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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 09/19/2003

Bucky’s Blast—25 Years Later

There is nothing quite like a play-off game in baseball. We’re not talking about the playoffs of the Division Series variety, or even the Championship Series kind. We’re talking about a real honest-to-goodness play-off—a one-game tiebreaking extension of the regular season, where the winner moves on to the post-season and the loser sees the results of a 162-game schedule end without gratification.

In the 1951 National League play-off, the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s unforeseeable home run, arguably the most memorable in history. But that was in the days of a three-game play-off, which was the National League’s custom of the day in deciding deadlocked pennant races.

Perhaps the most memorable one-game play-off took place 25 years ago, when the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees grappled in Fenway Park’s October twilight to decide the championship of the American League East.

Ridden with injuries to key players like Rich “Goose” Gossage, and laden with controversies involving the triumvirate of Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin-and George Steinbrenner, the Yankees had endured a miserable first half of the 1978 season. On July 19, the Yankees reached a low-water mark when they fell 14 games back of the Red Sox. All seemed so incurably lost that Martin’s decision to resign four days later, which paved the way for the hiring of Bob Lemon, struck most observers as a move that would pay benefits the following season—and not a moment sooner.

Lemon, a Hall of Fame pitcher, didn’t see it that way. He restored order quickly by ignoring a fit of temper thrown by Jackson, and by fining Mickey Rivers and Roy White for breaking team rules. Under Lemon’s calming leadership, and aided by the continuing domination of ace left-hander Ron Guidry, the Yankees regrouped and slowly climbed back into contention in the East. (A New York City newspaper strike didn’t hurt, either; beat writers were no longer around to fan the flames of Yankee controversy.) The Pinstripers moved within four games of the Bosox by early September, just in time for the start of a quartet of head-to-head games. Four days and one famed “Boston Massacre” later, the Red Sox found themselves tied with the Yankees.

The Yankees eventually moved past the Red Sox. Boston refused to quit and climbed to within a game heading into the final day of the regular season. When Cleveland’s Rick Waits blanked the Yankees in the Sunday finale, Boston found the door to the pennant ajar. The Red Sox shut out the Toronto Blue Jays, forcing a one-game play-off.

Having won a coin toss in September, the Red Sox enjoyed the advantage of hosting the game at Fenway Park. Red Sox’ manager Don Zimmer selected right-hander Mike Torrez, ironically a former Yankee who had won the final game of the previous season’s World Series before departing as a free agent. His counterpart? None other than Guidry, who had won 24 of 27 decisions on his way to winning the Cy Young Award.

Thanks to a lineup loaded with right-handed power hitters like Carlton “Pudge” Fisk, Jim Rice and George “Boomer” Scott, the Red Sox posed a formidable match for the fastballs and sliders thrown by the left-handed Guidry. Yet, it was Boston’s premier left-handed hitter, Carl Yastrzemski, who started the scoring by driving one of Guidry’s pitches down the right-field line. The ball stayed to the left of the foul pole and landed in the right field stands, giving the Sox a 1-0 lead.

The Red Sox added to their lead in the sixth inning. Leadoff batter Rick “The Rooster” Burleson pounded out a double and moved up to third on Jerry Remy’s sacrifice bunt. Rice—who would win the American League’s MVP Award over Guidry—followed with a line-drive single to center field. Rice’s 139th RBI of the season gave the Sox a seemingly safe 2-0 lead.

Torrez showed no signs of tiring when he retired Graig Nettles to start the seventh inning. Then, without warning, Chris Chambliss and Roy White touched Torrez for back-to-back singles. Bob Lemon sent veteran power hitter Jim Spencer to the plate as a pinch hitter for Brian Doyle, a light-hitting second baseman. Torrez stiffened, retiring Spencer on a harmless fly ball. With two on and two out, No. 9 hitter Bucky Dent stepped to the plate.

Second-guessers of Lemon started to scream. Why didn’t he pinch-hit for Dent, the weakest link in the Yankee batting order? After all, the Yankees could have called on any one of three formidable veterans in the pinch: Jay Johnstone, Gary Thomasson, or Cliff Johnson. Lemon faced another problem, however. Having already pinch-hit for Doyle, and with Fred Stanley scheduled to come into the game to play second base, Lemon had no other middle infielders at his disposal. Dent, the starting shortstop, would have to hit. (Under baseball’s rules in 1978, teams engaged in a tie-breaking play-off could only use the players already on their 25-man roster as of September 1, and could not use any players recalled from the minor leagues during the month of September. As a result, Lemon did not have at his disposal the services of such 1970s blasts from the past as Damaso Garcia (Triple-A Tacoma), Dennis Sherrill (Double-A West Haven), or George Zeber (Triple-A Tacoma), all middle infielders who had spent most of the summer in the Yankees’ minor league system.)

Torrez delivered his second pitch, which Dent fouled directly off his left foot. Dent hopped around home plate, stung by the force of the foul tip. He hobbled back to the dugout, changed his bat, and returned to finish out the at-bat against Torrez.

