Category Archives: Make Every Win A Walk-Off

Tommy Henrich was old, reliable and clutch

Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich was known as Old Reliable, which in my book is about as good a nickname as one could be given. Henrich wasn’t a megastar of the Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Joe Dimaggio level, but he was quite good, and he was quite good when it mattered.

I connect with Henrich for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s one of the first old-time ballplayers whose autographs I can remember getting in the late 1980s at baseball card shows held in airport hotels in New York. I’m pretty sure the Kodak photo of him that’s somewhere in my parent’s apartment featured him smoking a pipe (I should note – he lived to 96). And he hit the first World Series walk-off home run, beating the Dodgers in Game 1 in 1949.

The 1949 season is a significant one in Yankees history, because it marks the start of one of their great dynasties. The Yankees won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953.

How did that run begin? With a walk-off, of course.

The Yankees opened on April 19 of that season against the Senators. Opening Day was the first opener for the Yankees since Ruth died and he was paid proper tribute both before the game and by how it ended. The Yankees were also without Joe DiMaggio, who was battling a heel injury.

The Senators were the opposite of the Yankees. They won on their opening day in Washington D.C. (by walk-off, actually) but didn’t win much else. They finished 50-104. Thus what I tell you probably won’t surprise.

The Senators hung gamely with the Yankees, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. But with two on and two outs, Yogi Berra’s pinch-hit single scored Phil Rizzuto to tie the game (Berra didn’t start because he had the flu).

The Senators went six up and six down in the eighth and ninth innings, giving the Yankees a shot to pull the game out in the ninth. Phil Rizzuto grounded out and Gene Woodling popped out. That brought up Henrich, who was 0-for-4. What was great about Henrich that season was that though he was 36 years old, he could still hit like he was in his 20s. He’d hit .287/.416/.526 and place sixth in the AL MVP voting.

That wasn’t known at the time. What was known was that Henrich was both old and reliable. He hit seven home runs in 63 at-bats in what Baseball-Reference.com deems “late and close” situations (this qualified). This would be the first. He set the tone for the Yankees season with a long game-winning home run to right center field.

”It was a perfect ending, one that must have drawn a booming roar from the Babe, away up there in the heavens.”
— Joe Trimble, New York Daily News

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The HR king before the HR kings could walk-off too

I was listening to the great baseball podcast “This Week in Baseball History” the other day, when one of the co-hosts, Bill Parker, paid tribute to someone celebrating a birthday that week – Gavvy Cravath.

I knew of Gavvy Cravath as baseball’s home run king prior to Babe Ruth, but that was about all I knew. It’s a great listen and very detailed (it comes towards the end of the show, which dealt with the collective bargaining agreement that netted player’s free agency). My favorite part is what happened to Cravath after his baseball career ended. After managing the downtrodden Phillies for part of 1919 and 1920, he worked briefly as a minor league manager and scout, then returned home to California.

Cravath’s father was the mayor of his town, so it’s likely he passed some political skill down to his son. Cravath became a judge, a job he held for 36 years (listen to the podcast to find out how he was elected … it’s funny). Cravath was known as both “crusty” and “widely respected” per his SABR bio. He had no legal training whatsoever!

I went looking for a Cravath walk-off home run and the Baseball-Reference archives came through for me. Cravath reached the 100-homer mark on June 14, 1918 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals. What’s notable about this home run is that it would not have been one today. The ball bounced before entering the left field bleachers (those were homers in those days!)

There was a GREAT game story sharing the events of the game in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I’d love to credit the author, but he appears to be going by a pseudonym. The byline is listed as “Jim Nasium.”

How would you not want your name to be known when you could write a lede like this???

“That ancient old ruin, Cactus Cravath, intervened between a double defeat yesterday afternoon when he tottered to the plate in the 10th inning of the opening encounter and loafed around there until he had three balls and two strikes called on him and then nonchalantly whaled the next pitched ball into the left field bleachers …”

Ichiro took a while to walk-off, but it was worth it

Ichiro Suzuki recorded more than 3,000 hits in the major leagues. But he did not record a walk-off hit until his ninth season. In 2009, Ichiro made up for lost time by recording three walk-off hits, all in the second half of the season.

The first one came on July 28, 2009 against the Blue Jays. The Mariners loaded the bases in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, but Jose Lopez grounded into a force and Ronny Cedeno struck out. Ichiro got behind in the count 0-2, and per the AP game recap, he golfed a pitch that was nearly in the dirt into center field for the winning hit.

