Just like Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. Year after year, we watch magic numbers and debate whether or not a team is “done” or if they still have a chance to make the playoffs. Pennant races are one of the countless reasons that make the game of baseball so unique. Some teams, like the 1984 Tigers, go the entire season without much of a fight from their rivals. Some, like the 2007 Mets, get so close to making the postseason, just to have it slip out of their hands. Others, stage what seem like improbable comebacks, after most, if not all fans have counted them out. Here are the nine greatest comebacks in baseball history.
Note: Earlier in the year, I added historical pennant race graphs to the site. These are pennant and wild card win expectancies from every single day in baseball history (1871-present). These expectancies are figured by simulating the remaining schedules 100,000 times, which over the course of baseball history, is 1.7 trillion game simulations. The best way to look at pennant win expectancy is based on a team’s record, the records of their divisional/league opponents and the remaining schedule, this is the probability that they will win the pennant.
On September 4th, the Cardinals were tied for second place with the Cubs, seven games behind the defending champion New York Giants. Of the 25 games left to play, St. Louis was scheduled to face teams in the second division 18 times.
How they did it:
The Gas House Gang’s pitchers were led by brothers Dizzy and Paul Dean, who won 49 games between the two of them. They started 13 and won 12 of the team’s final 25 games. St. Louis would tie the Giants for first place on September 28th, with two games remaining.
Before the season began, Giants manager and first basemen Bill Terry was asked how he felt about the Brooklyn Dodgers chances in the upcoming season. He responded “I haven’t heard anything from them lately. Are they still in the league?” Fate would have it that the Giants final two games would come against those same Dodgers. With the Cardinals Paul and Dizzy Dean facing the last place Reds for their final two games, the Giants had a tough battle ahead. Sure enough, the Dodgers were still in the league and would beat the Giants in both games while the Cardinals won their two to advance to the World Series.
In the World Series, St. Louis faced the 101-win Detroit Tigers, led by future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane & Leon “Goose” Goslin. Down 3 games to 2, the Cardinals tied the series with a late go ahead run in game six. Game seven was a 11-0 route, which included Cardinals left fielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick being forced to leave the field by Commissioner Landis, since Tigers fans were hurling objects in his direction. Medwick had slid hard into third base during the sixth inning, further angering fans who were already down due to their team’s grim prospects. At the time of Medwick’s removal, the Tigers had a 1% series win expectancy.
On August 26th, the Astros were a game over .500 and trailed the Cubs (7 GB), Giants (6 GB) and Padres (5 GB) for the National League wild card.
How they did it:
Not only did Houston have to surpass three teams to advance to the postseason, those three teams would all have winning records over the final 35 games of the season. That did not stop the Astros, as they would go 28-7 during that same stretch, which would include a 12-game winning streak from August 27th to September 8th. During the winning streak, the Astros offense averaged over nine runs per game, led by Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent & mid-season trade acquisition Carlos Beltran. They took the lead in the wild card on October 2nd with one game left to play and clinched the next day with a 5-3 win over the Rockies
After losing to the Braves in the 1997, 1999 & 2001 NLDS, the Astros finally got revenge by beating Atlanta in five games. They went on to face their division rival Cardinals in the NLCS, taking the series a full seven games. In the sixth inning of the final game, Houston had a 2-1 lead before the Cardinals scored three runs on the Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. The Astros would only get one base runner in the final three innings as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series.
On July 18th, the defending champion Yankees were in fourth place in American League East and behind their hated rival and division leading Red Sox by 14 games.
How they did it:
In the second year of free agency, the 1978 Yankees roster was filled with high priced stars, clashing egos and colorful personalities, which led them to be referred to as “The Bronx Zoo”. In late July, manager Billy Martin went off on Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner to reporters. Before he could be fired, he resigned and was replaced by laid-back Bob Lemon. Under the new leadership, the Yankees went 47-20, highlighted by a four game sweep in Boston in mid-September which would leave the two teams tied for the division lead. The series would later be referred to as the “Boston Massacre”. They finished tied after 162 games at 99-63, so a tiebreaker was played at Fenway Park (chosen by coin flip). During the 7th inning, the Red Sox were leading 2-0 and had a win expectancy of 81.6%. That is until light-hitting Bucky Dent hit a three-run homerun that gave the Yankees the lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
For the third straight year, the Yankees defeated the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. Then they would beat the Dodgers in the World Series for the second season in a row.