On the next pitch, Dent lifted a high fly ball toward left field. If Dent had hit a ball of such moderate depth at Yankee Stadium, the left fielder would have caught the ball easily before it reached the warning track. But this was Fenway Park. The ball had plenty of depth to reach the park’s famed left field fence. But did it have enough height to clear the wall and scrape the netting above the “Green Monster?”

Yankee fans watching the game on television struggled to see the ball against the October background of late afternoon sun and shadows. Others, like students at Iona Grammar School in New Rochelle (yeah, I was there that day), struggled to listen to static-filled transistor radios. “Deep to left,” cried Bill White, announcing the game on WPIX-TV in New York. Moments later, White declared Dent’s drive a “home run!,” sending most of the Metropolitan area into a simultaneous roar. White’s words provided Yankee fans with confirmation of something they could not believe—a home run by the Yankees’ weakest hitter, a man who had hit all of four balls over fences during the first 162 games of the season.

Most of the remainder of the game remains forgotten, obscured by the drama of Dent’s blast. Later that same inning, the late Thurman Munson provided an insurance run with an RBI double. In the top of the eighth, Jackson gave the Yankees a three-run lead with a monstrous home run to center field. The Red Sox rallied for two runs in the bottom of the eighth and continued to apply pressure in the ninth. With Burleson on first, Jerry Remy lined a ball solidly toward right field. Draped and blinded by the Fenway sun, Lou Piniella had no idea of the ball’s location. He didn’t see the ball until it landed on the outfield grass, and then stabbed at it with his glove. Somehow, Piniella fielded the ball cleanly, holding Burleson at second base. Instead of having the tying run on third with only one out, the Red Sox still needed two more bases to even the game.

Jim Rice followed by driving a fly ball to right field. If Burleson had already been on third, he would have scored easily. As it was, he had to settle for advancing from second to third. With two outs, Yastrzemski came to the plate. Gossage and Yaz battled. Gossage tried to throw his best pitch—a rising fastball—by the slowed swing of the aging Yaz, who remained a danger to opposing pitchers. Down to his final strike, Yastrzemski swung late at a fastball and lofted a pop-up down the third base line. Straddling the foul line, Graig Nettles cradled the ball with two hands, ending one of baseball’s most classic games.

It was a game that had all of the elements necessary for greatness. A future Hall of Famer named “Yaz” battled hard before making the final out. Another Hall of Famer, named Jackson, hit a crucial home run. An elite reliever like Gossage earned a save the old-fashioned way. Cy Young Award winner Ron Guidry won his 25th game to cap off the season of a lifetime. One of baseball’s best old parks, Fenway Park, provided the setting. And a little shortstop named Bucky, the weakest link in a lineup filled with potent bats, hit one of the unlikeliest home runs ever seen.

Hall of Fame Handbook

On the weekend of October 11 and 12, the Hall of Fame will host a special World Series Centennial Celebration. The weekend will be highlighted by appearances of four Hall of Famers who each played in The Series during their careers: Lou Brock, Bob Feller, Carlton Fisk, and Bill Mazeroski.

The schedule for Saturday, October 11, is as follows: At 10:00 am, there will be a booksigning for the critically-acclaimed Baseball As America. The signing will feature Hall of Famers Feller and Fisk.

At 11:30 am in the Bullpen Theater, the Hall of Fame commemorates the centennial of the World Series by hosting a panel discussion entitled 100 Years of the Fall Classic. The panel, which is free of charge, will include three noted writers: Roger Abrams, author of The First World Series and the Baseball Fanatics of 1903; Bill Nowlin, author of Ted Williams: The Pursuit of Perfection; and David Pietrusza, author of Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. After the panel discussion, which will include questions from the audience, each of the authors will be available to sign copies of his book in the Library Atrium.

At 2:00 pm, the Hall of Fame will continue to commemorate 100 years of the Fall Classic by featuring Heroes of the World Series. As part of a special Legends Series event in the Grandstand Theater, the Museum welcomes two World Series heroes from past Fall Classics. The participating Hall of Famers will be Feller and Fisk. Tickets are $5 and can be reserved by calling (607) 547-0397. Children 12 and under who are members receive free admission, but must still reserve tickets.

At 7:00 pm, there will be a special dessert reception for “Friends of the Hall of Fame Members” only. “Friends” will have an opportunity to have their pictures taken with the Hall of Famers. Tickets for the reception are $10 and can be reserved by calling (607) 547-0397. Tickets for children 12 and under who are members will be $5.

Also, as part of the Hall of Fame’s World Series Showcase, there will be a special showing of the 1968 World Series highlight film. This classic Series, between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, featured a number of Hall of Famers, including Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, and Bob Gibson. The 1968 World Series film will be shown at 4:00 pm in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater on both Saturday and Sunday.

