This Week in Baseball History: Sept. 27-Oct. 3

Four historic moments from three of baseball's best hitters ever.

Sept. 27, 1920 – Shoeless Joe’s Last Game

 

Over 100 years ago, baseball underwent its biggest scandal.

The scheme was unprecedented: A group of gamblers offered a team $100,000 to throw a World Series. For a group of players on the 1919 White Sox, it sounded like a good enough deal to them.

That White Sox team had one of baseball’s highest payrolls at $88,461 ($1.4 million adjusted for inflation). 17 percent ($15,000 or $237,000 in 2021) of that figure went to future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins. Most other White Sox players earned less than half Collins’ salary, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, who received just $6,000 ($95,000 in 2021).

Side note: want to know how good Shoeless Joe was? Babe RuthTy Cobb and Tris Speaker all said he was the best natural batsman that ever lived. Ruth even modeled his own swing after Jackson’s.

Back to the Black Sox scandal.

Considering the minuscule payrolls of that era, especially when compared to today’s salaries, you can see why some players were tempted to throw the World Series. Don’t forget, this deal would give that group of White Sox players more money than the entire team’s payroll!

Much is still unclear about what exactly transpired internally among the White Sox and gamblers, but the result speaks for itself: the White Sox — the heavy favorites to win the championship — lost the World Series in eight games (5-3) to the Reds.

After Game 1, when the Sox lost 9 to 1, the New York Times wrote, “Never before in the history of America’s biggest baseball spectacle has a pennant-winning club received such a disastrous drubbing in an opening game…”

During that October and the year that followed, rumors swirled about a fix. But nothing was done until the very end of the season.

By the end of Sept. 1920, the White Sox were fighting for third pennant is four seasons as they sat just 0.5 games back from Cleveland in the AL. The star hitter on the team was still Shoeless Joe, whose .382/.444/.589 slash line (172 OPS+) was his best performance since 1913.

But around that exact time, Eddie Cicotte, the White Sox starter for Game 1 of the ’19 World Series, came clean.

“Yeah, we were crooked,” Cicotte told White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

“Don’t tell me,” Comiskey replied. “Tell it to the grand jury.”

And so Cicotte did. On Sept. 28, eight White Sox players received indictments for the scandal, including Jackson. Comiskey suspended them all immediately. A year later, the jury acquitted all players of the charges. Nonetheless, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them all from professional baseball.

That meant that on Sept. 27, Jackson and the other indicted players played their final MLB game ever, although none of them quite knew it at the time.

It was a quick contest against the Detroit Tigers, going by in just one hour and six minutes. Offense was sparse, with both teams remaining scoreless through five-and-a-half. Jackson, in his first two ABs, slapped some infield outs. But in his third time up, with runners on first and second, Jackson scorched a line drive to Cobb in left-center.

The Tigers misplayed the ball, allowing both runners to score in what would be the final plate appearance of Jackson’s career.

One day later, Jackson would become an unfortunate pariah in baseball history.

His involvement has been hotly debated over the past century. Supporters of Jackson point to his exceptional performance in the 1919 World Series (.375/.394/.563 with a few key defensive plays) as proof of his innocence. His teammates also acknowledged that although Jackson had been approached about the scheme, he did not attend meetings with the main organizers.

If Jackson ever has his name fully cleared about this scandal, he surely would earn a place in Cooperstown. His .356 batting average is the fourth-highest of all-time. Thanks to a career wRC+ of 165, Jackson earned 60.5 fWAR/62.2 bWAR in just 13 seasons.

What do you think? Does Shoeless Joe deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame or should he remain banned from baseball?

 

Sept. 28, 1941 & 1960 – Ted Williams Reaches .400 & Hits His Final Home Run

 

Let’s move on from one absolutely incredible hitter to another …

19 years after Jackson’s final game, Ted Williams broke onto the scene.

In his very first season, a 20-year-old Williams established himself as one of baseball’s premier hitters (.327/.436/.609 in 677 PAs, 6.6 bWAR, MVP-4).

Two years later in 1941, and Williams was fighting for his first MVP as he chased an illustrious mark: .400.

Since 1900, there had been just 12 seasons where a batter hit .400. The last time that had happened was Bill Terry in 1930.

For the majority of the ’41 season, Williams had performed well above that mark. In fact, his batting average sat below .400 for just 30 games. As late as Sept. 10, Williams was hitting .413.

