Everyone makes mistakes. In baseball those mistakes can be mental or physical. They can be charged as errors, or not. They can be made by players but they can also be made by managers and umpires too. To err, as opposed to error, is human, and baseball is a game played, managed, and officiated by humans. While we’re all best served by moving on from our mistakes, when ballplayers’ and umpires’ mistakes assume historic proportions, they’re remembered for a long, long time as the biggest baseball blunders.
Let’s count down the top 10errors, acts of poor judgment, and blown calls, and determine which of them were the biggest blunders in baseball history.
10. Babe Ruth caught stealing
If this happened to anyone but Babe Ruth it’d probably rank higher on the biggest blunders list, but given how much glory he had behind him and still ahead of him at this point of his career, this is usually thought of as an amusing aside to an otherwise historic life in baseball.
Still, this was a pretty massive screwup on Ruth’s part.
It was the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, with the Cardinals leading the Yankees 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. Pete Alexander, who was ten years past his prime and had been waived by the Cubs earlier in the season, was on the mound for St. Louis, pitching in relief. And, depending on whose story you believe, pitching pretty hungover after celebrating the night before.
Alexander retired Earle Combs and Mark Koenig to start the inning, bringing Ruth up to the plate as the Yankees’ last chance. With everyone knowing that the Bambino could tie things up with one mighty swat, Alexander pitched carefully to Ruth and ended up walking him.
That brought up Bob Meusel, a dangerous hitter, even if history has caused him to be somewhat forgotten, with a young Lou Gehrig in the hole. For his part, Meusel was the 1925 AL home run champ and had driven in 134 runs that year. In 1926 he fell off a bit but he still hit .315 and got on base at a .373 clip. Just the day before Meusel had doubled and tripled against Alexander, who was the Game 6 starter. Gehrig, of course, needs no introduction. While Ruth was still the best player in the game, you could do far worse than having Meusel and Gehrig at the plate with a chance to either tie things up or walk things off.
Except Ruth didn’t give ’em a chance. The portly slugger took off trying to steal second base. And it was a delayed steal at that. He was out by a mile. The game and the Series was over. The St. Louis Cardinals were World Series champs.
What the heck was Ruth thinking?
At the time he cited the wet conditions on the field which likewise made the ball wet and, in his opinion, unlikely to fly far. He figured if he was in scoring position the Yankees could tie things up on a single. It’s also possible that he had his doubts about his teammate Meusel who, despite the previous day’s heroics, had slumped pretty badly late in the season. Maybe Ruth didn’t think too much of his chances?
Since everyone involved told many different stories over the years, with Ruth’s being the least illuminating of all, I’m just gonna chalk it up to a Ruth gambling on an impulse and losing that bet, resulting in one of the biggest blunders in baseball history.
9. Through Leon Durham’s wickets
For a long time the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox each had a serious claim to historic futility, with each storied franchise counting the years since their last World Series title Gettysburg Address-style. In 1984, for example it had been three score and sixteen years since the Cubs had won it all and they’d pass the century mark before they’d finally do it again. Boston, for its part, ended up going four score and six between October glory.
During those droughts each team was felled in October thanks in part to a famous blunder by their otherwise valuable first basemen. We’ll get to Boston’s later in this countdown. Now let’s talk about Chicago’s.
After Ryne Sandberg, Leon Durham was the biggest bat in a 1984 Cubs’ lineup that led the National League in runs scored. He was not a natural first baseman, though, having been moved there from left field after the Cubs traded away their previous first baseman. Fella by the name of Bill Buckner. Anyway.
The Cubs won the NL East and faced the Padres in the best-of-five NLCS. After winning the first two games at home, the Cubs needed to win just once in three games at San Diego. They lost Games 3 and 4, but led in Game 5 thanks in part to a first inning two-run homer off of Durham’s bat. After a Jody Davis homer the Cubs led 3-0 until the Padres scratched out two runs off of ace Rick Sutcliffe in the sixth.
