The question got my attention, no doubt because the man asking it was a friend who had tagged me among some esteemed company when he posted it to Twitter. “You can be transported to any baseball season in history,” wrote Jon Weisman, the longtime proprietor of Dodger Thoughts and the author of two books about the team’s history. “Once transported, you will not know what has happened — you will experience it all unfold in real time. Which season do you pick?”
Elsewhere within his series of tweets, Weisman laid out the dilemma at hand: “whether to relive a season you adored, or newly experience a season you would adore.”
In the midst of making dinner, I resisted the temptation to fire off a knee-jerk response. When hypothetical baseball time travel is involved, it’s important not to go off half-cocked, particularly when you can write about it.
I turned 50 years old in December. My storehouse of baseball memories goes back to 1978, the year I learned to read box scores. While a few years during college are faint — I didn’t see a lick of the 1990 World Series, though I do remember participating in some fantasy team-by-mail contest that year, seven years before joining my first online fantasy league — that’s a storehouse of 42 seasons worth of baseball, some of which I would consider reliving if given the chance, not just because of the World Series winners but the quality of the pennant races, with record-setters and Hall of Famers also figuring into the calculus.
In the end, I came up with 10 candidates for seasons that I would consider being transported to, but somehow went to 11, just like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier. Only three of those are seasons I’ve seen before, and only one of which I paid attention to from start to finish. With the caveat that I grew up a third-generation Dodgers fan — which guides several of the choices both for and against (the 1951 season can go get bent) — I present my candidates in chronological order.
This one’s mainly for the great pennant race between the Giants and Cubs, the one that hinged on the infamous baserunning gaffe of New York rookie Fred Merkle, whose failure to touch second base while the apparent winning run scored in a September 23 game forced a makeup game. I’d get to see Christy Mathewson at what might have been his peak — he won the pitchers’ triple crown with 37 wins, 259 strikeouts, and a 1.43 ERA while setting a career high with 11.8 bWAR — and the last Cubs team to win for a over a century, with their Tinkers-Evers-Chance infield and the brilliance of Three-Finger Brown. Elsewhere, I’d get late-career brilliance from Honus Wagner and Cy Young, and early-career quality from Ty Cobb (whose Tigers won a three-way AL race by half a game, then bowed to the Cubs in the World Series) and Walter Johnson, covering four of the Hall of Fame’s original five (all but Babe Ruth). Tempting.
Two words: Murderer’s Row. This is the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for a 110-win team that also featured Lou Gehrig in his first awesome year (.373/.474/.765, 47 homers, 173 RBI). I thought hard about going outside the box for a Ruth season, maybe 1919 when he was splitting his time between the mound and the outfield, or 1920, when he hit 54 homers, but the lack of Gehrig in those years, and the chance to behold one of history’s most dominant teams — one of which my grandfather and so many introductory baseball books spoke — made this a fairly easy call. Additional benefits would include seeing Harry Heilmann win his fourth batting title by getting to .398 on the final day of the season via a 7-for-9 performance, Rogers Hornsby, an 18-year-old Mel Ott, a star-laden A’s team that included a 40-year-old Cobb and a 19-year-old Jimmie Foxx as well as Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Al Simmons (runner-up to Heilmann), and even Zack Wheat. In fact, this season featured an astounding 52 Hall of Famers active, one shy of the record despite the existence of just 16 teams.
Joe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams‘ successful run at .400 would make this one of the most gripping seasons to relive day-to-day, and while there was no pennant race to speak of in the AL — the Yankees won by 17 games — the NL had the Leo Durocher-led Brooklyn Dodgers outlasting the Cardinals to win their first pennant in 21 years. Those Dodgers featured the phenomenal 22-year-old Pete Reiser before he started leaving large chunks of his body all over the field. For all of that, the World Series had its moment of heartbreak with Mickey Owen’s infamous passed ball. What’s more, the looming specter of war, personified by star Hank Greenberg being inducted into the Army in May, would be a downer, too.
