to the plate and scored seven times as Dark churned through three relievers. The Dodgers tied the series after Ron Fairly’s sac fly plated the winning run in the ninth, setting up a deciding Game Three back at Chavez Ravine.

It was the Dodgers turn to blow a lead in Game Three, squandering a 4-2 advantage. The Dodgers desperately ran three pitchers into the game in the ninth, but a walk and an error let the go ahead runs score. Veteran lefty Billy Pierce, the winning pitcher two days earlier, recorded the final three outs for the G-Men to sink the Dodgers, 6-4.

The Giants reveled in the visitors’ clubhouse, soaking themselves with champagne in celebration of their 103rd win.

“If we drank all this stuff, we’d be sick for a week,” Giants catcher Ed Bailey said. “And if we’d blown that game today, we’d have been sick for a year.”

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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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