The story of baseball’s first recorded walk-off balk.
This is the first story in what I hope to be a series about using baseball statistics to tell stories about the game’s history.
Baseball is a game of patterns, tendencies, and traditions (just look at the long list of unwritten rules). Yet, like any sport, it never falls short on surprises. Picture this:
It is April 22, 1939. The first Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be just a few months later. You’re watching the Philadelphia Phillies play the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is only the fourth game of the year for both teams and they seem quite evenly matched. They just tied 2–2 after 11 innings the day prior.
It is the bottom of the ninth inning and things are getting dicey for the Dodgers. They had a 4–2 lead at beginning of the half-inning, but things haven’t gone their way so far. Freddie Fitzsimmons threw the first 8 innings and only gave up two runs. He came out to begin the ninth, but the Phillies started to catch on with singles by Morrie Arnovich and Len Gabrielson.
Red Evans was brought on in relief of Fitzsimmons and promptly walked Pinky May to load the bases. Evans finally earned the first out of the inning with a pop up from Pinky (you read that right, back-to-back Pinkys) Whitney. A double play would have ended the game. Instead, a Heinie Mueller pinch-hit double tied the game and placed the winning run at third base.
The Dodgers winning chances had quickly vanished. They were forced to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Les Powers to set up a double-play situation.
You may not know the name Les Powers. Here is a short breakdown of his career:
At the time of this pinch-hit, he was 2 for 15 in the majors. He would go on to get 18 hits in 52 at bats in 1939 (0.346 BA). Unfortunately, he would spend the rest of his career in the minor leagues. He would also go on to be President of two short-lived minor leagues, the Sunset League and the Southwest Independent League. Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball has all sorts of fascinating stories like this that I encourage you to peruse at baseballreference.com.
Back in our game, it is tied 4–4 with the bases loaded and 1 out. Walking Les Powers set up the possibility for another double play. But why go for the double play when you can add a strikeout to your total?
With the bases loaded and two outs, it happened. A balk. The winning run scored from 3rd and the Phillies took the game 5–4. This ending was history in the making.
The balk was not a new rule. It had existed for over 40 years before this game was played, but this is the first instance it brought home the winning run. It must have been a huge surprise for anyone at the game. Especially, when you compare the 45 balks called in 1938 to the 155 balks called last season. Since this game, over a dozen games have ended on a balk. A trend that is likely to continue.
Now, for a more traditional walk-off.
Game event source: baseballreference.com.