Top 300 Moments that Shaped Major League Baseball: 10-1

by Rocco Constantino | Posted on Saturday, April 2nd, 2016
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10. Roger Maris tops Babe Ruth

In 1961, the American League expanded to 10 teams, generally watering down the pitching and tacking eight more games onto the schedule.  Maris and Mickey Mantle took advantage and clouted home runs at a record pace right from the start of the season.  As the season progressed, Maris and Mantle were each on pace to pass Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs.  While an injury curtailed Mantle’s chase, Maris continued on, slugging homers consistently throughout the rest of the season.  He tied Ruth with a home run off Jack Fisher in game 159 and then finally passed Ruth with a fourth inning homer off Tracy Stallard of the Boston Red Sox in the final game of the season.


9. Marvin Miller battles the Reserve Clause

One could make a case that Miller is the most influential non-player in the game’s history.  When he challenged the reserve clause 1974, he invariably opened the door to the age of free agency and exorbitant salaries.  Miller encouraged Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out their existing contracts and then would go to arbitration in order to become free agents.  Miller contended that the two pitchers had fulfilled their contractual obligations and that they should be free to sign with any team they’d like.  Arbitrator Peter Seitz agreed and declared that if a player played one year for a team without signing a contract, they would become a free agent.  This effectively ended the reserve clause, which basically obligated a player to play for the team he signed with unless he was released or traded.  In addition to fighting a reserve clause that had been in place for decades, Miller also educated players on a number of labor principles and helped drive salaries up exponentially over his time as the Executive Director of the MLBPA.


8. Joe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak

Most impressive baseball feats deal with compilation of a large number of statistics over time (home runs, hits, wins, etc.) or truly remarkable season (Barry Bonds 73 home runs, Ted Williams .406 season) but DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is unique in the fact that it is a feat of remarkable consistency over a long period of time.  DiMaggio had a hit every game for nearly two months and in 1941 and nobody has really approached that number since.  His streak is so remarkable that even when somebody gets halfway there, it draws tremendous attention.  When Pete Rose hit in 44 straight games in 1978, he was still about two weeks away, but the media attention and pressure grew exponentially each passing day.  The immortal Yankee hit .408 over the streak with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs.  Since 2009, only two players have had 30-game hitting streaks.  The way the game is played these days, with specialized relievers and infield shifts, it would take an even bigger effort to top DiMaggio.   The streak is one of the most iconic records in a sport that celebrates it’s records and history like no other.


7. Lou Gehrig‘s “Luckiest man” speech

On July 4, 1939 Gehrig gave one of the most famous and emotional speeches not just in sports history, but in American history in general.  Earlier in the year, with his health failing, Gehrig sat out of the Yankees lineup for the first time in 2,131 games and soon after, he was unable to take the field at all.  When it became evident that he was facing a crippling disease with no cure, Gehrig was forced to retire from the game abruptly.  The speech was short, and a sullen Gehrig did his best to talk about the great things he was grateful for in his life.  But the underlying message was there.  The Gehrig that had become a hero to baseball fans everywhere was terminally sick and there was nothing that could be done.  Gehrig’s quote about being “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” was in direct contrast to what everyone else in the building had felt about him.  How could someone so strong and so revered be facing a disease like this and still consider himself lucky and happy?  As Gehrig’s disease progressed, his public appearances became more rare.  Less than two years after the speech, Gehrig died of the disease that now bears his name.


6. New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers move to California

In the early part of the 20th century, Major League teams and players were much more than sports teams to root for.  They were ingrained in the communities and the people who lived in those neighborhoods got to know a lot of the players.  Some of the players even worked in the offseason in the areas near the stadiums.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in New York City, where the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers each were such a major part of the communities they called home.  There was so much pride in the community and fans of those teams were as passionate as any fans for any sport at any time in America.  The fact that those teams would one day not be located in New York was incomprehensible.  However, falling profits and low attendance during the Dodgers’ most successful time in Brooklyn forced Walter O’Malley to look elsewhere to rejuvenate his franchise.  O’Malley got together with Giants owner Horace Stoneham to explore moving their teams to California.  The Giants actually ended up agreeing first to move to California, and the Dodgers weren’t far behind.  As the 1957 season drew to a close, small crowds of just a few thousand people watched the Giants and Dodgers close the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field and baseball expanded past the midwest for the first time.