The next one came on September 17 against the White Sox. The Mariners trailed 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, but rallied, tying the game on home runs by Lopez and Bill Hall in the ninth inning. In the 10th, Ichiro hit a ground-rule double, but was stranded at second base. The game stretched to the 14th inning, where after a single by Ryan Langerhans, Kenji Johjima was hit by a pitch. Ichiro, perhaps[ perturbed that his fellow countryman got dinged, singled on a 1-0 pitch to score Langerhans and win the game.

That was pretty good, but Ichiro saved the best of his walk-offs that season for last. The very next day, the Mariners and Yankees played a highly-entertaining game. This was the season that the Yankees would win the World Series, so to hold them to two runs through eight innings was a good accomplishment for Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. However, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes combined to allow one Mariners run in that time. So the Yankees led 2-1 after eight innings and had their closer, Mariano Rivera, on to finish things off.

Rivera struck out the first two hitters looking, upping the Yankees win probability to 95 percent. But Mike Sweeney hit a first-pitch double that may have rattled Rivera. Ichiro was next and for the second straight day, he came through with a walk-off. But this one was a walk-off home run.

“It didn’t go where it was supposed to go,” Rivera told reporters regarding the pitch.

It sure did for Ichiro, who walked off a winner that day, and now walks off the field for good, headed sometime soon for the Hall of Fame.

Ichiro walk-off minutiae
Ichiro was one of five players to hit a walk-off home run vs Rivera and by far the most famous of them. The others are Bill Selby, Bill Mueller, Vernon Wells and Marco Scutaro.

When Ichiro is elected to the Hall of Fame, he’ll be one of two Hall-of-Famers who hit .400 against Rivera. Ichiro was 6-for-15 (exactly .400) against Rivera. His former teammate, Edgar Martinez, was 11-for-19 (.579).

Once, twice, three times gets it done

Had Dolph Camilli made the major leagues earlier than 1933, when he was 26, this piece might be about a Hall of Fame player, or at least someone with a close case for Cooperstown. As it is, Camilli was a very good ballplayer for 12 years for the Cubs, Phillies and Dodgers. It was with the Dodgers for whom this first baseman, who predates Gil Hodges, starred. He had lofty on-base percentages and slugging percentages and drove in 100 runs with Brooklyn four times in a five-year span.

Camilli was the NL MVP in 1941, hitting 34 home runs and driving in 120 runs for a team that won the pennant. You could make the case he won the MVP award all in one amazing game.

It was September 1, 1941, the first game of a doubleheader with the Boston Braves. The Dodgers and Braves played 15 innings, which was the subject of complaining in the newspapers the next day, because the second game was halted due to darkness, forcing the Dodgers, who were just out of first place, to make the game up.

The Braves led 4-0 after two innings helped by two Dodgers errors, hence the grumbling. The Dodgers got three runs back in the fourth inning, but did nothing more until the eighth. That’s when Camilli turned the game into his highlight reel. With two outs, he clubbed a 450-foot home run to center field to tie the game.

The Braves, managed by Casey Stengel at the time, went back ahead in the 10th inning on Hall-of-Famer Paul Waner’s RBI hit. Two of the first three Dodgers to bat in the home 10th went down, with Billy Herman drawing a walk. That brought up Camilli. This time he doubled off the Ebbets Field scoreboard, scoring Herman to tie the game again.

Camilli walked in the 12th, but was left stranded. He singled in the 14th, but Pee Wee Reese lined out with the bases loaded to keep the game tied.

Finally in the 15th, a walk, single and hit by pitch loaded the bases bringing the right man to the plate, Camilli. His single, his fifth hit of the game won the for the Dodgers. In all, Camilli had two tying hits in the eighth inning or later, a walk and a hit to try to extend extra-inning rallies, and the winning hit. Pretty cool stuff.

That started a heck of a close to the season for Camilli. He hit .316 with a 1.024 OPS and 26 RBI in 27 games. The Dodgers won the pennant by 2 ½ games and Camilli was a very worthy MVP choice.

