May 3, 1942: When the Brooklyn Dodgers (14-5) arrived in St Louis prior to a three-game series with the Cardinals, they were scuffling a bit; having just lost two straight in Pittsburgh against a mediocre Pirates team. Still, they held a comfortable 4.5 game lead over the Redbirds (8-8), who were scuffling more than just a bit, themselves.
The first two games of this series were played on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Sportsman's Park - a doubleheader that would ultimately control the destiny for both teams. As it played out, the Redbirds were able to win both games over the Dodgers (14-10 and 4-2) en route to a franchise-best 106-48 (.688) record. The Dodgers would finish in second-place with their franchise-best 104-50 (.675) record - usually good enough to win a pennant; just not this year. From a historical perspective, from 1901 to 1941, there were only twelve MLB league champions (out of 82) that had won 104 or more games, and no National League team had done it since the 1910 Chicago Cubs; so, it's easy to understand the frustration the Dodgers must have felt when they came up just a couple games short that year; especially if they think about the first game of this doubleheader - the one that got away.
The doubleheader sweep by the Cardinals didn't seem like such a big deal at the time (the second game was rained-out after six-innings, as Max Lanier picked up the win). Sure, the Cards picked up a couple of games in the standings, but the season had a long way to go, and Brooklyn managed to salvage the series finale the next day by a 3-1 score. Still, when a pennant is decided by such a slim margin, it's very easy to pinpoint one or two plays in a single game that changed the destinies for the two teams fighting it out.
Such was the case in the first game of the doubleheader. The box score reveals the twists and turns this game took. St Louis scored 14 runs on 11 hits and no errors; Brooklyn scored 10 runs on 15 hits and committed two errors. Normally, a couple of errors doesn't change the entire outcome of a game. In this case, it most certainly did. As a result, it changed the entire outcome of the NL pennant race. Instead of winning 106 games, the Cardinals would have only won 105 games had the Dodgers played error-free ball on May 3. Coincidentally, the Dodgers would have won 105 games, as well, resulting in a first-place tie; resulting in a three-game playoff for the NL pennant.
Here's what happened: Brooklyn's starting pitcher, Whit Wyatt (a 19 game winner in '42) was only able to get two guys out in the bottom of the first-inning, after yielding five runs on two walks and three hits - one of those hits was a home run. He did manage to strike out one batter, so he probably had decent stuff that day. He was victimized by an infield fielding miscue by none other than future Hall of Fame shortstop Peewee Reese. Instead of getting the third out of the inning with no runs scoring, backup catcher Ken O'Dea was allowed to hit with the bases loaded - the result: Grand Salami (which capped off the scoring)!. Because of the error, all five runs were unearned. Still, Wyatt's day was over before he really had a chance to get going, as reliever Ed Head was brought in to restore order.
Instead, Head only put gasoline on the fire: 2 IP - 6 Hits - 5 Runs (All Earned) - 2 BB - 2 SO
The score after three innings: Cardinals 10 - Dodgers 2
After a five-run fourth and a three-run fifth, the Dodgers had come back to tie the score, 10-10! The culprits who blew the eight-run lead the Cardinals once held:
Harry Gumbert (3.2 IP - 6 Hits - 7 Runs [All Earned] - 2 BB - 2 SO)
Johnny Beazley (1 IP - 4 Hits - 3 Runs [All Earned] - 0 BB - 1 SO)
The game remained deadlocked until the Cardinals scored four unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh-inning on two hits five walks and an error by Dodgers' second baseman Billy Herman - another normally sure-handed infielder.
Cards' reliever Ernie White prevented any further Brooklyn scoring, with 4.1 innings of shutout pitching.
All told, of the 14 runs the Cardinals pushed across in this game - 9 were unearned. All 10 of the runs the Dodgers scored were earned. Of course, errors are a part of the game; in this particular instance a very big part of the game.
It not only impacted the result of the first game of this doubleheader; it may have completely altered the course of MLB history. Had there been a three-game playoff to decide the NL pennant winner, which team would have prevailed? Would there have been a dramatic come-from-behind ninth-inning pennant-winning home run which would pre-date the Shot Heard 'Round the World by nine years? With a possibly depleted pitching staff in the aftermath of a possible three-game playoff for the pennant, would either team have been able to handle the Yankees in the World Series?
Now that I think about it, Peewee Reese, Billy Herman, and Ken O'Dea were meant to do what they did 71 years ago today.