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Red Sox playoff lore is flushed with heroes and goats authoring tales of glory (1903, 1912, 1967, 2004) and heartbreak (1948, 1975, 1978, 2003) and cakewalks (1915, 1916) and infamy (1918, 1946) and humiliation (1988, 1990, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2005).
Where will 2007 stand in this checkered spectrum? You’ll have a better grip on that question by the time you get to read this. But as it is written, we only know we have a legitimate showdown with a spunky Indians team on our hands. Lovers of theatre should appreciate that even if it frosts the rapacious “Nation.”
In said Nation’s lordly view of things, the Indians are incidental, faintly unworthy, a mere third world team, at best. But historically they’ve been a nemesis.
Boston and Cleveland have squared off in the postseason four times, with Cleveland winning three times convincingly. The meetings in ’95 and ’98 were embarrassments with the Indians winning six of the seven games played. Some atonement came in ’99 when Boston, down by two games, swept the last three featuring Pedro Martinez’ finest moment. Unforgettable was his six innings of hitless, scoreless relief in the clincher. The 1927 Yankees could not have licked Pedro that day.
And then there was 1948 and the epic one-game playoff for all the marbles with Bill Veeck’s Indians that climaxed one of the most tumultuous Red Sox seasons and served as a crossroads in their history. In the Indians, we have a classical adversary.
By ’48, concern about the mettle of the Red Sox wagon that soared after the war was fast gathering. They’d won in ’46 only to blow a World Series they’d been hugely favored to win. After flopping aimlessly in ’47, Tom Yawkey eased his pal Joe Cronin from the bench to the front office effectively sparing Cronin, a wishy-washy manager, from further embarrassment.
Yawkey was still feisty. Not yet having been beaten down by booze and failure, his temper was sharp and his patience limited. He knew he had a talented but underachieving goldbrick of a team and he desperately wanted to unravel the mystery of it while his high-priced stars were still in their prime. The re-shuffling of the front office continued with the axing of “Specs” Toporcer, the farm director, and Phil Troy, the assistant GM. For a change, Yawkey meant business. But if greasing Cronin as field-boss was a wise move, replacing him with Joe McCarthy was not.
The Yankees even then were perceived as the arch-foe. But there was none of the ridiculous ‘‘evil-empire’’ ragtime now in vogue that the present Red Sox ownership cleverly promotes to its considerable advantage. Yawkey -- whatever his faults -- was above such nonsense. In fact his admiration for the Yankees and everything they’d done and stood for was keen. What was good enough for them, he craved.
When the Yankees politely retired Manager McCarthy in ’46, health issues were used as an excuse. It was technically true in that Marse Joe’s chronic alcoholism was fast destroying his health. Unlike the Red Sox, the Yankees did not abide such conduct. But the subtlety of the matter was lost on Yawkey who was hooked on the notion that McCarthy -- who’d had the luxury of managing Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Lazzeri, Dickey, Rizzuto, Combs, Sewell, Pennock, Ruffing and Gomez (to mention only the Hall-of-Famers) -- had won all those championships in New York largely on his own merits.
In the end, Joe would fail. But much of that ’48 season was remarkable. They got off to a 14-23 start with the Indians, Yanks, and ancient Connie Mack’s briefly revived Philadelphia A’s vying for the lead a dozen games ahead. From that point on, they were 82-35 for a .700 winning percentage; a pace only a handful of teams have sustained over a full season.
At the height of his powers, Ted Williams hit .369. Junior Stephens, the new boy in town, led in homers with 29 and RBIs with 137. Brothers Doerr, DiMaggio and Pesky fleshed out a beefy offense. But the pitching was thin. Jack Kramer, Joe Dobson, Ellie Kinder, and stylish rookie lefthander Mel Parnell, combined for 59 wins. But none of them was a stopper. The number five starter was an aging journeymen recently plucked from the Browns, Denny Galehouse.
The supreme irony of that season’s last days is the fact that they came through gallantly in the clutch, which they’ve infrequently done in their history. But it would be soon forgotten and never acknowledged. After a mad dash through September they trailed the Indians by a game-and-a-half with two games left, both against the Yankees. They whipped them twice, out-scoring them 15-6, eliminating them in the process while the Tigers were taking two out of three from the Indians thus forcing the first playoff in American League history. Williams, derided his entire career for failing in his biggest games, reached base eight times that weekend. It marked the first time they’d gone eye to eye with the Yankees with everything on the line and prevailed. And it would be the last, until 2004.
Of course in the end, it only set them up for one of their most crushing flops. What happened next remains a cornerstone of Red Sox myth. Did poor Denny Galehouse have to face the Indians in the playoff because none of his colleagues had the guts to pitch that day? That became the conventional wisdom and it’s survived the years, although the truth -- as usual -- was probably more complicated. Moreover, it was Dave “The Colonel” Egan, the legendary rascal of a Boston tabloid columnist, who coined this theory and the colonel, in all his venom, was an unreliable source of actual facts.
Still the amiable Galehouse, in an interview late in his life, did say he believed no one else wanted to take the ball that day. His catcher, Birdie Tebbetts, implied as much too. Most of the other key characters in the tale took their version to their graves. As for McCarthy, the legend insists he made his final decision while draining a bottle of scotch.
What remains immutable is the result. The Indians smacked them 8-3 behind crafty lefty Gene Beardon, a rookie pitching with one day’s rest. It was a poignant story. Beardon was a war hero who had floated 10 days in the Pacific after his battleship was torpedoed. He walked with a limp and had an aluminum plate in his head. He won 20 games that season but never again won more than eight.
Lou Boudreau, the Tribe’s player-manager, had four hits and Kenny Keltner hit a three-run homer. Larry Doby, the American League’s first black player, had two hits, both doubles. Williams had one, a single. Before there was the mystery of Alex Rodriguez and his post-season blues, there was Ted Williams’ version of the same song and dance. And when it was over, Bill Veeck -- himself a peg-legged war hero -- danced in the clubhouse while champagne flowed. Grievously lost was a special moment; a subway series with the Braves.
As for poor Galehouse, the stigma stuck. There are three supreme scapegoats in Red Sox history -- Billy Buckner, Grady Little, and Denny Galehouse. All three have been irrevocably tarred mainly by vengeful media characters with long and selective memories. But the least deserving of the abuse is Galehouse.
So this series with the uppity Indians that currently entangles us has long and marvelous roots. Having recently dispelled the alleged “Curse of the Bambino,” are we about to avenge the haunting legacy of Galehouse and McCarthy, Bearden and Boudreau?
And down the road await the unbelievable Rockies.
Who says, “it’s only a game?”