#73) The best baseball game you’ve never heard of

We already know that Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was the greatest game of baseball ever played, but in this post – with a fresh new season of America’s Pastime about to get underway – we’ll look at a game played more than 50 years ago that, despite the winning team’s dramatic comeback, has been surprisingly overlooked in Greatest Game Ever Played discussions.

I speak of the second playoff game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves to decide the 1959 National League Pennant.  Until recently I wasn’t aware that there had even been a best-of-three playoff to decide the ’59 NL race, much less that the Dodgers won the second game and the pennant with a three-run ninth inning rally and another run in the twelfth.   I’m not the only baseball fan who’s been unaware of or has overlooked this game: in Bert Randolph Sugar’s “Baseball’s 50 Greatest Games”, the book to which I attribute more than any other my baseball history geekery, he passes this one over.  The game is also not mentioned on the Baseball Moments page of Major League Baseball’s official website.

Why has this game languished in obscurity?

The biggest reason may be that it wasn’t a decisive game, unlike the playoff games the Dodgers lost to the Giants in 1951 and 1962, or the famous American League East one-game playoff in 1978.  The Dodgers had beaten the Braves in Milwaukee and were not in a must-win situation when they faced Lew Burdette in the L.A. Coliseum for the second game.  The Dodgers’ comeback in the bottom of the 9th lacked a dramatic home run; they scored three runs on four singles and a sacrifice fly, and their winning tally in the 12th was the result of a throwing error.

Another factor may have been timing.  The 1959 Dodgers were a team in transition, posting a rather forgettable 86-68 record.  They still had a few mainstays from their glory years in Brooklyn – Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo to name a few – but PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson were gone and it would be a few years before Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax would reach their primes, leading the team to two championships in the ’60s.

It’s possible too that the baseball world didn’t yet take the Los Angeles Dodgers fully seriously; perhaps the team was still dealing with the backlash from having moved to L.A. the year before.  While the franchise would go on to win a total of five titles in L.A. with Koufax, Drysdale, Steve Garvey, Kirk Gibson and Tommy Lasorda all becoming household names along the way, in 1959, baseball in So Cal might have felt like the proverbial round peg in a square hole.  The L.A. Memorial Coliseum, where the team played through the 1961 season, wasn’t meant for baseball, as evidenced by the awkward playing field dimensions.

Still, one would think that a game that so perfectly illustrates what everyone loves about baseball – the unpredictability, the lack of a clock – would be better known.  If anything, the Braves, then two-time defending NL champs and boasting the bats of Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews and the arms of Warren Spahn (who won more games than any other lefty in baseball history) and 20-game winner Lew Burdette, should have given this game some cache.

Baseball fans can be guilty of selective memory.  Why did the Red Sox lose the 1986 World Series?  Because they blew two leads in Game 6, allowing the Mets to force extra innings, then after scoring two more gave up three runs in the bottom of the 10th.  They also blew a three run lead in Game 7. Bill Buckner.  When you Google search for George Brett, what comes up in the search bar?  Why, his .390 average in 1980 and his championship with the Royals in 1985, of course.  Just kidding; pine tar.  It’s ironic that in a sport that cherishes history perhaps more than any other, great moments remain overlooked.  Perhaps comparing this game to legendary contests such as the ’51 Giants/Dodgers playoff or Game 6 of the 1975 (or 1986 or 2011) World Series is a stretch, but there have been plenty of less dramatic games that have gotten more attention.

The Dodgers would go on to beat the “Go Go” White Sox in a six-game World Series.  The playoff proved to be the end of an era for the Braves, who would move to Atlanta in 1966.

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