Top 300 Moments that Shaped Major League Baseball: 30-21
21. The Bill Buckner Game
It’s not hyperbole to say that it took an absolute miracle for the New York Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The game was tied 2-2 going to the seventh when the Boston Red Sox pulled ahead by one. The Mets tied the game in the bottom of the eighth on a single, two bunts and a sacrifice fly and then game went to the fateful tenth inning. The Red Sox scored two runs to take a 5-3 lead and when the first two Mets went down meekly in the bottom of the 10th, it seemed there was no chance whatsoever the Mets could rally for two runs to tie, let alone three to win. Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight all singled in succession with two outs to push the first run across and Mitchell came home on a wild pitch to incredibly tie the game. With the wheels completely off the Red Sox wagon at this point, one of the most iconic moments in World Series history happened. The Buckner Play. Knight scored the winning run to set up Game 7 and the Mets scored another come from behind win to capture their second World Series in franchise history.
22. Roberto Clemente dies in a plane crash
Of all the shocking deaths in baseball history, it’s hard to find one more tragic than Clemente’s. One of the game’s greatest all-around players, Clemente had just recorded his 3,000th hit at the end of the 1972 season and played in the 1972 NLCS. Two months later, Clemente accompanied a shipment of earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua to make sure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed and Clemente’s body was never found. Clemente was more than just a great baseball player though. He was the first Latino player to reach 3,000 hits and was a hero to entire countries. He was a trailblazer in the game and one of the great humanitarians.
Of all the improbable moments in baseball history Gibson’s home run against Eckersley ranks right up there as one of the most dramatic. Everyone knows the story by now. The Hall of Famer Eckersley was lethal and at the top of his game. He had given up just five home runs in 72 innings that year. Gibson had injuries to both legs and it’s a wonder why he was even activated for the World Series. With the Los Angeles Dodgers down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth and a runner on base, Tommy Lasorda sent Gibson up in a last ditch effort to catch lightning in a bottle. As we all know, it worked and Gibson’s hobbled trip around the bases and his fist pump around second base was imitated by kids on ball fields for nearly three decades. The underdog Dodgers went on to win the World Series as the Oakland A’s never recovered from that loss.
24. George Steinbrenner buys the New York Yankees
During his press conference announcing his purchase of the Yankees, Steinbrenner vowed to be a “hands off” owner who worked only behind the scenes. It may have been the least accurate statement in the history of the game. Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 from CBS for less than $10 million and changed the game forever. He returned the Yankees to prominence in just a few years, sank them by dealing off prospects and overpaying for free agent flops and then oversaw their latest great reincarnation until he passed away on July 13, 2010. Steinbrenner left so many different legacies that it’s impossible to list them all here. For as crazy and overbearing as he was as an owner, he was equally as generous, donating millions of dollars over the years without a hint of press coverage. He was a revolutionary who overcame an indefinite suspension to rise to the top again and changed the game in so many ways for better or worse.
There are many “unbreakable” records from the early part of the 20th century simply because the game was played so different today. Nobody can approach Cy Young’s 511 wins, Old Hoss Radbourn’s 59-win season on the mound is entirely safe and nobody will approach Chief Wilson’s record of 36 triples in a season. One of those records that seemed to be unapproachable was Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak until Ripken did the impossible. On September 6, 1995 Ripken finally passed Gehrig by playing in his 2,131st straight game. The streak started on May 30, 1982 and for 13 years, Ripken played the most physically demanding position aside from catcher without missing a game. In fact, Ripken played an incredible 8,264 straight innings during the course of that streak to establish that record as well. The streak came to an end after 2,632 games and, the way the game is played now, it doesn’t figure to be approached ever again.
26. Bucky Dent‘s one-game playoff home run
162 games couldn’t decide a winner between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978, so the teams needed a one-game playoff to decide who won the American League East. The one-game playoff is considered the pinnacle of the great rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox and, as expected, the teams played a classic game. The Sox took a 2-0 lead on Ron Guidry, who was coming off his historic 24-3 regular season. That lead carried on into the seventh inning when the light-hitting Dent came up to bat with two outs and runners on first and second. Dent, who would hit just 40 home runs over his 12-year career, took a Mike Torrez pitch over the Green Monster for a 3-2 lead. The Yanks carried a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, but the Red Sox rallied for two runs to make it 5-4. The game ended when Goose Gossage got fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski to pop up to third with two runners on to send the Yankees on to the ALCS and eventually to the World Series.
27. 1969 expansion forces the creation of divisions, ALCS and NLCS
For nearly 70 years, the structure of Major League Baseball was pretty similar. There was the American League and National League and the winners of the two leagues met in the World Series. The format stayed that way even after expansion in 1962, but when four more teams were added in 1969, changes needed to be made. MLB voted to add teams in Kansas City, San Diego, Montreal and Seattle and then divided each league into two divisions. Along with the two divisions, MLB added an additional round of the playoffs before the World Series. The structure stayed that way for the next 35 years.
28. The 1998 home run chase
Looking back now, the 1998 home run chase was a fraudulent part of history, brought on by excessive steroid use by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the two players chasing Roger Maris. However, at the time, it captivated the country and rejuvenated the sport, which was still reeling from the 1994 strike. McGwire and Sosa tore through the summer, each one outdoing the other as they both raced towards Maris’ record of 61 home runs that had stood for 37 years. With the suspense at incredible heights, McGwire was the first to pass Maris when he victimized Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs on September 8. Sosa passed Maris five days later when he hit his 62nd home run against Eric Plunk of the Milwaukee Brewers. When all was said and done, McGwire ended up with 70 homers, as he hit four over the final two games and Sosa ended with 66.
29. Babe Ruth’s called shot
Over 80 years later, the debate still rages on. Did Ruth really call his shot in the 1932 World Series or not? Fans all know the legend. After Charlie Root got the first two strikes on Rose, he clearly gestures directly towards Root. Or was he gesturing towards centerfield? Either way, the next pitch went out past the flag pole over 440 feet away. Ruth rounded the bases, taunting the Cubs along the way. Nothing much was made about his “called shot” at the time, but a story in the New York News-Telegram by reporter Joe Williams claimed that Ruth called the home run much like someone calling a shot in pool. From there, Ruth ran with the story. He first claimed to just be pointing towards the Cubs bench, but then when the story gained momentum, Ruth went along. Pat Piper, the Cubs P.A. announcer that day vehemently supports Ruth’s claim of calling his shot, as did Lou Gehrig. Root, the Cubs pitcher always denied he called it but his Hall of Fame catcher, Gabby Hartnett, who was the closest person to Ruth, said he did call it. Either way, it’s one of the great iconic moments of Ruth’s immortal career.
30. Sports Illustrated’s steroids in baseball article
“At first I felt like a cheater, but I looked around and everyone was doing it.” Those words were spoken by Ken Caminiti about his steroid use and printed on the cover of the June 3, 2002 Sports Illustrated, one of the most important articles ever written in the magazine. The article, written by Tom Verducci was the first time concrete evidence and first-hand comments were given about the rampant steroid use in baseball. Sure, most people knew it was going on, but this was the first glimpse inside the game to see just how widespread it was. The article predated the Mitchell Report and Jose Canseco’s book by years and was the very first step in opening everyone’s eyes to just how big of a problem it was in the game.
Coming tomorrow: Top 300 Moments the Shaped Major League Baseball 20-11.
For a more in depth look at some of these moments, as well as interviews with 50 former Major League players, you can read Constantino’s book 50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball.