ESPN baseball columnist/feature writer
Former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus
Co-author of “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”
The World Series begins with only one promise: It will produce a winner. It won’t assure us a compelling story, though it does often deliver. It won’t guarantee seven nights of entertainment, though we’re frequently so blessed. There’s no pledge that we’ll remember more than one or two things about it 20 years later, but some produce dozens of unforgettable details.
In other words, some World Series are better than others. The last major league game that counted was the final game of the 2019 World Series, the 115th one ever played. This is a ranking of those 115. It’s based on … well, ultimately, it’s based on one writer’s opinion. But there are four primary factors we leaned on:
1. Game leverage index, at Baseball-Reference, which measures how close the game is on each play and how likely the next play is to shift each team’s chances of winning. A game that’s close for nine innings and won by a walk-off in the 10th will rate much better than one in which a team jumps ahead early and runs away with it.
2. Championship leverage index, at The Baseball Gauge. It’s similar to game leverage, except it includes how close the series itself is. A seven-game series will rate much better than a sweep.
3. How memorable the series was. The 1988 World Series wasn’t particularly close, but it produces instant recall for one inning alone.
4. How historically significant it was, and how satisfying that history is.
We’ll list each World Series’ rank in the first two categories. The latter two are subjective, so we’ll just describe them as best we can.
The ones that were over before they began
115. 1919: Reds over White Sox in eight games (best of nine)
Series leverage rank: 104th
Game leverage rank: 102nd
Rigged by eight White Sox players who had been paid to lose, and the games weren’t even close. Pity the Reds, who might well have won anyway but never got the satisfaction of knowing.
114. 1989: A’s over Giants in four
Series leverage: 115th
Game leverage: 115th
It’s not just that the Giants never led. It’s that they managed to end only two innings in the series even tied. Also, a deadly earthquake split it into two parts, and when play resumed (against the objections of some civic leaders) we were still terrified the ground would shake.
113. 2007: Red Sox over Rockies in four
Series leverage: 109th
Game leverage: 99th
Game 3 took 4 hours and 19 minutes for no good reason except “the Red Sox.” It’s still the longest nine-inning game in Series history.
112. 1937: Yankees over Giants in five
Series leverage: 104th
Game leverage: 102nd
A repeat of the not-very-close 1936 World Series matchup. Less close.
111. 2012: Giants over Tigers in four
Series leverage: 110th
Game leverage: 64th
History flattens narratives, so we remember this as just part of the Giants’ mini-dynasty. But for the individual Giants, the years from 2010 to 2014 contained sprawling arcs, full of twists. Barry Zito, the Giants’ highest-paid player, didn’t appear in the 2010 World Series but won Game 1 in 2012; Pablo Sandoval was benched for the 2010 Series, but he won the MVP in 2012; and Tim Lincecum’s career was collapsing, and he wouldn’t appear in 2014, but he starred as a multi-inning relief ace in 2012.
110. 1939: Yankees over Reds in four
Series leverage: 111th
Game leverage: 41st
The winning run in Game 4 came on Joe DiMaggio’s extra-inning single. When the Reds outfielder misplayed it, a second run raced for home. Catcher Ernie Lombardi dropped the throw, then “squatted on the ground, apparently brooding over the futility of it all,” as DiMaggio himself ran home and scored for a Little League homer.
109. 2008: Phillies over Rays in five
Series leverage: 70th
Game leverage: 39th
The best game in the series — Game 3 — started 90 minutes late because of rain, and didn’t end until almost 2 a.m.. The next-best game in the series — the clinching Game 5 — was interrupted by rain, and then snow, and ended up with a two-day weather delay in the sixth inning. Other than that, it was played with general haplessness.
108. 1976: Reds over Yankees in four
Series leverage: 100th
Game leverage: 55th
“I’d like to sweep so this team can be rated with the great teams where it belongs,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said, and it worked. Yankees manager Billy Martin got ejected late in the final game for chucking a ball toward an umpire.
107. 1966: Orioles over Dodgers in four
Series leverage: 103rd
Game leverage: 79th
The Orioles scored three runs in the top of the first inning of Game 1, then held the Dodgers to two runs in the entire series.
106. 1905: Giants over A’s in four
Series leverage: 81st
Game leverage: 65th
The World wasn’t convinced yet that this was its Series. The AL pennant had very nearly been won by the White Sox, whose owner had vowed not to participate — just as the Giants had skipped it in 1904, calling it a mere exhibition. That raised the possibility that the AL would send a second-place team instead. The Athletics pulled out the pennant, saving us from that timeline, but A’s star Rube Waddell didn’t pitch, for reasons still unclear. One accusation is Waddell had been bribed to skip it.
105. 1920: Indians over Brooklyn Robins in seven (best of nine)
Series leverage: 95th
Game leverage: 105th
Cleveland arguably made it only because the White Sox lost their best players to suspension late in the season, when the Black Sox scandal broke. Brooklyn pitcher Rube Marquard was arrested for scalping tickets to a police detective.
104. 1990: Reds over A’s in four
Series leverage: 97th
Game leverage: 67th
Two close games, but not a close series — at least until Game 4, when the Reds lost two of their best hitters to season-ending injuries early in the game and an A’s comeback seemed, if unlikely, suddenly plausible. But the greatest gift this Series gave us was the answer to a pretty good trivia question years later: Who is the only pitcher to win a game after getting a Hall of Fame vote? It’s Jose Rijo, whose MVP performance in the 1990 World Series — including 8⅓ sterling innings in the aforementioned Game 4 — was probably what earned him a single vote on the 2000 ballot. (After many attempts to come back from injuries, Rijo finally got healthy enough to “unretire” in 2001. He didn’t win — or lose — any games in ’01, but he went 5-4 in ’02.)
103. 2010: Giants over Rangers in five
Series leverage: 102nd
Game leverage: 106th
In a tied Game 2, the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler hit one off the very top of the padded center-field wall, and physics failed him: The ball somehow stopped its forward progress and bounced back for a double instead of a homer. The Giants won 9-0. Baseball is a game of inches and a game of blowouts.
102. 1908: Cubs over Tigers in five
Series leverage: 91st
Game leverage: 68th
The National League produced the greatest pennant race ever, capped by the craziest day of baseball ever, and then the Cubs rode to Detroit to face the vastly inferior AL team they had swept the year before. Like watching Superman beat Lex Luthor in Act 2, then spending Act 3 investigating agribusiness price-fixing — very anticlimactic.
101. 1961: Yankees over Reds in five
Series leverage: 93rd
Game leverage: 104th
The Yankees’ 12th Series in 15 years, and the routine of it was showing: Mickey Mantle undressed and left the stadium before it was over, and Roger Maris declined interviews. “I’m in a hurry, boys,” Maris told reporters. “Parties don’t mean anything to me.”
100. 2006: Cardinals over Tigers in five
Series leverage: 85th
Game leverage: 70th
The biggest hit in this series, by championship win probability added (cWPA), was David Eckstein’s tiebreaking double in Game 4 — just the 447th-biggest play in Series history. The 83-win Cardinals are, by that measure, the worst champion ever.
99. 1998: Yankees over Padres in four
Series leverage: 99th
Game leverage: 60th
These Yankees won 114 regular-season games, the third-most ever, and as the World Series began, it was agreed that they needed to beat the Padres so they could secure the club’s legacy as an inner-circle greatest team of all time. But midway through the series, it was agreed that to prove anything they must not just win but crush the Padres. And so they did. The Yankees ended up with a record 125 wins in the year and a winning percentage (including postseason games) behind only the 1927 Yankees and the 1909 Pirates. I’d personally put them maybe fifth in the GOAT conversation, but other smart folks could put them first.
The bad Series with great players
98. 1938: Yankees over Cubs in four
Series leverage: 98th
Game leverage: 62nd
Lou Gehrig was dying, but nobody knew it yet. He just knew he was tired. He singled in each game of what would be his final World Series.
97. 1951: Yankees over Giants in six
Series leverage: 66th
Game leverage: 98th
A Series between rookies Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle: What could go wrong? Mays hit .182 with no extra-base hits. Mantle caught his cleat on a drain cover, collapsed as if shot, and played in pain the rest of his career.
96. 1913: A’s over Giants in five
Series leverage: 89th
Game leverage: 71st
In Game 2, Christy Mathewson took a shutout into the bottom of the ninth, the score tied. He escaped an inescapable jam — runners on second and third with nobody out, after a teammate’s error — then singled home the winner in the 10th. That’s tied for the highest WPA in a postseason game: 1.0.
95. 1970: Orioles over Reds in five
Series leverage: 101st
Game leverage: 76th
Brooks Robinson’s defense at third base won it. “The unhappy Reds pilot, Sparky Anderson, kept shaking his head and muttering, ‘He’s the whole series so far,'” The New Yorker reported.
94. 1930: A’s over Cardinals in six
Series leverage: 80th
Game leverage: 92nd
Game 5: Lefty Grove, the best pitcher in the world, came in to relieve starter George Earnshaw in the eighth inning of a scoreless game. Grove, who had thrown a complete game the day before, threw a scoreless eighth, then Jimmie Foxx homered in the top of the ninth, and Grove threw a scoreless bottom of the ninth for the win.
93. 1967: Cardinals over Red Sox in seven
Series leverage: 62nd
Game leverage: 109th
Bob Gibson made three starts: three complete games, three runs allowed, three wins. This is not the World Series he’s most remembered for!
92. 1963: Dodgers over Yankees in four
Series leverage: 112th
Game leverage: 103rd
Sandy Koufax made two starts, two complete games, one with a then-record 15 K’s. This is not the World Series he’s most remembered for!
91. 2009: Yankees over Phillies in six
Series leverage: 92nd
Game leverage: 95th
The Yankees won their 27th title and ended Pedro Martinez’s career. Martinez, after a terrible 2008 season with the Mets, had signed a one-year contract with the Phillies in July. He was pretty good down the stretch, then dominant in his one NLCS start — revived and refreshed, if no longer the greatest of all time. But in Game 6, the Yankees knocked him out after four innings, four runs in, for his second loss. He topped out at 84 mph. After the game, he tried to avoid reporters, but they found and encircled him by an elevator “while a random Yankees fan — who somehow escaped security’s notice — yelled at him over reporters’ questions,” Amy K. Nelson wrote. “If this is how Martinez exits baseball, it will be an unfortunate ending for one of the best pitchers to play the game.” It was, but maybe it was the right ending after all. Pedro was among the greatest of all time, nobody denies it. He had some of his biggest moments against the Yankees, but nearly all of his worst ones, too. He admitted that, even had fun with it. Ending his career with “a random Yankees fan” yelling “Who’s your daddy” at him — it’s either depressing or perfect.
90. 1977: Yankees over Dodgers in six
Series leverage: 86th
Game leverage: 90th
“It all flows from me,” Reggie Jackson said that summer. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.” Manager Billy Martin hated him for it — they almost came to blows in the dugout shortly afterward — but then Jackson backed it up: five homers in the series, three in the clinching Game 6.
The fine Series where something was just off
89. 1910: A’s over Cubs in five
Series leverage: 105th
Game leverage: 75th
The league chose the World Series, of all times, to introduce a new, livelier baseball, and the results were immediate: Scoring went from 3.8 runs/game in the regular season to 5.0 in the World Series (and 4.5 in 1911). Baseball needed the change, probably, but using the World Series to run an experiment — it’d be like if Rob Manfred had declared the league was switching to robo strike zones just before Gerrit Cole threw the first pitch last October.
88. 1944: Cardinals over St. Louis Browns in six
Series leverage: 48th
Game leverage: 48th
87. 1943: Yankees over Cardinals in five
Series leverage: 49th
Game leverage: 24th
86. 1945: Tigers over Cubs in seven
Series leverage: 30th
Game leverage: 97th
These champions are, officially, canon, but in all three seasons the talent in the league was depleted. By the end of WWII, about 500 major leaguers had served — in a league with 400 active players at any given time — and the standings were weird. The Browns, baseball’s worst major league franchise, won their only pennant in 1944, and the dysfunctional Cubs somehow won in 1945. That said, all three series were competitive and well attended, and at the time the population was grateful that baseball had found a way (at the president’s request) to keep play going.
The 1945 Series is where we get the Cubs’ Curse of the Billy Goat. Local tavern owner Billy Sianis was ejected from the stadium with his stinky wet goat. Sianis cursed the team, according to a legend that wasn’t really crafted until Sianis died in 1970. That was just after the Cubs collapsed to the Mets in 1969, and as the Cubs’ narrative of futility was just starting to pick up national momentum, and when the anomalous 1945 World Series had perhaps blended in with all the others.
85. 1903: Boston Americans over Pirates in eight (best of nine)
Series leverage: 94th
Game leverage: 112th
Undeniably successful, with huge attendance figures that gave the event enough momentum to repeat itself in 1905 and become a thing. There were 17 ground-rule triples, 33 errors and Deacon Phillippe threw five complete games.
84. 1983: Orioles over Phillies in five
Series leverage: 74th
Game leverage: 58th
As the eighth inning of Game 1 approached, the score was tied 1-1. President Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave the ballpark, and he did a brief interview on the broadcast with Howard Cosell.
Orioles starter Scott McGregor had already warmed for the eighth when an ABC crewman signaled for him to wait. He did. When he was given the all-clear to pitch, his first throw was a poorly located fastball that Garry Maddox hit out. The 2-1 score held. “There is a certain flow to the game,” McGregor said. “I told that guy never to do that to me again. I said, ‘Sell your Datsuns some other way.'”
Then the Orioles won four straight, including three come-from-behind wins, to take the so-called I-95 Series. The 1980s were filled with nicknamed Series. The Brewers and Cardinals played the Suds Series, the Giants and A’s played the Battle of the Bay, the Cardinals and Royals played the I-70 Series, and the Dodgers and A’s series was called, I swear, the Fog to Smog Series.
83. 1985: Royals over Cardinals in seven
Series leverage: 42nd
Game leverage: 69th
Before Game 6, this one was going to go down as “dull but quick,” in the New York Times’ description of it. Whether what happened next should move it higher or lower on this list is a matter of personal philosophy.
The Cardinals were up three games to two in the sixth game, and up 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth in that sixth game. (MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth actually cut through the Royals’ dugout around this time so he would be in place to present the World Series trophy to the Cardinals. The Royals players definitely noticed this. “That jacked us up,” one Royal said.) The Royals’ Jorge Orta led off the inning and grounded to first base. The throw to Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell covering the bag was clearly in time, but first-base ump Don Denkinger called him safe. Worrell pointed at the bag to insist he tagged it with his foot. Denkinger said Orta had simply beat Worrell.
From there, the Royals rallied, while Denkinger — afraid he might have missed the call — was secretly rooting for the Cardinals to hold the lead and make his call moot. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog went on a tirade to reporters after the game: “The two best teams are supposed to be in the World Series. They ought to have the best umpires in it, too. I think it’s a disgrace. It’s a joke. We haven’t got one call from the three American League umpires in this thing. You want my opinion? It stinks.” He noted, with a final sense of fatalism, that Denkinger would be the plate umpire for Game 7. “We got about as much chance of winning as a monkey.”
They lost that one 11-0.
