A while back I wrote an article entitled “The Biggest Play in MLB History”, and as a result of that piece I learned of Rany Jazayerli’s earlier, and even more comprehensive, study called “The 15 Biggest Plays in Baseball History”, published on the dearly-departed Grantland site back in October 2015.
Since then, another play has moved into this pantheon – Rajai Davis’s two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series – which lifted the Indians’ championship chances from 14% to 53%, making it the third biggest play in baseball history (ahead of Mazeroski’s HR) and, sadly for Rajai and the Tribe, the biggest play ever by a player on a team that didn’t win the series.
Both Jazayerli and I used the same approach – look for large Win Probability Added plays in critical World Series games, by searching the treasure trove that is baseball-reference.com. However, that approach can miss some crucial moments: the “plays within a play” that may not be reflected in the change in Win Expectancy Added stats that are compiled based on the game states immediately before a play begins and after it ends. It’s difficult to envisage a systematic approach to uncovering these gems, but I recently discovered one that certainly deserves more attention than history has provided.
The setting is Forbes Field on October 13, 1960 – the seventh game of that epic World Series between the Pirates and the Yankees, most famous for being the only winner-take-all Fall Classic matchup to end on a walk-off home run. Mazeroski certainly deserves every bit of the glory heaped upon him due to his mythic blast, including its role in elevating him to Hall of Fame status. And the game itself is almost certainly the greatest single game in the history of baseball, when one considers the stakes and the dramatic swings of fortune that took place that fateful afternoon. Maybe one day I’ll write an article that will be called “… And Then You Never Would Have Heard of Mazeroski” to illustrate the numerous twists in this game that might have robbed him of his greatest moment. Regardless, Jazayerli and I agree with Jim Reisler, who wrote an entire book just about this game and called it “The Best Game Ever”.
In fact, in Jazayerli’s list of greatest plays ever, he includes not only Mazeroski, but also our agreed-upon biggest play in MLB history (Hal Smith’s eighth-inning three-run shot) and Yogi Berra’s sixth-inning three-run homer (which, until Rajai’s homer last year, was the biggest play ever by a player on a losing team). But missing from both of our lists is a play that lasted only seconds, during which so much happened it will take the rest of this article to unpack.
We join the action in the top of the ninth inning. Smith’s homer in the bottom of the eighth vaulted Pittsburgh from a 7-6 deficit to a 9-7 lead, and punctuated an inning that might have ended with the Yankees ahead 7-4, had a double-play grounder not miraculously changed direction and hit Tony Kubek in the throat. Bob Friend came on to start the ninth with the task of closing out Pittsburgh’s first World Series championship since their 1925 win over the Senators, and was greeted by consecutive singles by Bobby Richardson and Dale Long.
With the tying run aboard, Danny Murtaugh lifts Friend in favor of Harvey Haddix (another immortal name, famous for having pitched 12 perfect innings in Milwaukee the previous May before losing 1-0, in arguably the best single-game pitching performance ever). And while this game would end in the happiest possible outcome for winning pitcher Haddix and his teammates, it certainly ranks as one the greatest “vulture wins” ever.
Haddix gets the ever-dangerous Maris to pop out to Hal Smith. But Mickey Mantle then scorches one over Mazeroski’s head into right field. Richardson gets a great read and flies around third to narrow the margin to one run. Long appears destined to stop at second, but Clemente boots the ball and Long scurries to third. The box score shows no errors for the Pirates, but Clemente’s misplay certainly qualifies, and will factor into the ensuing drama. Berra steps to the plate and after ball one, Stengel opts to pinch-run for Long with Gil McDougald. The count goes 2-0.
The play description field in baseball-reference.com reads flatly, but somewhat cryptically, “Groundout: 1B unassisted; McDougald Scores; Mantle stays at 1B”. Game Seven of the World Series is now tied in the ninth inning. The Pirates’ Win Expectancy drops by only 6%, making the play unremarkable in the statistical approach that Jazayerli and I used to identify remarkable plays. About three seconds elapsed between Berra putting the ball in play and time being called at the end of it. What’s so special? Why write an entire article about this?
