The Year That ... : Finding the single memory that defines each baseball season since 1903

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

I couldn't tell you off the top of my head who won the 1945 World Series, but I could tell you that a goat got kicked out of it. I couldn't tell you who the best pitcher in baseball was in 1956, but I could tell you who threw a perfect game in that year's World Series. I don't remember who hit the most home runs in 1990, but I do remember that the Mariners' No. 2 and 3 hitters -- both of them named Griffey -- hit back-to-back dingers one day that year. Most of us remember these things like we remember our first phone number.

We would probably all be surprised to find out what history will remember about our era. Once the eyewitnesses die, a lot of weird stuff gets remembered, and a lot of stuff that seemed important at the time gets forgotten. I got to wondering what history will remember about 2017 -- what a late-21st century kid raised on baseball trivia books, This Date In History radio segments and her granddad's memories will know about this past season. To answer that requires first figuring out what gets remembered and why.

So, with the help of a few smart baseball friends, I charted 114 years of baseball by the single most memorable fact of each season -- the one thing a fairly serious baseball fan has probably heard of from that year.

What we learned: There are exactly seven ways to be remembered. Plus subcategories.

1. Incredible achievement, usually captured by a single number or concept

For example, 1905 was the year Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in the World Series, and 1959 was the year Harvey Haddix took a perfect game into the 13th inning, and 1982 was the year Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases, and 1967 was the year Carl Yastrzemski won the last Triple Crown of the century. It sure does help when the number is a record, which necessitates us constantly bringing it up whenever somebody remotely challenges them. If somebody throws three no-hitters in a row next year, you'll subsequently hear Johnny Vander Meer's name about 95 percent less often than you do now. But some numbers persist despite not being records -- Roger Maris' 1961 chase and Hank Aaron's 1974 jog around the bases will be remembered for many decades after "61" and "755" quit being records -- and some performances are memorable without a specific number, such as Sandy Koufax's breakout in 1963.

1b. Incredible team (often captured by a nickname)

Because we like to argue about which team was the best team ever, and we like to show off by proving we can name decades-old lineups. So 1927 and 1928 were the years of Murderers' Row, 1975 was the year the Big Red Machine peaked, 1996 was the year the Core Four came together and launched a new Yankees dynasty, 1969 was the year of the Miracle Mets.

1c. Incredible single play, or sequence of plays, often aided by iconic photo or video images

These are the single moments when a player was so good, so impactful or so loud it overwhelms the rest of the season. Of course, 1954 was the year not of the 111-43 Cleveland Indians -- the best record in AL history -- but of The Catch. And 1951 was the year of Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round The World, not Willie Mays' debut. And 1988 was most memorably the year of Kirk Gibson's home run, not Orel Hershiser's 59-inning scoreless streak. Baseball is a game of slowly building records, of naps on the couch and dull Augusts, but the very, very biggest moments can stand out like an air horn in a library.

2. The moment the timeline begins

History is a long drive, and as with all long drives we remember the first and last miles more than the hours of unchanging landscapes in the middle. On the merits, the first World Series -- in 1903 -- wasn't that memorable, and in many ways, the play would have been unrecognizable to a modern fan: One team's ace was ineffective after injuring himself in a trap-shooting contest, another pitcher threw five complete games, and the best player on the field (Honus Wagner) made six errors. And yet nobody would dispute that the 2017 Series and the 1903 Series belong to the same lineage, which makes 1903 the infrastructure upon which our modern game is built.

And so 1922 is the year baseball got its antitrust exemption, and 1929 is the year Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig first got uniform numbers, and 1935 is when night baseball began, and 1946 is when Jackie Robinson desegregated the minors, and 1950 is when Vin Scully started broadcasting games -- unless that one belongs under category 2b ...

2b. The moment modern baseball begins

We can debate what's modern, but there are various points where the weird old-timey baseball they used to play became the cool and normal baseball we all love now. Which is why 1952 is the year Topps launched the modern baseball card, why 1965 is the year of the draft, and why 1976 is the year of free agency. This is probably the category for 2002's Moneyball A's -- a great team, but more historically memorable as the first modern team.

