Still the greatest game ever

My wife was not quite 23 months old when the greatest home run in Red Sox history was struck, and she wouldn’t know Steve Carlton from Carlton Banks.

But she’d recognize Carlton Fisk’s name if she heard it, and she knows the importance of the home run he hit, if only because Robin Williams and Matt Damon recreated the scene in Good Will Hunting.

That’s testament to Williams, of course. Just as he could make people who wouldn’t know Whitman from the author of a bawdy limerick written on a bathroom wall recognize O Captain! My Captain!, he could make people who hate baseball comprehend the relevance of Carlton Fisk’s home run.

Good Will Hunting wasn’t a great movie because of Game 6, and Game 6 wasn’t the greatest game ever because of Good Will Hunting. But it didn’t hurt.

I thought about that series and that scene last week after Williams died, because both were so good. And because it doesn’t take much for me to. If I could get a masters in studies of baseball, I would do so on the Big Red Machine and the 1975 World Series (there’s a wonderful book on the game by Mark Frost; I’ll be more concise, if only by a little bit).

There have been other great games since mediums made the sport available on a mass basis. But there has never been such a great game encompassed by such a great series. Mazeroski’s 1960 Game 7 homer was preceded by a 12-0 blowout in a series with three games that could have used a mercy rule; Bobby Thomson’s 1951 Giants Win The Pennant!!!! homer was preceded by a 10-0 blowout; the Cardinals’ great Game 6 win in 2011 was followed by a pedestrian Game 7. (And, please Mets fans, don’t suggest Game 6 in 1986. A game where the decisive play was a first baseman who couldn’t bend far enough to pick up a ground ball doesn’t compare.)

But in 1975, Game 6 was one of the greatest games ever, and Game 7 was a scaled-down version.

“In my mind,” said Peter Gammons in a 2010 retro on the series, “this was an extremely important World Series because I think it was the first World Series television really got — in color, stars, the one great shot of Fisk.”

He’s right, of course. But there’s also one more thing: It was the most any team had depended on relievers to do their pitching.

Sparky Anderson had a 19th-century view of free agency — “I’ve always been very strong on loyalty and I always felt there was more to life than money,” he said in 1976 when Don Gullett became a Yankee; it never occurred to Sparky that loyalty was a two-way transaction, and the Reds could have shown it to Gullett by paying him more.

But Anderson developed a 21st-century view of his bullpen. Reds relievers pitched 31.1 innings in the ’75 World Series, nearly half of it. They threw just 2.1 innings less than their starters, and gave up half as many hits (38-19), nearly half as many earned runs (18-10) and had an ERA almost two runs less (4.81 to 2.87).

In four of the last five games, Reds starters couldn’t finish the fifth inning. Red Sox relievers actually had a better ERA (1.62) than the Reds, but pitched half as much (16.2 innings) as Reds’ relievers and about a third as much as the Sox starters (4.59 ERA in 49 innings).

In a series that had games decided by one run five times, go extra innings twice and were won by a team in its final at-bat four times, Anderson’s handling of his bullpen was the difference.

The evolution of the bullpen wasn’t sudden — the ’71 Pirates had three complete games, but had relievers pitch 23.1 of the 33.2 innings in the other four games (three losses) and the ’73 Athletics had their starters, good as they were in Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue and Hall of Famer Jim Hunter, pitch only 35 of 66 innings. But 20 of those A’s 31 relief innings were pitched by two pitchers, Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles, and Fingers got more outs than any A’s starter.

Anderson used everyone and with less favoritism — seven relievers over the seven-game series, three of them five times each, none for more than eight innings.

(Oakland won the ’74 World Series with its starters pitching 33 of 44 innings. It used only two relievers: Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, and Hunter, who got the final out of Game 1 after Fingers pitched from the fifth to the ninth. Even the losing Dodgers used their bullpen for only 11.1 of the 42 innings they pitched, and nine of those by one pitcher, Mike Marshall).

