Walk Off! (1924 Edition)

Walter Johnson Walter Johnson

You must watch this….

A thing of rare beauty, it is.

The Library of Congress recently discovered in its film archives a near pristine reel of nitrate footage of the Washington Senators’ come-from-behind, walk off win against the New York Giants in the 1924 World Series.

That series went down to the wire, four games to three, with the great Senators’ pitcher Walter Johnson pitching the final four innings. Though not without drama. Johnson gave up a triple to Frankie (“The Fordham Flash”) Frisch” in the ninth, as the footage shows, but the Giants were unable to bring him home.

This ’24 series was historic on any number of levels. It marked the last appearance of Giants’ manager John (“Little Napoleon”) McGraw in the World Series. McGraw, you may know, was the Giants’ manager in 1904 who scrubbed that years’ World Series because he refused to compete against the upstart American League—believing his National League was the one true “major” league. It was McGraw who tutored the great Christy Matthewson to stratospheric heights as the majors’ greatest and most beloved dead-ball era pitcher.

Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

The ’24 series was the first World Series for the hapless Washington Senators, and the franchise’s only victory until its successor, the Minnesota Twins, won in 1987. Just as important, it was the 36-year-old Walter Johnson’s only World Series berth. His relief outing in the seventh game saved what otherwise would have been a squalid World Series for the Big Train, who had won his second Most Valuable Player award for his 1924 regular-season comeback campaign.

But then he fizzled. Johnson lost games one and five in the ’24 World Series, and was unavailable to start game seven. He was, however, brought in on short rest for the ninth inning in the final game with the score tied. The Train held the Giants scoreless through the 12th, long enough for Earl McNeely to single in the winning run for the Senators. Johnson was awarded the victory for his efforts, embedding him in World Series lore.

The footage neither shows nor references it—in fact, the film’s editors apparently don’t know at all—but this game featured one of the strangest and wiliest bait-and-switch ruses in World Series history.

Senators’ manager Bucky Harris—also a player who homered in this game—made the odd choice of starting an untested young pitcher named Curly Ogden against McGraw’s vaunted Giants lineup in the seventh and deciding game. This choice pushed McGraw into settling on a lineup favorable against a right-handed pitcher. For instance, the great Bill Terry—who at that point in his career struggled against left-handers—was put in the power-hitting fifth slot in anticipation of big success against the peach-fuzzed righty.

Ogden—who goes unreferenced in the newsreel footage—faced just two batters and was supposed to face just one. He nearly blew up Harris’ plan by striking out the first hitter. However, he walked the second, allowing Harris to yank Ogden in favor of veteran left-hander George Mogridge. That scrambled McGraw’s plans to beat up on the inexperienced kid, Ogden. The Little Napoleon was forced to yank Terry from the lineup altogether after two failed at-bats. His replacement, Irish Muesel, drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the Giants’ three-run sixth inning that put McGraw’s gang up by two runs.

This great blog post by William Juliano tells the rest of the story:

Although it still took a late game comeback and a heroic relief outing from the tired Johnson, Harris’ plan was widely credited with helping to steer the Senators to victory (his .333/.353/.515 line in 34 PAs and HR in game 7 probably didn’t hurt). By taking the bold stroke, Harris was essentially able to control McGraw’s use of the dangerous Terry, who had an OPS of 1.315 in the series. After watching Terry make two weak outs against the lefty Mogridge, the Giants’ skipper eventually relented and sent Irish Meusel to the plate in the sixth inning. Ready for the scenario, Harris responded with his relief ace [Firpo] Marberry, who—if not for two errors—would have escaped from the sixth largely unscathed.

All told, the right-handed tandem of Marberry and Johnson pitched seven innings without surrendering an earned run, so it’s only natural to wonder what might have been for the Giants if the potent left-handed bat of Terry wasn’t removed so soon.

Juliano speculates that his bizarre machinations might’ve made Bucky Harris baseball’s proto-sabermatrician.

Ain’t baseball grand?

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