Carmelo Martinez led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a walk and then reached second on a bunt. That brought Tim Flannery to the plate and he hit a hot shot right in Durham’s direction.
Durham did not field it:
That allowed Martinez to come home with the tying run. At that point Sutcliffe melted down, allowing three straight hits to give the Padres a 6-3 lead.
Maybe worth noting, maybe not, but just before the bottom of the seventh began, someone spilled Gatorade on Durham’s glove in the Cubs dugout. It didn’t seem to matter at the time, but later Cubs fans would claim that was all part of the Billy Goat curse or, maybe, some part of a new Gatorade curse. I don’t know. Fans are silly sometimes. In any event, the Gatorade seemed to have nothing to do with it given that Durham didn’t get any leather on the ball whatsoever.
That 6-3 score would stand and send San Diego into the World Series. Sure, they’d be chewed up by the Tigers, but hey, it’s farther than the Cubs would get for another 32 years.
8. The Jeffrey Maier play
Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS. The AL East champion Yankees — who, you must remember, had not won a pennant in 15 years and had not won a World Series in 18 years at that point — were playing the wild card-winning Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Bottom of the eighth inning, bases empty, one out, Orioles up 4-3 and a rookie named Derek Jeter at the plate facing off against the hard-throwing Armando Benitez.
Benitez threw Jeter a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate and Jeter drove it out the other way to deep right field. It looked pretty good off the bat but right fielder Tony Tarasco settled under the ball on the warning track and looked like he’d haul it in.
But then a 12-year-old kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall and snagged it:
Anyone who contends that that was not fan interference and that Jeter should not have been out is either (a) a shameless Yankees homer; or (b) right field umpire Rich Garcia, who clearly blew the call despite being right next to it when it happened.
There was no replay then, of course, so the play stood, the Yankees won the game in extra innings, went on to beat the O’s in five games and then went on to launch their latest dynasty with a six-game World Series win over the Braves.
Jeffrey Maier, for his part, became a local hero, appeared on a dozen TV shows, went on to play college baseball and have a number of interesting jobs in and around the game in the ensuing years. He’s now 36 years-old and I have no idea what he’s doing with himself, but I bet he’s still asked about Game 1 of the ALCS a few times a month.
7. Lonnie Smith gets deked
Game 7 of the 1991 World Series is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time. And why not? It featured a pitching duel for the ages between future Hall of Famers Jack Morris and John Smoltz, with Morris tossing ten shutout innings in a career-defining start that gave the Minnesota Twins the World Series title.
But something else pretty major happened in this game, and it certainly stands as one of the biggest blunders in baseball history.
In top of the eighth inning, Atlanta Braves outfielder Lonnie Smith led things off with a single. Then third baseman Terry Pendleton hit a long double to left-centerfield that took a big bounce off the wall. Smith, who was once one of the fastest runners in the game and, even at 35, had serviceable wheels, should have scored from first. But he didn’t, because as he headed toward second, Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch deked him, by acting as if he were throwing a ball to shortstop Greg Gagne.
It made no sense — Smith had to have known that the ball was out in the outfield and there could not have been a play on him at second — but some automatic response or muscle memory kicked in and it caused Smith to stop just after he rounded the bag in an effort to process what was happening. He paused there for several seconds, looked into the outfield, figured out where the ball was, and then jogged to third. He should’ve scored easily.
I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if Smith had, instead of falling for Knoblauch’s deke and then looking to the outfield, just looked at his third base coach for guidance. But when you watch the replay of it, you realize it probably didn’t matter, because the third base coach wasn’t waving Smith in either. Not that Smith was looking:
As it was, Morris got out of the jam via a groundout, an intentional walk, and a double play. If Smith had scored the Braves probably win the World Series on a John Smoltz shutout. If Morris doesn’t get his 10-inning World Series-winning shutout, there’s a very good chance he never makes the Hall of Fame. It was a big deal and stands as one of the biggest blunders in baseball history.
6. Jim Joyce costs Armando Galarraga a perfect game
While there are blunders in hundreds of games every season, they mostly come out in the wash. Most individual baseball simply don’t matter that much in the end. That’s why nine of the ten blunders on this list are from October.