Bobby Grich beats the Yankees, 5-4

Bobby Grich is a darling of the sabermetric crowd. Had Wins Above Replacement been around in the 1970s and 1980s, there might have been a greater appreciation of Grich’s value. He had six seasons with a WAR of at least 6 and three more with a WAR of at least 4. He was a very good defender with a high on-base percentage Though often viewed as a member of the Hall of Very Good, tools like Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame evaluation system (JAWS) rate Grich as Cooperstown worthy. By that system, he rates as the 8th-best second baseman of all-time, one spot ahead of Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg.

There is a game from the 1984 season known as “The Sandberg Game” that is the signature contest of his Hall-of-Fame career. I think I found a game that could qualify as “The Grich Game.”

It took place on July 15, 1979 against the two-time defending champion Yankees. The Angels had won a dramatic game the day before. This one would be a one-man showcase.

On a day in which the Angels 3-through-5 hitters were a combined 0-for-12, it was a good thing that Grich was batting second. The Yankees zipped out to a 4-0 lead through two innings on two-run home runs by Chris Chambliss and Jim Spencer. With Cy Young winner Ron Guidry on the mound, a win seemed like a sure thing.

Grich got the Angels a run back in the third with a single. But the Angels squandered chances to score more in the third and fifth innings, leaving two men on base. They still trailed 4-1 when Grich came up with two men on base in the seventh. Grich’s two-run double against Guidry cut the lead to 4-3. But Carney Lansford and Don Baylor both lined out, leaving the Angels a run down with six outs remaining.

Guidry stayed on for the ninth inning, perhaps because Rich Gossage pitched 3 2/3 innings and Ron Davis threw 2 1/3 the day before. (combining to allow six runs). Guidry got two of the first three hitters out, sandwiching the outs around a walk. That brought up Grich.

Mark Heisler’s game story in the Los Angeles Times details how Yankees manager Billy Martin went to the mound to talk to Guidry, telling him not to let Grich pull the ball. Guidry obliged.

And Grich obliged. He homered to right to win the game, earning a postgame curtain call five minutes after the contest ended.

Final score, Bobby Grich 5, Yankees 4.

The best one man walk-off show there was

Those of us who like sabermetrics tend to like a stat known as Win Probability Added (WPA).

WPA is a storytelling stat. It tells you which player’s actions contributed most to winning and losing the game, based on historical win probabilities. If your down is down by a run with two outs in the ninth inning and has a 5 percent chance of winning, but you hit a home run to up their chance of winning to 50 percent, you get credit for the difference between 50 percent and 5 percent (45 percentage points). Add all your plays together (positive and negative) and you get a number that represents your value to that win.

That brings us to the highest Win Probability Added in a walk-off, per Baseball-Reference.com’s statistical database. It belongs to Hall-of-Famer Kiki (pronounced KYE-KYE) Cuyler of the NL champion 1932 Cubs. He did it against the Giants on August 31 in what was a game worth recapping (for me) and reading about (for you).

It looked like a day that was going to go against the Cubs, who entered having won 11 straight games. Starting pitcher Lon Warneke faced five Giants and retired none before exiting down 3-0. Hall-of-Famers Bill Terry and Mel Ott accounted for the three Giants runs. Terry accounted for another with an RBI hit in the second inning.

Cuyler’s first moment of significant impact came in the third inning when he tripled in Hall-of-Fame teammate Billy Herman, then scored on a double by Riggs Stephenson. The Cubs trailed after three innings, 4-2, with rain briefly halting the contest. Each team scored once in the fourth and the 5-3 Giants edge held through seven innings.

In the eighth inning, Cubs player manager Charlie Grimm doubled in Stephenson, cutting the Giants lead to 5-4, though the rally died when Marv Gudat (pinch-hitting for Hall-of-Famer Gabby Hartnett) grounded out. I’m going to mention something rather innocuous here, but for a reason. Stan Hack pinch-ran for Grimm in the eighth and Zack Taylor filled Grimm’s spot in the lineup, replacing Hartnett behind the plate. I’ll explain why I reference this shortly, but understand that things will get a little kooky (not to be confused with Kiki, pronounced KYE-KYE).

Giants pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons took that one run lead into the bottom of the ninth and got two outs, sandwiched around a hit by Frank Demaree. Woody English then singled Demaree to third, bringing Cuyler to the plate with the tying run 90 feet from scoring, but one out from defeat.

Cuyler came through with a game-tying single. For those curious, the Cubs’ win probability went from 20 to 61 percent. It dropped back to 50 after they failed to score another run in the home ninth. It was on to extra innings.