On August 11th with 44 games left to play, the Giants were 13 games behind the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers, who were 70-36 and appeared to be well on their way to their third World Series in five years.
How they did it:
From August 12-27, the Giants won 16 straight games, cutting the Dodgers lead to five games. The race would go down to the final day of the season with the two teams tied after 154 games. This resulted in a best-of-three tiebreaker series. The game locations were decided by a coin toss, which the Dodgers won. However, they made a questionable decision to host the first game at home and play the second/third games on the road. After splitting the first two contests, the tiebreaker came down to the final (157th game). Down 4-1 in the 9th inning, the Giants series win expectancy was as low as 3.2%. But a 4 run rally culminating with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” won the Giants the pennant. Years later, it was revealed that the Giants were stealing signs from center field at their home park during the series.
After an exciting regular season finish, the Giants lost the World Series to the Yankees, who were in the middle of winning five World Series in a row. The 1951 World Series was the first for rookies Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and the final for Joe DiMaggio.
On September 5th, the Cardinals were 10 games behind the Brewers in the division and 8.5 games behind the Braves for the Wild Card with 21 games remaining.
How they did it:
From September 9-11, the Cardinals swept a three game series from the Braves, cutting their wild card lead from 7.5 to 4.5 games. It didn’t stop there as St. Louis went 11-5 the rest of the way, while the Braves went 5-10.
The Cardinals comeback coincided with the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League, which ultimately culminated in “Game 162” on September 28th. Tied with Atlanta on the final day, the Cardinals defeated Houston, then retreated to the clubhouse to watch the end of Braves game. Needing a win to stay alive, the Braves had a 3-1 lead against the Phillies going into the seventh inning, before Philadelphia tied it in the ninth. Finally, the Phillies won it in the 13th, allowing the Cardinals to clinch the wild card.
The Cardinals defeated the 102-win Phillies in the NLDS. Then they went on to beat the division rival Brewers in the NLCS. Finally, they continued the dramatics of the regular season in the World Series vs the Rangers. During the 9th inning of game 6, the Cardinals had a 2.1% series win expectancy, but rallied behind clutch hits from David Freese and Lance Berkman to force a game 6 and eventually win the series.
On September 20th, with just 13 games left to play, the Cardinals were tied for second place with the Cincinnati Reds while 6.5 games behind the Phillies. At that point, Philadelphia was so close to clinching that they printed World Series tickets.
How they did it:
1964 is remembered much more for the Phillies collapse (and manager Gene Mauch’s questionable managerial moves) than the Cardinals comeback. But just about any comeback requires that other teams under-perform to some extent. The final stretch of the 1964 season produced one of the greatest pennant races in history that saw three teams occupy first place during the final week of the season. In the final 13 games, the Cardinals went 10-3, which included a three game sweep of the Phillies which moved them from third to first place.
The Cardinals defeated the Yankees in seven games. Shortly after the series, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane resigned and was quickly hired by the Yankees to be their new manager. In fact, Keane had officially resigned during the pennant race in September.
On August 5th, the Mets were in last place in the National League East and 11.5 games behind the division leading Cardinals.
How they did it:
The “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets got some help from the other National League division (West), who beat up on the Mets Eastern division rivals. Over the final two months of the season, every team in the East, save for the Mets, lost more games than they won while all but one Western division team won more than they lost. But that’s not to take away from the Mets’ accomplishment. They went 34-19 after August 5th and won the division by a game and a half. The pitching staff, led by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman & Jon Matlack, had a league best 2.63 ERA over the final two months of the season.
They finished the season just three games over .500 (82-79) and have the lowest winning percentage (.509) of any pennant winning team in history.
