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Nothing Gold Can Stay: The ’64 Series and the end of an era

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a piece on the Yankees’ victory in the 1923 World Series. The ’23 Fall Classic was a definitive turning point in Yankees history. It was the organization’s first championship, and it ushered in the glory days of the Bronx Bombers. After winning it all in 1923, the Yankees would capture nineteen additional titles over the next thirty-eight seasons. The Yankees closed the ’30s with a four-peat, they opened the ’50s by completing a five-peat. Ruth passed the torch to Gehrig, who passed it to DiMaggio, who, in turn, passed it on to Mantle. The string of great teams and great players seemingly went on and on.

This article, however, is not about the height of the Yankees’ glory days. It is about the final chapter in an era of greatness, the last pages in a story of unrivaled dominance. The 1923 World Series opened a period of Yankee dominance. Forty-one years later, the 1964 World Series brought that period to a close. This is the story of that Fall Classic, the Fall Classic that marked the end of an era.

The ’64 Revenge Tour

The Yankees were forced to swallow a bitter pill at the end of their 1963 campaign. After winning an MLB-best 104 games, the Bombers were poised to capture their third championship in a row when they faced the Dodgers in the World Series. Instead of completing a three-peat, the Yankees were strangled by the Dodgers’ formidable starting rotation. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale held the Yankees to a paltry three runs in their three combined starts as Los Angeles swept New York in convincing fashion.

The Yankees entered the 1964 season ready to reclaim their spot atop Major League Baseball. In his first season as manager, Yogi Berra led the Yankees to 99 wins. Mickey Mantle, who played just 65 games in 1963, was in the lineup for 143 contests during the 1964 campaign. Able to develop a better rhythm, the Mick posted a 1.015 OPS, smacked 35 homers, and collected 111 RBI. Elston Howard, who won AL MVP honors in 1963, delivered another strong season at the plate. Howard batted .313 and knocked in 84 runs, the most by any catcher in the American League. On the mound, Whitey Ford and Jim Bouton paced the Yankee rotation with 35 combined wins. Ford’s 2.13 ERA in 1964 was his lowest for a season since 1958.

Despite the individual success that the Yankees’ star players were enjoying, the club found itself three games out of first place when play began on September 1st. A blistering final month, however, catapulted the Yankees to the top of the American League. The Bombers recorded an incredible 22-6 record in September (.758 winning percentage). Though they lost three of their final five games, the Yankees had done enough down the stretch. When the regular season ended, New York had the best record in the AL by a single game.

The Cardinals Take Flight

While they didn’t have the same success as the Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals were a very successful franchise during the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Cards won five championships during the era, and they were undefeated in their four World Series game seven appearances. Unfortunately for the St. Louis faithful, the organization entered a playoff drought after beating Boston in the 1946 Fall Classic. Between 1947 and 1963 the Cardinals posted five second-place finishes in the NL. They failed, however, to make a World Series appearance during that period.

After finishing as runners-up to the Dodgers for the NL crown in 1963, the Cardinals regressed during the first half of the ’64 season. St. Louis spent most of the year in the middle of the pack and made little noise in an NL Pennant chase that was dominated by the Philadelphia Phillies. A strong August put the Cardinals in the hunt, but, like the Yankees, they were still in trouble when September began.

Amazingly, St. Louis would climb out of a 7.5-game hole, grabbing first place in the NL on September 29th. An 11-5 win in the final game of the regular season clinched the Pennant for St. Louis. Thanks in part to the famous “Phillies Phold” (Philadelphia lost 10-straight games to close September), the Cardinals were, miraculously, on their way back to the World Series for the first time since 1946. St. Louis’s offense posted the second-most runs in the NL, and third baseman Ken Boyer won league MVP honors. However, the Cardinals pitching was mediocre. While Bob Gibson was excellent, the team’s ERA was only slightly better than the league average. St. Louis won a respectable 93 games, but they were not the powerhouse that Los Angeles had been in 1963.

The St. Louis Split

Despite having Whitey Ford on the mound for Game 1 in St. Louis, the Yankees were trounced by the Cardinals. Ford, who had been the Bombers’ most dependable postseason pitcher for years, surrendered five runs to the Cards, and was pulled midway through a big 6th inning that saw St. Louis take a 6-4 lead. The Yanks fought back, getting a run in the 8th on a Bobby Richardson RBI single. However, in the bottom of the 8th, Yankee pitchers Rollie Sheldon and Pete Mikkelsen combined to make a mess of things. The Cards grabbed three insurance runs and jumped out to a 9-5 advantage. The Yankees would go down in order, and St. Louis took Game 1.

With Gibson on the bump for the Cardinals in Game 2, St. Louis was poised to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. The Yankees, however, managed to squeak out four runs against the Cardinals’ ace. Clete Boyer hit a sac fly in the 4th, and Tom Tresh, the Yankees left fielder, singled home Mantle two innings later. In the 7th, Bobby Richardson would strike again with an RBI single, and a groundout by the Mick allowed Richardson to score. The Cardinals put up a pair of runs in the bottom of the 8th to cut the Yankees’ lead to 4-2, but the Bombers’ offense responded with four insurance runs in the top of the 9th. Mel Stottlemyer recorded a complete game and the Yankees had their St. Louis split. Final score: 8-3 New York.

