Wagner, Ruth, Robinson and Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez made the final out of the 2016 World Series. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Michael Martinez made the final out of the 2016 World Series. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

When the historic, exciting, dramatic 2016 World Series finally came to an end in the 10th inning of the seventh game, Chicago Cubs players and fans had 108 years’ worth of reasons to celebrate. The Cleveland Indians and their supporters, disappointed though they were, had cause to hold their heads high, too, as they came tantalizingly close bring their own historic championship drought. But one man in the stadium likely saw the situation as more personally devastating.

That would be Michael Martínez, the journeyman utility player who made the final out of the postseason for the Indians, grounding out to third with a man on base in a one-run game. Martínez has not been made a scapegoat by Indians fans, nor should he be. Someone had to lose, and someone had to make the last out. As an 11-year-old, I once made the last out of the season for my team and was bummed out for weeks. How much worse must it be to fail for your team at the highest level, in front of thousands in the stands and millions at home?

It should be some consolation to Martínez, though, that the roll of World Series last-out-makers he joins lists some replacement-level talent like himself, but also a surprising number of stars, including 14 Hall of Famers. Their stories should remind us that baseball is a game in which even the best players fail more often than they succeed, and future Hall of Famers are humbled every day.

The first World Series, in 1903, illustrates the point. The series—at that time a best of nine—between the Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) and the Pittsburgh Pirates ended in the eighth game with a strikeout by none other than Honus Wagner.

Wagner, one of the premier stars of his day, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 with 95 percent of the vote. In 1903, he was 29 years old and at the peak of his powers, having led the league that year with a .355 batting average. Strikeouts were not typical for him; in the entire 1903 regular season, Wagner struck out just 17 times. But the postseason, then as now, means tougher competition and different results. Wagner was fanned four times in eight games by a Boston pitching staff that included Cy Young.

One of the most famous last outs in a World Series was made by the man who is still baseball’s most famous player: Babe Ruth. In the seventh game of the 1926 Series, with his Yankees trailing the St. Louis Cardinals 3-2 in the ninth, Ruth drew a two-out walk from Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was pitching in relief. Ruth made the decision, inexplicable in hindsight, to steal second base. He was thrown out, ending the game, with another of baseball’s all-time greats, Rogers Hornsby, applying the tag.

Ruth was not the worst baserunner at that stage of his career–he tied for 17th in the American League in steals in 1926–but he could never be said to have been especially fleet of foot, and losing a game on the basepaths always feels like an avoidable error. As his biographer Robert Creamer later wrote, “despite his four home runs, a new World Series record, Babe was considered a bit of a goat. He didn’t seem to mind. It was a hell of a try, he thought. Strikeouts never embarrassed him, and neither did this.”

Any feelings of self-doubt the Babe did have may have been erased the following year, when the Yankees swept to victory in the 1927 Series.

From 1952 to 1962, the World Series was more likely than not to end with a future Hall of Famer at the plate. Pee Wee Reese flew out to left to end the 1952 World Series. Jackie Robinson struck out to end the seventh game in 1956. Red Schoendienst lined out to center to end the 1958 Series. Luis Aparicio flew out to left to finish 1959’s Fall Classic. Willie McCovey made the last out in 1962 with a line drive to the second basemen.

All but one of these last at-bats was in the Series’ seventh game, the dream scenario of any aspiring ballplayer, and one in which any fan would want the team’s star player batting. That even the best players fail in some of the toughest situations should remind us of the game’s difficulty and unpredictability.

For players like Ruth and Robinson, making the last out in the World Series is a footnote, not even the 10th or 20th most interesting note of their baseball careers. For others, like Martínez, World Series ignominy may be the most noteworthy act of their careers. For two players, Charles “Boss” Schmidt and Aaron Ward, the association with making the last out in a World Series is especially strong: they both did it twice.

Schmidt was the first to do so. A light-hitting catcher for the Detroit Tigers, Schmidt was best known for occasionally brawling with teammate Ty Cobb. He popped out to Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker to end the 1907 World Series, but was probably more distraught over an error in Game One that cost the Tigers their lead (the game ended in a tie after 12 innings).

The teams met for a rematch in the 1908 Series, with the same result. The Tigers lost in five games, with Schmidt ending the game by grounding out to the Cubs catcher. Schmidt and the Tigers won a third AL championship in 1909 and faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Series. They lost again. Schmidt was spared from a third consecutive season-ending out when first baseman Tom Jones flied out to end the 8-0 loss, but only barely: Schmidt was on deck as the game closed.

Aaron Ward matched Schmidt’s feat as a second baseman for the Yankees in 1921 and 1922. He had probably the best year of his career in 1921: He batted .306 and was hailed by a teammate as “the most valuable man” on the team next to Ruth. In the Series against the crosstown Giants, Ward’s hitting was less valuable than his defense. The Series went eight games—the last time it was played as a best-of-nine—with Ward hitting into a double play to seal the Yankees loss.

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The two teams met again in 1922, but this time the Giants dominated, sweeping the Yankees in five games (Game Two was called as a tie after 10 innings.) Ward hit just .154 in the Series and flied out to right to end the game. The Yankees had their revenge the next year, as the famous 1923 team defeated the Giants in six games. Ward did his part then, too, hitting .417 with 10 doubles.

