If you’ve been a baseball fan for decades, there are dozens of mental snapshots available to you at any given time. Some were taken in person and many others have accumulated through watching live games on TV, viewing archival footage or enjoying sports-related docudrama. These collective moments give you a personal history of the game beyond the written word but even the prose of the sport creates images of players you may have never seen. This concept leads each of us to have differing “defining moments” in the game.
Excuse the pun, but everyone has their own definition of a defining moment. If you feel that Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat or Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list or Willie Mays making that catch in the World Series or Derek Jeter hitting a home run for his 3000th hit were defining moments, you and I are already in disagreement. To me, those players were so great that any one moment can’t define their career. It is, however, a very fine line because there will be Hall of Fame players who actually have a defining moment and it might cause an ongoing debate about the term. For the Old Duck, the criteria is simple…when you hear a player’s name, is there any doubt about what moment you remember? For example, actor Peter Fonda passed away recently at age 79. In 1969, he starred in the counter-culture classic “Easy Rider” and it is that role he is most remembered for playing. The average person can’t name two of his films from the last 50 years despite the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 1977’s “Ulee’s Gold”.
The specter of an additional pun looms when I say that what is presented here in certainly not a definitive list. It is only one person’s reflections from his own snapshots and hopefully, you will add many of your own that we can discuss in the future.
> Fred Merkle (1908) – In the September pennant chase, Giants base-runner Merkle was belatedly called out after failing to touch 2nd base after a teammate crossed home plate with what would have been the winning run. The Cubs ended up taking the pennant when the game was replayed in October. Even though his career lasted until 1926, still to this day, his nickname is “Bonehead”.
> Carl Hubbell (1934) – A Hall-of Fame pitcher for the Giants, “King Carl” is revered for his performance in the All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds on July 10th. Utilizing his famous screwball, Hubbell struck out five Hall-of-Fame AL batters in succession…Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons & Joe Cronin.
> Johnny Vander Meer (1938) – The Reds pitcher no-hit the Dodgers 6-0 after no-hitting the Boston Bees four days earlier. No other major league hurler has ever accomplished this feat.
> Lou Gehrig (1939) – Despite having one of the great careers in the history of the game, this defining moment came after his playing days were over. On July 4th at Yankee Stadium, the terminally ill “Iron Horse” told the crowd that “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”.
> Mickey Owen (1941) – In the World Series, the Dodgers are leading the 4th game with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning when Catcher Owen lets a 3rd strike get past him and the Yankees go on to win the game and the Series.
> Joe Nuxhall (1944) – Not yet 16 years old, the Reds LH Pitcher makes the first appearance of what would be a 16-year career. It was eight years before he pitched in the big leagues again.
> Jackie Robinson (1947) – On April 15th, he starts at 1B for the Brooklyn Dodgers and become the first player of color in the Major Leagues.
> Eddie Gaedel (1951) – The St. Louis Browns sent the 3’7″ pinch-hitter to the plate wearing uniform number 1/8. He walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch-runner.
> Bobby Thomson (1951) – “The shot heard ’round the world” was a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning to give the Giants the NL pennant over the Dodgers.
> Johnny Podres (1955) – Ending decades of frustration for Dodger fans, he shut out the Yankees 2-0 in game 7 of the World Series.
> Don Larsen (1956) – In game 5 of the World Series, this Yankee hurler pitched the only perfect game in post-season history when he retired 27 consecutive Dodger batters.
> Harvey Haddix (1959) – This Pirate hurler pitched 12 perfect innings but lost the game to the Braves in the 13th inning.
> Bill Mazeroski (1960) – The Pirates 2B hits a walk-off HR in the 7th game of the World Series to defeat the Yankees.
> Roger Maris (1961) – A good, but not great player overcame the intense pressure and the insult of the Commissioner to break Babe Ruth’s record with his 61st home run on October 1st…Holy Cow!
> Tony Cloninger (1966) – This Braves Pitcher beat the Giants 17-3 on July 3rd…he hit two grand-slam HR’s and had 9 RBI’s.
> Al Downing (1974) – He won 123 games in a 17-year career, but on April 8th, he gave up Hank Aaron’s 715th HR.
> Carlton Fisk (1975) – Another Hall-of-Fame player, he will always be remembered for guiding his HR off the foul pole in the 12th inning to beat the Reds in the 6th game of the World Series.
> Len Barker (1981) – This Indians hurler threw 84 of his 103 pitches for strikes and pitched a perfect game against the Blue Jays. He recorded 11 strikeouts and they were all swinging.
> Bill Buckner (1986) – Despite a career in which he had over 2,700 hits, all that is remembered is the error he made in game 6 of the World Series that doomed the Red Sox and opened the door for the Mets to become world champions.
> Kirk Gibson (1988) – His 9th inning walk-off (or was it limp-off) home run in game 1 of the World Series propelled the Dodgers to defeat the Athletics in 5 games…it was his only at-bat in the Series.
> Joe Carter (1993) – The Blue Jays OF hit a Series-ending 3-run HR to beat the Phillies and secure Toronto’s second consecutive title.
> Edgar Renteria (1997) – Another walk-off World Series winner, his 11th inning single won the 7th game for the Marlins against the Indians.
> Kerry Wood (1998) – This rookie pitcher for the Cubs struck out 20 Astros while pitching a one-hitter…it was his 5th major league start.
> Luis Gonzalez (2001) – His bloop single over the Yankees drawn-in infield in game 7 gave the Diamondbacks the World Series title.
> Aaron Boone (2003) – A walk-off home run in the 11th inning of game 7 gave the Yankees the AL Pennant over the Red Sox.
> Dave Roberts (2004) – As a pinch-runner, he steals 2B and eventually scores the tying run for the Red Sox, who go on the beat the Yankees in extra innings for the AL pennant.
> David Freese (2011) – Still an active player, nothing will ever compare to his performance for the Cardinals in the World Series where he had an OPS of 1.106.
That takes us to eight years ago and many current players still have their defining moment to come. Which of your memories did we leave out? How about names like Bucky Dent, Ray Fosse, Jack Morris, Fernando Tatis, Rennie Stennett, Vic Wertz, Cookie Lavagetto, Dusty Rhodes or Enos Slaughter? I’m guessing some of those snapshots are in your mental camera.