But in the final couple weeks, the weather turned cold, and so did Williams. From Sept. 12 to 27, he slashed a putrid (by his standards) .268/.464/.561. Entering the final day of the ’41 season on Sept. 28, which was a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, Williams was hitting just .39955. Technically, that would round up to .400. But Williams wanted to rightfully earn the honor.

It is rumored that Red Sox manager Joe Cronin approached Williams and said he could sit the final couple games to preserve his average. Williams rejected the proposal.

“I either make it or I don’t,” Williams said.

Athletics manager, Connie Mack, told his players not to take it easy on Williams.

“Mr. Mack told us if we let up on you he’ll run us out of baseball,” said Athletics catcher Frankie Hayes.

In the first gameDick Fowler took the mound against Williams.

The result of his first AB? A single to right. His average jumped to .40089. What about his second time up? Homer to center. Average: .40222. Third time? Another single to right. .40355. Fourth? A third single to right. .40487.

Finally, in his fifth time to the plate, Williams reached on an error, which lowered his average to .40397.

Even though Williams had cleanly earned a .400 average and the second game of the doubleheader was meaningless as both teams were well out of the pennant race, Williams played again.

How did Williams play? 2-for-3, raising his average all the way to .40570.

 

With six hits in eight at-bats, (“there was not a questionable hit among the group,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer), Williams had reached .400 fair and square.

Little did Williams or anyone else there know, but that would be the last .400 season to this day. The closest anyone has come since then was Tony Gwynn with .394 in 1994.

But wait, there’s more!

Exactly 19 years later, it was Sept. 28 again. Except it was now 1960. Weird how time works, right?

After serving in two wars and slugging over 500 home runs, it was suddenly Teddy Ballgame’s final game. His relationship with the Red Sox management and sports media had soured over time, a sentiment exacerbated by Williams’ uncharacteristic injury-riddled ’59 season (.791 OPS in 331 PAs). But in 1960, the 41-year-old Williams rebounded in a huge way, posting a 1.096 OPS over 390 PAs. Even though Williams could still as good as anyone else in the league, both parties felt as though it was time to move on.

So on Sept. 28, 1960, in the eighth inning of a game between the Red Sox and Orioles, Williams stepped into the batter’s box for the final time to face Jack Fisher. Boston was trailing 4-3, and so far Williams had gone 0-for-2 with a walk.

Here are Fisher and Williams describing what happens next.

The 17th player to homer in their last at-bat. Just like that, Williams had tied the game and given the 10,454 fans in Fenway something to cheer about. One inning and a series of defensive miscues later, and the Red Sox win 5-4.

Sept. 28 is a special date for Williams. On two separate dates 19 years apart, Williams showed why he is arguably the greatest hitter that ever lived.

 

Oct. 1, 1932 – Babe Ruth’s Called Shot

 

So we’ve talked about two godly hitters already … how about a third?

It’s Babe Ruth time! You already know the Great Bambino. He loved hot dogs, beer and home runs. And on Oct. 1, 1932, Ruth hit perhaps the most legendary home run in baseball history.

It was Game 3 of the World Series. The 37-year-old Ruth was in his fourth-to-last season, but he still slugged. In ’32, Ruth slashed .341/.489/.661 with 41 HR and 137 RBIs. In the first two games of the WS, Ruth had gone 2-for-6 (both singles) with 3 BB. His prodigious power hadn’t yet appeared.

That changed during his first AB of Game 3. In the first inning against Charlie Root, Ruth blasted a three-run bomb to deep right-center, giving the Yankees a quick 76% win probability.

But the Cubs clawed their way back against Yankees started George Pipgras (8/10 baseball name), tying the score 4 – 4 as the game entered the top of the fifth.

The Yankees first batter, Joe Sewell, (aka the toughest batter to strike out in history), grounded out to short. Next up was Ruth.

What happened next is still a matter of debate. The Cubs bench had been chirping Ruth constantly. Ruth sticks his hand outward. Root says Ruth was holding up two fingers to indicate that the count had just two strikes, meaning Ruth had at least one more opportunity. Others say Ruth was pointing toward the center field seats as if to say, “I’m hitting it right there.”

Here is the gesture:

On the next pitch, Ruth clobbers the ball reportedly to the exact spot that he pointed to. Here’s another perspective on it.

 

One of the people with a bird’s eye view of this moment was Lou Gehrig, who was in the on-deck circle. And last year, Dan Joseph, author of “Last Ride of the Iron Horse: How Lou Gehrig Fought ALS to Play One Final Championship Season,” tweeted out an audio snippet that has Gehrig talking about this moment just days later.

Based on what you’ve seen and heard, do you think that Ruth called his shot?

 

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Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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