The arrival of Jackie Robinson and the fall of the color line would be a thing to behold, because nothing else that happened on a baseball diamond has ever carried such wide-ranging ramifications off of it. Robinson’s slash-and-dash play would be a delight, the day-to-day tension and displays of racism both overt and subtle would be draining, but the arrivals of Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Dan Bankhead would make clear that integration was not just a passing fad. A top-notch Dodgers team losing a seven-game World Series to the Yankees might be a bummer, but the individual heroics of Cookie Lavagetto breaking up Bill Bevens‘ no-hit bid in Game 4 and Al Gionfriddo robbing DiMaggio of an extra-base hit in Game 6 could soften the blow.
This is next year for the Dodgers, who after six fruitless trips to the World Series, beat the Yankees in a seven-game thriller on the strength of Johnny Podres‘ Game 7 shutout. Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe — I know this lineup inside and out thanks to the Strategic Simulations Computer Baseball game I spent thousands of hours playing on our Apple II+. Likewise that of the Yankees, with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and so on. Elsewhere, the season featured aging greats Williams and Stan Musial as well as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, and Willie Mays, all 24 years old or younger but already kicking ass, and even Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson each struggling to get going. Such a bounty of talent is tough to beat.
My list so far is lighter on great pennant races than I’d like, but the AL one here was a doozy that I wrote about for It Ain’t Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book. This was a four-team race in which the Red Sox edged the Tigers and Twins by a game and the White Sox by three games; on September 18, with 11 or 12 games to go, three teams were tied for first, with the White Sox half a game behind. It was the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” season, featuring the Triple Crown-winning Carl Yastrzemski, Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg, and a notably integrated lineup featuring budding stars George Scott and Reggie Smith as well as Joe Foy. That team lost out to the Bob Gibson– and Lou Brock-led Cardinals in a seven-game World Series. Also on the docket: Ron Santo’s best season, and great ones from Aaron, Clemente, Kaline, Killebrew, Orlando Cepeda, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson. The low-offense environment (3.77 runs per game, one year before the “Year of the Pitcher”) might make the individual games a little dry, but if 1908 had only 3.38 runs per game, I’m not sure this is worth complaining about.
This season is the year of my birth, though I didn’t arrive until December 25 (true story). It’s most notable for the Miracle Mets, who shook off seven years of losing and overcame a 10-game mid-August deficit behind the Cubs to win the newly-formed NL East and then upset a mighty 109-win Orioles squad in the World Series. Those Mets were driven by the one-two rotation punch of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, with youngsters Tug McGraw and Nolan Ryan in the bullpen, and Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee in the lineup. As a resident of New York City for the past 25 years, I’d love to see how their unlikely season unfolded in real time and electrified a city that was still smarting from the departures of the Dodgers and Giants, with the Yankees experiencing a drought.
Elsewhere, this season featured the second wave of expansion, which added the Expos, Padres, Royals, and Pilots. The last of those, made famous by reliever Jim Bouton’s inside look, Ball Four, is of additional personal significance, as I apparently attended at least one Pilots game in utero. The year also had great campaigns from Hall of Famers like Aaron, Gibson, Killebrew (the AL MVP), Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Sam McDowell, Denny McLain, Willie McCovey (the NL MVP), and Frank Robinson. Can I get the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 24) thrown in? If so, this is a real contender.
Though I had been exposed to baseball by this point, the 1978 season was what flipped the switch. I got my first packs of Topps cards (thanks, Mom!), began my daily diet of box scores and standings (thanks, Dad!), and memorized the Dodgers’ batting order as they won their second straight NL West flag under young(ish) manager Tommy Lasorda. At one point late in the year, I plowed through a foot-high stack of old Salt Lake Tribunes and traced the team’s mid-August overtaking of the division-leading Giants. I tuned into network games, watched the Bucky Dent heroics in the AL East tiebreaker, learned about Jackie Robinson for the first time, was taught how to keep score during Game 2 of the World Series (the one with Bob Welch‘s famous game-ending strikeout of Jackson), marveled at the acrobatics of third baseman Graig Nettles as he helped the Yankees stave off a potential three-games-to-none deficit… the memories are vivid, but to see them again 42 years later, and relive the drama as an adult, would be something else. Around the league, highlights included Pete Rose‘s 44-game hitting streak and 3,000th hit, McCovey’s 500th home run, Carew’s last batting title, Ron Guidry‘s 25-3, 1.74 ERA season, Gaylord Perry‘s Cy Young at age 39, and Dave Parker’s MVP win.
