As the Yankees head to Fenway for the final three games of the season with a mere one-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East, it’s worth noting that this is just the third time in the 103-year history of the team that they’ve concluded a regular season by playing their Boston rivals head-to-head for a chance at the postseason. As we are about to watch the fourth such finish unfold before us over the next three days, I thought it would be fun to revisit those three seasons, one per day, as we anticipate what this year’s will bring. The hope is that the juxtaposition between these recaps and the games at Fenway will do far more than a lot of hype and mythmaking could to underscore the significance of this weekend’s series. I’ll start today with 1904.
But before I do, in addition to those head-to-head match-ups there have been just four other seasons in that 103-year period in which the two teams have finished within four games of one another (the maximum distance possible this year). It’s interesting to note, however, that three of those seven seasons have occurred since the American League was split into three divisions in 1994. Including this year, that accounts for a full third of the three-division era. In light of that, it is amazing that the schedule makers haven’t pitted the two teams against each other in the final series of a season since 1996, when the Yankees finished seven games ahead of the defending AL East Champion Red Sox.
Equally amazing, this is the first time since it was adopted in 2001 that the unbalanced schedule has resulted in season-ending Yankee-Red Sox matchup. In 1999 and 2000, when the Yankees finished 4 and 2.5 games ahead of the Red Sox respectively, the final regular season games between the two clubs were on September 11 and 12, almost three weeks before the season’s conclusion. All of which is even more stunning when you remember that the Yankees and Red Sox have finished first and second in the AL East respectively for the last seven straight seasons. Major League Baseball switched schedule makers prior to this season for the first time since 1981. Now, entering the season’s final weekend, four of the six teams that have niether clinched nor been eliminated from the postseason are playing each other, including the first scheduled season-ending series between the Yankees and Red Sox to mean something since 1949. Kudos to baseball and the Sports Scheduling Group for correcting an obvious flaw in the system.
In contrast to 1999 and 2000, last year’s final head-to-head match-up between the Yankees and Red Sox came with a mere week left in the season. The Red Sox won the final two games of a three-game series against the Yankees in Fenway on September 25 and 26 to pull within 3.5 games with seven left to play. They then won a pair of games in Tampa over the next two days while the Yanks traveled home and got rained out by the remains of Hurricane Jeane. That pulled the Sox within 2.5 with five to play, but the Yankees clinched a tie the next day by sweeping the resulting doubleheader from the Twins as the Sox dropped the finale of their series to the Devil Rays. The Yankees then beat the Twins on September 30 on a two-run home run by Bernie Williams in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the division with three games left on the schedule, eventually finishing three games ahead of their rivals.
A similar scenario played out in 1977, when last head-to-head match-up between the two teams came on September 21. Boston took a quick two game series from New York in Fenway on September 19 and 21 to pull within 2.5 games of first place. The Yankees then won their next six games, clinching a tie on the 28th with a 10-0 victory over the Indians at home while the Red Sox fell to the expansion Blue Jays in Fenway. Still, the Sox remained alive for two more days, beating the Blue Jays and Orioles as the Yanks fell to the Indians and Tigers. Finally, on October 1, the Sox lost what proved to be their final game of the season to Baltimore to hand the Yankees, who again fell to Detroit, their second-straight AL East crown (thus eliminating the need for the Red Sox to play a make-up game the next day when the Yankees finally won another game to finish 2.5 games ahead of Boston). But while the 1977 season technically came down to the final game of the season (at least for the Red Sox), it pales in comparison to the Holy Trinity of head-to-head Yankee-Red Sox finishes.
The 1949 and 1978 seasons, which I’ll recap in the next two days, have passed into legend, but the dramatic end to the 1904 season (the holy ghost of New York-Boston finishes, if you will) has been largely forgotten, despite the involvement of Hall of Famers Wee Willie Keeler, Happy Jack Chesbro and Cy Young. Last December, Bronx Banter ran a two-part excerpt from Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson’s outstanding Yankee Century that told the story of the 1904 season. Most of which follows is adapted from those pages.
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Created through a series of shady back-room deals to be the signature franchise of the newly established American League, the league’s New York franchise (often referred to as the Highlanders because of the location of their home field at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights, but commonly known as the Yankees), in just its second year of existance, found itself a half game behind the defending World Champion Boston Pilgrims going into a season-ending five game series at Hilltop Park. With cross-town manager John McGraw having already stated his refusal to have his National League Champion Giants participate in what would have been the second ever World Series, those final five games between the AL’s top two clubs proved to be the closest thing to a Championship series that baseball had in 1904.