3. Bloopers and/or extraordinary failures

I don't know that most people know what Snodgrass' Muff (1912) and Merkle's Boner (1908) actually were, but they're probably the two most famous plays of the first quarter of the 20th century. Failure has a better set of vocabulary than success does, for one thing, but it's probably also the case that failure can fail a lot more dramatically than success can succeed. You actively hope for the walk-off homer, but you're not even considering the walk-off slow grounder through the first baseman's legs. So the 1986 season is the year of Bill Buckner, and the 2003 season is the year of Bartman and Grady Little, far more (in my opinion) than 2004 and 2016 will ultimately be remembered as the years of the Red Sox and Cubs winning.

4. Pathos

Sometimes overlapping with reason No. 3 -- Muffs and Boners are undeniably stories of pathos -- but mostly its own thing. The pathos events are the years when happy, playful baseball must grapple with the fact that it exists in a larger world of death, injury and human failing: 1939, the year Lou Gehrig retired; 1957, the year Herb Score got hit by the line drive; 1919, the year of the Black Sox.

5. Disruption of baseball's basic equilibrium

In 1944, Joe Nuxhall pitched in the majors when he was 15. Of course, he pitched in the majors not because he was the most incredible pitching prospect in history, but because all the good players had to go fight in the war, and so for two seasons baseball was basically profoundly weird. This happens sometimes, for reasons less dramatic than wars: The 1968 season was the year of the pitcher, the 1993 season was when the offensive environment of the steroids era really began (along with baseball in Colorado), and the 1987 season was a very brief juiced-ball moment. These are seasons we remember mostly as years when baseball broke, and when everything that happened has to be taken with a little bit of skepticism; you might even think of them as the year the stats don't count. You might actually put 1998 here, the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa homered so many danged times.

6. When the larger world intersects with baseball, or vice versa

For instance, 1942 was the year Franklin Roosevelt sent the "Green Light" letter to baseball, more or less giving the sport permission to keep playing baseball during the war for the good of the nation. The larger culture reached its big, heavy paw into baseball and reminded the sport it is a game in the world, not actually a world of its own. Same for 2005, the year Congress called Rafael Palmeiro, McGwire and others to testify awkwardly about performance-enhancing drugs.

Or, as the vice versa: The 1992 season is the year the "Homer At The Bat" episode of "The Simpsons" aired. It might have been the last time baseball players were celebrities enough to carry a pop-culture phenomenon, and it helped launch the show's practice of loading up on celebrity guest stars. Indeed, in retrospect that episode sort of looks like the final act of baseball's reign as the national pastime.

And, finally ...

7. By being weird, by being almost literally unbelievable or inexplicable

This is where we probably find the biggest disconnect between how historic something seemed in the moment and how long it survives in lore.

So, for instance, we have 1911, the year of Charlie "Victory" Faust. Faust was "virtually unmatched for sheer strangeness and improbability," according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Faust pitched two innings (allowing one run) and batted once (hit by pitch) for the New York Giants, but he wasn't really a player, as became clear almost immediately after he talked manager John McGraw into giving him a tryout. Rather, he became something between a mascot and a team joke and a good luck charm, and in the months he spent with the Giants they won a staggering 80 percent of their games. Then the Giants kicked him out, more or less, and immediately slumped; over the next three years he spent extended periods in mental institutions before dying in 1915.

Here's the thing about baseball: Even the most dramatic moments are extremely plausible. Just about every home run in history was hit by a player already known to be capable of hitting a home run, while even a perfect game is just the most likely thing happening 27 times in a row. The excitement comes from combining uncertainty and stakes -- rolling dice for money is exciting -- rather than any literal I Can't Believe What I Just Saw emotion.

But there are stories that just barely hold together, especially as decades pass. Faust's is one. What was this world, where a mentally ill man could walk up to the most famous manager in the world at a fair, tell him a fortune-teller had prophesied he would pitch the Giants to the pennant, and actually spend the next year with the team? What was this sport, where that same man could actually appear in games, despite being "arguably the least athletic person apart from Eddie Gaedel to play in the major leagues," according to SABR? Why did the Giants win so many games under the protection of Faust's and McGraw's superstitions, and what was the story -- one of fraternity or cruelty? What was it even like to be human in 1911? Faust's story wasn't that big a deal at the time, and he faded into obscurity in the years immediately afterward. But the decades that passed gave the absurdity and ambiguity of it time to ferment, and when the character of Charlie Faust reemerged in the 1960s (in Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory Of Their Times") he became the most famous part of an entire season of baseball.

Similarly, 1910 is the year a manager ordered his team to let Nap Lajoie bunt for eight base hits, then tried to bribe the official scorekeeper to give Lajoie another, then got banned from baseball, just to spite Ty Cobb and tilt the batting crown. So it is that 1917 is the year starting pitcher Babe Ruth (Babe Ruth!!) walked the first batter of a game, punched the umpire, was ejected, and his relief pitcher got 27 consecutive outs (including a caught stealing on the inherited runner) for a "combined no-hitter." That game wasn't (as far as I can tell) mentioned in the New York Times sports section at the time, but is now the most famous event of that season, because it's almost too illogical to have happened. So it is that 1970 is the year Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD, and 1991 is the year Rodney McCray ran straight through an outfield wall.

So there we go, the seven-plus ways to be remembered.

It might also be worth noting that, while doing this, my collaborators and I were struck by how deep the options for 1988 and 1989 were. I picked Gibson's home run and Pete Rose getting banned for life, but that left an incredible collection of memories out: Jim Abbott pitching with one arm, Ken Griffey Jr.'s Upper Deck rookie card and the birth of the glossy baseball card era, Jose Canseco's 40/40 season, Hershiser's scoreless-innings streak, the Orioles starting a season 0-21, a massive earthquake interrupting the World Series, everything about Bo Jackson. Only a couple of seasons could compete with these two: Maybe 1951 (Mays and Mantle debuted and Gaedel batted, in addition to Thomson's home run) and 1908 ("Take Me Out To The Ballgame" was written, the Cubs won their last World Series of the century, a catcher caught a baseball tossed from the top of the Washington Monument, plus Fred Merkle). It struck me how blessed I was that, in probably my most formative seasons as a baseball fan, the game was so darned memorable.

Then I realized I probably got the relationship backward. Those years are probably memorable because I was 8. "History" might remember baseball one way, but baseball is not, and has never been, one way.

The list:

1903: The Year That ... they played the first World Series

1904: ... there was no World Series

1905: ... Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in the World Series

1906: ... the Cubs won 116 games, the best record ever

1907: ... the Tigres del Licey were founded in the Dominican Republic

1908: ... Merkle's Boner happened

1909: ... the Honus Wagner T206 baseball card came out

1910: ... Nap Lajoie won the batting crown from Ty Cobb on the last day of the season

1911: ... Charlie Faust was John McGraw's good-luck charm

1912: ... Snodgrass' Muff happened

1913: ... the Federal League launched

1914: ... Wrigley Field opened

1915: ... the Federal League collapsed

1916: ... the Giants won (or, at least, didn't lose) 26 straight

1917: ... Babe Ruth and Ernie Shore combined on the weirdest no-hitter ever

1918: ... the Red Sox won their last World Series of the 20th century

1919: ... the Black Sox threw the World Series

1920: ... Babe Ruth debuted with the Yankees and hit 54 homers

1921: ... baseball debuted on the radio

1922: ... the Supreme Court gave MLB its antitrust exemption

1923: ... the House That Ruth Built opened

1924: ... Rogers Hornsby hit .424

1925: ... Babe Ruth missed two months with maybe syphilis

1926: ... Babe Ruth ended the World Series by getting caught stealing

1927: ... the Yankees were Murderers' Row

1928: ... the Yankees were Murderers' Row, again

1929: ... the Yankees put uniform numbers on their players -- Ruth No. 3, Gehrig No. 4

1930: ... Hack Wilson drove in 190/191

1931: ... Jackie Mitchell, a teenage girl, struck out Ruth and Gehrig in an exhibition

1932: ... Babe Ruth called his shot

1933: ... the first All-Star Game was played

1934: ... Carl Hubbell struck out five consecutive Hall of Famers in the ASG

1935: ... the first night game was played

1936: ... the first Hall of Fame class was announced

1937: ... Joe Medwick won the last (to date) NL Triple Crown

1938: ... Johnny Vander Meer threw consecutive no-hitters

1939: ... Lou Gehrig retired

1940: ... they timed Bob Feller's fastball with a motorcycle

1941: ... DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams' .406 batting average coexisted