Denkinger’s missed call would be the most famous missed call in baseball history for about 25 years, until Jim Joyce missed a similar call on what would have been the final out of Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. There were two huge differences in the fallout of the two missed calls:
While the sport and Galarraga himself largely rallied in support of Joyce — an umpire with an excellent reputation who tearfully expressed regret for his missed call — Denkinger was vilified. Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar were both ejected for arguing with him the next day, and Herzog’s quotes above not only don’t give him the benefit of the doubt but also imply actual bias. St. Louis disc jockeys revealed his phone number and home address, and he got hate mail and death threats, some of which were investigated by the FBI, some of which instigated police protection. In the years that followed, the Cardinals continued to say they’d been “cheated” out of the title, and it took a decade for Herzog and the Cardinals to publicly soften toward him.
While Joyce’s missed call led to even more vocal calls for instant replay in the game — to protect players like Galarraga, and to protect umpires like Joyce — Herzog declined to make the same case after Denkinger’s mistake. When, during his rant against bad umpiring, Herzog was asked whether the league should use replay for close plays, he first answered that “they better use something.” He quickly backtracked: “No, they can’t use instant replay on plays like that. It would take four hours to decide.” It would take 30 years before calls like Denkinger’s would be made reviewable, something Denkinger said in 2010 he would have been grateful for.
82. 1997: Marlins over Indians in seven
Series leverage: 9th
Game leverage: 53rd
A fantastic series at the time, but the wrong team won. We sort of knew it then: The Marlins were a pop-up contender built on a free-agent spree the club’s owner immediately repudiated, while Cleveland, with a citywide sports championship drought to end, was an underdog story that had transformed from the punchline of “Major League” into a truly homegrown powerhouse. But after the Marlins won, and then traded all of their good players in a shocking fire sale, they became an unscrubbable blemish on the history of baseball.
81. 1959: Dodgers over White Sox in six
Series leverage: 67th
Game leverage: 85th
The Dodgers drew 92,000 fans in each of their three home games. The awkward dimensions of the Los Angeles Coliseum helped start the tradition of fans bringing transistor radios with them, filling the stadium with the voice of Vin Scully.
80. 1906: White Sox over Cubs in six
Series leverage: 50th
Game leverage: 83rd
The 1906 Cubs are one of two teams to win a record 116 games in a season, but as with the 2001 Mariners, the historic regular season preceded postseason defeat.
79. 1914: Braves over A’s in four
Series leverage: 87th
Game leverage: 16th
The “Miracle Braves” were in last place in July but roared back, then swept the heavily favored Athletics. A’s owner Connie Mack essentially threw a fit, sold off a bunch of his best players, and his team dropped to 43-109 in 1915.
78. 1918: Red Sox over Cubs in six
Series leverage: 38th
Game leverage: 22nd
It’s quite likely the 1919 World Series wasn’t the only one “thrown” by players trying to lose. Sean Deveney’s book “The Original Curse” argues the 1918 Cubs might have preceded their crosstown rivals into corruption.
77. 1922: Giants over Yankees in five (one game tied)
Series leverage: 78th
Game leverage: 8th
Game 2 had, according to the New York Times’ telling, “the most dramatic ending that any world’s series game ever had,” and it’s frustrating even 100 years later: The umpire called it for darkness at 4:45 p.m. with the score tied in the 10th and, according to spectators, the sun out. The players were “thunderstruck,” the crowd “bewildered.” Thousands mobbed the commissioner and shouted charges of corruption, claiming baseball wanted another day’s gate receipts. The league quelled anger by donating the ticket sales to a veterans charity.
76. 1948: Indians over Braves in six
Series leverage: 41st
Game leverage: 36th
It’s nearly certain the 2017 World Series wasn’t the only one marred by players stealing signs using illegal technology or personnel. If you had to pick another team to go nuts over, it might be the 1948 Cleveland club. According to Paul Dickson’s “The Hidden Language of Baseball,” Cleveland that year “employed a telescope that Bob Feller had used as a gunnery officer during World War II. The telescope was mounted on a tripod, placed in the Cleveland scoreboard, and operated alternately by Feller or Bob Lemon, who remembered that he could ‘see the dirt under the catcher’s fingernails.’ They would call out the next pitch to a groundskeeper, who would then use another opening in the scoreboard to relay the signs to Cleveland hitters.”
A bunch the Yankees won
75. 1953: Yankees over Dodgers in six
Series leverage: 76th
Game leverage: 74th
Over a 10-year period, the Yankees and Dodgers faced off in the World Series six times. In good moments, that repetition added heft and history: a whole World Series of World Series! In lesser moments, though — well, how often do you ever listen to the sixth-best album by any band? This, the fourth in the sequence, was the most forgettable of the six. It was Vin Scully’s first one broadcasting, though.
74. 1927: Yankees over Pirates in four
Series leverage: 96th
Game leverage: 35th
If this series had been a best-of-99, the Yankees would have won in 50. The only surprise was the disappointing ending: Babe Ruth had a chance to end it with a walk-off, but a wild pitch opened first base and he was intentionally walked. Then Lou Gehrig had a chance to end it with a walk-off but struck out. Instead of a signature moment in one of these all-time great careers, the Yankees won on … another wild pitch.
73. 1949: Yankees over Dodgers in five
Series leverage: 65th
Game leverage: 44th
Tommy Henrich hit the first walk-off homer in a World Series game. You can watch it, and hear the call by Red Barber, and marvel at how much less excited they used to get. Barber barely raises his voice. Henrich merely smiles. “Look at him grin,” Barber says, “big as a slice of watermelon.” He shakes some hands.
72. 1999: Yankees over Braves in four
Series leverage: 107th
Game leverage: 100th
The 1998 Yankees won 16 more games than these Yankees, and the ’98ers are justifiably the club most remembered from the modern dynasty years. But these Yankees’ postseason run was the more impressive one: They went 11-1 across three playoff rounds, outscoring their opponents by a combined 70-19. Their sweep of Atlanta was in a different category than their 1998 sweep of San Diego: The Braves were, unlike the Padres, an all-time great team of their own, their 103 wins marking a third consecutive season over 100. In the year of all-century teams, all-century rankings, all-century memories, when the culture was looking back on the previous 100 years and reassessing what historians would keep from them, this sweep was a fitting end to the century: The Yankees won eight World Series by sweep in the 1900s. Only one other team won eight World Series at all.
71. 1978: Yankees over Dodgers in six
Series leverage: 54th
Game leverage: 66th
The 21-year-old rookie Bob Welch was told to protect a one-run lead in Game 2, which required facing Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, with two on and a one-run lead in the ninth. Jackson made Welch throw nine pitches before striking out. Three days later, in the 10th, Welch took the loss. Fickle game.
Short but memorable
70. 2004: Red Sox over Cardinals in four
Series leverage: 106th
Game leverage: 89th
This is one of the most memorable Series of the past 50 years — except that what you’re really remembering is the ALCS between the Red Sox and the Yankees. The World Series itself was a dud, but it gets credit for what it was, and for Joe Buck’s poignant description: “It has been 86 years. Generations have come and gone.” That second sentence cuts.
69. 1984: Tigers over Padres in five
Series leverage: 90th
Game leverage: 84th
Like the rest of the Tigers’ season — a 35-5 start, wire to wire in first place, a sweep of the ALCS — this wasn’t close at all. But besides the pleasure of seeing a great team dominate, there was a sequence in Game 5 that is one of October’s finest: Goose Gossage, ordered to intentionally walk Kirk Gibson, talked his manager out of it. Then Gibson homered to put the series away, arms raised as he circled the bases. Just delicious.
68. 2018: Red Sox over Dodgers in five
Series leverage: 72nd
Game leverage: 17th
The Red Sox won the most games. The Dodgers won the best one: the 18-inning Game 3 that took more than seven hours to play.
67. 1917: White Sox over Giants in six
Series leverage: 52nd
Game leverage: 73rd
At 4:10 in this video, you can see delightfully exciting footage of Benny Kauff racing for an inside-the-the-park home run in Game 4, as old-timey men wave their hats and punch the air. Kauff was later banned from baseball for auto theft.