The Yankees got themselves in this position to a large extent on the arm of their ace, “Happy” Jack Chesbro, a thirty-year-old spitballer (the spitball still being a legal pitch) from North Adams, Massachusetts who had jumped the NL’s Pittsburgh Pirates to join the new New York team the previous year. Enjoying one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history, Chesbro started the opener on Friday, October 7, pitching the Yankees to a 3-2 victory. Chesbro went the distance and in the process recorded his record 41st win in front of 10,000 fans, who carried him off the field after the final out. With that victory, the Yankees moved into first place by a half game and were in position to take home the pennant with a split of the remaining games, a pair of doubleheaders to be played on Saturday and Monday (Sunday baseball still being considered blasphemy, at least on the east coast).
That the Yankees held first place at this late date was a surprise to everyone, including the team’s owners. So much so that earlier in the season, when it appeared that Boston would win the pennant outright, Yankee owners Frank Farrell and former New York City Chief of Police Big Bill Devery (both shady Tammany Hall-types) had rented Hilltop Park to Columbia University for a football game on the day of the season’s penultimate doubleheader in order to turn a better profit than would be possible from having their team play out the string. Thus Saturday’s twin bill was relocated to the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston. With Chesbro having pitched his 47th complete game of the season the previous day, Yankee Manager Clark Griffith instructed his ace to stay behind in New York and prepare for the season finale on Monday. Chesbro insisted on taking the ball in Game One in Boston, but after having pitched 436 innings that year, the Yankee ace had finally run out of gas and his team fell 13-2. Cy Young then won Game Two almost by himself, driving in the only run while shutting out the Yankees for seven innings for a darkness-shortened 1-0 Boston victory to give the Pilgrim’s a sweep in their own park. The Yankees now needed a sweep of their own back in New York to take the pennant.
Having had Sunday off, Chesbro again took the hill in the season’s penultimate game, his 51st and final start of the year. The Yanks took an early 2-0 lead, but a pair of errors by second baseman Jimmy Williams tied the score in the fifth. In the ninth, another error, this by shortstop Kid Elberfeld, put Boston catcher Lou Criger on first where he was bunted to second and move to third on a groundout to Elberfeld. With two out and the go-ahead run on third, Chesbro got ahead of Boston shortstop Freddie Parent 1-2. As for what happened next, I give you Glenn Stout:
There is an old baseball adage that says a pitcher shall not get beat throwing anything but his best pitch. Even in 1904, that stratagem was standard fare. And the spitball, for most of the 454 innings that Jack Chesbro pitched in the season of 1904, had not only been his best pitch, but perhaps the best pitch any pitcher has ever had.
Throwing a spitball is best described as akin to squeezing a seed out from between one’s fingers, made even more difficult by the fact that it must be done amidst the usual throwing motion. It is a difficult pitch to learn, and nearly impossible to control precisely. But no pitcher in baseball has ever been better at it than Jack Chesbro.
Yet even Chesbro, despite all evidence to the contrary, was not superhuman. He stood on the mound, wet his fingertips, gripped the ball, wound up and threw, pulling his right arm down violently, his wrist and forearm stiff, as the ball left his hand.
But this time, perhaps from fatigue, the seed squirted out wide and high. One newspaper described the pitch as “ten feet over Parent’s head.” Kleinow reached for the ball – too late, according to some – but he missed it. Elberfeld later said the catcher would have needed a “step ladder” to get it. The ball reportedly soared fully seventy-five feet in the air past him, all the way to the stands, where it was variously described as either striking the chicken wire backstop that protected the fans or thudding against the wooden fence that supported it.
Criger trotted home as Kleinow scrambled after the rebound. Chesbro looked shocked. He turned away and wiped his face as if to remove the saliva from his hand. Clark Griffith fell prostrate in front of the Yankee bench and buried his face in the dirt. Boston led, 3-2. The New York crowd sat in silence as Boston’s Rooters sang and cheered and hooted for all they were worth.
A moment later, Parent singled, then was forced at second. The stunned Yankees were but three outs away from the end of the season.
Chesbro returned to bench and collapsed, alone and in tears. Over thirty years later long-time Yankee employee Mark Roth told a reporter, “Some day I’ll tell you how Chesbro cried like a baby after that wild pitch. But that always makes me sad. I’ll save it.”
Griffith pinch-hit for Chesbro in the bottom of the ninth as the Yankees rallied to put runners on first and second with two outs only to have left fielder Patsy Dougherty, a star with Boston the previous two seasons who was acquired mid-year and had since excelled against his old team, strike out to end the game and the Yankees’ pennant hopes. The Yankees then won the second game 1-0, plating the game’s lone run in the bottom of the tenth. Too little, too late. They finished the season a game and a half behind the future Red Sox, who at that point in their existence had won two of the four AL pennants and the only modern World Series. The Yankees would have to wait seventeen years before they would finally be able to call themselves the American League Champions.