Anyone who has watched his favorite baseball team wallow through the late innings of a hopelessly lost game knows the feeling perfectly. Does one leave now and escape further humiliation, or wait till the end out of an irrational hope for the Big Rally? The 1,250 paying customers at Cleveland's old League Park were facing such a dilemma on the afternoon of May 23, 1901.
It was the first season of the American League, and many of the contests had a kind of expansion-team looseness to them. Even so, Cleveland's game against the Washington Senators that day had been a shambles. A five-run Washington second inning had been followed by a Senator run in the fourth and three more in the fifth, before Cleveland had managed to push across four runs of its own. But then the Senators put things out of reach again by scoring two each in the top of the seventh and ninth. The Blues, as Cleveland was called in those days (they became Indians in 1915), had added one more in the bottom of the eighth, but as the Senators took the field with a 13-5 lead in the last of the ninth, the dazed and frustrated crowd was thinning fast.
The first two batters for Cleveland did nothing to slow the exodus. Pitcher Bill (Wizard) Hoffer, who had hardly lived up to his nickname in going the distance for Cleveland, was scheduled to lead off. In a mood of sadism or resignation, Manager Jimmy McAleer decided to let the hapless pitcher hit for himself, and, as Hoffer stepped up, the crowd let him know how it felt about his performance that day.
"Win your own game!" came one heartfelt cry. "Hit 'er out and run around nine times!" someone suggested. Wizard fanned.
Ollie Pickering, the Blues' rightfielder, stepped in next and promptly grounded out. The crowd now dwindled to the irreducible minimum, the kind of spectators who persist in believing that ball games are not over till the last out is made. On this day, at least, they were right.
Senator Pitcher Case Patten could be forgiven if he suffered a slight mental lapse at this point, since he was leading by eight runs with two out. Facing left-handed-hitting Jack McCarthy, Patten gave up a single to right field. Then, to Third Baseman Bill Bradley, he gave up another. No matter. The next batter, Candy LaChance, took cuts at two bad pitches and now Patten was only one strike away from victory. But LaChance hung in there and managed to punch out a single to center field. McCarthy scored. That made it 13-6.
The three back-to-back singles temporarily stanched the flow of fans to the exits, and now Catcher Bob Wood stepped up. Patten stretched and threw. The pitch was wild, hitting Wood and filling the bases. The surprised Cleveland crowd began to cheer a little, and then to scream as Shortstop Frank Scheibeck pulled a line drive down the left-field line for a double, bringing in Bradley and LaChance. The score was now Senators 13, Blues 8 Wyatt Lee, another southpaw, began warming up in the Washington bullpen.
Frenchy Genins, the Cleveland centerfielder, batted in run No. 9 with another single, sending Scheibeck to third and bringing Wyatt Lee to the mound. The first man he faced was Truck Eagan, the Blues' second baseman, who took a base on balls, bringing up the pitcher's spot.
With the margin now cut to four runs, McAleer sent up pinch hitter Dutch Beck, who ended the 1901 season with a solid .289 batting average. Beck hit the ball far into left field. Washington Leftfielder Pop Foster sprinted back for the drive, but it fell in for a double, scoring all three Blues base runners. And now, incredibly, Cleveland trailed by only one run, 13-12, with a man in scoring position.
Hats, umbrellas, seat cushions and canes filled the air over League Park, and some of the spectators who had been heading out turned the other way and swarmed onto the playing field. The umpire called time until the crowd got back into the stands, which it finally did when he threatened to forfeit the game to Washington unless order was restored.
Pickering came to bat next his second time up that inning, and smashed the ball far into center field. The hit made Cleveland fans pay for their earlier exuberance. Instead of having a triple, Pickering was forced to return to first with a ground-rules single when the ball rolled among some fans still lingering against the center-field wall after the earlier melee. In any case, Beck crossed the plate and now the score was tied at 13.
The dazed Senators tried to pull themselves together. Catcher Mike Grady tried too hard; on Lee's first pitch to the next batter, Jack McCarthy, Grady let the ball slip past him, Pickering moving to second. The cheering was now loud and sustained, and, if it was not enough to shred the Senators' aplomb, perhaps the man at bat was. He was to play the role of a kind of Casey-at-the bat in reverse.
McCarthy, a compact (5'9" 155 pounds) outfielder, had batted .294 in 1900 and was on his way to a .321 season in 1901. He had also stolen 22 bases the year before, but his base-running ability was not at issue today. Everything in that department would be up to Pickering, who was at second.
After Grady's passed ball, Washington Manager Jimmy Manning came to the mound for a conference with his battery. Whatever their strategy, it did not work. On his next pitch to McCarthy, Lee hung a curve on the outside corner, which the batter drove safely into left field. Pickering, off with the pitch, was halfway home before the throw started in from the outfield. By the time it arrived, Pickering had crossed the plate with the inning's ninth, and winning, run. Needless to say, the Blues fans exploded. As for those who had left the park prematurely, it is a safe bet most of them never admitted the fact later.
Only once since that May afternoon in 1901 has a team scored as many runs in a single inning after two men were out and none on base (the other occasion occurring, oddly enough, just 10 days later, on June 2, 1901, when Boston beat Milwaukee 13-2). But never has such a rally won a ball game. Clearly, it was not the game to abandon before the last out was made. Which, in fact, it never was.