66. 1907: Cubs over Tigers in five (one tie)
Series leverage: 77th
Game leverage: 23rd
Ty Cobb was 20 years old and had just won the batting title, but the Cubs shut him down. Their .704 winning percentage in the regular season is the seventh-highest of all time.
65. 1942: Cardinals over Yankees in five
Series leverage: 82nd
Game leverage: 40th
Before Game 5, the Yankees tried to rattle the Cardinals by demanding that the Cards’ equipment manager be prohibited from the dugout. The umpire acceded, but it just made the Cardinals mad: Team captain Terry Moore declared, to a Yankees coach, “This is just one more reason why there’s going to be no tomorrow in this World Series.” He was right, as the Cardinals broke a ninth-inning tie with a two-run homer to win.
64. 1974: A’s over Dodgers in five
Series leverage: 61st
Game leverage: 31st
The Herb Washington experiment — sign an elite competitive sprinter to do nothing but pinch run — was delightful in theory, depressing in practice, as Washington struggled to learn and his teammates griped. It hit nadir in Game 2: He entered as the potential tying run with one out. Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall stepped off three times and Washington scampered back three times, and on the fourth move he got picked off. He punched the ground in frustration, perhaps shame, knowing he’d have to face his teammates yet again. You feel the hopelessness of somebody trying his earnest best to do something that’s just too hard.
63. 2013: Red Sox over Cardinals in six
Series leverage: 39th
Game leverage: 57th
The Red Sox have won four titles this century, but this particular club fits awkwardly into the lineage: The Sox won 69 games (and finished last) the year before, won 71 games (and finished last) the year after, but for one year had everything break right. They had signed a bunch of free agents to short-term contracts, and when those signings paid off — Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Mike Napoli, etc. — the front office was “damn near as surprised as the fans,” Alex Speier wrote in the Baseball Prospectus Annual. The problem with short-term deals: If those players work out perfectly, you’ve got to replace them the next year. Boston’s pop-up reign was brief.
Where it fits well in the 21st century Red Sox lineage is here: David Ortiz had his best postseason series. He batted 25 times and made only six outs — and one of those was a sacrifice fly. (For that matter, another was a groundout that moved a runner over to third.) His .760 OBP was the second highest in World Series history. Ortiz, in his career, had the most WPA as a hitter in postseason history, and as defining moments go, nothing tops Bullpen Cop from a week earlier. But this whole series came close.
62. 1911: A’s over Giants in six
Series leverage: 63rd
Game leverage: 37th
A rematch of the 1905 series — Connie Mack managing against John McGraw — but by now the World Series was a myth-making force. Frank Baker homered in Games 2 and 3. That got him the nickname “Home Run” Baker, and 109 years later every baseball fan knows the name, if not the career home run total (96).
61. 1933: Giants over Washington Senators in five
Series leverage: 71st
Game leverage: 18th
Of the 60 biggest plays in baseball history — by cWPA — 56 are hitters doing good hitting. It’s a lot easier to dramatically change the state of the game with a homer than an out. But at No. 60 is one of the exceptions. Carl Hubbell had a one-run lead in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 4. Bases loaded, one out and the Giants gambling by playing the infield back. Hubbell got the game-ending double play.
Long but forgettable
60. 1982: Cardinals over Brewers in seven
Series leverage: 25th
Game leverage: 93rd
On paper, this should have been a great clash between wildly different offensive styles. The Brewers — “Harvey’s Wallbangers” — hit 30 more homers than any other team in baseball that year. A New York Times preview called them the deepest nine-man lineup in World Series history. The Cardinals, meanwhile, hit just 67 homers as a team, barely more homers than they hit triples, while stealing 200 bags. Then the Cardinals outslugged the Brewers. The series gets points for going to Game 7 but loses them for the brutally dull Game 6 that preceded it: Nearly three hours of rain delays interrupted a 13-1 Cardinals victory.
59. 1921: Giants over Yankees in eight (best of nine)
Series Leverage: 53rd
Game leverage: 34th
The first World Series on the radio, the first with the Yankees. Also Babe Ruth’s first as an outfielder, but he was ailing and only intermittently available. He hit his first postseason homer in Game 4 but grounded out as a pinch hitter — representing the tying run — in the ninth inning of the clinching Game 8.
58. 2003: Marlins over Yankees in six
Series leverage: 35th
Game leverage: 30th
Few things are better than a young star’s superstardom manifesting itself in the middle of a World Series, and Josh Beckett — ahead of 2002 Francisco Rodriguez, 1996 Andruw Jones and 2019 Juan Soto — might be the best modern example. His 2-0 shutout of the Yankees in New York in the clinching Game 6 is the greatest World Series start in at least 50 years by a pitcher 23 or younger.
57. 1940: Reds over Tigers in seven
Series leverage: 33rd
Game leverage: 107th
The Tigers, afraid of detection, abandoned an elaborate binoculars-and-relay sign-stealing scheme for the World Series. But Tiger Birdie Tebbetts still claimed they “knew every pitch the Reds’ pitchers were going to throw. Catcher Jimmy Wilson was giving away the pitches by twitching his forearm muscles when he called a curve.” They still lost.
56. 1987: Twins over Cardinals in seven
Series leverage: 22nd
Game leverage: 91st
The home team won every game in this series, a fitting conclusion to a season in which the Twins went 56-25 at home (a .691 winning percentage) and 29-52 on the road (.358). “I don’t mind losing the seventh game of the World Series,” Whitey Herzog said, but you can choose not to believe him. “If I can do that for the rest of my life, I’ll be satisfied.”
55. 1909: Pirates over Tigers in seven
Series leverage: 36th
Game leverage: 108th
The first World Series to go the full seven games — but then the final game was a blowout. The great Honus Wagner had been the goat in 1903, but this time — his only other postseason appearance — he hit .333/.467/.500 and stole six bases.
54. 1957: Braves over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 31st
Game leverage: 80th
In Game 5, the hampered Mickey Mantle pinch ran in a 1-0 game. He was thrown out stealing.
53. 1931: Cardinals over A’s in seven
Series leverage: 60th
Game leverage: 94th
The same matchup as the previous season, but this time both teams had gotten better. Sleeper candidate for the best two-team matchup in history.
52. 1935: Tigers over Cubs in six
Series leverage: 47th
Game leverage: 25th
It’s a tiny detail in an exciting series, but for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the Cubs’ infield alignment for Goose Goslin’s walk-off hit, which ended the clinching Game 6. The first baseman is playing about 175 feet from home. The third baseman appears ready for a bunt.
51. 2019: Nationals over Astros in seven
Series leverage: 43rd
Game leverage: 87th
The games weren’t close until Game 7, and even by postseason standards they were uncomfortably long — six of the 13 slowest World Series games of the decade came in this series — and I clearly recall conversations in the middle of it about how boring the series had been, relatively speaking. But seven months later, with no meaningful game played since, I remember this one quite fondly! Remember Juan Soto and the Soto Shuffle? Alex Bregman trying to invent a new home run bat “flip” and getting mercilessly outcooled by Soto four innings later? Max Scherzer getting scratched from Game 5 and then being questionable for the rest of the series? And starting Game 7 anyway and gutting through five pretty good innings with pretty bad stuff? When Trea Turner was called out for running to first base wrong and we all lost our minds? Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick’s Drive the Car home run dance? Baby Shark? Getting to go outside and hang out at a bar and shake your friend’s hand and buy flour at the grocery store whenever you needed it? Kendrick hitting a perfect pitch off the right-field foul pole in Game 7, the 10th-biggest championship probability swing in major league history? Gerrit Cole not being used in Game 7 for some reason, then showing up to the postgame news conference in a Boras Corporation cap? How divinely just the outcome felt when we learned about the Astros’ banging scheme? We should have appreciated baseball more when we had it.