Anderson used eight pitchers in Game 6 alone; relievers pitched 14 of the 20 innings in the series’ last two games.

  • Which brings us back to Game 6. Any good baseball fan can remember, like an important historical event, where they were when Fisk homered, because they were probably there when Bernie Carbo’s shocking homer tied the game in the eighth.

    A few hours after the fictional Sean Maguire went to see about a girl, I went to see about a sixpack a long walk away from Fenway. The Reds led 5-3 and three games to two, and sixpacks were for celebrating. (I was a Reds fan first in 1975 — I had yet to meet enough Yankees fans to turn into the Red Sox diehard I am today. And if you’re doing the math, the age of consumption in Massachusetts in 1975 was 18. Nothing illegal.).

    At the liquor store it was 20 minutes until closing, and the clerk was watching on a little black and white set. We watched Cesar Geronimo, the Reds’ weakest hitter, homer to make it 6-3 and Sox hero Luis Tiant depart to an ovation. A Reds win seemed inevitable.

    Of course, we had barely gotten back to the room and opened the bottles before Carbo flicked a third strike out of catcher Johnny Bench’s glove and hit the next pitch into the bleachers to tie the game. It was about then I realized sixpacks were for wallowing, too.

    Carbo’s homer set the stage for the next few innings, each play greater than the one preceding it: the Red Sox loading the bases with none out in the ninth but failing to score because Denny Doyle thought third-base coach Don Zimmer said “Go, go” on Fred Lynn’s short fly when Zimmer actually said “No, no,” and Doyle went, went, right into a 7-2 double play; Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans reaching over his head to catch Joe Morgan’s deep fly that seemed so certain to be an extra-base hit that Evans’ throw to first was so off-line first baseman Carl Yastrzemski retrieved it and relayed it to shortstop Rick Burleson at first to double up Ken Griffey for your everyday extra-inning 9-3-6 double play; and finally Fisk hitting the foul pole on the second pitch of the bottom of the 12th and then rushing around the bases like a pedestrian dodging traffic, slapping at those who got in his way. (Trivia: Who was the Red Sox’s winning pitcher in Game 6? Answer below)

    “And all of a sudden the ball was there, like the Mystic River Bridge, suspended out in the black of the morning,” began Gammons’ story in the next day’s Boston Globe.

    “When it finally crashed off the mesh attached to the left-field foul pole, one step after another the reaction unfurled: from Carlton Fisk’s convulsive leap to John Kiley’s booming of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to the wearing off of numbness to the outcry that echoed across the cold New England morning.

    “At 12:34 a.m., in the 12th inning, Fisk’s histrionic home run brought a 7-6 end to a game that will be the pride of historians in the year 2525, a game won and lost what seemed like a dozen times, and a game that brings back summertime one more day. For the seventh game of the World Series.”

    Not only was Game 6 the greatest game ever and ’75 the greatest World Series ever, it was the greatest-chronicled, as well, as any reader of the Globe could attest. (Gammons left for Sports Illustrated shortly thereafter, which had him, for a time, covering hockey. Talk about playing out of position. That would be like asking DiMaggio to play second base.)

    Afterward Anderson said he wasn’t worried after losing Game 6 because he had Don Gullett starting Game 7, and Gullett was going to the Hall of Fame. That’s not the worst prediction Sparky ever made, not as long as Chris Pittaro can be found at, but it’s in the top three.

    When writers told Bill Lee, the Red Sox’s Game 7 starter, what Anderson had said, Lee said he was going after Game 7 to the Eliot Lounge, a noted Boston watering hole.

    Game 7 wasn’t the greatest game ever, but as a sequel, it wasn’t bad. Gullett’s trek to the Hall took an early detour to the shower when he lasted just four innings, walking in two runs.

    For the second straight game, the Red Sox had a three-run lead before the Reds scored. But in the sixth, Pete Rose broke up a double play and Tony Perez hit a two-run homer off Lee’s Eephus, a slow curve ball that could be timed, like touch football pass rushes, by the one, one thousands.