The top of the 10th was one wacky half inning. Cubs pitcher Guy Bush hit two batters and wild pitched in a run. The Giants scored four runs and could have had more but for Terry getting thrown out attempting to go to second on his single, and Hughie Critz being thrown out at home plate trying to score on Ott’s fly to left. But even though the Giants led by four runs, the top of the 10th had NOTHING on the bottom of the 10th.

Billy Jurges led off the bottom of the 10th for the Cubs against reliever Sam Gibson. By the way the game had gone, that meant he was hitting for Taylor. Jurges grounded out to third base and Gudat popped to third. Up came Mark Koenig, best known as the shortstop on the 1927 Yankees. He made like a member of Murderer’s Row and kept the game alive with a home run. This brought up pitcher Leroy Herrmann, who relieved Bush.

Except that it didn’t. For some reason unbeknownst to anyone, Taylor came to bat (the Baseball-Reference box score lists him in 2 spots!) And somehow, Terry, the Giants manager, didn’t notice. The Chicago Tribune devoted an entire article to this, sans quotes (funny that below an article largely about umps and rules was a story about a pro roller skater named Joe West!)

Taylor’s single extended the game a little longer. Singles by Herman and English followed, and suddenly the Cubs had their man Cuyler up, down by two runs with two on and two outs in the 10th.

And Cuyler came through! His three-run home run won the game for the Cubs. It upped the Cubs chance of winning from 9 percent to 100 percent. Cuyler tormented the Giants all season, driving in 25 runs in 21 games. There are a few postscripts from this game. One is that Gibson and Cuyler would meet again in the 11th inning on September 15 and Cuyler would hit a game-winning home run. It was the next-to-last game of Gibson’s career.

Edward Burns wrote the game story in the Tribune, and I’ll close with his open. He described it as “as ferocious a rampage as baseball fans ever beheld” and noted that Cuyler was mobbed by fans after the game. “He was rescued by ushers with some difficulty.”

Will Clark was a true Giant when it came to great walk-offs

We talk about the Hall of Very Good sometimes as a place where those who come up a little short of Hall of Fame standards reside. Will Clark would be among the Hall of Very Good’s most worthy residents.

Clark played 16 seasons with the Giants, Rangers, Orioles and Cardinals. He hit a robust .303/.384/.497, made six All-Star teams, won two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove award at first base. He had the misfortune of playing a position with a lot of really good players. But Clark’s numbers are still impressive.

He finished in the top five in the MVP voting four times in a five-year span with the Giants and was terrific in the 1987, 1989 and 2000 NLCS’ but never won a World Series. He was an even better hitter in high-leverage situations than he was in other spots. He retired after a season in which he hit .319/.418/.546. It ranks alongside David Ortiz and Ted Williams among the best retirement seasons of all-time.

Clark’s signature walk-off game came on June 22, 1988 against the Padres. San Diego was on the verge of a sweep of the series and got off to a good start on a Tony Gwynn RBI hit in the first inning. Clark countered with an RBI hit of his own in the bottom of the inning, but the Padres struck for three in the second on an RBI hit by Benito Santiago and a two-run single from Shane Mack. They stretched their lead to 5-1 on Carmelo Martinez’s home run in the third.

Clark got the Giants three runs back in the fifth when he homered against Padres starter Ed Whitson. The AP story notes that Clark had told the Giants No. 1 draft pick, future MLB shortstop, Royce Clayton, that he’d homered to right field in the game. Clark came through.

The score held until the top of the ninth when the Padres scored twice to take a 7-4 edge into the bottom of the ninth.

Lance McCullers (the elder) was appointed to close the game out for San Diego, but after retiring Kevin Mitchell, he walked Bob Brenly and allowed a single to Jose Uribe. In came the Padres closer, Mark Davis, who struck out pinch-hitter Harry Spilman. The Padres were one out from a win.

That out never came. Brett Butler singled in a run and Chris Speier walked. The situation stood at the Padres up by two runs, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning. Clark was up.

The game recap notes that Davis threw Clark six curveballs, and that he thought he had Clark struck out on a 1-2 pitch that was called a ball. The last of those six curveballs was hit into the right field corner. Uribe, Butler and Speier all scored and the Giants had themselves an amazing 8-7 win. Seven of the runs were driven in by Will the Thrill.