Let’s break down what happened in ultra-slow motion. Berra hits the ball sharply, directly toward first base. If this ball eludes Nelson and continues into right field, it’s likely that the game would be tied with the go-ahead run on second, and the Yankees’ win expectancy would stand at 56%. On the other hand, if Nelson picks this as a line drive off his shoe-tops, the resulting unassisted double play would make the Pirates world champions. The risk of this happening freezes Mantle, who is now about ten feet off first toward second. But the ball skips just before reaching Nelson, who appears to make a brilliant backhanded stab right at the bag.
In the only existing film of this game (famously uncovered in a wine cellar that once belonged to Pirates’ part-owner Bing Crosby over 49 years after the event), McDougald is not visible, but presumably streaks plate-ward as soon as it becomes clear that the ball hit the ground before getting to Nelson. Rocky now must choose from multiple options.
He could throw to the plate, hoping to cut down McDougald. This is perhaps the riskiest alternative, because if it fails to stop the run from scoring the Yankees would be tied with two on and one out. Or he could pivot toward second and throw to shortstop Dick Groat, looking for a series-winning 3-6-3 double play. However, upon careful examination of the footage of the event, it appears that in fielding the ball Nelson’s momentum forces him to step on first, making Berra the second out. Mantle is now the potential series-ending out, standing frozen about three yards to Nelson’s right.
And it is at this instant that the approach taken by Jazayerli and me fails us in identifying one of the greatest plays in baseball history. Baseball-reference.com tells us that at the start of this play the Yankees’ chances to win the game and therefore the series were 37%. But what are they at this instant? With McDougald heading home with the tying run and Mantle – the potential series-clinching out – apparently dead to rights?
It’s difficult to assess, and depends in part on what Mantle chooses to do. Almost 57 years later, I now conclude that Mantle made a crucial error in judgment in the split-second he had to think about what I have pondered for hours. The instant that Nelson’s foot touches first, I believe the wise move would have been to start toward second, forcing Nelson to choose between ending the inning with a run-down that results in a tie game, or trying to cut down McDougald after having expended precious milliseconds to step back and touch first.
But Mickey may have seen something we cannot, as instead he chose to execute what clearly, but unquantifiably, ranks as one of the greatest plays in baseball history. As Nelson turns to face his prey, he appears to lean toward right field. He may have lost his balance for a fraction of a second, or maybe Mickey juked him. In any event, Mantle appears to sense an opportunity to keep New York’s hopes alive, as he dives toward the plate-side corner of the first-base bag. He arches his body to avoid the tag and reaches for first with his left hand. Nelson lunges toward Mantle’s back. But he’s too late. Mantle’s hand gets in, umpire Nestor Chylak immediately gives an emphatic safe call, McDougald scores … and Game Seven of the 1960 World Series is tied at 9-9 in the ninth.
At the end of the play the Yankees’ chances of winning the series stood at 43%. To “measure” the value of Mantle’s play requires us to do the impractical, if not the impossible, assess the chances that he could stay alive at least until McDougald touches home. Clearly, this is something above zero, as evidenced by the fact that he did indeed allow the run to score. Just as clearly, the Yankees’ chances to win were much lower in the second or so that passed between Nelson stepping on first and Mantle’s Houdini act.
We will never know precisely how much Mantle helped his team’s chances in that instant. And of course, all this became moot minutes later when Mazeroski achieved immortality. But if the Yankees had gone on to win the game, this extraordinary moment would not have ended up as the forgotten gem it has become. I felt it deserved better.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated that the 1960 World Series was the only championship to end on a walk-off home-run. It is in fact the only World Series Game 7 to end in such a fashion – Joe Carter’s home-run in Game 6 of the 1993 Series gave the championship to the Blue Jays.
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