Sabermetrician Tom Tango pointed me to a box score I find rather astounding and the story of which seems worth telling.
On September 5, 1927, the Yankees and Red Sox played in one of their most remarkable meetings at Fenway Park. Now keep in mind that these were the vaunted 1927 Yankees, who would go on to win the World Series and be crowned as one of the greatest teams of all-time. At the time, they were 90-38 and the Red Sox were 40-86. The Yankees were talking of who would start Game 1 of the World Series. The Red Sox were ready to be done.
This was the first game of a Labor Day doubleheader and one that attracted a huge crowd, with more than 36,000 in the stands. Some fans spilled on to the playing field, which was not unusual in those days. They were roped off, with any ball hit into that crowd ruled a ground-rule double. In the next day’s Boston Globe, the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice lamented the lack of an AL pennant race killed attendance in multiple cities, but not on this day.
The Red Sox started Red Ruffing, a fourth-year pitcher, who showed none of the signs of greatness he’d later show with the Yankees in becoming a Hall-of-Famer. The Yankees started one of their secondary starters, George Pipgras.
This one was crazy from the start, with the Yankees leaving the bases loaded in the top of the first when Tony Lazzeri struck out, and the Red Sox scoring three times in the bottom of the inning.
Lazzeri avenged that in the third inning when he singled in the go-ahead run, two batters after Lou Gehrig matched Babe Ruth with his 44th home run of the season. That was a huge story at the time, as the two chased Ruth’s all-time record of 59. Gehrig did not keep pace much longer. He finished with 47 home runs. Ruth hit 60 (“let’s see some SOB match that,” he said after hitting his 60th).
The Yankees extended the lead to 6-3, but the Red Sox scored four in the fourth, chasing Pipgras with a pair of bases-loaded walks. They’d add another run to go ahead of the Yankees 8-6 in the fifth.
That held up until two outs in the ninth inning. Ruffing had stayed in the game and needed to just retire Earle Combs to end the game. No such luck. Combs hit a two-run ground-rule double.
Ruffing stayed in the game, because that’s what pitchers did back then. Except he stayed in the game for awhile. Ruffing held the Yankees at bay through the 15th inning. His pitching line is bizarre: 15 innings, 8 runs, 16 hits, 12 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Reliever Wilcy Moore was likewise good for the Yankees, pitching eight stellar innings. Moore was an early version of a closer, though this early version pitched 213(!) innings over 50 appearances that season, and recorded 13 saves (saves awarded retroactively, using the current rule).
In the 17th inning, the Yankees scored three runs against Hal Wiltse. Combs singled in a run. Ruth plated a run by reaching on an error. Gehrig singled in a run. That put the Yankees ahead 11-8 and if you think about it, their win probability should have been 100%. They were about 50 games better than the Red Sox AND had a three run lead with three outs to go.
Alas, this is baseball and sometimes the team with a 0% chance of winning surprises you. The Red Sox scored three against the combination of Moore AND Yankees ace starter Waite Hoyt, who was one of the top starters in baseball that season. The tying run came in on a hit by Bill Moore, one of 18 hits in a career in which he hit a less-than-robust .207.
Given a second life, Wiltse made the most of it. He escaped the 18th inning unscathed. And in the bottom of the 18th, back-to-back ground-rule doubles into the roped-off crowd by Buddy Myer and Ira Flagstead brought home the run the made the Red Sox the unlikeliest of winners.