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In his second postseason as a starter, the 1952 World Series, Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges had a miserable time. In seven games he went 0-for-21 with five walks and one RBI. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in seven games, and Hodges was the official goat. Hodges played in another four World Series and he never had another bad one, hitting .337 with four home runs in 26 games, yet he never did stop hearing about what happened in ’52, and that terrible series may have helped keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

There have been other goats, like Fred Snodgrass in 1912, Hack Wilson in 1929, Ernie Lombardi—very unfairly—in 1939 (ever since it has been argued whether Charlie Keller kicked him in the head or in the groin, as if one or the other was somehow preferable), Mickey Owen in 1941, Dave Winfield in 1981, Bill Buckner in 1986—and perhaps Alex Rodriguez in the 2011 American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and the Tigers.

I think about the “Snodgrass Muff” a lot because, like “Merkle’s Boner,” it’s a good example of how unfair life can be. “Snow” supposedly cost the Giants the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox—the last World Series the Sox ever won, you’d think, from the way folks are carrying on this year—but he was only a contributor. The two teams were playing the eighth game of a seven-game series, a previous game having ended in a tie, at Fenway Park. It was the bottom of the 10th inning. The Giants had just gone up 2-1 in the top of the frame by scoring an impossible run against Smoky Joe Wood, on in relief. Christy Mathewson was still in for the Giants.

Wood, a very good hitter (after his arm went, he had a five-year career as an outfielder, hitting .298/.376/.433) was due to lead off, but at that moment he couldn’t grip the bat, having ended the Giants’ rally by stopping a line drive with his pitching hand. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle came up instead. A utility infielder, Engle wasn’t much of a hitter, and Mathewson induced him to hit a weak fly to center field. Snodgrass settled under it… and simply dropped it. Engle reached second by the time that Snodgrass got the ball back in.

The Giants expected the next batter, Sox leadoff man and future Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, to bunt Engle to third, so Snodgrass wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next: Hooper swung away and cracked a line drive to deep center. Snodgrass raced back to deep left center and caught the ball over his shoulder, a play that was, according to reports, every bit as good as the previous one had been bad. Engle tagged and scampered to third base. Nothing had happened yet. There was one out and a runner on third, Giants leading 2-1, a not terribly threatening hitter, second baseman Steve Yerkes, at the plate.

Here’s where things got weird. My sense of their painful strangeness may have been exacerbated by reading about the aftermath of this moment in one of the few truly great baseball novels, Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant, in which it is a central event, but even without the intercession of literature the moment would be an exceedingly odd one given the players involved—the great Mathewson, catcher Chief Myers, and first baseman Fred Merkle, who had already had enough trouble, thank you. First, Mathewson, who never walked anyone, walked Yerkes. Maybe this was semi-intentional and the Giants were trying to set up a double play, maybe Christy was just gassed—he’d thrown 310 innings in the regular season, 11 innings in the stalemated Game 2, and eight innings in Game 5. He had walked 34 batters in those 310 innings and none in his first two starts in the Series, but he passed four in Game 7, not counting an intentional walk.

Whatever the cause, the really bad thing about walking Yerkes was that it brought the number-three hitter, Tris Speaker to the plate. Speaker is in the Hall of Fame, but I get the sense that he’s not remembered with quite the same reverence and awe as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, and yet he was a .345/.428/.500 career hitter whose name was synonymous with defensive excellence in center field for decades. Speaker hit .383/.464/.567 in 1912 and would win the MVP (Chalmers) Award, so he wasn’t someone you wanted to put in a position to plate both the tying and the winning runs in a World Series game.

Of course, even the all-time greats don’t always deliver, especially when facing off against another all-time great. Speaker hit a foul pop-up in the area of first base, “almost in the first-base coaching box.” That would seem to be the first baseman’s play, but Merkle didn’t go for it. Mathewson was calling for Myers, the catcher, to take it, or maybe it was the Boston bench—Myers thought the Red Sox were yelling out conflicting instructions. Mathewson also could have caught the ball. Instead, he and Merkle stood by watching as Myers hauled up the line, lunging as the spheroid came back to earth but falling just short of making the catch. Given a second chance, Speaker lined a single to right field, driving in the tying run and advancing the winning run to third.

With only one out, Mathewson walked Duffy Lewis to set up a force at any base, but a Larry Gardner sacrifice fly later and the Series was all over. The Giants won the pennant every year from 1911 to 1913 and lost the World Series each time, very little of which was Fred Snodgrass’s fault. He had to live with the results the rest of his life, because somehow blame that should have accrued to Mathewson and Merkle was deflected onto him. Perhaps Mathewson was too beloved and people just couldn’t get their heads around saddling Merkle with another blunder, sensing he was already doomed to go down in history as “Bonehead.”