A bunch more the Yankees won
50. 1996: Yankees over Braves in six
Series leverage: 44th
Game leverage: 47th
The paradox of momentum, encapsulated: The Braves won the first two games — in New York — by a combined score of 16-1. They’d won their previous five postseason games by a total score of 48-2 and were heading back home to Atlanta. They never won another game, as the Yankees rapped off four straight. Does that thoroughly disprove the power of momentum, since no team had more of it than the Braves and it didn’t do them any good? Or does the Braves’ bipolarity prove the power of momentum — that they could be as great as they were, but once they lost momentum, completely hapless?
49. 1958: Yankees over Braves in seven
Series leverage: 26th
Game leverage: 59th
The Yankees came back from three games to one. In Games 6 and 7, New York — playing on the road — broke 2-2 ties late against exhausted Braves starting pitchers.
48. 1950: Yankees over Phillies in four
Series leverage: 69th
Game leverage: 4th
An incredible bit of trivia that would be familiar to every baseball fan alive in the 1950s is that, from the start of the 1949 Series until midway through the 1957 Series, every World Series game was won by a team in New York. The Giants and Dodgers get credit for 19 of those wins, but the Yankees took the other 28, in the greatest run any team ever had.
47. 1932: Yankees over Cubs in four
Series leverage: 108th
Game leverage: 72nd
Babe Ruth’s “called shot” wasn’t that big a deal at the time. It took a little while for Ruth to warm up to the legend and indulge in it. Now it’s the most famous moment from any of the first half-century of World Series, which is ironic in a way. Ruth was a celebrity with no filter, no nuance, no volume-down button, no moderation — and his greatest moment would turn out to be an ambiguous flick of his arm that he probably didn’t even mean.
46. 1928: Yankees over Cardinals in four
Series leverage: 114th
Game leverage: 101st
This is the second-least-close series in the pile, according to our leverage index, but when it’s the 1928 Yankees, the size of the thumping is the whole point. Babe Ruth hit .625/.647/1.375, with nine runs scored. Lou Gehrig hit .545/.706/1.727, with nine driven in. Forget seven-game series — could anything be more fun than watching Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth do that?
45. 1923: Yankees over Giants in six
Series leverage: 55th
Game leverage: 86th
From 1921 through 1923, it was the Giants and the Yankees every year, with the Giants winning the first two. Babe Ruth had been fine the first year and terrible the second, but he finally broke out this time: He hit .368/.556/1.000 with three homers. But his biggest moment came in Game 6, when he batted with the bases loaded, one out and his Yankees down by one. Ruth … struck out. Bob Meusel, batting behind him, was the hero instead, bringing all three runs home to all but end the series.
44. 1936: Yankees over Giants in six
Series leverage: 40th
Game leverage: 38th
Babe Ruth retired in 1935, and Joe DiMaggio debuted in 1936, so you might call this the start of the Yankees’ mid-century dynasty. Ruth’s best Yankees clubs were better than any of DiMaggio’s — and maybe better than any other team in history — but DiMaggio’s years were really the team’s golden age: He won nine rings in a 13-season career.
43. 2000: Yankees over Mets in five
Series leverage: 59th
Game leverage: 3rd
Game 1 was, by leverage index, the closest game in World Series history. It was scoreless until the bottom of the sixth, then the Yankees scored two, the Mets bounced back with three, and the game went to the bottom of the ninth with the home team down one. Here’s where it went after that: The Yankees loaded the bases in the ninth and tied it; they loaded the bases with one out in the 10th but didn’t score; they put runners on second and third in the 11th but didn’t score; and they loaded the bases with one out in the 12th before finally pushing home the winning run with two outs.
Game 5 was the last time a starting pitcher was allowed to face the potential winning run in the ninth inning of a World Series. The pitcher was Al Leiter, making his 11th postseason start and still looking for his first win as a starter. He struck out the first two batters, and on a 2-2 count to Jorge Posada he had five shots at finishing off Posada and striking out the side. But Posada fouled three away, took a borderline fastball that had frozen him, and finally worked the walk. A broken-bat single and a trickler through the infield — with Leiter still on the mound — brought Posada racing home, and a strong, accurate throw that might have been in time for the out hit Posada’s thigh and bounded away. Leiter’s home stadium was boisterous with Yankees fans. He never did win a postseason start.
Pitching and defense
42. 1929: A’s over Cubs in five
Series leverage: 83rd
Game leverage: 52nd
Connie Mack’s secret plan was to take an old journeyman starter named Howard Ehmke, give him most of September off — so he could rest, and so he could scout, and because he was only the Athletics’ fifth or sixth starter anyway — and then spring him on the Cubs as the surprise starter in Game 1 of the World Series. And it worked! Ehmke struck out a record 13 batters, allowed only an unearned run and won.
41. 1955: Dodgers over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 34th
Game leverage: 88th
Sandy Amoros’ running catch down the left-field line wasn’t nearly the physical performance that Willie Mays’ catch in the previous year’s World Series was. But Amoros’ catch was, by cWPA, about 20 times more consequential. It was the biggest play in the series, turning what would have been a game-tying double in Game 7 into an inning-ending double play.
40. 1954: Giants over Indians in four
Series leverage: 88th
Game leverage: 26th
On the other hand, plenty of outfielders might have made the Sandy Amoros catch. None who had ever lived could have made the one by Willie Mays.
39. 1915: Red Sox over Phillies in five
Series leverage: 51st
Game leverage: 15th
Game 1 was the only blowout: The Phillies won 3-1. Every other game was decided by one run.
38. 1995: Braves over Indians in six
Series leverage: 58th
Game leverage: 13th
The decade’s best offensive dynasty met the decade’s best pitching dynasty, and the pitching won: Aside from Alvaro Espinoza (1-for-2), no Cleveland hitter batted better than .235.
37. 1916: Red Sox over Robins in five
Series leverage: 75th
Game leverage: 29th
The ultimate Huge Band When They Were Still on an Indie Label show: the 21-year-old Boston pitcher Babe Ruth throwing a 14-inning complete-game victory in Game 2. He allowed a first-inning run on an inside-the-park homer, then threw the next 13 scorelessly.
36. 1969: Mets over Orioles in five
Series leverage: 73rd
Game leverage: 54th
“After a season of such length and so many surprises,” Roger Angell wrote, “reason suggested that we would now be given a flat and perhaps one-sided World Series. There would be honor enough for the Mets if they managed only to keep it close. None of this happened, of course, and the best news — the one true miracle — was not the Mets’ victory but the quality of those five games — an assemblage of brilliant parables illustrating every varied aspect of the beautiful game.” The Mets won the third game 5-0; Tommie Agee made two great catches — both, it can be admitted, a bit awkward — to save five runs.
35. 2005: White Sox over Astros in four
Series leverage: 56th
Game leverage: 1st
By our series leverage index — which measures how tight the World Series was — this ranks just 56th all time. But the games themselves were outrageously good. By our game leverage index, this was the tightest collection of World Series games ever. Every game was either tied or within one run in the eighth inning or later. Every White Sox starter went at least seven innings. Compare that to the seven-game series between the Cubs and Cleveland in 2016, in which no starting pitcher went seven. The White Sox’s 11-1 postseason record ended a World Series drought that was two years longer than the Red Sox’s had been.
34. 1981: Dodgers over Yankees in six
Series leverage: 46th
Game leverage: 50th
In the year of Fernandomania, the great rookie Fernando Valenzuela faced the great Yankees rookie Dave Righetti in Game 3. Righetti didn’t last long, but Valenzuela did. No matter how many batters he walked — seven, eventually — or pitches he threw (in the end, 147), he stayed on the mound to protect the one-run lead Los Angeles had taken in the fifth. In the eighth, he put the first two men on base, but manager Tommy Lasorda still left Valenzuela in, and the pitcher got a double play and a groundout to escape. In the bottom of the eighth, with a runner on and nobody out, Valenzuela batted for himself, grounding into a fielder’s choice. In the ninth, with the Yankees’ 2-3-4 hitters (all batting right-handed) due up, still the rookie held the mound. And he did it!