One More Magic Moment

Game 3, the first of the series played at Yankee Stadium, was mostly uneventful. Starting pitchers Jim Bouton and Curt Simmons matched one another for eight innings, each surrendering only one run. After Bouton got through the top of the 9th unscathed, the Yankees came to bat with an opportunity to walk off with a 2-1 win and a 2-1 series advantage.

Barney Schultz replaced Simmons for the Cardinals, and Mantle made his way from the on-deck circle to the left-handed batter’s box. Channeling the spirit that led Babe Ruth to call his shot, Mickey told Elston Howard, who was due up after Mantle, to go back to the dugout because he was going to win the game with a homer. The Mick was true to his word. On the very first pitch of the at-bat, Mickey hammered a moonshot over the right field wall. The Yankee Stadium magic had struck again, and the Bombers were in control of the series. Final score: 2-1 Yanks.

A Costly Error

The Yankees took an early lead in Game 4 by scoring three runs in the bottom of the 1st. Yankees’ starter Al Downing cruised through the first five innings without surrendering a run, and it looked like New York was poised to take a commanding 3-1 lead. If the score held, the Bombers would have a chance to redeem their loss in 1963 by winning the ’64 World Series at home the following day. Things unravelled in the top of the 6th, however, when a critical Bobby Richardson error at second base put three men on for NL MVP Ken Boyer. Boyer unloaded on a poor pitch from Downing and hit a grand-slam over the wall in left. The Yanks never recovered and the Cards evened the series at 2-2. Final score: 4-3 St. Louis.

The Magic Runs Out

Bob Gibson returned to form in Game 5, shutting the Yankees out over the first eight innings. Another Richardson error had cost the Yankees a double play in the 5th, and St. Louis took advantage by scraping two runs across the plate. Now, in the bottom of the 9th, faced with a 3-2 series deficit, fans looked for that specialย  Yankee magic to strike again.

It did. Mantle reached on an error to lead off the inning. Gibson recovered nicely by retiring Elston Howard and Joe Pepitone. But, with two outs and Mantle standing on second base, Tom Tresh delivered a dramatic, game-tying home run into the right field seats. The Yankees had done what only the Yankees could do, and that special postseason magic had seemingly saved the Bombers once again.

Unfortunately, New York ran out of magic in the top of the 10th. Pete Mikkelsen, who had struggled in his Game 1 appearance, let a pair of baserunners on to begin the inning. Then, with one away, Tim McCarver hit a home run to right that gave the Cards a 5-2 edge. Gibson finished the Yankees off in the bottom of the inning, and the Cardinals took a 3-2 series lead back to St. Louis. The Yankees wouldn’t play another World Series game at the Stadium until 1976.

David Slays Goliath

The Bombers were the Bombers again in Game 6. Maris, Mantle, and Pepitone all hit home runs in a dominant win. Pepitone’s shot, a grand slam in the top of the 8th, extended the Yankees’ lead to seven runs and all but sealed the victory for New York. Jim Bouton followed up his spectacular Game 3 performance by holding the Cardinals to a mere three runs. Steve Hamilton replaced Bouton in the 9th to record his first and only career postseason save. Final score: 8-3 Yankees.

Game 7 began as a defensive duel. Sottlemyer looked good for New York and Bob Gibson, pitching on just two days’ rest, was mowing down the Yankee hitters. Then the Cardinals broke through. St. Louis manufactured three runs in the bottom of the 4th, then three more in the bottom of the 5th to take a 6-0 lead. Mantle responded in the 6th with his 18th and final World Series home run. Mickey still holds the record for the most homers in World Series play. The score sat at 6-3.

St. Louis managed to pick up another run in the 7th, so the Yankees needed to score four times in the top of the 9th to keep their season alive. Clete Boyer and Phil Linz both hit solo home runs, but Gibson was simply too good. The Cardinals star struck out Tom Tresh and Johnny Blanchard. Bobby Richardson, who recorded a record thirteen hits in the series, made the final out when he popped out to second baseman Dal Maxvill. Gibson was Series MVP, the Cardinals were champions, and the Yankees’ glory days were over. Final score: 7-5 St. Louis.

End of an Era

The 1964 Fall Classic was a series of lasts for the Yankees. Mantle hit his last postseason homer, Whitey Ford pitched his last postseason game, and the organization appeared in its last World Series for twelve years. When New York reappeared on baseball’s biggest stage, the lineup included names like Munson, Randolph, and Nettles. It would be a different Yankee team, a great team, but a team removed by a decade from the franchise’s golden age, when championship seasons were commonplace and October baseball was a foregone conclusion. What those Yankee teams accomplished between 1923 and 1964 was truly remarkable, and we’ll probably never see anything like it again. Fortunately, that era is part of our heritage as Yankee fans, and it’s heritage that we can always be proud of.