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The “golden pitch” which led to the first Cardinals title

In 2016, for the eighth time in history, so-called “golden pitches” were thrown. One of the previous seven instances gave the Cardinals their first World Series win.

Busch Stadium
A statue depicting 1926 Cardinals player-manager Rogers Hornsby.

Last Wednesday, with the Chicago Cubs leading the Cleveland Indians by one run in Game 7 of the World Series, 34 year-old journeyman utility infielder Michael Martinez came to the plate for the Indians with a chance to make baseball history in one of two drastically different ways.

Martinez was one of the worst hitting position players in baseball in 2016. Among the 438 position players with 100 or more plate appearances, only 21 had a lower wRC+ than Martinez’s 51 (100 represents a league average hitter, and thus he represented barely over half of that level of quality). In six (mostly abbreviated) MLB seasons, Michael Martinez has never produced a positive season by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, and in 578 career plate appearances, Martinez has six home runs.

He wasn’t the best candidate to do so, but had Martinez hit a home run, since a runner was on base, the Cleveland Indians would win the World Series. Were he to get an out (which, of course, he did), the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series.

Sabermetricians tend to speak of small sample sizes as irrelevant, and when it comes to examinations of trends it mostly is, but every once in a while, an entire baseball season comes down to a sample of one plate appearance. 2016 was the eighth World Series in history in which a batter came to the plate with the chance to win a title for his team but also to lose the World Series for his team with one swing of the bat.

There have been a few recent examples, notably in 2014, when Royals catcher Salvador Perez come to the plate down by one run and with a runner on third base. A home run (far more likely than was the case with Martinez last week) wins a World Series for the Royals; an out (which happened) means a title for San Francisco.

In 1926, the St. Louis Cardinals were appearing in their first World Series in franchise history. It’s a bit difficult to grasp with the 90 years of mostly successful campaigns that followed, but the pre-1926 Cardinals were not a particularly great franchise. The odds of a team making the World Series in that era were one in eight, as there were only eight teams per league, and it was the 23rd World Series-era version in which the Cardinals made their Fall Classic debut.

The Cardinals faced the New York Yankees, a 91-63 team which was a year away from a 110-44 season which is among the most iconic seasons in baseball history. The 1926 Yankees were loaded with several Hall of Famers: Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, and most famously, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. That this Cardinals team could field five Hall of Fame players (Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jesse Haines, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey, and Rogers Hornsby), that year’s MVP (Bob O’Farrell), and still trail on star power is a testament to how loaded this World Series was.

The teams split the first two games of the series at Yankee Stadium, and after the Cardinals won Game 3 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Babe Ruth countered in Game 4 with a three home run performance, an accomplishment unmatched in the World Series until 1977, when fellow Yankee outfielder Reggie Jackson pulled off the feat (both Albert Pujols and Pablo Sandoval later matched the Yankees duo). Ruth’s third home run left the stadium and broke a window at a nearby car dealership. The Yankees went on to win Game 5 as well and carried a 3-2 lead back to the Bronx, where Game 6 and (if necessary) Game 7 would be played.

Game 6 was a blowout—the Cardinals attacked Yankees pitchers Bob Shawkey and Urban Shocker early and often and handily won the game 10-2. And Game 7, contested at Yankee Stadium on a Sunday afternoon in a stadium with a capacity at the time of 58,000, was played before 38,093 people (as an aside, never trust those who claim other eras of baseball as the Golden Age of the sport).

In the bottom of the 3rd inning, Babe Ruth (of course) hit a solo home run off of Jesse Haines to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead, but in the next half-frame, the Cardinals scored three unearned runs off of Waite Hoyt as the result of errors by Mark Koenig and Bob Meusel. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Hank Severeid brought his team’s deficit down to one with a double.

In the seventh, after Jesse Haines developed a blister on his hand, the Cardinals went to Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had pitched a complete game the day before (and was allegedly extremely hung over from a night of heavy drinking the night before), to pitch in relief. Alexander’s 1926 season was later depicted in the 1952 film The Winning Team, an extremely dated movie starring Ronald Reagan (the actor?).

Alexander survived a based-loaded jam in the 7th inning by striking out Tony Lazzeri and had a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth. The Cardinals could not expand on their lead, so the Yankees trailed by one run entering the bottom of the 9th.

The first two batters went quietly, with Earle Combs and Mark Koenig each grounding out to third base. Next up, however, was Babe Ruth. While Ruth could not win the World Series with one swing of the bat, he could instantly turn the Yankees, who at the time had a 5% chance of winning the game and therefore of winning the World Series, into championship favorites by hitting a home run, as he was so inclined to do, into the Yankee Stadium bleachers. Ruth, instead, did another thing he did quite often—he walked. The Cardinals were still favorites, but the Yankees had doubled their odds of depriving the Cardinals of their first MLB title.

With Lou Gehrig now on deck, Bob Meusel came to the plate to face a fatiguing Alexander. Although Meusel was not nearly the hitter of Ruth or Gehrig, he nevertheless had a very solid 120 OPS+ in 1926 and was a year removed from leading the American League in home runs and RBI. Meusel swung and missed at Alexander’s first pitch, a detail that is, for good reason, lost to history.

Babe Ruth has a mostly unearned reputation among some cynical baseball fans as an overweight, clumsy player who skated by on raw talent without any of the work ethic that could have made him an even greater player—although defensive metrics of the era are extremely shaky, they generally suggest that Ruth was a competent fielder and his 123 career stolen bases may not be in the neighborhood of Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock, but it is a much higher total than one might suspect.

But he was overly aggressive. He was only successful on about 50% of his attempts. And after the first-pitch strike to Bob Meusel, Bob O’Farrell popped up, hurled the ball to second baseman Rogers Hornsby, and the throw beat Babe Ruth to the bag by ten feet. Hornsby applied the tag and the World Series was over.

Tales of Cardinals postseason heroics are usually confined to relatively recent years, and certainly to the mass media era, but few things can embody the Cardinals’ good fortunes in the postseason quite like winning a first World Series thanks to a moment of utter ineptitude from the greatest player in baseball history.