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October 9 2008: Pennant Eve

So, the Red Sox and Rays are getting ready to have a pennant showdown, and I find myself getting very antsy that there has been NO BASEBALL for the past several days. I know this new schedule is supposed to boost the TV ratings of the various playoff series’, but it going to be the opposite for me. I’ll be busy all weekend and see NONE of it, whereas the past few nights after dinner I’ve been twiddling my thumbs. Heavy sigh, winter is coming.

The date of the ALCS beginning, October 10th, is an auspicioys one for the Red Sox, though. It is the infamous day on which the fledgling New York Yankees challenged Boston for AL supremacy for the first time, only to have their chance thrown away—literally.

The culprit was “Happy Jack” Chesbro, the pitcher without whom the New Yorkers would not have contended at all. In 1903, their first year in the American League, the New York club (called variously the Highlanders, Hilltoppers, and many other nicknames including “Yankees” by the newspapers) was inconsequential, while Boston won the league and the World Series. But in 1904, Chesbro served notice on the champs on Opening Day, facing Cy Young and leading New York to an 8-2 win. The two clubs would battle all season, and the balance of power between them was evened when AL president Ban Johnson arranged for one of Boston’s dominant sluggers to be traded to their rival in exchange for sickly Bob Unglaub (who was so sick,he didn’t even play).

Chesbro would finish the year with one of the best single-season performances for a pitcher in the 20th century, going 41-12, pitching complete games in 51 of his starts, and relieving in 4 others. In the final 3 weeks of the season, he started 9 games and relieved during a doubleheader, earning wins on both ends. And because of rain-outs and rescheduling, the pennant race came to a crescendo at the wire; the final five games of the season would all pit Boston against New York, including two doubleheaders, one in New York, and one in Boston.

Chesbro pitched the first game of the five in New York and earned a hard-fought 3-2 win. With four games to play, New York needed to win any two of the remaining contests and the pennant would be theirs. They headed to Boston on the train to play the next two. Manager Clark Griffith planned to leave Chesbro in New York and pitch him again when they returned, but Chesbro chased the team to the station and talked his way into taking the ball. Griffith granted his wish, but Chesbro faltered in the fourth and Boston won both games.

Now New York needed to win both of their games in the home doubleheader. There was a day off thanks to rules against Sunday baseball, which allowed Chesbro to rest. He looked fresh and strong upon taking the hill on the fateful day, retiring the first three batters easily. He escaped a few jams, but guarded a 2-0 lead jealously into the 7th. Jimmy Williams, New York’s second basemen, made three unfortunate errors that inning, letting in two runs. With the game tied 2-2, Chesbro went out to pitch the 8th inning.

With two outs and Boston’s catcher Lou Criger perched on third, Chesbro needed only retire Freddy Parent, a hitter he had owned. Throwing his signature spitball, Chesbro quickly put Parent into an 0-2 hole. One more unpredictable, impossible-to-hit spitter would do it.

Unfortunately it was impossible to catch. The ball went to the screen, the run scored, and the Yankees’ bubble had been burst. Newspaper accounts describe Griffith as falling to his knees at the fateful pitch and Chesbro collapsing in tears. Though they batted twice more, New York did not rally. The second, now-inconsequential game, was called off after 5 innings. New York would not contend again until the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1920.

By the way, I’m rooting for the Rays.

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