World Series Relief: Deja Vu All Over Again

Madison Bumgarner and Walter Johnson have more in common than it appears. (via Dirk Hansen)

Madison Bumgarner and Walter Johnson have more in common than it appears. (via Dirk Hansen)

Madison Bumgarner’s Game Seven performance this year probably will be remembered a century from now as one of the most impressive Fall Classic pitching feats. And that would be fitting, because the southpaw’s five-inning save brings to mind similar Game Seven heroics nearly a century ago, from one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Walter Johnson. As fate would have it, the Giants were involved in both matchups.

Ninety years ago, the Giants–then based in New York–were locked in a taut battle for the 1924 World Series championship with the Washington Senators. The teams split the first six games, and thanks to a coin toss, the Senators hosted the seventh and deciding game at old Griffith Stadium. Like this year’s Giants team, the ’24 Giants had plenty of recent postseason experience, having won the World Series in two of the past three seasons. The Senators, meanwhile, were playing in their first World Series.

In the final game, New York took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, but the Senators rallied to tie the score, sending the crowd into a tizzy. Play had to be stopped for several minutes as fans threw hats, coats, confetti and thousands of little pieces of newspapers on the field.

The octave level remained at 11 in the top of the ninth inning as the Senators summoned Johnson, their star pitcher, from the bullpen. Like Bumgarner, Johnson came in to relieve after starting Game Five. But because there were no off days in the ’24 World Series, Johnson came in on a single day’s rest, compared to two days’ rest for Bumgarner.

And while Giants fans this year could be confident they were getting a dominant postseason performer, Senators fans didn’t really know what they could expect from Johnson in Game Seven. Bumgarner, 25, had won his first two World Series starts, giving up just one run, while Johnson, 36, had lost his first two starts, getting shelled for 10 runs (eight earned). After his second loss, at New York’s Polo Grounds, The New York Times wrote this sad tribute to the future Hall-of-Famer:

Giant bats penned one of the saddest stories ever known to baseball yesterday. After the name of Walter Johnson they wrote “finis,” for it was Johnson, before the second greatest crowd of the series, who tried again and failed again. When Johnson’s own world’s series finally came along he couldn’t win a single game … Even for 52,000 New Yorkers it was a tragic affair and Johnson the most tragic figure that ever stalked through a world’s series.

Although he was in the twilight of his career, Johnson had put together a sensational regular season, leading the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts. That made his World Series performance–the first of his career–all the more puzzling. After losing Game Five, Johnson said he probably wouldn’t come back the next season, and with no scheduled starts left, it looked like he’d go out as a two-time World Series loser.

But now Johnson had a chance for redemption. Washington’s 27-year-old player-manager, Bucky Harris, later would say that the decision was an easy one: “Walter was my best bet. That’s why I put him in. Anyone who thought Walter was through was a fool. I knew he was all right.”

Johnson, who entered a tie game in the ninth, and Bumgarner, who came in the fifth inning protecting a one-run lead, both got into trouble quickly. Bumgarner surrendered a leadoff hit to Omar Infante, who moved to second on a sacrifice, but was stranded there.

Johnson got into a bigger mess. He was on the verge of losing a third World Series game after surrendering a one-out triple to Frankie Frisch. Following an intentional walk, Johnson struck out George Kelly, who had led the National League in RBIs that season, and retired the side on a groundout.

From then on, the two men’s pitching performances diverged. Following the leadoff hit, Bumgarner breezed through the Royals, retiring the next 14 consecutive hitters until a two-out single by Alex Gordon in the bottom of the ninth inning. That ball skipped past center fielder Gregor Blanco and Gordon raced to third, but Bumgarner stranded him there for San Francisco’s third championship in five years.

Back at Griffith Stadium, Johnson had reclaimed his good stuff, but his outing was far more dramatic and stressful for Senators fans, as the game went into extra innings.

In the 10th, he walked the leadoff man but then got a strikeout and double play. In the 11th, the Giants got a runner to second base, but Johnson struck out Frisch and Kelly to extinguish the rally. In the 12th, Johnson allowed the leadoff man to reach for the third straight inning, but he again escaped without any damage.

Johnson had pitched four scoreless innings two days after throwing eight innings. In the bottom of the 12th, Johnson even got involved as a hitter. With Muddy Ruel on second base and one out, Johnson hit a ground ball and reached on an error by the shortstop. Ruel stayed put at second base. Earl McNeely followed with a ground ball that hit a pebble and bounced over the third baseman’s head, proving to many that Washington was a team of destiny. Ruel came home with the winning run and Washington’s only World Series championship.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

From statistical standpoint, Bumgarner eclipsed the Big Train, pitching an extra inning and giving up fewer base runners. Here are the lines for the two pitchers:

Johnson: 4 IP, 3 hits, 3 walks, 0 runs, 5 strikeouts
Bumgarner: 5 IP, 2 hits, 0 walks, 0 runs, 4 strikeouts

But Johnson, 11 years older than Bumgarner, was facing a Giants lineup stocked with future Hall-of-Famers, such as Frisch, Kelly, Hack Wilson and Travis Jackson. New York had hit a baseball-best .300 in the regular season. And Johnson was pitching on shorter rest than Bumgarner.

Still, Bumgarner had a far more dominant Game Seven performance, and at 25 he’s already pitched in three World Series–more than Johnson did in his entire career–with many years left to add to that postseason resume.

After the ’24 Series, Johnson got to pitch in one more Fall Classic, the very next season, and it would prove to be the mirror-image of his victorious World Series debut. In the 1925 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Johnson won his first two starts, surrendering just one run in two complete games. But in the seventh and deciding game, he was rocked for nine runs (five earned) on 15 hits in eight innings in muddy conditions, and the Senators lost, 9-7. Johnson pitched two more seasons after that but never in another World Series.

Nobody expects Bumgarner to come close to having a career as good as Johnson, who finished with a 2.17 ERA, 3,509 strikeouts and a ridiculous 110 shutouts. But their Game Seven performances nine decades apart already have linked them in history.

Frederic J. Frommer is the author of four books on baseball, including You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions. Follow him on Twitter @ffrommer.
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Nice article! Thanks!