5. Ban Johnson organizes the American League

In the 1800s, National League baseball was littered with biased umpires, dirty players, drinking, gambling and allegations of game-fixing.  Ban Johnson wanted to offer a clean and more organized alternative to the National League, so he used a reorganization of the existing Western League to create the modern American League.  The teams that have roots all the way back to the Western League are the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins.  Johnson’s brand of entertaining, cleaned-up baseball was a hit from the start.  Most team owners turned a profit immediately.  He began attracting the attention of some of the National League’s stars and by 1901, was declared part of the Major Leagues.  The Black Sox Scandal ultimately did in Ban Johnson, but his vision for better structure and more integrity laid the groundwork for the modern structure the game still has today.

4. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

One of the truly great home runs in the history of the game, Bobby Thomson‘s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is an easy choice for one of the top on-field moments in the game’s history.  In 1951, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers battled all summer long for the National League pennant.  The Dodgers had built a 12 1/2 game lead over the Giants on August 10, but the Giants chipped away.  When the final game of the season as played, the two teams were in a dead tie for first place.  Rules stated that they would play a three=game playoff to determine who got to play the Yankees in the World Series.  The two teams split the first two games, setting up the ultimate dramatic game to get to the World Series.  The game was scoreless into the seventh, when the Giants pushed across the first run.  The Dodgers answered with three runs in the top of the eighth and took a 4-1 lead to the bottom of the ninth.  The Giants pushed one run across against Dodgers starter Don Newcombe and then Ralph Branca was brought on in relief to face Thomson with two runners on.  Thomson turned on a high, inside fastball and deposited it into the left field seats for a walk off win to send the Giants to the World Series.  It set off a mad celebration all over the infield and some wild calls by announcers who were at the game.  The fact that the Giants fell to the Yankees in the World Series after that does nothing to diminish the fact that Thomson’s home run is on the short list of the greatest on-field moments the game has ever seen.


3. Hank Aaron passes Babe Ruth

None of the great home run hitters of the 20th century could approach Babe Ruth.  Players like Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams fell short, for a number of different reasons.  It was going to take a special player to pass Ruth if anybody could at all.  Someone dynamic and consistent and someone who could handle pressure with the coolest demeanor on the diamond.  Aaron couldn’t be a more perfect candidate.  The former Negro League star broke into the bigs in 1954 at the age of 20 and showed remarkable consistency right away.  He had the staying power too.  From 1957-1973, Aaron averaged 38 home runs a year and only hit more than 45 one time.  As the 1973 season progressed on, it seemed like Aaron had a real shot to catch Ruth.  However, he fell short and had to wait until the start of the 1974 season.  Fans didn’t have to wait long as Aaron homered to left off of Al Downing on April 8 to finally surpass the biggest icon in the sport’s history to hold the game’s most cherished record.


2. Jackie Robinson integrates the game

Sports are at their best when events or players not only make an impact in their own world, but can cross over and make an impact in society as well.  For as great as Major League Baseball history is, one of the real dark spots on the game is the fact that the game remained segregated for five decades.  It’s incomprehensible to think that black men were allowed to fight in World War I and World War II, but were not allowed to play Major League Baseball during those times.  That all changed when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to become a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Robinson made his debut in 1947 and showed that black ballplayers not only had the skills to excel on the highest level (something that really wasn’t a question), but also had the resolve to stand up to the hate shown by fans, players and executives who still remained racist despite integration.  Robinson’s legacy is well-known and the way he carried himself proves that Rickey was correct in choosing the right man to integrate the game, years before the Civil Rights movement in America.


1. Babe Ruth sold to the Yankees

After a long road and with the 2016 Major League Baseball season upon us, we reach the top of the countdown.  When the Boston Red Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees, it set in motion so many events that changed the course of the game’s history in so many ways.  Ruth was able to go to the Yankees, who then fully took him off the mound and put him in the outfield.  That led the way for Ruth to revolutionize the game with his home run power.  Ruth’s power was enough, but coupled with the short porch in right field, it made for the perfect setting for the man to become bigger than life.  Ruth and his home runs almost single-handedly brought baseball out of the Dead Ball Era and led it through the offensive explosion that soon followed.  He’s the biggest icon in the history of the game and his sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees revolutionized and popularized the sport to incredible levels.

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Rocco Constantino
About the Author

Rocco is the author of 50 Moments That Defined Major League Baseball (Available on Amazon now!) and former Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He is also a die hard Mets fan going back to the awful early 80's and ready for the revival. D2 NCAA softball coach and athletics administrator. Follow Rocco on Twitter @mlb100years.

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