Since 1904, when the embryonic Yankees lost the AL Pennant to the then Boston Pilgrims in the penultimate game of the year due to a series of infield errors and a sore-armed ace, the fortunes of the two teams had changed dramatically. The Boston club, who started calling themselves the Red Sox just a few years after their season-ending conflict with the New Yorkers, went on to become the dominant team of the next decade, winning four World Championships in the teens before owner Harry Frazee began selling off his stars, most notably a young pitcher-turned-outfielder named Babe Ruth who would go on to lead the Yankees to their first pennant in 1921, their first World Championship in 1923, and five other World Series appearances in his fifteen years in New York, four of which saw the Yankees emerge victorious.
Meanwhile, the Boston Club fell into despair, failing to produce a winning season during Ruth’s tenure as a Yankee, nine times finishing dead last in the American League. Under new owner Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox finally pulled themselves out of their almost two-decade-long funk at the end of the 1930s, a revival that was solidified by the arrival of a scrawny left-handed hitter named Ted Williams.
The Red Sox finished second to the Yankees in the American League in 1938, the year before Williams arrival, and proceeded to finish directly behind their old rivals for the next four seasons as the Yankees were in the process of reeling off an even more impressive string of Championships behind their young hitting star Joe DiMaggio. The Yankees took home the AL flag seven times in DiMaggio’s first eight seasons, winning the World Series in six of them, including his first four straight.
World War II interrupted the careers of both stars, as well as the Yankees’ run of dominance, but when the troops returned home, the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry as we know it today blossomed. In 1946, the Red Sox won their first American League pennant since 1918. In 1947, the Yankees reclaimed the flag. In 1948, the Red Sox, Yankees and Cleveland Indians fought it out until the final days of the season. In fact, with just two games left to play, the Yankees traveled to Fenway tied with the Red Sox for second place, one game behind the Indians. The Red Sox defeated the Yankees 5-1 in the first game as Cleveland beat Detroit, thus eliminating the Yankees from the race. Cleveland behind a disaster start by Bob Feller lost to the Tigers’ Hal Newhouser the next day as Boston again beat the Yankees, forcing a one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Indians.
In a decision that would live in infamy in Boston, manager Joe McCarthy selected 36-year-old journeyman Denny Galehouse to start the playoff game. Galehouse was driven from the game in the fourth inning and the Red Sox lost 8-3.
In 1949, the Yankees and Red Sox again played the final two games of the season against one another, but this time Cleveland was a distant third and already out of the race. The Red Sox came to Yankee Stadium with a one-game lead in the American League, needing just one win to clinch their second pennant in three years.
Game One pitted the Yankees Allie Reynolds against the Red Sox 27-year-old ace Mel Parnell. Reynolds, a veteran fireballer, brought his best fastball to the park that day, but left his control behind. A wild pitch in the first helped produce an early Boston run. In the third he walked the bases loaded with one out, a single plated a second Boston run and, staring elimination in the face, Yankee manager Casey Stengel immediately yanked Reynolds in favor of his relief ace, Joe Page. Page, another fireballer with control issues who just happened to be having a season that would revolutionize how major league managers thought about their bullpens, walked the first two men he faced to put the Yankees in a 4-0 hole, but recovered to strike out the next two batters to end the inning.
From there, Page dominated, blowing the Boston hitters away with fastball after rising fastball. In the bottom of the fourth Joe DiMaggio doubled to start a rally that would cut the Red Sox lead in half. The Yankees rallied for two more in the fifth, tying the score and driving Parnell from the game.
Stengel started the eighth with a pair of left-handed pinch-hitters, but Red Sox righty John Dobson, who had relieved Parnell in the fifth, retired them both. The next batter was righty Johnny Lindell. Stengel had lefty Charlie Keller ready to hit, but Lindell was 2 for 3, the one out being a warning track shot in the first, so Stengel left him in. On a 2-0 count, Lindell crushed a high fastball for a go-ahead home run and Joe Page finished the Red Sox off in the ninth.
Thus the Red Sox and Yankees entered the final game of the season at Yankee Stadium tied for first place in the American League. On the hill for the Yankees was 20-game-winning curve-baller Vic Raschi, for the Red Sox, 23-game-winning late-bloomer Ellis Kinder (in part due to the war, Kinder had made his major league debut just three seasons ealier at age 31).
The Yankees struck first when Phil Rizzuto lead off the bottom of the first by yanking a pitch down the third base line and into the left field corner that he hustled into a triple. Tommy Henrich then hit an easy grounder to score the Scooter and give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead.
From there, both pitchers dominated, exchanging scoreless frames over the next six innings. Still trailing 1-0 with one out and no one on in the eighth inning, McCarthy panicked and pinch-hit for Kinder with recent call-up Tom Wright. Wright worked a walk, but was erased when Dom DiMaggio grounded into a double play.
With Kinder out of the game, McCarthy turned to the previous day’s starter, Mel Parnell, hoping the lefty Parnell would neutralize lefty Tommy Henrich, who was leading off the bottom of the eighth. Instead, Henrich, who had driven in the only run of the game to that point, crushed a Parnell fastball into the right field seats to make it 2-0. Yogi Berra, another lefty batter, then singled and McCarthy pulled the winded Parnell in favor of Tex Hughson.
Berra was erased by a DiMaggio double play, but Lindell and Billy Johnson singled, with pinch-runner Hank Bauer moving to third when Ted Williams bobbled Johnson’s hit in left. Hughson then intentionally walked Cliff Mapes to pitch to the Yankees’ rookie second baseman, Jerry Coleman, with the bases loaded and two outs. For what happened next, I give you Halberstam:
Hughson was absolutely sure he could handle the rookie. Tex could still throw hard, and the ball came in letter-high and inside. Hughson was delighted. He had placed it almost perfectly, an impossible pitch for a hitter to do anything with, he thought, and he was right; Coleman did very little with it. He hit it right on the trademark of the bat and sliced the ball, a pop-up, just past second base; Coleman was disgusted with himself.
In right field Al Zarilla was not playing Coleman particularly deep. Bases loaded, he thought, two out, short right-field fence, two runs behind. We cannot let them have any more runs. Coleman was not a power hitter. For Zarilla, the ability to come in on a pop fly or soft liner was more important than going back on a ball, particularly with two out. Zarilla watched Hughson’s pitch and he thought, That is a lovely pitch. Then he saw the ball leave the bat and he knew at once it was trouble–too far back for Bobby Doerr, the ball spinning away toward the line, a dying swan if there ever was one. It had to be Zarilla’s ball. He charged it, and kept charging, but the ball was slicing away from him. At the last second Zarilla was sure he had a play. He dove for it, his fingers and glove outstretched. He was diving at the expense of his body, for he was not positioned to break a fall. He missed it by perhaps two inches. By the time the ball came down, Zarilla realized later, it was almost on the foul line.
When Coleman saw that it was too deep for Doerr and that Zarilla was desperately charging, he knew the ball was going to drop. He turned past second and raced for third. He was out at third, but three runs had scored. The lead was 5-0. When he came into the dugout, everyone patted Coleman on the back as if he were an old veteran and an RBI leader. But he thought of it as a cheap hit, and was more than a little ashamed of himself. A three-run double in the box score, he thought, and a cheap pop-up on the field.
It proved to be more than just a three-run double, it was the pennant-winning hit. The Red Sox finally broke through against Raschi in the top of the ninth, the big hit being a two-run triple by Bobby Doerr that sailed over the head of a limping DiMaggio in center. DiMaggio removed himself from the game immediately after Doerr’s hit, but Raschi settled down to complete a 5-3 victory and send the Yankees to the World Series.