That was the terrific question posed yesterday on ESPN.com and answered by a host of current players and broadcasters. (Click here for the photo gallery showing popular choices.) There’s Lou Gehrig’s farewell, or Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Or for those of us who hate the Yankees… Bill Mazeroski’s and Joe Carter’s World Series-winning walk-off home-runs in 1960 and 1993, or Roberto Clemente’s wonderful performance throughout the 1971 Series, capped by his home run in Game 7. Most popular among the players surveyed: the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Others were less heroic than absurd: Disco Demolition Night, for example. ESPN.com writer Jim Caple chose the perfect game thrown by Red Sox pitcher Ernie Shore, who relieved starter Babe Ruth after the Bambino walked the leadoff batter, argued the call, was thrown out of the game, and proceeded to slug the umpire.
Remarkably, ESPN didn’t ask me to nominate the three games that I would most like to go back in time to see, namely: (in reverse order)
3. October 10, 1926: New York Yankees vs. St. Louis Cardinals (Game Seven of the World Series)
Another game involving a less than transcendent moment for the greatest player in baseball history: as far as I know, this is the only World Series Game 7 to be decided on a caught stealing, when Cardinal catcher Bob O’Farrell gunned down Babe Ruth, inexplicably trying to steal second with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning of a one-run game with Yankee clean-up hitter Bob Meusel at bat. (Ruth had swiped second off the same Cardinal battery the day before, but still…)
But what I’d really want to see happened two innings earlier, after the Yankees, down 3-2, had loaded the bases with two outs in the 7th. Cardinal second baseman/manager Rogers Hornsby decided to yank starter Jesse Haines (winner of Game 3, with a 1.08 ERA for the series; the next year he went 24-10 with a league-leading six shutouts). Hornsby handed the ball to a man who would eventually join him in the Hall of Fame: thirty-nine year old Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, cast off by the Chicago Cubs earlier in the year and nearing the end of a career marked by 373 wins and an ERA of 2.56 (35% better than the average pitcher during that time). Alexander had already pitched complete game victories in Game 2 and (the day before) in Game 6. According to legend, Alexander had partied hardy, assuming he was done for the Series, and was profoundly hung over as he took the mound to face another future Hall of Famer, Yankees phenom Tony Lazzeri (10th place in the MVP voting as a rookie). With the count 1-1, Lazzeri pulled a high drive down the left field line that curved foul at the last moment. Alexander calmly proceeded to strike him out on a fastball. Alexander made the 3-2 score hold up for two more innings, Ruth’s caught stealing giving him an unlikely save.
Now, Lazzeri had twenty more K’s in 1926 than the second most strikeout-prone AL batter: his teammate Ruth. But Alexander was at this point a shell of his formerly dominant self, averaging barely 2 strikeouts per nine innings during the year. A tragic figure in baseball whose alcoholism was exacerbated by the shell shock he suffered fighting in World War I, Alexander’s performance in Game 7 of the ’26 series is one of the more amazing, even moving in baseball history.
2. Early November 1934: Satchel Paige et al. vs. Dizzy Dean et al. (California Winter League game)
Pete Alexander went on to manage the barnstorming team put together by the House of David, a religious commune. In 1934 his most famous player was Satchel Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, though unable to play in the majors until he joined the Cleveland Indians the year after his one-time teammate Jackie Robinson integrated the majors.
That fall Paige was playing in California with fellow Negro League stars like Cool Papa Bell when his team faced one led by Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean, a month removed from having shut out the Detroit Tigers in another Cardinals Game 7 victory. (Paige and Dean had dueled weeks before in Cleveland, Paige defeating a Dean-led minor league team.) The California game was heavily promoted and filled Hollywood’s Wrigley Field (a kind of miniature version of the one in Chicago, later known for hosting Home Run Derby on TV). The capacity crowd watched for inning after inning as (in the words of Paige biographer Mark Ribowsky) “these two gawky emus with fractured tongues took turns humiliating the hitters and gleefully ragging on each other” (Don’t Look Back, p. 120).
Part of the joy of seeing this game would be the sheer entertainment value of watching two pitchers that another Paige biographer called “alter egos… underfed, loose-jointed boys from Dixie whose down-home demeanor belied the sagacity of a Rhodes scholar and the cunning of a corporate titan” (Larry Tye, Satchel, p. 91). But the pitching was pretty amazing, too. Dean struck out fifteen before losing 1-0 in the thirteenth, with winner Paige ringing up seventeen Ks himself, in one inning striking out three straight major league players on a total of nine pitches. No reporters were present, but Bill Veeck was. At the time a twenty year old college dropout, the iconoclastic pioneer who later hired Paige as owner of the Cleveland Indians called the 1934 Dean-Paige clash “the greatest pitchers’ battle I have ever seen.”
It apparently made quite an impact on the Arkansas-born Dean himself. Years later, he wrote in the Chicago Tribune that, having seen Lefty Grove, Pete Alexander, and other white stars,
I know who’s the best pitcher I ever seen and it’s old Satchel Paige, that big lanky colored boy. Say, Old Diz is pretty fast… and you know my fast ball looks like a change of pace alongside that little bullet old Satchel shoots up to the plate….
He sure is a pistol. It’s too bad those colored boys don’t play in the big leagues because they sure got some great ball players. Anyway, that skinny old Satchel Paige with those long arms is my idea of the pitcher with the greatest stuff I ever saw.
1. October 26, 1991: Atlanta Braves vs. Minnesota Twins (Game Six of the World Series)
If the 1-0, ten-inning Twins victory the following night is the better game in the best World Series ever played, then the game when Kirby Puckett put the Twins “on his back” is the one that I would pay just about any sum of money to go back in time to see.
In part because my brother Jon got to attend it while I went to the only home game the Twins lost that postseason (an ALCS loss to the Toronto Blue Jays), and I’m obviously the bigger baseball fan and more deserving of having experienced the excitement of that night.
But more because Kirby Puckett was far and away my favorite player growing up. So I gasped when a pitch got away from Dennis Martinez on Sept. 28, 1995 and broke Kirby’s jaw, in what turned out to be his last career at-bat. I wept the next year when Kirby announced his retirement — glaucoma had left him blind in the right eye that helped him become only the second player in major league history to record 2000 hits in his first ten calendar seasons. I cringed when allegations of domestic violence and marital infidelity came to light. I woke up at 3am on Aug. 5, 2001 in order to drive six hours to Cooperstown, New York, grab a seat close to the stage, and watch a terribly overweight Kirby be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I mourned when he died on March 6, 2006, at age 45.
Six days later I joined 15,000 other Twins fans in braving a late winter snow to pay tribute to Kirby’s memory in a ceremony at the Metrodome, that terrible, terrible ballpark where — in that great, great Game Six performance — he opened the scoring with an RBI triple in the 1st, robbed Ron Gant of extra bases in the 3rd with a perfectly timed jump and catch against the left-center fence, hit a sacrifice fly to give the Twins another lead in the 5th, singled and stole a base in the 8th, and then homered off Charlie Leibrandt in the bottom of the 11th.
There have been better single-game performances in the history of baseball, but none that I’d so desperately love to see again — to forget, if only for a moment or two, all that happened in the last decade of his life, and to remember what I knew as a child: that baseball is the best game invented, and that no one has ever played it with as much joy as Kirby Puckett.