A week later, he turned 21.
33. 1968: Tigers over Cardinals in seven
Series leverage: 79th
Game leverage: 114th
In Games 1 and 4, Bob Gibson threw complete-game victories, striking out 27 while allowing one run. In Games 2 and 5, Mickey Lolich threw complete-game victories. In Game 7, one of them was going to become the 12th pitcher ever to win three World Series games. Lolich outdueled Gibson, and the Tigers won. (In the half-century since, only one pitcher has won three in a series: Randy Johnson, whose third win came in relief.)
32. 1965: Dodgers over Twins in seven
Series leverage: 57th
Game leverage: 113th
Remembered for two things. One is Sandy Koufax sitting out Game 1 for Yom Kippur, an incredible statement of the “it’s just a game” truth we all strive to keep in mind. The other is Koufax’s pitching in Games 2, 5 and 7: one earned run allowed in 24 innings, with 29 strikeouts and a shutout in the clinching Game 7.
The ones defined by huge moments
31. 1946: Cardinals over Red Sox in seven
Series leverage: 17th
Game leverage: 82nd
Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” in popular telling: With the score tied in Game 7’s eighth inning, Slaughter — two outs, going on the pitch — scored from first on a single. Great story, except it was officially scored a double.
30. 2015: Royals over Mets in five
Series leverage: 64th
Game leverage: 14th
Before the series, the Royals’ advance team — scout Alex Zumwalt generally gets credited — revealed that Mets first baseman Lucas Duda had a poor throwing arm, and the Royals should run on it when they had the chance. The report “mentioned his sidearm throwing motion,” Andy McCullough wrote. “His volleys often tail away from the intended target.” Sure enough, in the ninth inning of Game 5, on a routine 5-3 groundout to third base, Eric Hosmer sprinted home and forced Duda to try to turn the 5-3 groundout into a 5-3-2 double play. The throw was wild, Hosmer tied the game with two outs, and the Royals would score five in extra innings to finish the series. What a satisfying story! The Royals identified the Mets’ smallest weakness, one so obscure and pointless it sounds like a joke: The first baseman’s throwing arm? How often do you notice the first baseman’s throwing arm? The catcher’s throwing arm, definitely. The left-fielder’s throwing arm, sure. But the first baseman’s throwing arm? OK, boys, let’s go out there today, stay loose, stay focused and find a way to exploit the first baseman’s throwing arm! And then the Royals did, in one of the biggest moments in baseball history. They found the opponent’s secret pressure point, and with a tiny flick of the finger, they killed the Mets.
29. 2014: Giants over Royals in seven
Series leverage: 24th
Game leverage: 96th
Alex Gordon singled, as the possible tying run, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7. The ball bounced past the Giants’ center fielder, the left fielder fumbled it at the wall, and it seemed Gordon might try to score, at which point there were three possibilities:
1. If Gordon held at third and Salvador Perez had driven him in, that sequence (single, error, single, tie game!) would have elevated an otherwise bland World Series — five of the first six games were decided by five runs or more — to a pretty good one. It would have ranked 66th on our list.
2. The actual event — Gordon held at third and Perez popped out — makes it a nearly great one. It turns Gordon’s decision to hold at third — his coach’s decision to hold him, and his decision to obey — into an all-time what-if. Yes, Gordon probably would have been beaten by the throw home. But it would have required a good relay and throw by the Giants’ shortstop, a clean catch at home and a tag, and the play would have been close enough to have been physical. The Royals were the team that, in that postseason and the next, aggressively pushed the other team’s defense until the other team’s defense made a mistake.
3. If Gordon had gone for home, meanwhile, then no matter what happened — safe or out — this World Series would be a classic. No matter what happened, that would have been one of the two or three best moments in modern baseball history. This Series would have ranked 16th on our list.
28. 1941: Yankees over Dodgers in five
Series leverage: 45th
Game leverage: 9th
With a one-run lead and two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey struck out Tommy Henrich swinging. But catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t catch it, Henrich reached, and the Yankees rallied for four runs. Owen was the Bill Buckner of his era, though the subsequent meltdown would in some ways more closely resemble the Cubs’ fumbles after the Steve Bartman play. “Those are good memories now,” Owen said in 1989. “I’ve gotten over it. It’s part of baseball history.”
27. 1993: Blue Jays over Phillies in six
Series leverage: 68th
Game leverage: 63rd
Joe Carter’s knee-knocking skip around the bases is one of the greatest visuals of a triumphant baseballer. But it’s Mitch Williams whose body language I most remember from that game. It’s 15 minutes of failure, all captured in Williams’ exaggerated physicality and the sheer inevitability of what was happening.
26. 1960: Pirates over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 28th
Game leverage: 111th
If the Pirates had simply won Game 6, this World Series — marked by alternating Yankees blowouts and Pirates squeakers — would probably rank in the 90s or worse. But Game 7 is in contention for the greatest game in baseball history: A Yankees comeback in the sixth, a Pirates comeback in the eighth, a Yankees comeback in the ninth, and a series-ending walk-off homer by Bill Mazeroski. The inning before Maz ended things, Hal Smith hit a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth, turning a deficit into a lead. By cWPA, that’s the biggest hit in major league history. It’s hardly remembered, because the lead lasted barely 10 minutes. (One wonders whether Rajai Davis’ homer off Aroldis Chapman in the 2016 World Series will suffer the same fate.)
25. 1988: Dodgers over A’s in five
Series leverage: 84th
Game leverage: 43rd
The Dodgers’ lineup in Game 4 had hit 36 homers in the regular season, six fewer than Jose Canseco alone had hit. Their cleanup hitter in that game, Mike Davis, had hit .196/.260/.270, and John Shelby was the only player in the lineup with an above-average OPS. Kirk Gibson was out, of course, but so was Mike Marshall, and they’d traded the slugger Pedro Guerrero midseason to get star pitcher John Tudor, who also got injured during the World Series. Against the 104-win Athletics, the hobbled Dodgers were a true underdog, which was part of why that Gibson homer in Game 1 slapped so hard.
24. 1956: Yankees over Dodgers in seven
Series leverage: 37th
Game leverage: 81st
Vin Scully’s call as Don Larsen prepared to face the 27th batter of his perfect game: “I think it would be safe to say no man in the history of baseball has ever come up to home plate in a more dramatic moment.”
The great seven-gamers
23. 2017: Astros over Dodgers in seven
Series leverage: 17th
Game leverage: 8th
This is a hard one to place. At the time, it was an extraordinary series between probably the best pair of World Series teams in history. Six of the games were close, and arguably all seven were memorable: Clayton Kershaw throwing the best postseason start of his career in Game 1; Cody Bellinger hitting the walk-off that wasn’t in Game 2; Yu Darvish getting knocked out early in Game 3; Ken Giles melting down and losing the Houston closer’s job in Game 4; the five-hour, 13-12, extra-inning masterpiece of Game 5; Justin Verlander, cruising in what looks to be the signature start of his career, suddenly losing a sixth-inning lead in Game 6; and Charlie Morton as the four-inning closer in Game 7, making the Sports Illustrated cover come true. But after the Astros’ systematic cheating scheme was revealed, this whole series has a whiff of 1919 to it. We don’t really know what we saw, or who would have won if it had been played straight up. Instead, it produced a champion we all regret having felt happy for.
22. 2002: Angels over Giants in seven
Series leverage: 32nd
Game leverage: 78th
Only one World Series champion has had, at any point in the series, lower championship win expectancy than these Angels had late in Game 6.
21. 1964: Cardinals over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 23rd
Game leverage: 46th
Parts of Mickey Mantle were as strong as ever; parts were washed up. Mantle was no longer a center fielder, but a right fielder whose arm the Cardinals had been running on aggressively. In Game 3, Mantle made an egregious error on a single, which set up the Cardinals’ only run in the game. The score was still 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, when Mantle led off with a walk-off home run.
20. 1971: Pirates over Orioles in seven
Series leverage: 15th
Game leverage: 56th
In Game 3, with his team down two games to none, Pirates star Roberto Clemente led off the seventh inning. He took a big swing and “half topped a pitch and sent an easy bouncer back to the mound,” Roger Angell wrote. “[Mike] Cuellar turned to make the leisurely toss and was astonished to discover Clemente running out the play at top speed. Now hurrying, Cuellar flipped the ball high, and Clemente was on.” A three-run inning followed, and the Pirates got back into the series. Clemente also had the big hit — a fourth-inning homer — in Game 7.
19. 1934: Cardinals over Tigers in seven
Series leverage: 20th
Game leverage: 51st
After a near-brawl involving Joe Medwick sliding into third base — and with the Cardinals running away with the Game 7 victory — the Detroit fans waited for Medwick to take his position in left field, then pelted him with fruits, vegetables and maybe some non-organic objects. Repeatedly, Medwick had to flee for safety, while various authorities pleaded for peace. An announcement threatened the game would be forfeited — setting up the potential for the only Game 7 walk-off forfeit in World Series history — but commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis found a more elegant solution: He ejected Medwick from the game.
18. 1973: A’s over Mets in seven
Series leverage: 19th
Game leverage: 27th
In Game 7, Oakland’s elite closer, Rollie Fingers, came into the sixth inning. He got out of the jam he had inherited, pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings, got two outs in the ninth and appeared to have the final one. But an error on his first baseman brought the tying run to the plate and Fingers’ manager came out to pull his closer from the game. He brought in his lefty specialist instead, and Darold Knowles got the final out of the game.
The straight-up classics
17. 1992: Blue Jays over Braves in six
Series leverage: 12th
Game leverage: 2nd
Sandwiched between a popular pick for the greatest Series ever and a popular pick for the best modern Series ending, this one gets overlooked. But the games were the second-closest ever, and Game 6 was the second-closest clinching game ever. Charlie Leibrandt, one of postseason baseball’s most misunderstood heroes, was on the mound for the conclusion of it: Brought into the game as a reliever, he threw a scoreless 10th, but his Braves couldn’t score in the bottom of that inning. The 11th turned out to be one inning too much for him, and he allowed the two runs that would decide the game. It was consistent with the rest of his postseason career, which included two blown leads in 1985 and the Game 6 walk-off homer in 1991: Asked to do a lot, he would pitch beautifully; asked to do still more, more perhaps than was reasonable, he would finally falter. He retired with a better postseason ERA than that of Jack Morris, but his career cWPA is the 14th worst in history.
16. 1980: Phillies over Royals in six
Series leverage: 29th
Game leverage: 11th
This one featured the greatest Game 5 ever. The Phillies came from behind with a two-run rally in the ninth inning, started by a Mike Schmidt infield single — enabled by George Brett playing in on the grass, anticipating that the 48-homer-hitting Schmidt might try to bunt for a hit — and finished by a Manny Trillo single off Dan Quisenberry’s glove. The Royals then loaded the bases on three Tug McGraw walks in the bottom of the ninth, before McGraw escaped and tilted the series in the Phillies’ favor. By average leverage index, this is the closest nine-inning game in World Series history.
15. 1962: Yankees over Giants in seven
Series leverage: 13th
Game leverage: 49th
What a different world it used to be. With a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, with runners on second and third and the left-handed superstar Willie McCovey up — a hit would give the Giants the title, an out would give it to the Yankees — Casey Stengel left his right-handed starting pitcher in. Ralph Terry famously got the out he needed — a lineout to second base — and his cWPA in that World Series is, cumulatively, the highest ever: 0.994. Just about the whole thing.
14. 1972: A’s over Reds in seven
Series leverage: 8th
Game leverage: 7th
Aside from an 8-1 blowout in Game 6, the other six games were each decided by one run, and the clubs finished with identical batting averages and slugging percentages. The great Rollie Fingers pitched in all six close ones, his only “blemish” being the failure to preserve a one-run lead for a five-inning save.
13. 1979: Pirates over Orioles in seven
Series leverage: 21st
Game leverage: 33rd
When Eddie Murray batted in the eighth inning of Game 7, the championship leverage index in the moment was higher than for any other play in history. He flied to the edge of the warning track, and after a slightly awkward break, Dave Parker ran it down. Five more feet and it could have looked a lot like the ball Nelson Cruz misplayed, for which David Freese got a triple, in 2011.
12. 2016: Cubs over Indians in seven
Series leverage: 27th
Game leverage: 77th
Jason Heyward was the Cubs’ goat all season, and all postseason, until he became their hero with a motivational speech to his teammates during a late-Game 7 rain delay.
11. 1925: Pirates over Senators in seven
Series leverage: 7th
Game leverage: 12th
In Game 7, Walter Johnson threw a complete game; he allowed nine runs and took the loss. It’s hard to overstate how much the Senators were his team. In Game 4, Johnson hurt his leg trying for a hustle double. He kept pitching, in pain, to complete his shutout. Before Game 7, his manager, Bucky Harris, told reporters: “His leg still hurts. But gosh, he don’t pitch with his leg. All we need is that good right arm of his and he’s ready to give us that.” He was not.
10. 1926: Cardinals over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 6th
Game leverage: 32nd
Babe Ruth getting caught stealing to end the World Series — as the tying run in a Game 7 — is the sport’s all-time Mighty Casey moment.
9. 1947: Yankees over Dodgers in seven
Series leverage: 14th
Game leverage: 28th
Jackie Robinson and Dan Bankhead desegregated the Fall Classic. (Bankhead, a pitcher, appeared as a pinch runner and scored.) In Game 4, the Yankees’ Bill Bevens nearly threw the first no-hitter in postseason history, allowing the first Dodgers hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. That hit, a two-run double, gave the Dodgers a walk-off victory. Bevens pitched effectively as a reliever in Game 7, then never appeared in the majors again.
8. 1912: Red Sox over Giants in eight (one tie)
Series leverage: 10th
Game leverage: 21st
The World Series that gave baseball’s glossaries “Snodgrass’ Muff.” With a one-run lead in the bottom of the 10th, Fred Snodgrass, the Giants’ center fielder, booted a fly ball that he was camped under. He followed that up with a running catch — some say spectacular catch — on the next play, but history doesn’t do averages. A walk, a single, an intentional walk and a sacrifice fly turned the Giants’ 2-1 lead into a 3-2 defeat. Until 1960, Tris Speaker’s game-tying single in that rally was the biggest play, by cWPA, in history.
7. 1952: Yankees over Dodgers in seven
Series leverage: 4th
Game leverage: 20th
The Dodgers had a rookie relief ace named Joe Black, who had spent the first eight seasons of his career in the Negro Leagues. When he finally emerged as a major leaguer, he was a sensation: He won Rookie of the Year, finished third in MVP voting and helped advance the notion of a relief ace. He finished 41 games for the Dodgers that year, but they unexpectedly decided he would start Game 1. He threw a complete game, winning 4-2; a miracle. He was effective in Game 4, but three starts in a week — no travel days between games — was too much for him. He was knocked out of Game 7 and the Yankees won the Series yet again.
6. 2001: Diamondbacks over Yankees in seven
Series leverage: 11th
Game leverage: 45th
This was the year of peak Yankee Destiny: The Yankees had won three World Series in a row, and with a handful of veterans due to retire or hit free agency, this was seen as the capstone year. It was the autumn of Jeter’s Flip, the autumn that the Yankees crushed the 116-win Mariners in the ALCS, the autumn of Jeter’s Mr. November home run, the autumn of anthrax attacks, the Afghanistan War, President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch, and baseball fans who would typically despise the Yankees actually rooting for them in an ad hoc solidarity post-9/11. The Yankees’ three wins in the middle of the series included two minor miracles, with two-run homers in the ninth to tie the games and walk-offs in extra innings. They sent the seventh game of the World Series into the ninth inning with Mariano Rivera on the mound with a lead. Rivera had thrown 78 postseason innings to that point in his career, had a 0.70 postseason ERA and had converted 23 postseason saves in a row (many of them two innings). One of the great things about baseball is that there’s no scriptwriter, so you can’t impose a contrived narrative predictability on anything. If ever you could: This was it.
And then they lost, on Rivera’s throwing error and three broken-bat hits, on a walk-off flare that landed a foot beyond the infield over a drawn-in Derek Jeter. They’d been unable to get insurance runs off Randy Johnson, who pitched 1⅓ innings in relief the day after he’d thrown seven innings as a starter. The Yankees wouldn’t win another World Series for eight years, and after that one they haven’t won another since. They’ve won more regular-season games than any other team, so it’s not like they collapsed, but that broken-bat flare really was the end of that dynasty. In retrospect, it almost does look like a contrived narrative: an expectations-inverting, twist-ending fraught with portentous significance. The finale of a prestige drama. At the time, it felt impossible. Of course, it was just baseball.
Buster Olney wrote in his game story that night: “Most of the Yankees seemed at peace.”
5. 2011: Cardinals over Rangers in seven
Series leverage: 5th
Game leverage: 19th
I count seven major shifts of momentum in the final hour of Game 6. The ninth inning began with the Rangers leading 7-5, and closer Neftali Feliz struck out Ryan Theriot for the first out.
But Albert Pujols, in what appeared likely to be his final plate appearance as a Cardinal, doubled. Feliz lost his control: He walked Lance Berkman on four pitches, putting the tying run on, then fell behind 2-0 to Allen Craig, six consecutive balls after the Pujols hit.
But Feliz came back and struck out Craig looking, for the second out. He got ahead 1-2 on David Freese, the second strike swinging.
But Freese hit it deep to right field, over Nelson Cruz’s wobbly pursuit, and off the wall for a game-tying triple. He was the winning run on third base.
But Yadier Molina flied out to end the ninth. Then, in the top of the 10th, Elvis Andrus singled, and Josh Hamilton — in a brutal monthlong slump — homered. The Rangers were back ahead by two runs.
But in the bottom of the 10th, the Cardinals put the first two men on with singles, sacrificed them into scoring position, and on a groundout and a single tied the game again.
But with Cardinals on second and third — again, 90 feet from winning — Craig grounded out to end the 10th. Mike Napoli then singled in the top of the 11th, giving the Rangers a chance to go ahead again. The Rangers sent up Esteban German to pinch hit for Scott Feldman — an aggressive move that cost them Feldman, their best available pitcher.
But German grounded out and ended the threat. The game went to the bottom of the 11th: Mark Lowe entered and threw a 3-2 changeup — his fourth-best pitch, one he rarely threw to righties and never threw to righties in full counts. Freese was on it.
Seven terrifying shifts over the course of just 11 outs. To understand how epic and disorienting it all was, consider this moment: In the bottom of the 10th inning, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa pinch hit for his pitcher with a pitcher — and then pinch hit for the pinch-hitting pitcher with a different pitcher. Meanwhile, television broadcaster Joe Buck was suggesting La Russa might consider pinch hitting with a still different pitcher, before realizing that that pitcher had actually started the game “hours ago.”
4. 1986: Mets over Red Sox in seven
Series leverage: 18th
Game leverage: 61st
One of the measures we considered was “comeback percentage,” the lowest likelihood of winning that the eventual winner reached over the course of the series. We noted that the Angels’ win in 2002 had the second-highest comeback percentage, as the Angels traveled from just 1.7% likely to win to their victory parade. The ’86 Series had the greatest comeback percentage in World Series history, with the Mets just 0.8% likely to win at their lowest point. But that’s not actually even close to how unlikely they really were to win. That comeback percentage only measures the team’s chances before each play and after each play. It doesn’t measure the odds in the middle of the play, and it was in the middle of a play that this one turned.
At the start of the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, the Mets — trailing by two runs, down three games to two — had a 5% chance of winning the World Series. After two quick outs, they were down to 1%. That’s where our comeback percentage pegs their low point. It climbed to 2% with Gary Carter’s rally-starting single, to 5% when Kevin Mitchell singled as the potential tying run, and 11% when Ray Knight singled as the potential go-ahead run. When Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch to put Knight in scoring position, the Mets were at 35% to win the World Series: They just needed a single (or something) and a win in Game 7.
But then Mookie Wilson grounded toward Bill Buckner. What were the chances they’d win the World Series when Wilson hit his “little roller up along first”? When it crossed first base fair? When Buckner positioned himself in front of it, facing it directly, both hands out? The odds Buckner botches that play are maybe 1 in a few hundred. The odds it goes right through him — rather than bouncing off his glove and staying in front of him, which would have kept Knight at third — are maybe 1 in 1,000. First basemen convert outs on about 93% of the balls they field — or attempt to field — but that includes sharp grounders, popups in the sun, line drives and so on. Few plays are simpler than this one. I could believe that the chances of the Mets winning Game 6 and Game 7, in the middle of this play, might have dropped to 1 in 5,000.
Game 7 was a great game too! Bill Buckner had a couple of hits.
3. 1924: Senators over Giants in seven
Series leverage: 1st
Game leverage: 5th
I would consider saying this about as many as five games, but I think Game 7 of this World Series is really it: the best game in baseball history. By average leverage index, it’s the fourth-best World Series game, and it’s the only one of the top 10 that was a Game 7. For that matter, it’s the only one of the top 10 that was even a clincher. It started with subterfuge — the Giants started right-hander Curly Ogden as a decoy, had him face two batters, then pulled him for lefty George Mogridge — and ended with a walk-off, and the sequence from the eighth inning on goes:
Senators score two in the bottom of the eighth to tie it;
Giants get a one-out triple in the top of the ninth, can’t get him home;
Senators put runners at the corners with one out in the bottom of the ninth, can’t score;
Giants strand a leadoff walk in the top of the 10th;
Giants strand two in the top of the 11th;
Senators strand two in the bottom of the 11th;
Giants strand leadoff single in the top of the 12th — with Walter Johnson pitching his fourth inning of emergency relief;
Senators score after two errors in the bottom of the 12th.
The footage somehow still exists, and it’s as clear as any baseball footage you’ll ever see from that far back.
2. 1991: Twins over Braves in seven
Series leverage: 3rd
Game leverage: 6th
Tom Kelly wanted to pull Jack Morris before the 10th inning of Game 7. Morris wanted to stay in. Kelly consulted the pitching coach, who said Morris might as well keep going. “OK,” Kelly said. “It’s just a game.”
1. 1975: Reds over Red Sox in seven
Series leverage: 1st
Game leverage: 5th
The story goes that the iconic shot of Carlton Fisk waving his Game 6 home run to stay fair was an accident. The cameraman, Louis Gerard, was supposed to follow the ball. But he told his producer he couldn’t, that there was “a rat on my leg that’s as big as a cat. It’s staring me in the face.” So he just kept the camera on Fisk, a shot out of character with broadcasts of the time but one that turned out to be revolutionary. “Before Game 6, there was no such thing as a reaction shot,” the Boston Globe reported. “Cameramen followed the action, focusing on the trajectory of a hit ball or a thrown pass or a shot. Forever after, there would be the isolation shot, looking for the reaction of the athlete to what happened.”
In that way, the 1975 World Series made every World Series that followed better. Buckner, Carter, Gibson, Bumgarner, Mo, Papi, all the way to Howie Kendrick: The biggest moments now immerse us in them, overpower us with the emotions of them. Fisk’s home run raised everything that followed. But still, nothing that followed could top it.
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