A baseball field tells many stories, but none are greater than that of the comeback. Lush tales of terrific fortitude and grit surround many of the sport’s great palaces. Ironically enough, many of the greatest examples sit buried under piles of rubble and soot. Their homes long since demolished, we have only the words passed down from generation to generation. The same goes for any baseball story, really. However, comebacks hold a very special spot in the pantheon of these recollections. They sit on thrones of bats, balls, and gloves, eager to regale our ears with three simple words: “never say die.”
Other sports have their own stories regarding comebacks, to be sure. Nevertheless, baseball is unique when it comes to rallying. Fans make entertaining shapes with caps when their teams are down in the ninth. Certain superstitions are called upon whenever one feels all hope is gone. Even deities made of cowhide and stitching are prayed to, though their existence is questionable and their bias always favors our favorite teams. However, all other sports hold these qualities. Baseball has something unique: no time limit. Comebacks are possible at any time! There are no running clocks, no timekeepers, and no final whistles. In the famous words of Yogi Berra, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” So, let’s dive in and examine the ten greatest comebacks in big league history, starting with number 10:
June 23, 1961: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies
In 1961, the Philadelphia Phillies were going nowhere fast. Long past their early success in the 1950’s, they looked to gain footholds in the league somewhere. However, this was not to be. They wound up losing 107 games that season. The offense was abysmal, ranking last in the league in most major categories. In fact, they only managed to hit 103 homers and score 584 runs as a collective unit all season. Their pitching was terrible as well, giving up 708 earned runs and 1,452 hits that year. Yet this is where the surprise comes in: the Phillies are the subjects of our tenth comeback. For one fleeting day, they were the kings of baseball, and it all started in a game that featured three Hall of Famers and seven errors.
The Downfall of Robin Roberts
For one of these Hall of Fame players, Robin Roberts, things had not gone well that season. He was past his prime, and would only win one game in 18 starts. He only struck out 54 men in 117 innings. Walks weren’t really an issue (23), however he did give up 19 homers and 154 hits. For a man who wound up allowing 4,582 hits in his entire career, opposing contact was a massive problem. His H/9 rate for the season was an abysmal 11.8, and it was an 8.8 for his career. In 1961, his ERA+ was 69 and he carried a WHIP of over 1.500. He would have a career renaissance of sorts in the following years after being traded to the Baltimore Orioles. However, in 1961, he was one of the worst pitchers in the game.
Rough Start for The Phillies
This particular contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates began much like Robert’s other contests that year. He only lasted 2 2/3 innings, giving up six earned runs and striking out one batter. His day began innocently enough, with a flyout. Then, Pirates’ shortstop Dick Groat doubled and scored on left fielder Bob Skinner’s triple. First baseman Dick Stuart reached on the first of the aforementioned errors. He scored on Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s double. In the second inning, center fielder Bill Virdon scored the third Hall of Famer, Bill Mazeroski, with a solid single. Then, the Pirates plated three more in the third thanks to a passed ball, a sac fly, and another triple.
Down by six heading into the fifth, the Phillies put reliever Jim Owens in. He promptly gave up three more runs as Mazeroski and Virdon picked up RBI hits. Joe Gibbon reached on an error, allowing another run to score. In the top of the next inning, the Phillies finally got on the board as Don Demeter hit a two run homer. However, they were still down by seven. The Pirates got those two runs back in the seventh inning when Skinner singled. Virdon and pinch hitter Walt Moryn both scored, making it 11-2 Pirates. Things weren’t looking good for the team from Philadelphia. However, comebacks can happen in an instant in baseball. Luckily for the Phillies, they did.
Attempting to Save Face
Enter Roy Face, a relief pitcher who spent almost the entirety of his 16-year career in Pittsburgh. In 1961, he would enjoy the third of his three consecutive All-Star campaigns. An interesting side note is that, in 1959, he won 18 games out of the bullpen and saved 10 more. 1961 had been less kind to him, as he was 10-for-14 in saves and held a 2-3 record. However, he had a sparkling 2.21 ERA and was throwing strikes at a 73% clip coming into this game. The Phillies had cut the deficit to seven by the time he came in, but it was still huge. The baseball gods seemed to be smiling upon Pittsburgh this day as they sought their 33rd win of the season. Unfortunately, these purely mythological beings that baseball fans blame for everything turned on Face and the Pirates. The comeback was on.
Face gave up a two run double in the eighth to Charley Smith, yet managed to stop the bleeding. However, in the top of the ninth, the Phillies greeted him with four consecutive singles. Tony Gonzalez and Pancho Herrera added to their RBI total as the score became 11-8. Face was pulled in favor of Earl Francis, a 25-year-old in his first full season. He got Demeter to ground into a fielder’s choice, but this was where the Pirates defense fell asleep. Back to back errors allowed Gonzalez and Demeter both to score, making it 11-10. Bobby Malkmus followed with a game tying sacrifice fly. Next up was Clay Dalrymple, who should’ve been out on a foul ball. But, yet another error allowed the at bat to continue. Dalrymple put a solid single into left field, and Ken Lehman scored on the fourth Pirate error of the inning. The inning tally: six runs, five hits, and four errors. The final score was Phillies 12, Pirates 11. The Phillies had a 0.05% chance to win this game in the bottom of the seventh.
Defense Fuels Comebacks
The moral of the story here is that defense is just as important as offense. Too often, fans and teams alike look at what’s done with the bat. However, what’s done with the glove is very equally tantamount to a team’s overall success. The Pirates did not have a terrible defense that year, but it wasn’t sparkling clean, either. The infield was a definite problem, combining for 96 of the team’s 150 total errors. Three of the four errors in that ninth inning were by the infield. Preaching defense may not be popular, but it’s definitely worth it. The 1961 Pirates were haunted by bad defense, and wound up with a losing record. However, this game was a showcase of bad defense on both sides. The Pirates simply committed one more blunder in this comedy of errors, costing them a win.
Embed from Getty Images
Robin Roberts, Yogi Berra, Dick Groat, Bob Skinner, Dick Stuart, Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon, Bill Mazeroski, Jim Owens, Joe Gibbon, Don Demeter, Walt Moryn, Roy Face, Charley Smith, Tony Gonzalez, Pancho Herrera, Earl Francis, Bobby Malkmus, Clay Dalrymple, Ken Lehman