To mark the Baseball Solstice, I’ve been contemplating the greatest moments in baseball history. A number of these came to mind instantly, a few of them took a bit more prodding of the memory banks.
This list is strictly my own reckoning on this date. Ask me in a few weeks or a few months, and some of the items may change — although the top three to five would likely stick.
10. The Amazin’ Mets win the 1969 World Series. The expansion Mets were a miserable franchise in the 1960s (no comment on subsequent decades) and their defeat of the Orioles was as exhilirating as it was surprising. I should note that I was rooting for the Orioles, yet even as a kid I thought the Mets were quite the story.
9. Cal RIpken breaks Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. Gehrig’s once unassailable record fell when Cal took the field that night, an event that connected the glory days of the past to what was then the present day.
8. Billy Buckner boots the grounder at first base. The Red Sox were oh so close to breaking the curse of the Bambino, and then Buckner let the ball go between his legs. It would be several more years before the Red Sox would finally win their first World Series since the first decade of the century.
7. The George Brett pine tar bat incident. Never have I seen anything so uproariously funny during a baseball game. Brett charged from the dugout like a demon, screaming bloody murder. Later it came out that Billy Martin had waited for the ultimate moment to call the pine tar violation, which makes the incident even funnier.
6. Who’s On First? OK, so this isn’t a real baseball moment. But Abbot and Costello’s classic routine underscores baseball’s relevance in American culture better than anything.
5. Babe Ruth calls his shot. We know that “Who’s on First” was made up, but the Ruth legend is somewhere in between fact and fiction. That the famous gesture to center field was issued in a Yankees’ defeat of the Cubs in the World Series tells me without a doubt it really happened.
4. Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” farewell address. This sad yet sweet moment under the echoing arches of Yankee Stadium is undeniably one of the great ones. It’s a reminder of the nobility of man, and that baseball can break your heart.
3. Roger Maris hits his 61st home run. Through all the relentless pressure he faced, Maris still managed to launch home run No. 61 off Tracy Stallard in 1961. He broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record that day. And he did it witout any hint of performance-enhancing drugs.
2. Willie Mays catch at the Polo Grounds. In Game One of the 1954 World Series, Vic Wertz ripped a monster drive into cavernous center field. Mays raced straight back and brought the ball to earth and, his cap flying off, hurls the ball back toward the plate. The Indians, the winningest regular-season team ever, were toast and lost to the Giants in four straight.
1. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Bobby Thompson smacked a home run off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca to give the Giants a victory in the final of a three-game playoff series to determine the National League champion. It was the ultimate “walk-off” moment, immortalized by Russ Hodges’ radio call: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”