When we as fans look back on Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, most of us agree with Theo Epstein’s assessment: “I died like six times. It’s got to be a top-three game of all time. And that was the way it had to happen.”
Which is the kind of thing you can say when you know there’s no longer any possible way for the Cubs to lose it.
Game 7 was one of the greatest games in baseball history because it was an incredibly rare confluence of two forces: the narrative of the Cubs’ plight that drew in both die-hards and non-fans alike (Hello, Patton Oswalt!) and a game that would have stood on its own as a “top-three game of all time” even without that narrative attached.
So was it the greatest Game 7 ever? As it turns out, the best day in Cubs history might only have one real point of comparison: the zenith of the Washington Senators franchise.
Before 2016, the first time in postseason history that a drought narrative combined with an epic Game 7 happened in 1924 when the wobegone Senators made their first World Series appearance against John McGraw’s dynastic New York Giants. At that point, the Senators had gone 20 years without winning a championship. Which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the World Series had existed for precisely 20 years.
If someone had thought to put a sign on one of the rooftops next to Griffith Stadium, it would have had to read “AS ∞ ∞ ∞”
Since the Series had only been around for a couple decades, the sporting press had yet to decide that they needed to make it more interesting by persuading grown ups to pretend that curses were real. Back in those days, sportswriters would simply content themselves with typing “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” and book it for the bar car.
No sportswriter had invented the dark cosmic forces that were holding the Senators back from glory so they were spared from dealing with the barrage of barnyard animal-related questions the Cubs had to deal with. Had the Sun-Times covered the 1924 Senators, their sports page would have been a paragraph.
Instead, the thrust of the narrative surrounding the 1924 Senators was less about the team’s drought and more focused on one player in particular: Walter Johnson. For 17 years, the Big Train had cut a path of destruction through baseball on teams that finished higher than fourth place only four times. At that point in his career, Johnson was Ernie Banks without a rhyming dictionary.
And how powerfully did he overwhelm the Series narrative? No less a figure than Will Rogers (The 1924 version of “Hello, Patton Oswalt!”) wrote:
“So good luck, Walter; win or lose, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you carry more good wishes than any man that ever entered any event in the history of our country, and we will love you just the same if you never see a World Series, because you are an example to the American boy, the same as Abraham Lincoln should be to the politicians.” (Thomas, 206)
Judging by this tribute, if it were possible in his time to enter Walter Johnson into Baseball Reference, it would tell you that his number one comp was The Great Emancipator. No pressure.
This underscores what in retrospect was one of the major surprises of the Cubs’ narrative in the 2016 postseason: for a team that was sitting on a 108-year drought, there was not a single player on the roster who made you think “It’s good to see he finally made a World Series.”
With a team whose all-time roster reads like a who’s who of “never won the big one,” this was an upset of major proportions. While the interest in both Series was driven by a championship drought, this is the main difference in their respective narratives. The 2016 Cubs were fighting to redeem the dreams of generations of their fanbase. The 1924 Senators were attempting to validate the career of their franchise’s greatest player.
Once the Series began, as with the 2016 Cubs, things looked bleak for the Senators. While the worst deficit they faced was a mere three games to two, this perilous position was particularly heartbreaking because two of those losses were charged to Johnson. Indeed, after dropping Game 5, Johnson sat in the clubhouse with his head in his hands and told teammate Muddy Ruel, “I would have cut off my right arm to win that ballgame today. But I failed. And I’ve failed twice.” (233)
With their ace vanquished and inconsolable, it appeared that there was only one thing that could possibly save the Senators’ season. Unfortunately, Jason Heyward would not be born for another 65 years.
But Washington fought back gallantly in Game 6, eking out a 2-1 victory to set up a monumentally important Game 7 that could earn them their first title and possibly restore the legacy of their legend. At this point, the 1924 World Series is one of the few moments where the stakes took on an importance similar to 2016.
Also just like 2016, just when it appeared everything had risen to a fever pitch, the insanity of Game 7 went above and beyond what anyone had imagined. The Senators took an early lead with a solo home run from Bucky Harris in the fourth, only to see the Giants strike what seemed to be a death blow with a three-run sixth aided by shoddy Washington defense.
Then with two outs in the eighth inning, Harris hit a ball in just the right spot to score two runs and tie up the game. Hmm. That sounds familiar. Although in this case, instead of a heartbreaking home run tucked just inside the foul pole, it was a grounder to third that suddenly bounced over Fred Lindstrom’s head for a game-changing two-run single. With four outs to go, the game was shockingly tied out of nowhere.
According to news reports of the time, this rally made Calvin Coolidge drop his cigar and Silent Cal “actually shouted on several occasions.” (240) This was the 1920s Republican president equivalent of running to the front of the luxury suite, flexing his muscles, and uttering a primal scream while ripping off his suit to reveal a shirt reading “Washington or Nowhere.”
As if this sudden rally weren’t compelling enough, Harris decided this was the moment to ratchet up the drama even more. On precisely one day of rest, it was Walter Johnson time. At which point, the Griffith Stadium public address man presumably scrambled to try and find a Victrola record of Al Jolson crooning “Hells Bells.”
Short rest be damned, Harris was using his best pitcher in the highest leverage situation possible. And like Jon Lester would do 92 years later, Johnson bent but wouldn’t break. He worked around the go ahead run in scoring position in the ninth. And the eleventh. And a lead-off single in the twelfth. But also like Lester, each time Johnson stymied the Giants on short rest and kept his team in the game.
Finally, in the bottom of the twelfth, one of the most bizarre and amazing innings in World Series history unfolded. Following two errors and a double, the Senators had the winning run at second base with one out. Washington’s Earl McNeely then hit a bouncing ball to third that looked like a routine second out of the inning.
And it would have been if the ball hadn’t hit a pebble and took off over Lindstrom’s head once again. Unbelievably, the World Series-winning run crossed the plate and for the first time in history, the Senators were champions. The third base pebble would have been named MVP and led the World Series parade if that honor hadn’t already been reserved for the nation’s number one hero: an Inanimate Carbon Rod.
While the 1924 World Series is mostly remembered as the story of Walter Johnson’s ultimate redemption, it is also one of the few moments in postseason baseball history that can compare to the Cubs’ redemption of 2016. In both cases, the Series began with an unprecedented level of hype–mostly based on how rare it was to see each team represented in the Fall Classic.
The long-suffering Senators and Cubs emerged triumphant. But, in what has to be an even bigger upset, they did so in scintillating Game Sevens that somehow managed not just to live up to that absurd hype, but to utterly exceed it.
In other words, we just enjoyed the type of historic World Series championship that comes along roughly every 92 years. So now would a good time to put money on 2108 becoming the year of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Lead photo courtesy Ken Blaze—USA Today Sports
Thomas, Henry W. Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train. University of Nebraska Press, 1995