October 2016

Atlanta’s 1991 World Series Postscript

jack-morris

The Atlanta Braves had an epic showdown with the Minnesota Twins in the 1991 World Series. Two teams that went from worst to first clashed in what is widely regarded as one of the best Fall Classics in baseball history. It was high theater in October, with five of the seven games decided by one run. In short, it was magic.

The Game 7 match-up between Atlanta’s John Smoltz and his boyhood idol Jack Morris is the stuff of legend, steeped in nostalgia with a twinge of pain for Braves fans who still wish that game — and that series — had a different outcome. Smoltz and Morris went toe-to-toe, trading zeroes until the Braves starter departed with one out in the eighth inning. Minnesota got 10 innings of shut-out ball from Morris, whose performance that night helped the Twins win the series and may eventually help the durable right-hander find a place in Cooperstown alongside Smoltz.

Flash forward to 1992 and the Braves were back in October. And so was Morris.

The Detroit Tigers ace for 14 seasons before joining Minnesota in 1991, Morris had traded in his Twins pinstripes for the blue and white of the Toronto Blue Jays. Once again, Morris played a major role in getting his team to October, winning a career-high 21 games while logging over 250 innings (including the playoffs). One can only imagine that the Braves spent at least some small portion of the previous winter hoping to get another crack at Morris on baseball’s grandest stage.

As it turned out, Atlanta got just that.

The 1992 World Series would not be the stuff of legend or anything resembling a sequel to the previous year’s dramatics. Atlanta may have already cashed in its allotted miracle in order to win the NLCS on a slow-footed first baseman’s mad dash in Game 7. Still, the improbable comeback that was capped by Sid Bream’s slide had the Atlanta faithful hoping for redemption in the Fall of 1992.

Staring them down from 60-feet, six-inches away in Game 1 was Morris. Let’s think about that fact for a moment. What were the odds that the pitcher who vanquished the Braves just 12 months prior would be the first to greet them in the next Fall Classic?

Irony? Coincidence? You be the judge.

Morris spun shut-out ball into the sixth inning, running his World Series scoreless streak against Atlanta to 18-2/3 innings. Damon Berryhill put an end to that with a three-run homer that sent the Braves to a 3-1 win over the Blue Jays to open the series. Atlanta finally had its World Series victory over Jack Morris, albeit nearly one year too late. As it turned out, it did little to stop Toronto, which won the ensuing three games to take a commanding 3-1 lead in Game 5.

Facing elimination, the Braves drew Morris in what appeared to be some cruel twist of fate. Could he be the man to send them home for the second consecutive season? As if that was not enough, this was a rematch of the Smoltz/Morris showdown that closed 1991.

Locked in a 2-2 tie into the fifth inning, Atlanta got still more recompense from its October nemesis. Smoltz did his part with six innings of two-run ball, but it was Lonnie Smith, maligned by fans for his base-running gaffe in Game 7 of the ’91 series which helped perpetuate Morris’ legend, who finally got his measure of revenge. Smith belted a grand slam that highlighted a 7-2 Braves victory and pushed the series back to Atlanta. There it would end in bitter fashion a night later, as the Blue Jays celebrated their first of back-to-back world championships.

Morris was tagged with both Toronto losses in the 1992 World Series, yielding 10 earned runs in 10.2 IP after he had allowed just three runs across three starts and 23 IP in beating Atlanta twice for Minnesota the previous October.

The chance meeting with Morris in 1992 could simply be one subplot in a series of unfortunate events for Atlanta, which had to wait another three seasons before finally winning its world championship. However, the success against Morris just one year after his triumph in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series is a curious footnote when reflecting on the early days of a golden age for Braves baseball.

Baseball Miscellany for 10/13/16

cubs-world-series-1908

This October has been everything a baseball fan could ask for thus far. Well, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams already heading home for the winter. More to the point, we’ve seen plenty of postseason drama. We’ve also been seeing the lists popping up all over the place now that the Chicago Cubs have advanced to the NLCS. There is no shortage of fun facts about the last time the Cubs won the World Series. After all, much has happened since 1908.

Some of my favorites:

  • The United States was comprised of only 46 states
  • Sliced bread would not be sold is stores for another 20 years
  • The Eiffel Tower (984 feet) was still the world’s tallest building
  • Halley’s comet has passed the earth twice
  •  BONUS: Germane to today’s events, women did not yet have the right to vote

Needless to say, I did a little research on the last time the Cubs appeared in the World Series. The year was 1945 and World War II had come to a close just months prior to the Detroit Tigers besting Chicago in seven games in that year’s Fall Classic.

Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser went the distance in Game 7 as the Tigers closed out the series with a 9-3 victory over the Cubs. It was Newhouser’s second win of the series after getting rocked in a Game 1 defeat. Interestingly enough, when Newhouser was pulled in the third inning of that loss, he was replaced by a right-hander by the name of Al Benton, a man who holds a truly unique place in baseball history.

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Al Benton 1952 Topps

Benton tossed 4.2 innings and allowed just one run in three appearances during the 1945 World Series. A two-time All-Star for the Tigers, Benton paced the American League with 17 saves in 1940. At the time, that was the fourth best single-season save total in baseball history. Of course, the save did not become an official statistic until 1969 (more on that in a bit). All in all, Benton enjoyed an effective 14-year career.

So what makes him so interesting?

Well, on April 18, 1934, a 23-year-old Benton made his major league debut against the New York Yankees. He entered in relief for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics when starter Johnny Marcum could not escape third inning trouble. An inning later, Benton went toe-to-toe with Babe Ruth and got the Yankees legend to ground out to the mound. This was Ruth’s final season with New York.

Eighteen years later, Benton was summoned from the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox as they battled the hated Yankees on July 2, 1952. The 41-year-old came on to face a fellow Oklahoman, a 20-year-old Mickey Mantle, who lined out to Benton in their lone encounter on that day. That made Benton the only pitcher to face both Ruth and Mantle.

In fact, according to Baseball Reference, Benton is also the only man to face the group of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I’m inclined to add Jimmie Foxx to that list, personally. Those men were among 38 Hall of Famers that Benton faced between 1934 and 1952.

More miscellaneous fun with saves:

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Mordecai Brown 1911 T3 Turkey Red

Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown holds a special place in Cubs history. The Hall of Famer enjoyed his success thanks in large part a right hand that was mangled in a farming accident as a kid, costing him part of two fingers. Brown won two of the four games for the Cubs in their 1908 World Series triumph over the Tigers. The Cubs and Tigers met again in 1935 and in that 1945 series, in which Al Benton was a part of Detroit’s championship team.

Did you know, Brown was MLB’s all-time saves leader from 1910-1925? That’s 16 seasons as the record holder, good for a three-way tie as the second longest time any pitcher has ever held the saves record in baseball history.

The rest of the list:

Firpo Marberry (20 years, 1926-1945)
Mordecai Brown (16 years, 1910-1925)
Johnny Murphy (16 years, 1946-1961)
Hoyt Wilhelm (16 years, 1964-1979)
Lee Smith (13 years, 1993-2005)
Rollie Fingers (12 years, 1980-1991)

In case you’re wondering, Mariano Rivera has been the all-time leader since 2011. With 652 career saves, Rivera should surpass all of the aforementioned pitchers in the longevity department when it comes to holding onto that record.