This play, however, was so monumental that it makes the countdown even though it took place in June.
June 2, 2010, to be exact, with the Cleveland Indians facing the Tigers in Detroit. Detroit’s starting pitcher Armando Galarraga was making only his fourth start of the season and carried a 4.50 ERA into the game. He was on that evening, however, and set the first 26 batters he faced down in order. Which, yes, means that he needed to only retire one more batter for the perfect game.
Jason Donald of the Indians came to the plate and hit weak ground ball to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Not an easy play, necessarily, but one that looked like even the defensively-challenged Cabrera would make. He fielded it cleanly, tossed it to Galarraga, who had run over to cover first, and Galarraga caught it and stepped on the bag a moment before Donald did. The perfect game was clinched!
Except it wasn’t. Because first base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe:
There was no instant replay rule in baseball at the time and with no formal mechanism of review, Donald was awarded a hit. Galarraga retired the next batter, Trevor Crowe, to secure the shutout, the complete game, and the win, but the Internet and the news wires were already buzzing about what was immediately recognized as one of the biggest blunders in baseball history. Certainly one of the biggest blown calls.
For his part Joyce — who was considered by everyone to be one of the finest umpires in the game — knew he messed up as soon as he got back to the ump’s locker room and saw what happened. It was a rough night for him but he immediately owned up, making no excuses whatsoever. The next day he and Galarraga met at home plate before the game and made peace over the matter. Some tears were even shed.
It would take four more years for baseball to finally adopt an instant replay system, but this blown call — one of baseball’s biggest blunders — certainly helped get the ball rolling.
5. Hank Gowdy steps in it
Hank Gowdy is often an answer to a trivia question: who is the only ballplayer to serve in both World War I and World War II. Indeed, he was the first active big leaguer to sign up for service when the United States entered the Great War in 1917.
He was never a star ballplayer, but he was a pretty good defensive catcher and was good enough to be the starting catcher for a World Series champion with the 1914 Boston Braves. He’s probably remembered most, however, for a mistake he made on defense that led to his team losing a World Series.
That happened in Game 7 of the 1924 Fall Classic. Gowdy played for the New York Giants who were facing off against the Washington Senators. The deciding game of the Series had gone to extras, with Washington’s Muddy Ruel batting against the Giants Jack Bentley with one out in the bottom of the 12th inning.
Ruel hit a high pop-foul. Gowdy immediately sprang up, threw off his mask and locked his eyes on the ball. As he made his move to secure what would’ve been the second out of the inning, his foot got stuck in the mask, he fell down, and the ball dropped to the turf. I guess he didn’t throw that mask far enough.
With another crack at it Ruel doubled. Two batters later Earl McNeeley doubled him home to give the Senators a walkoff World Series win.
4. The Bill Buckner game
Notice I did not call this the “Bill Buckner error” or “Bill Buckner’s blunder” or something like that. I did that on purpose. Yes, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series will almost always be called “the Buckner Game,” but the Red Sox’ loss in that game was not the sole responsibility of Bucker letting Mookie Wilson’s slow roller go through his legs nor, would I argue, was he even the one most responsible for the Red Sox losing the contest.
First, let’s give Buckner his due here. He was a fine player who logged 22 seasons in the majors and won the 1980 National League batting title while playing for the Cubs. He led the NL in doubles in 1981 and 1983. His career line: .289/.321/.408. He hit 174 homers, had 2,715 career hits and drove in 1,208 runs. He made the All-Star team in 1981 and appeared in two World Series: 1974 with the Dodgers and 1986 with the Red Sox. If that fine career was all he was known for he’d still be remembered admiringly today.
Unfortunately, Buckner is perhaps best known for that play in Game 6. A game that, if the Red Sox had won, would’ve given them their first World Series title since 1918.