    Gammons in his story the next day: “The big first baseman was ready this time as it came over the horizon, waited and deposited it onto a truck on the Mass. Pike. The truck was last seen on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

    (Perez may be on the low end of Hall of Fame qualification, but none of the Reds’ stars did more to win the ’75 Series. After he started 0-for-15, which conjured up memories of Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges’ 0-for-21 in the ’52 Series, Perez had five hits and three homers in the final three games).

    Lee developed a blister and left in the seventh, and Rose’s hit tied the game shortly after. In the bottom of the eighth, Evans walked to lead off, but Burleson failed to bunt and hit into a double play. Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson then made the fateful decision to bat for Jim Willoughby, 6.1 scoreless innings pitched in the series and 1.1 in Game 7.

    Cecil Cooper was 1-for-18 in the Series as the primary replacement for Jim Rice, out with a broken hand, and Cooper popped out to make it 1-for-19. As has been suggested many times, a lot of bars closed that winter in Boston to the refrain: “He never should have batted for Willoughby.” (Under modern rules, it wouldn’t have come up, because the DH would have been in play in games at Fenway.)

    “Johnson has been falling out of trees all summer and landing on his feet,” Lee said after the Series, but this time Johnson fell head first.

    Johnson brought in rookie lefty Jim Burton, which by more modern strategy, makes some sense. Four of the first five Reds to bat in the ninth were lefties, the other a switch-hitter. But Burton was a rookie and you didn’t trust the deciding inning of the World Series to rookies in 1975.

    Sure enough, Burton walked Griffey to start the ninth and the Reds moved him to third with two outs. Burton walked Rose on a 3-2 pitch and got two strikes on Joe Morgan. At 1-2 Morgan flicked a harmless fly into center field, and I pounded a piece of Boston U. furniture harder than Morgan had hit the ball. “No, no,” said my roommate. “Look,” and sure enough, laid-back Fred Lynn was rushing in frantically from deep center field as Morgan’s blooper landed safely in front of him. Griffey scored, Rose slid in to third and clapped his hands with the satisfied air of someone who had just won a bet, and the Reds led, 4-3. Burton left the game; he would appear in only one more major league game for the rest of his career.

    (The roommate, a straight A student, was always smarter, even if he was a Cardinals fan. We once shared a history class and took the same test. I got an 85 and cheered; he got an 88 and pouted for three days).

    The Reds’ closer was Rawley Eastwick, who had done much to make this a great series. It was Eastwick who threw a home run in the ninth inning of Game 3 to Evans, without which there would have been no Ed Armbrister-Fisk bunt controversy in the 10th; it was Eastwick who threw Carbo’s home run in Game 6, without which there would have been no Fisk home run and no scene in Good Will Hunting.

    Anderson figured Eastwick had done enough. With three lefties due, he opted for his left-hander Will McEnaney and McEnaney dispatched two right-handed pinch-hitters and the great Yastrzemski on a harmless fly to center for the final out (Yaz also made the final out, with two on, in the great 1978 playoff loss to the Yankees). Fans again streamed on the field; those that didn’t classily applauded both teams.

    There were no sixpacks to celebrate with; I had a test to cram for.

    “She is in retreat in this morning, Olde Fenway, resting,” began Gammons’ story, as great as the just-completed Series, in the Globe the next day. “Her affair with Kismet fell through at the very last, and while it was good, it was not to be this time.

    “New England woke up yesterday on a high from the night before, in anticipation of the first world championship in Boston since Sept. 11, 1918.

    “On that day a 15-year-old named Tom Yawkey was driving to Tarrytown, N.Y., for the opening of fall classes at the Irving School.

