The Final Pitch of the Season: Glory and Goats

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on October 15, 2014, and is reprinted here by permission.

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No pitcher has been on the mound for the final pitch of the World Series more often than Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who threw the last pitch in five different fall classices.

When Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals struck out against Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara to end the 2013 World Series, it marked the 19th time that a Fall Classic ended on a strikeout—by far, the most common ending to a World Series.

A strikeout has ended six of the last eight World Series since 2006, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has noticed baseball’s climbing K-rate in recent years. Only one of those six Series-ending strikeouts was a called strike three: San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo’s daring 89 mph fastball over the heart of the plate against American League MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers—in the 10th inning of a one-run game, no less—to clinch Game 4 of the 2012 World Series. It was the first time in more than eight decades that a World Series ended on a called strikeout.

A baseball game can end in any number of different ways, from a foul popup to a strikeout to a game-winning home run; World Series have ended in all of these ways. But the ending of the World Series signifies something more to most baseball fans: a championship for one lucky team, of course, but also the end of a grueling seven-month campaign and the start of the long, cold winter (a.k.a. the offseason). The final pitch of the World Series is always a memorable one.

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Johnny Kucks and Yogi Berra

Did you know only one World Series in history has ended on a strikeout dropped by the catcher? That was in 1956, and the play involved two Hall of Famers: the batter, Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson—in the final at-bat of his Major League career—and the catcher, Yogi Berra of the Yankees. Robinson swung at a sinker in the dirt from 23-year-old right-hander Johnny Kucks, who finished off a three-hit shutout of the Dodgers in Game 7 at Ebbets Field. Berra picked up the ball and threw it to first baseman Moose Skowron to clinch New York’s 17th championship.

Afterward, Kucks said, “It was a fastball and it really sank. . . . I can’t ever remember when it behaved any better for me. That was the greatest kick I’ve ever had in baseball.”

There’s no greater thrill than to be on the mound or at the plate with the World Series on the line. It’s the subject of every aspiring ballplayer’s greatest fantasy: get the game-winning hit or make the game-winning play to bring home a championship. But there’s always another side to that story. Someone else has to give up the winning hit or make the season’s final out.

As we look ahead to the 2014 World Series, here are some of the most memorable stories about the final pitch in the first 109 Fall Classics.

Of the more than 18,000 Major League players in history, only 11 of them can say they’ve fulfilled the universal dream to stand in the batter’s box and win the World Series on the final pitch of the year.

The most famous of these were the World Series–winning home runs by Bill Mazeroski (1960 Pirates) and Joe Carter (1993 Blue Jays). As Toronto broadcaster Tom Cheek poignantly proclaimed, Carter would never hit a bigger home run in his life—how could he, after that memorable line drive to left field off Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams?

Two other players have won the World Series with extra-base hits in the final at-bat. In 1924, Washington’s Earl McNeely delivered the capital’s first (and only) championship with an RBI double in the 12th inning of Game 7 that struck a “pebble” and bounced over the head of New York Giants rookie third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, a future Hall of Famer. Five years later, Bing Miller of the Philadelphia A’s doubled home Hall of Famer Al Simmons to cap off a three-run, ninth-inning comeback to win Game 5 of the 1929 World Series against the Chicago Cubs.

Mazeroski and McNeely are among a small group of players to ever record a walkoff hit in a Game 7: Luis Gonzalez (2001 Diamondbacks), Edgar Renteria (1997 Marlins), and Gene Larkin (1991 Twins) each capped off one of the most memorable World Series of my lifetime and perhaps yours, as well. Few fans now remember the game-winning singles recorded by Hall of Famer Goose Goslin of the Detroit Tigers to win the 1935 World Series and Billy Martin of the New York Yankees in the 1953 World Series, both in a Game 6, but they were widely celebrated in their day.

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Goose Goslin

Goslin is one of just three players in history to stand at the plate for the final pitch in two different World Series; in addition to his 1935 heroics, he also made the final out of the 1925 World Series—watching a called strike three by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Red Oldham in a wet and wild Game 7 against the Washington Senators.

Edgar Renteria was also on the winning and losing sides to end two separate Series. Seven years after the Florida Marlins shortstop delivered a dramatic 11th-inning single to beat the Cleveland Indians in 1997, Renteria (now with the St. Louis Cardinals) made the final out of the historic 2004 World Series—a groundout to Boston pitcher Keith Foulke to end the Red Sox’s 86-year championship drought.

The only batter to make the final out in two different World Series was Charley “Boss” Schmidt, the Detroit Tigers catcher in 1907 and ’08 when they lost in five games apiece to the Chicago Cubs (who, of course, haven’t won a World Series since).