That brings me back to Alex Rodriguez, who hit .111 in the series just ended. His 2-for-18 with six strikeouts, the last of which sent the Yankees home for the year, will go down in another in a long line of October failures not wholly ameliorated by his strong showing in the championship season of 2009. I have mixed feeling about this given that Rodriguez was not the sole author of the defeat—the club as a whole stranded all the baserunners in creation. For example, the odd decision to leave Austin Romine off the roster in Francisco Cervelli’s absence, but to retain Jesus Montero and yet be afraid of using him, meant that Russell Martin got to hit in key situations and fail to drive in a run in the series.

Though Rodriguez spent most of the season dealing with injuries and seemed to have been seriously debilitated by them, he insisted after the game that, “I was healthy enough to do whatever I needed to do.” He may not have been the best judge, which brings up another important question of goat-dom: if a player failed to execute because he was incapable of doing so, shouldn’t we blame the person who put the player in that position rather than the player himself? When Bill Buckner butchered that key grounder up the first-base line in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, he presumably did so because his knees were shot. Manager John McNamara had frequently replaced Buckner in the late innings, particularly in September, but had failed to do so in that situation because he had decided that Buckner deserved to be on the field when the Red Sox won, a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Buckner wore the horns, but McNamara should have been sued for negligent operation of a ballclub.

Think back too to catcher Mickey Owens’ screw-up in 1941. The Dodgers took a 4-3 lead over the Yankees to the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 at Ebbets Field. Tommy Henrich batted with two out and nobody on. Hugh Casey, one of the great early relief aces, was on the mound. Casey had a vicious sinker, and with two strikes he threw one in the dirt to Henrich. Henrich swung and missed, striking out, but the ball ticked off of Owens’ mitt and rolled away. It took Owens approximately a half an hour to find the ball, by which time Henrich was safely standing on first base.

The passed ball could have been no more than a bump in the road on the way to the Dodgers tying a series they trailed 2-1, but what happened next was the stuff of nightmares for the team and their fans: Casey completely unraveled. Joe DiMaggio singled to left field. Charlie Keller crushed a ball off of the right field wall to chase home both Henrich and DiMaggio. Bill Dickey walked. Joe Gordon pulled a ball to left field for another double, scoring both Keller and Dickey. Four runs had scored, and the Yankees led 7-4. The Dodgers went down meekly in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees won Game 5 and therefore the World Series the next day.

Through that barrage, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher just sat there. As he said later, “I froze.” He was a pioneer of relief pitching, but he didn’t go out to the mound to calm Casey, didn’t call in another pitcher. He might as well have been sitting in the stands instead of the dugout, because he just watched. Owen was credited for laying an egg even though all he did was put the tying run on base. He didn’t lose the other three contests that gave the Yankees their title, and he wasn’t the one who could have brought in another pitcher to rescue Casey. So, is that loss on Owens, on Casey, or on Durocher?

The Yankees’ alternatives to Alex Rodriguez were meager: Eric Chavez, who can’t hit anymore, and Eduardo Nunez, who can hit a little for a utility man and can’t field. Yet, 100 percent of Nunez might have been better than 20 percent of A-Rod, or whatever portion of him was functional these last five games. The fans will be rushing to blame the expensive and aging slugger, but it was whoever made the assessment that he should play is the true goat. I want to know who that was, but if history is any guide, he won’t be in a hurry to reveal himself.