    “What will stand for baseball historians as an epic World Series this morning belongs to the good people of Cincinnati, Ohio. What was a Series ruled by bounces, plays of dramatic genius and might-have-beens was in the end appropriately decided by a bloop — a looping fly ball in the ninth inning that brought the Reds a 4-3 victory over the Red Sox and brought Middle America’s baseball team its first championship since 1940.

    “But even as Reds’ reliever Will McEnaney polished off the bottom of that ninth without a threat, the 35,205 joined in chorus by the thousands that lined the Fens, stood and roared. For it was like the death of a favorite grandmother, a season whose life was beautiful and full and gave everyone from Southie to Stonington, Conn., to Groton to Charlestown, N.H., a year they will reminisce about until Olde Fenway calls them back again. But while coming down to the ninth inning of the seventh game of the Series was far beyond our March — or even September, perhaps — dreams, what will last is the frustration of defeat.”

  • The next day Lee came to BU to speak to students. It had been scheduled in advance for four days after the series, but it had rained for three straight days and Game 6 was postponed from Saturday to Tuesday.

    It was less than 16 hours after Lee’s Red Sox had lost Game 7 of the World Series, and who knows how many hours since he had left the Eliot Lounge. There may have been a callous on his finger, but there was none on his sense of humor.

    He was funny and witty and you couldn’t tell if he had won or lost the Series the previous night. He talked for a bit and then took questions from the students. One asked if he was OK with being removed from the game. Lee acknowledged he had to depart and then made a crack about his replacement. It was Roger Moret, who was 14-3 in ’75 but traded after the Series; three years later he had a catatonic episode in the Rangers’ locker room.

    Another student asked who was the best pitcher in the American League: the Orioles’ Jim Palmer or the Yankees’ Catfish Hunter? “Where are you from?” asked Lee, knowing the answer by the accent. “New Yawwk.” “Palmer,” said Lee even as the last syllable lingered.

    I marveled at Lee and laughed with him that day. Thirty-nine years later, it’s still a remarkable scene. Lee pitching for the World Series one night, pitching answers to students the next.

    To mix metaphors on Williams movies, carpe diem, indeed.

    The Red Sox’s winning pitcher in Game 6 was Game 3 starter Rick Wise, who pitched a scoreless 12th. Wise had a Forrest Gump quality to his career. He played in the 1958 Little League World Series, started the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets after Jim Bunning pitched his perfect game in 1964, was traded for Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, won 19 games for the ’75 Sox and led the AL in losses for Cleveland in ’78 after he was traded for Dennis Eckersley.

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    2 Responses to Still the greatest game ever

    1. Mike says:

      Maybe your longest column yet. And while I won’t get into a debate about ’86 vs. ’75 (though many would), I will add that both lose a little integrity in the argument, because neither of the two famous moments from those respective series occurred in the decisive game. If the Mazeroski homer capped an unremarkable series, might we then look to Joe Carter in ’93 for a better story? A walk-off win to end the season cannot be overlooked in this argument. Those are extremely rare, as you know.

      • Mike:

        You and I have gone round and round on this topic, and probably will again. I will stipulate that subjectivity does matter. A Red Sox’s fan’s greatest game might not be a Mets’ fan’s favorite game (and definitely not vice versa).

        But standards matter. You might like Three Dog Night more than the Beatles but don’t insist they’re a better or more important band. You might like Jackie Collins’ books but don’t insist she’s a better or more important writer than Steinbeck.

        Game 6 of 1986 was not a well-played game. It had five errors. The tying run scored on a passed ball. The winning run scored on an error by a fielder who probably shouldn’t have been in the game. Bad managing, bad hitting, bad fielding. That’s not the greatest game ever. Maybe for a Mets fan. In fact, I don’t think the series as a whole compares well to others. A couple of good games and lots of one-sided ones.

        1993 was certainly a good series with some memorable games — the high-scoring game, Schilling’s shutout, Carter’s homer — but it was missing something important: a Game 7. It’s hard to be considered the greatest series ever without it. 1975 might not have had its dramatic moment at the end, but the Game 7 was pretty good too.

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