There have been only two double plays to end a World Series. In 1947, Yankees ace reliever Joe Page induced the Dodgers’ Bruce Edwards to bounce into a routine 6–4–3 to end a closely fought seven-game World Series at Yankee Stadium. One of the weirdest endings in World Series history happened in 1921, when Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker of the Yankees grounded into a rare 4–3–5 double play to end Game 8 (the final year that baseball tried a best-of-nine experiment). Giants second baseman Johnny Rawlings made a tremendous diving stop of Baker’s grounder in the hole and, while still on the ground, threw him out at first. But Yankees baserunner Aaron Ward, who assumed Baker’s hit would make it to the outfield and never stopped running, was thrown out at third by Giants first baseman George “High Pockets” Kelly to complete the Series-ending double play.

That wild finish was only a prelude to the most famous and ill-advised stolen-base attempt in any World Series, the only other instance when a player was thrown out on the bases to end the Fall Classic. This time, the Yankees’ goat was Babe Ruth, whose foolish attempt to steal second base with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7 and the powerful Bob Meusel at the plate handed the 1926 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Babe Ruth is thrown out attempting to steal second base to end the 1926 World Series. (ESPN)  

Another unique World Series ending took place one year later in 1927, when the “Murderers’ Row” Yankees finished off a four-game sweep of the Pirates on a wild pitch by Johnny Miljus to score Hall of Famer Earle Combs from third with the winning run. Another Hall of Famer, Tony Lazzeri, was at the plate ready to be the hero when Miljus heaved one to the backstop. No other World Series has ended on a wild pitch. That’s also the only time in 27 tries that the Yankees have clinched a championship with a walkoff World Series victory.

Fifteen Hall of Fame batters have stood at the plate for the final pitch of a World Series—and 13 of them have made the final out, not including Miguel Cabrera, who will likely end up in Cooperstown someday. Joining him in that inglorious World Series–ending club are stars like Honus Wagner (1903); Home Run Baker (1921); Goose Goslin (1925); Frank Frisch (1928); Billy Herman (1938); Earl Averill (1940); Luis Aparicio (1950); Pee Wee Reese (1952); Jackie Robinson (1956); Red Schoendienst (1958); Willie McCovey (1962); Carl Yastrzemski (1975); and Tony Gwynn (1984).

The only matchup of Hall of Fame batter against Hall of Fame pitcher to end a World Series was in 1938, when Billy Herman of the Cubs hit a comebacker to Red Ruffing to finish off the Yankees’ four-game sweep.

On the mound, there have been 19 Hall of Fame pitchers who have thrown the final pitch of the season. Only one has done it in a loss: Christy Mathewson, who served up a game-winning sacrifice fly to the Red Sox’s Larry Gardner in Game 8 of the 1912 World Series.

Mathewson also recorded the final out of the 1905 World Series, a groundout to short by Philadelphia’s Lave Cross, to complete his record-setting third consecutive shutout against the A’s. He is one of a handful of pitchers to be on the mound for multiple World Series endings, a group that includes three Hall of Famers: Sandy Koufax (1963, ’65), Bob Gibson (1964, ’67), and Rollie Fingers (1972, ’74), along with Johnny Murphy (1936, ’39), Joe Page (1947, ’49), Bob Kuzava (1951, ’52), Ralph Terry (1960, ’62), and Will McEnaney (1975, ’76).

The other Hall of Famers, besides those mentioned above, to throw the final pitch of a World Series are: Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown (1907); Chief Bender (1911); Eddie Plank (1913); Red Faber (1917); Stan Coveleski (1920); Grover Cleveland Alexander (1926); Waite Hoyt (1928); Herb Pennock (1932); Dizzy Dean (1934); Lefty Gomez (1937); Red Ruffing (1938); Hal Newhouser (1945); Goose Gossage (1978); Bruce Sutter (1982); and Dennis Eckersley (1989).

The pitcher who has been on the mound to end the most World Series is recently retired Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, who closed out the 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009 Series, and who also watched helplessly as Luis Gonzalez poked a single over second base to win the 2001 World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A Yankee of a previous generation, Ralph Terry, was on the mound for two of the most memorable World Series endings of all-time: Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run off him in Game 7 of the 1960 Series at Forbes Field is one of the most replayed highlights in baseball history. But two years later, Terry experienced the other end of the celebratory spectrum by pitching a four-hit shutout in Game 7 against the San Francisco Giants. The final out of his 1–0 victory was recorded by Hall of Famer Willie McCovey on a line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson with the tying and winning runs in scoring position. The play inspired a famous series of “Peanuts” cartoons by Charles Schulz in which a despondent Charlie Brown cries, “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”

As of this writing, we don’t yet know how the 2014 World Series will end, but you can bet it will be memorable—for the pitcher who throws the final pitch, for the batter at the plate, and for all of us watching.