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crperry13
10/07
Steven, this is one of your best. A really good read. I love the historical perspective.
Richie
10/07
McNamara 'fessed up that's why he had Buckner still in there? Wow. I's never heard that.
asekoonce
10/07
The thing is, I believe that using more modern analysis of fielding, Buckner wasn't a worse fielder than Dave Stapleton, the may who usually replaced him. Regardless, McNamara always replaced Buckner with Stapleton in the late innings when the Red Sox were ahead throughout that postseason, so this was a change in his usual pattern. It should be pointed out that it wasn't Buckner's immobility that caused the error; the ball just skipped on him. There is no reason to believe that it wouldn't have skipped on Stapleton, too. Furthermore, Calvin Schiraldi had two outs, no one on base, and a two run lead, and couldn't get the last out. Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch that brought the tying run home and put the winning run at third (a pitch that a good catcher should have been able to block, but that eluded Rich Gedman). Even if Buckner makes the play, the Red Sox do not necessarily win; the score remains tied and on to the next inning. So excoriating Buckner or even McNamara (who was indeed a lousy tactical manager, but that's a story for another day) is to overlook those who were far more responsible for the loss.
ScottBehson
10/08
According to the excellent "Catching Hell" documentary about Steve Bartman (which drew many parallels to the Buckner error of 86), Bill Buckner said he watched video and saw that he used a very floppy, flexible glove, as these are better for snagging errant throws to first. However, as he took a few steps to his left, and suddenly stopped, the momentum of the floppy glove kept the glove moving to the side, so that the glove swung away from the ball, leading to the error. (great documentary, BTW)
Johnston
10/08
I heard Mookie Wilson talking about that ground ball once. He said that it definitely hit something on the field like a pebble or such and was deflected slightly. There was no doubt in his statement at all, he said that he saw it clearly.
ericmvan
10/08
You can't focus on this one play. The better question is, why did McNamara let Buckner (.218 / .257 / .322 vs. LHP) hit against Jesse Orosco (.187 / .235 / .253 vs. LHB, second best marks in the league) with the bases loaded and 2 out in the 8th, when he had Don Baylor to pinch-hit? (The answer appears to be because Buckner told Mac "I can hit this guy" as Baylor was getting a bat out of the rack.) The even better question is why was Buckner not only starting the game but hitting 3rd against Bobby Ojeda (.150 / .207 / .206 vs. LHB, best marks in the league) when Baylor could have started, since there was no DH? Buckner had a -.468 WPA in the series, so objectively he was indeed the goat. That the ball went through his legs when it did was essentially Divine Shorthand. But it's his job to say "Put me in, coach, I can play." It was McNamara's job to say "No, you can't, you're terrible."
Richie
10/07
Sounds to me like you're arguing the Yankees should've had a starting-caliber 3rd baseman ready and waiting behind Rodriguez. Who are the other backup 3rd basemen on other playoff teams, and how do they compare to Chavez and Nunez? My initial guess would be 'darn similarly'.
tosaboy
10/07
why can't jeter be the goat? 250/280/292 ain't exactly the stuff of dreams, 6-24 isn't significantly better than 2-23.
ragerd
10/07
Why does there have to be a goat? Maybe the Tigers just played better.
nosybrian
10/07
You've hit the nail on the head with that comment. I think almost all of the coverage of the Tigers-Yankees series has been about what the Yankees did or failed to do. They won or they lost games; but so did the Tigers, who are treated more or less like the straight men in a Yankees comedy act. The Tigers are a pretty good team. At the end of the regular season they had better starting pitchers than the Yankees. They scored the 4th most runs of any team in the majors, so they knew how to score runs. Sure, they had plenty of weaknesses, but they showed an ability to win regularly in how they played the last several weeks of the season. So maybe they were taken too lightly, regarded too off-handedly as if they were the #10 contender coming into the arena against the #1. And maybe that's how the Yankees manager regarded them, too. With that approach, and that attitude, the Yankees got beat.
eighteen
10/07
Clearly you don't understand Yankee fans' sense of entitlement.
352361957
10/07
Yankees feasted on #'s 4and5 starting pitchers thruout the season, along with mediocre relievers, only to be stymied by front-end starters and above average relievers during the recent series.....or maybe the hitting was over-rated(excluding Cano).
noonan
10/07
Or maybe they got just a little bit unlucky, losing a short series where they scored nearly twice as many runs as their opposition.
Johnston
10/08
What? Luck? Chance? Randomness? Don't you ever listen to Joe Morgan? This is a game of CHARACTER. The Yankees obviously lacked the character needed to be champions. :)
kozysnacker
10/07
Doesn't EVERY lineup beat up on opposing fourth and fifth starters and mediocre relievers, only to be stymied by front-end arms?
Olinkapo
10/07
It's a five game series. When a really, really good team gets beat by a really good team in five games, there doesn't need to be a goat. It happens. Of course, bloodthirsty fans and most sportswriters decree a goat there must be. But they are wrong.
Johnston
10/08
"...McNamara should have been sued for negligent operation of a ballclub." Back when it happened a lot of us would have preferred that he got jail time instead.
Johnston
10/08
When the anointed fall, there always needs to be a goat. Simple human nature. Now the scapegoat is unlikely to ever be the actually reason for the failure, but everyone else's sins will be transferred to him and he will be blamed eternally. That's just the way humans work. Certainly the rest of the Yankees leaving so many men on base in critical situations HAD NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH IT. Clearly the series loss was all A-Rod's fault. Unclean! Unclean! Cast him out! Into the outer darkness with him!
Clemente
10/08
Exactly. Swisher and Martin were in much better position to effect games and did not come through, too.
delatopia
10/08
Not to be that guy, but it's Mickey Owen, not Owens.
WaldoInSC
10/09
Not to really be that guy, but Swisher and Martin would have affected those games, not effected them.
stevekantor
10/11
I like to dump on A-Rod as much as the next guy, even more than most. He typifies a Mr. 8-3 as much as any hitter (good for a home run when the game is over, one way or the other) and please don't confuse this argument with facts. And sure, I do think he was a goat for the Yankees' loss, but gee whiz, all the historical goats actually did something wrong, where A-Rod simply was a stiff. Steven, you did miss one of the other great goats - a pretty good ballplayer - Babe Ruth. With two outs in the ninth of the seventh game of the 1926 Series, Ruth took off for second and was thrown out.