You probably know the details, but in case you don’t, know that Boston was leading the heavily favored New York Mets 3 games to 2. The Sox led heading into the bottom of the eighth when reliever Calvin Schiraldi surrendered the tying run. Neither team scored in the ninth but Boston took a 5-3 lead in the 10th on a Dave Henderson homer and a Marty Barrett RBI.
In a move we’d never see today, Sox manager John McNamara sent Schiraldi out for a third inning of work, hoping he’d close out the win in the 10th. Schiraldi quickly recorded two outs on fly balls. Then the trouble started, with the Mets racking up three straight singles which made the game 5-4. Schiraldi was lifted for reliever Bob Stanley who promptly threw a wild pitch that tied the game. Them with Wilson at the plate and Ray Knight on second base. Wilson hit that slow roller that went through Buckner’s legs. Knight got a big jump and never stopped running, scoring the winning run and forcing the Game 7.
What is often lost the retelling of this is, as noted, the fact that the Red Sox had already blown a 5-3 lead before Wilson came to bat, meaning that the Sox would not have won the game even if Buckner made the play. The blown lead belonged to some combination of McNamara and and Schiraldi. What’s more, that Mets winning run is at least partially the fault of McNamara’s too, given that he failed to replace the by-then creaky-on-defense Buckner with the more sure-handed Dave Stapleton, who usually took over late in games in which Boston led. All of which is to say that the Sox losing Game 6 and, ultimately, the 1986 World Series, was a team effort.
While, for many years after the play Buckner was cast as a goat by the local and national media and a large swath of baseball fans, his teammates supported him at the time and after, noting correctly that the Red Sox would not have been in the position to win the World Series if not for his contributions. The passage of time was good to Buckner in this regard as well, with him receiving a warm reception from Boston fans on several return trips to Fenway Park before his death last year.
Some people who become the goat remain the goat for life. Buckner didn’t. And he shouldn’t have.
3. Alex Gonzalez’s error
Steve Bartman was deeply wronged.
You know what happened with him, of course. It was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS with the Cubs leading the Florida Marlins three games to two and leading the game 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning. Marlins batter Luis Castillo hit a fly ball into foul territory in left field. Cubs outfielder Moises Alou gave chase, leapt near the fence in an attempt to make the catch, and a bunch of spectators reached for the ball, with Bartman being merely one of them. Bartman didn’t catch it, but he deflected it. Maybe Alou catches it if Bartman doesn’t touch it, maybe he doesn’t, but either way Alou had a damn temper tantrum, focusing the crowd’s and the announcer’s ire on the fan. The game resumed.
When it resumed, the Cubs melted down, allowing eight quick runs. The crowd turned on Bartman who had to be escorted out with a security detail. The Cubs lost Game 7 as well and their nearly century-long World Series title drought wore on. In the minds of many Bartman became the second greatest goat in Cubs history that night.
Except it’s total bull that Bartman got the blame.
Sure, it’s not cool to even come close to messing with your home fielder when he’s trying to get to a ball, but (a) everyone was doing it; and (b) Alou, his temper tantrum aside, likely wasn’t catching that ball anyway. He himself has even gone back and forth on the matter over the years.
More to the point: that would’ve only been the second out of the inning and the Cubs still had a 3-0 lead. It took a heck of a lot more for them to choke that game away to the Marlins. A much bigger cause:
That’s shortstop Alex Gonzalez, making a key error two batters after the Bartman play. If he fields that cleanly, with the even-then-slow Miguel Cabrera running, it’s likely an inning-ending double play. That would’ve maintained a 3-1 Cubs lead and would’ve left them three outs away from the World Series.
Seven of those eight Marlins runs scored after Gonzalez’s E6. It was much bigger than Steve Bartman’s interference. It was one of the biggest blunders in baseball history.
2. Denkinger’s blown call at first
What if Jim Joyce’s call was not in June, but in October? And what if instead of costing an otherwise pedestrian pitcher a moment of personal glory, it cost a team the World Series? That’s where you are with umpire Don Denkinger’s blown call in 1985.