More recent World Series have been lost in at-bats by Mike Piazza, Kenny Lofton, Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera—all players that any team would have been lucky employ in their prime. Other Fall Classics this century have ended with plate appearances by less-remembered hitters: Keith Lockhart, Eric Hinske, Wilmer Flores.

Whoever the hitter, the moment is one that will be remembered by fans of at least two teams for generations. In that moment, the long season and postseason all culminate in ultimate success or the nearest of misses. The hopes engendered in spring training and nurtured over half the year may finally be realized—or not.

An at-bat in which your team’s hopes are balanced on the razor’s edge, like Michael Martínez’s for the Indians in 2016, is one of the most exciting situations in the game, and embodies more than any other situation Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s famous words about baseball: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

References & Resources

  • Phil Williams, Society of American Baseball Research Bio Project, Boss Schmidt
  • Stephen V. Rice, Society of American Baseball Research Bio Project, “Aaron Ward”

Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read his other writing at his personal website, and follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Nice article. The one I remember most was Davie Johnson in the ’69 Series. The Orioles were heavily favored over the so called Miracle Mets. I think he flied out to left field. That out was devastating to Oriole fans. It was like everyone thought that sooner or later the O’s would revert to regular season form and swat the Mets away like a gnat. That last out squelched any hopes that such a thing would happen. Heartbreaking if you were rooting for the Orioles.

Matthew Whitrock
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Matthew Whitrock

Enjoyed the article. One minor correction – in the 1923 WS, Aaron Ward hit .417 with one extra-base hit (a home run in Game 2). It’s unfortunate that he didn’t hit ten doubles in that World Series – hitting ten doubles in a single postseason series would be incredible!

John G.
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John G.

Interesting. Perhaps an Honorable Mention for Carl Yastrzemski? He made the final out in the one-run Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. Later, at the end of the 1978 season, Yaz left two runners on base in making the final out of the legendary “Bucky Dent” playoff game against the Yankees.

Andy
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Andy
I’m surprised an article to this audience doesn’t mention the statistical argument supporting Ruth’s famous attempted steal that ended the 1926 WS. He had a 55% successful steal rate during the regular season, which is quite poor, and which indicates his stealing probably produced negative value (that rate definitely would today, and in the high offensive environment of the 1920s, presumably even more so then). But does it look so bad compared to the alternative? If Ruth had been successful—and again, the odds were slightly in his favor–a single probably would have scored him. Remaining on first, it would have… Read more »
John G.
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John G.
Well, sure, aside from the fact that Meusel had gone 2-3 against Alexander, with both of his hits going for extra bases, in Game 6 *the day before*. And aside from the fact that Meusel was 8th in the A.L. in home runs that year despite missing all of July, with Gehrig (6th) on deck and Lazzeri (3rd) in the hole. And aside from the fact that Dugan had already been caught stealing earlier in the game, perhaps killing a potential rally since Severeid got a hit immediately afterwards. And aside from the fact that O’Farrell’s CS rate (51%, noted… Read more »
Jayssaskatchewan
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Jayssaskatchewan
Jayssaskatchewan
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Jayssaskatchewan

Ruth also successfully stole against the same pitcher combination the day before. He probably only needed a 50% success rate as a break even in that situation and it is likely that he would be successful about 50% of the time. It didn’t turn out well but it could have.

Jayssaskatchewan
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Jayssaskatchewan

Ruth was 1-1 with a HR in that game with 4 BB. He didn’t score on any of the walks so that may also have been a factor.

Another thing to consider is that they were facing a HOF pitcher (Pete Alexander) who already had wins in games 2 and 6 of the series.

Carl
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Carl

Having Lou Gehrig in the batter’s box probably makes it look a little more poor of a decision.

Also, the St. Louis catcher was NL MVP Bob O’Farrell who had thrown out 51% of the runners during the 1926 season.

Scott Lange
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Scott Lange

Gehrig wasn’t up when Ruth stole. Bob Meusel was batting cleanup, in front of Gehrig,. Of course, Meusel hit .315/.370/.473 with 22 doubles and 12 homers, so it wasn’t completely out of the question that he could’ve scored Ruth from first.

John Fox
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John Fox

Not only did Robinson make the last out in ’56, that was the last game he ever played, he was traded to the Giants in the off season but retired instead. He batted fourth for Brooklyn in that Series, I don’t think many or any other ballplayers have retired after batting cleanup in the World Series.

Kyle
Guest

Wow, that’s a good point. It’s rare enough for players who can still produce to retire–like David Ortiz this year–but to retire after batting cleanup in the World Series may be unique to Robinson.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

You are correct but let’s give David Ortiz a “close but no cigar” on this one.

Philip
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Philip

@ John Fox
” I don’t think many or any other ballplayers have retired after batting cleanup in the World Series.”

Well, Joe DiMaggio sure comes to mind.

1951.

Philip
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Philip

Babe Ruth never was on the losing side again in a World Series game after 1926. His Yankees won with sweeps in 1927, 1928 and 1932.

Two players on the banned for life list made the finals outs in World Series play.

Joe Jackson grounded out, 4-3, in 1919 and Pete Road flies out in 1972.

@ John G.

You left out Dent’s middle name!

Philip
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Philip

Pete ROSE

That’s what happens when trying to type on the blasted phone!

Njguy73
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Njguy73

Another HOFer, Tony Gwynn, made the last out of the ’84 Series.

Graham Clayton
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Have there been any players who have made the first as well as the last out in a World Series?