The schedule for Sunday, October 11, is as follows: At 10:00 am, there will be a booksigning for the critically-acclaimed Baseball As America. The signing will feature Hall of Famers Brock and Mazeroski.

At 12 noon, the Hall of Fame will feature part two of Heroes of the World Series. As part of a special Legends Series, Brock and Mazeroski will be interviewed in the Grandstand Theater. Friends of the Hall of Fame members receive first priority in purchasing tickets. Tickets are $5 and can be reserved by calling (607) 547-0397. Children 12 and under who are members receive free admission, but must still reserve tickets.

At 2:00 pm, the Hall of Fame honors the 35th anniversary of the 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers with a special Sandlot Stories presentation entitled Comeback Kids: The Tigers of 1968. The presentation, which will feature profiles of Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Mickey Lolich, among others, will take place in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater.

At 3:00 pm, the Hall of Fame honors the 50th anniversary of the 1953 World Champion New York Yankees with a Sandlot Stories presentation entitled Casey Stengel’s Championship New York Yankees. The presentation, which will profile Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford, will take place in the Bullpen Theater.

World Series—100th Birthday

While we’re on the subject of the centennial of the World Series, the following question has come up: Among players, who is the oldest living World Series participant? Thanks to the research of Hall of Fame staff members Bill Francis and Sandy Moxley, we can provide an answer. He is Bill Werber, who was born in 1908 and is now 95 years of age. A third baseman who also saw occasional duty as a shortstop and outfielder during an 11-year career, Werber played in the 1939 and ’40 World Series for the Cincinnati Reds. In the 1940 Classic, Werber batted .370 with five runs scored in seven games. Pastime Passings

Allen Lewis (Died on September 14 in Clearwater, Florida; age 86; long illness): A longtime sportswriter who covered Philadelphia area baseball, Lewis was well respected for his knowledge of the game and its history. From 1946 to 1972, Lewis covered the Phillies as a beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1981, he earned the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding contributions to baseball writing. Lewis also served on the Hall’s Veterans Committee from 1979 to 2001. He becomes the third member of the 2001Veterans Committee to die this year, along with writer Leonard Koppett and broadcaster Ken Coleman.

Sean Kimerling (Died on September 9 in Manhattan, New York; age 37; complications from testicular cancer): A roving reporter on New York Mets home games, Kimerling worked as a sportscaster for WPIX-TV, the Mets’ non-cable flagship station. Kimerling died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he was being treated for testicular cancer. In his honor, the Mets held a moment of silence prior to their game against the Florida Marlins on September 9… Considered a truly nice guy in an industry known for its inflated egos and frequent confrontation, the gentlemanly Kimerling started his broadcasting career with television stations in Texas and Oklahoma before joining the WPIX staff as a weekend sports anchor in 1997. In 2002, he received a first-place award for best sports coverage from the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association.

Wilbur Snapp (Died on September 6 in South Pasadena, Florida; age 83): Snapp never played professional baseball and never broadcast or wrote about the sport, but gained notoriety as an organist for the minor league Clearwater Phillies. During a 1985 game at Clearwater’s Jack Russell Stadium, Snapp reacted to a questionable umpiring call by playing “Three Blind Mice” on the ballpark organ. The umpire responded by turning around, pointing at Snapp, and ejecting him from the game. Snapp’s controversial ejection, which some observers considered an overreaction by the umpire, resulted in a flood of publicity. Willard Scott, then the weatherman on NBC’s “Today” show, mentioned the incident on the air, as did longtime radio broadcaster Paul Harvey. Snapp became so well known that some fans asked for his autograph, which he obliged by signing “Wilbur Snapp, Three Blind Mice Organist.” A veteran of World War II, Snapp worked Clearwater games from 1978 to 1997, when Jack Russell Stadium switched from the organ to recorded music.

Emil Belich (Died on September 3 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; age 83; prostate cancer): A longtime scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, Belich signed two of the team’s cornerstones of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner. Belich joined the Milwaukee Braves as a scout and batting practice pitcher in 1953 and then worked for the Philadelphia Phillies before returning to Milwaukee as a scout with the Brewers in 1971. He remained with the Brewers until the mid-1980s, allowing him to watch Gantner and Molitor contribute to the team’s 1982 American League pennant. Belich then worked for Major League Baseball’s scouting bureau before rejoining the Phillies’ organization in 1991.

Bob “Riverboat” Smith (Died on June 23 in Clarence, Missouri; age 76; injuries suffered in a tractor accident): A veteran of three major league teams, Smith made his major league debut for Boston in 1958. He later joined the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, compiling a lifetime record of 4-4. He enjoyed his best season in ’58, when he sported a 3.78 ERA and a 4-3 mark for the Bosox. Following his playing career, Smith devoted himself fulltime to farming, an industry that he had first entered in 1953. He also worked extensively with the baseball program in Clarence, helping construct several playing fields at Clarence City Lake during the 1960s.

by Bruce Markusen


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