The year I graduated high school and went off to college is the last time the Dodgers won a championship, and oh, what a year it was for Orel Hershiser given his record-breaking streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings and his postseason heroics; likewise for Kirk Gibson given his MVP award and walk-off homer in Game 1 of the World Series. Given the momentous changes in my life, I did not get to absorb this season as fully as the previous year’s homerfest, and not until maybe 1993 would I pay day-to-day attention again. That said, I did see just about every Dodgers playoff game; those battles with the Mets were as intense as any games I can recall, and the upset of the Bash Brother-led A’s was downright shocking.
Around the league, this one would bring the chance to relive great seasons by the likes of Wade Boggs (who hit .366), David Cone, Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Dave Stewart, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount and more. The major downside I can see for this year relates to two of my longtime favorites who missed out on the Dodgers fun, as Pedro Guerrero was traded to the Cardinals for John Tudor in mid-August, and Fernando Valenzuela finally broke down after years of overuse and finished the season on the disabled list.
Now this was one hell of a baseball year, and the one on this list that I experienced day-in, day-out. I moved to New York City in 1995, and was entertained enough by watching the Yankees’ return to prominence that starting in ’98, I banded together with a few friends as part of a partial season ticket package. We lucked into a 114-win juggernaut, featuring not only the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, but also Bernie Williams (that year’s AL batting champion), Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, David Wells, and more. I got to attend my first World Series game, the opener against the Padrs and Tony Gwynn (whom I’d last seen in person as a Walla Walla Padre).
Beyond the Bronx was a captivating chase for the single-season home run record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and regardless of the way that subsequent revelations have tarnished that particular tale, it was a blast to experience in real time. Also on the ticket: a Larry Walker batting title, a Barry Bonds WAR lead, great seasons by Albert Belle, Kevin Brown, Nomar Garciaparra, Ken Griffey Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Kenny Lofton, Greg Maddux, Mike Piazza (who was traded twice), Alex Rodriguez, and so many more.
I could easily come up with another list of equal size. The 1948 season, with an Indians team featuring Doby and Satchel Paige as well as Bob Feller and a few other Hall of Famers; the 1954 season, for another powerhouse Indians team coming up against the Mays-led Giants; the 1959 season, with its three-way NL race between the Dodgers, Braves, and Giants (another chapter I wrote for It Ain’t Over); the 1963 or ’65 seasons, because somewhere in this I need Sandy Koufax; the 1964 season, with its great NL pennant race and the Cardinals’ upset of the Yankees in the World Series; the 1974 season, for Aaron’s record-setting homer and a colorful A’s team brought to life by some baseball cards my older cousin passed down; the 1982 season, because I really fell for the “Harvey’s Wallbangers” Brewers…
I’d happily (re)live any of those seasons if given the chance, but if I can’t do ’em all, I’d start by winnowing my field down to four: 1908, for its NL great pennant race and the aforementioned early Hall of Famers; 1927, for Ruth, Gehrig, and Murderer’s Row; 1955, for Brooklyn’s lone World Series win, so many “Boys of Summer” in their primes and a tremendous wave of young talent; and 1969 because of the Mets, the Pilots, and the moon. As tempting as it might be to relive a season that I already experienced, I don’t think I could justify making it my first choice; I’m satisfied to pass this way just once.
So that’s my final four, and when I weigh them all, the one I keep coming back to is 1955: an integrated Dodgers team, laden with Hall of Famers and memorable personalities, winning a seven-game World Series against a star-studded Yankees squad, and bringing joy to the borough I’ve called home for the past 12 1/2 years. Damn right I’d love to see that.
While recognizing that this is a subjective choice, I do wonder if there’s a way to capture an objective rating for a given season, something that at least crudely accounts for close pennant races, hotly contested World Series (and playoffs), Hall of Famers, major records, and so on. That’s a story for another day.