1942: ... Franklin Roosevelt sent baseball his "Green Light" letter

1943: ... the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League launched

1944: ... everybody went to war and a 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall pitched

1945: ... the Billy Goat Curse began

1946: ... Jackie Robinson played in the minors

1947: ... Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier

1948: ... Satchel Paige debuted in the majors

1949: ... Jackie Robinson won the MVP award

1950: ... Vin Scully began broadcasting Dodgers games

1951: ... Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round The World

1952: ... Topps essentially invented the modern baseball card set

1953: ... Mickey Mantle hit a home run "565" feet

1954: ... Willie Mays made The Catch

1955: ... Dodgers inspired Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer"

1956: ... Don Larsen throws a perfect game in the World Series

1957: ... Herb Score got hit by a line drive

1958: ... the Dodgers and Giants played baseball on the West Coast

1959: ... Harvey Haddix took a perfect game into the 13th inning

1960: ... Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run to win the World Series

1961: ... Roger Maris hit 61 homers

1962: ... the expansion Mets lost 120 games

1963: ... Sandy Koufax broke out

1964: ... the Phillies had an all-time September collapse

1965: ... the draft started

1966: ... Sandy Koufax held out for more money at the start of the season, and retired at the end of it

1967: ... Yaz won the last Triple Crown of the 20th century

1968: ... was the Year of the Pitcher

1969: ... the Miracle Mets won

1970: ... Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD

1971: ... SABR was founded

1972: ... Curt Flood took on the reserve clause before the Supreme Court

1973: ... George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees

1974: ... Hank Aaron hit No. 715

1975: ... the Big Red Machine peaked

1976: ... free agency began

1977: ... Reggie Jackson became Mr. October

1978: ... Bucky Dent got his middle name

1979: ... saw the Disco Demolition

1980: ... Rotisserie Baseball was invented

1981: ... was split into two seasons

1982: ... Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases

1983: ... the pine-tar game happened

1984: ... the White Sox and Brewers played 25 innings

1985: ... Dwight Gooden, 20 years old, had a 1.53 ERA

1986: ... Bill Buckner let the ball get through his legs

1987: ... the ball was suspiciously lively

1988: ... Kirk Gibson hit his home run

1989: ... Pete Rose was banned

1990: ... Ken Griffey Jr. and his dad played together

1991: ... Rodney McCray ran through that wall

1992: ... "Homer At The Bat" aired

1993: ... the offensive era, and baseball at altitude, were born

1994: ... the strike ruined

1995: ... Cal Ripken broke Gehrig's streak

1996: ... the Core Four more or less debuted and the new Yankees dynasty began

1997: ... the Marlins won the World Series and were immediately stripped down for parts

1998: ... McGwire and Sosa chased the home run record

1999: ... Pedro Martinez had his best season and perhaps his best performance

Without the distance of history, everything after this is a bit more speculative- -- not just what we remember now, but what appears to be on a trajectory to be remembered.

2000: ... Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers for $252 million

2001: ... Barry Bonds hit 73 homers

2002: ... "Moneyball" novelized

2003: ... Bartman and Grady Little kept curses alive

2004: ... Curt Schilling pitched with a bloody sock and Theo Epstein beat his first curse

2005: ... star players were called to testify before Congress

2006: ... the Mitchell Report was commissioned

2007: ... Barry Bonds hit No. 756

2008: ... Barry Bonds got blackballed

2009: ... the Mets got swindled by Bernie Madoff

2010: ... Jim Joyce cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game

2011: ... the last day of the season became baseball's "best night ever"

2012: ... rookie Mike Trout and Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera battled for the MVP award

2013: ... the rebuilding Astros hit their nadir

2014: ... Game 7 ended with Madison Bumgarner a hero ... and Alex Gordon stuck at third

2015: ... Jose Bautista flipped the bat

2016: ... the Cubs won an all-time great Game 7

2017: ... click here!

Thanks to Patrick Dubuque, Matt Trueblood and R.J. Anderson for consultation.