Game 6 of the World Series. The Cardinals held a 3-2 series lead and a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, meaning they stood a mere three outs away from winning it all. Their young fireballing reliever Todd Worrell was on the hill facing Kansas City Royals pinch-hitter Jorge Orta. Orta hit a bouncer to Cards first baseman Jack Clark. Like Cabrera did in 2010, Clark flipped it to his pitcher who was covering the bag. Like Galarraga did in 2010, Worrell and the ball beat Orta to first by nearly a full step. Yet, somehow, Denkinger called Orta safe:
Even Royals fans won’t fight you on this one most of the time. They’ll freely admit that Orta was out. They will, however, dispute that it cost the Cardinals the World Series.
It’s not a totally ridiculous argument. For one thing, it was only the potential first out of the inning. The Cardinals could’ve overcome it just like they would’ve had to overcome an error or something. They didn’t, though. They sort of melted down.
Right after that play Steve Balboni hit a foul ball Clark should’ve caught but he jut woofed it, giving Balboni new life. He singled and was eventually replaced with pinch runner Onix Concepcion who reached second on a bunt. Then Worrell crossed up catcher Darryl Porter who was charged with a passed ball and Concepcion was on third. A couple of batters later Dane Iorg singled in Concepcion and Jim Sundberg with the tying and winning runs and it was on to Game 7. Which the Royals won of course, giving them the Series.
But still, that call was badly blown and gave the Royals an extra out. It thus stands as one of the biggest blunders in baseball history.
1. Merkle’s Boner
The 1908 National League pennant race was crazy. The American League’s was great too, actually. Someone even wrote a great book about how wild a year that as in baseball and American history. You should read it.
Let’s stick with the NL for now, though.
The Cubs had won the pennant in 1906 and 1907, the Giants had won in 1904 and 1905, and here they were fighting it out neck-and-neck all season long. It was September 23 and the Giants and Cubs were tied atop the National League standings with less than two weeks left in the season and they were playing one another in New York at the Polo Grounds. The score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning and the hometown Giants had runners on first and third with two outs. Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie, was the man on first base.
Al Bridwell of the Giants laced a base hit into right field which scored the runner on third. The crowd stormed the field in celebration as he crossed home plate. Merkle didn’t even bother to run to second base before he joined in the celebration.
This was a problem, because as you know, if the third out of an inning is a force out, the inning ends without a run scoring even if a runner coming from third crosses home plate before the force out is technically recorded. The Cubs knew this and, despite fans running all over the field and Merkle whooping it up with them, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers picked up the ball and stepped on second base to record the out.
A couple of things to note about the biggest baseball blunders, though.
First, despite the rule about inning-ending force outs, in 1908, that rule wasn’t often enforced in end-of-game situations. If there was a walkoff hit, the runner on first or second usually didn’t bother to advance all the way to second and no one cared. The Cubs, however, had seen this sort of play happen in a loss earlier in September and told umpires afterward that they planned to finish the play out if it came up again, so the umps here were prepared for it.
Second, it’s not entirely clear that the ball Evers fielded was the actual game ball. This play became instantly infamous and there was both a protest and substantial coverage of the event. Both that day and in the ensuing years there were many conflicting stories told by the participants and by witnesses about what happened. Some would say Evers fielded the game ball and properly recorded the out. Others said that someone with the Giants, realizing what was happening, stole the ball before Evers could get it and chucked it into the stands. Some said that Evers, in fact, got the ball he carried to second for the force out from a fan who had an extra one with him, though it’s hard to see why a New York fan would help the Cubs infielder out.
On the day of the play the umpires ruled that Merkle was, in fact, out, that the run didn’t count, and that the game was still tied. Except it was beginning to get dark at that point so, per the rules of the day, the game was ordered to be re-played in its entirely. It was so re-played and the Cubs won. Yep: they went on to win the NL pennant over the Giants by a single game. And yep: the play which came to be known as “Merkle’s Boner” cost the Giants the pennant.
Was Merkle’s Boner the biggest baseball blunder in history, or was it something else? Give us your opinion here: