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New York’s quirky history of three-game series gets another chapter

The first time a three-game playoff series visited New York City, there were 31,437 witnesses who believed, to their last breath, that they were about to see a miracle, right there on Flatbush Avenue.

This was Oct. 3, 1946. For the first time since the World Series had been invented back in 1903, the National League pennant race ended in a flat-footed tie. The Dodgers had seized as thick as a 7 ½-game lead but the heavily-favored Cardinals – pennant winners in three of the four years baseball had played through World War II – had stormed back, assuming first place for much of September before Brooklyn caught them on the season’s next-to-last day. After 154 games, both Brooklyn and St. Louis had 96-58 records.

The solution? A best-of-three playoff, the winner to face the Red Sox, who’d cruised to the American League flag by 12 games over Detroit and 17 over the Yankees, winning 104 games. Game 1 in St. Louis went to the Cardinals, Howie Pollet going the distance in a 4-2 win. As the series shifted to Brooklyn, Dodgers fans searched for omens.

They thought they got one when the Cardinals’ train broke down 40 miles outside of Philadelphia, allowing the Dodgers to get home hours before the Cards would settle into their hotel.

Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager since 1939, who’d guided them to first place in 1941, was still the skipper, though there was mad speculation in all seven New York dailies that he was about to switch jobs. The Yankees had dismissed Bill Dickey and were looking for a new boss. Durocher seemed a likely candidate.

“No,” the Lip insisted before Game 2. “I’ll be a Dodger until the day I die.”

Leo Durocher, with the dark jacket, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, watches his shortstop Arky Vaughn taking swings in the batting cage, before a National League game in 1948. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Oct. 3 soon became an unofficial holiday in the borough of churches. This was just before the ascent of a true Brooklyn NL dynasty; the locals still only expected October baseball once every decade or two. The oddsmakers still favored the Cards but Durocher scoffed at that.

“Our backs have been to the walls all year,” he said. “We are at our very best when our backs are to the walls.”

Except, soon, those walls crashed in on the Dodgers. The Brooks took a brief 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first with an RBI single by Ed Stevens and by one account “the very foundation of Ebbets Field seemed to be in questions as the Flock roared.”

But the Cards scored twice in the second, and by the last of the ninth they led 8-1. Ebbets Field had finally been silenced. Few of the 31,437 had left, more out of a sense of duty than belief. Except a funny thing happened: the Dodgers refused to let their season die easily.

Augie Galan doubled. Dixie Walker flied out but then Stevens tripled and Carl Furillo singled, and it was 8-3, and the people begane to stir. A wild pitch sent Furillo to second, and then Cardinals pitcher Murry Dickson walked Pee Wee Reese. Harry Brecheen came in to replace Dickson but it didn’t seem to matter: Bruce Edward singled in a run, making it 8-4, and when pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto drew  a walk the bases were loaded in the tyingt run was at the plate with still but one out.

The crowd “screamed for a miracle,” sportswriter Dick Young would write the next morning.

Alas, there would be none. Brecheen caught Eddie Stanky looking, then pinch-hitter Howie Schultz went down swinging. Young would write: “the Brooks, who had made the Cards ‘sweat it out’ all season long, went down whaling away with an example of the famous Flatbush try that has become legend the nation over.”

You may have heard of the other three times a three-game series was conducted in New York: that was 1951, and it ended at the Polo Grounds with Bobby Thomson hitting the most famous home run in baseball history.

Back in 2020, the pandemic increased the playoff field to 16 and reduced all first-round series to best-of-threes, and while the Yankees swept the Indians, both games were played in Cleveland.

Best-of-threes are an anomaly and while they may be preferable to the all-or-nothing, one-and-done play-in format the wild-card round has featured since 2012, they are still quirky enough to be virtually unpredictable. Seventy-six years after the first time a best-of-three visited New York, another one began Friday night at CitiField, Mets vs. Padres.

Locals can only hope the Mets spend their time whaling away, and not screaming for a miracle.