The Mets defeated the Reds in the NLCS, which was highlighted by the infamous Bud Harrelson and Pete Rose fight. However, the Mets would lose the World Series to the Oakland A’s in 7 games. The series would also be the final games of Willie Mays’ career.
On July 5th, the Braves were in dead last and 15 games behind the leading Giants. They appeared to be on their way to their 12th consecutive sub-.500 season. What sets the 1914 Braves apart from the other teams on this list is that their comeback began earlier than any other team (just 66 games into the season).
How they did it:
The “Miracle Braves” finished the season 68-19 (after starting off 26-40). The turnaround wasn’t the result of one major change, but that of the entire team. Manager George Stallings used a strict platoon with his left fielders Joe Connolly (158 OPS+) and Ted Cather (115 OPS+), something that hadn’t been done regularly by 1914. Bill James became the ace of the staff, going 19-1 with a 1.55 ERA in 214 innings after July 5th. In the second half of the season, all but one regular batter had a higher OPS than they did in the first.
Not only did they leapfrog seven National League teams, they did it so easily that they finished ahead of the second place Giants by 10.5 games. In fact, they took over sole possession of fist place on September 8th and held on to that spot for the next four weeks. From July 5th until the end of the season, the Braves outscored their opponents by almost 2 runs per game.
The Braves swept the defending champion and highly favored Philadelphia Athletics in four games.
On August 19th, the Cardinals were in fourth place and ten games back of the first place Cubs with 37 games remaining, 23 of which were on the road. Of the 100,000 simulations from that date, the Cardinals would win the pennant just 160 times, or one in every 625 simulations.
How they did it:
As if that wasn’t a big enough hurdle, the three teams in front of the Cards on August 19th would all play .500 or better the rest of the way. But that is what makes their comeback even more impressive. Sparked by the midseason trade in which they acquired future Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes, the Cardinals went 31-6 over the remaining 37 games and outscored their opponents by more than 100 runs. They tied for first place on September 16th and won the pennant by 2 games. On the final game of the season, after having already clinched the pennant, Dizzy Dean made his major league debut and allowed just one run and three hits in a complete game victory.
The club’s September run included a couple of crazy stories. On September 15th, the Cardinals were in Brooklyn to face the first place Dodgers. With the team being just a game behind in the standings, the next day’s starting pitcher Flint Rhem disappeared. Rhem, who was known to enjoy libations, even during prohibition, wouldn’t reappear until two days later. The story came out that Rhem said to have been kidnapped by several men and forced to drink liquor. However, it was later discovered that manager Gabby Street had concocted the kidnapping story.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, this did not hinder their comeback attempt. But maybe because they had the benefit of a soothsayer, who would instruct manager Gabby Street who to pitch and would correctly predict the outcome of those games. It seemed to work flawlessly until they reached the World Series.
The Cardinals lost to Connie Macks’ Philadelphia A’s in 6 games. But the following season, they would exact revenge on the A’s by winning the 1931 World Series in seven games.
The 1930 Cardinals are rarely, if ever mentioned among the greatest comebacks in baseball history. Perhaps it is because their comeback didn’t also include a great collapse from a league rival. Perhaps it is because their roster didn’t include sexy names or inner circle Hall of Famers. A few of the Cardinals that did make it into the Hall of Fame are those that many feel are undeserving or are in the bottom tier (Jim Bottomley, Jesse Haines & Chick Hafey). Whatever the reason, the 1930 St. Louis Cardinals deserve the credit of overcoming the most difficult odds of winning the pennant in baseball history.
10) 1883 BSN 1.18%
11) 2005 HOU 1.29%
12) 1936 NY1 1.29%
13) 1938 CHN 1.49%
14) 2011 TBA 1.77%
15) 1974 BAL 2.00%
16) 1988 BOS 2.12%
17) 1969 NYN 2.13%
18) 1987 DET 2.36%
19) 1974 PIT 2.50%
20) 2009 COL 2.56%
21) 1984 KCA 2.59%
22) 1995 NYA 2.60%
23) 2003 FLO 2.65%
24) 2013 LAN 2.79%
25) 2007 COL 2.83%