What if I told you the greatest baseball game in History happened seventy years ago this year? What if I told you that the score was ninety-six to ninety-five? And that it ended with a controversial play on the top of a skyscraper? And that the Statue of Liberty even took a side?
Baseball may be our national pastime, but it can be laborious. And boring. And interminable. It’s one of my favorite sports, because you can take a nap in the middle and by the time you’ve woken up you really haven’t missed much. Soccer is the best at this. Go to sleep at 0–0. Wake up at 0–0. They’ve started to make rules in baseball to try to make the game go a little quicker. But most National League games still last about three hours and most American League games still last four. So when the Tea Totalers took on the Gashouse Gorillas at a packed Polo Grounds in 1946, how come the game only took seven minutes? What made this game so fun?
The Gashouse Gorillas were a visiting team, but one New York could love. Nine identical, thug-looking ruffians literally doing a line-dance around the bases. With tank-like physiques that would be impressive today even in our era of PED-dominated hardball, their mugs identified them for what they were: bullies. And no one likes to cheer for bullies. Except New York. No one cares about the little guy in New York. There’s four million Cinderellas and another four million Ragged Dicks. Nothing will ever come of them and they certainly will never play baseball here. We want giants, juggernauts, bombers. There’s no pity when lovable underdogs come to town. It’s our birthright to crush them. This is New York. We’re loud, we’re obnoxious, we’re bullies. If you had the choice to be a bully or an underdog, no one would chose the underdog. In the real world, underdogs lose. And baseball forgets losers.
This is the only game where a town was so in love with a team, they adopted them in the middle of the game. Check out the scoreboard: the Gorillas were the only team in history to go from the away team to the home team.
I come not to bury the Gorillas, however. They are the kind of team I could cheer for. I don’t want my baseball heroes to be goody-two shoes nice guys. I want them to stay up late, staring at a hotel wall desperately gripping a baseball bat tightly, haunted by the hits they did not get. I don’t want them to have the souls of poets. I’m the one with the soul of the poet, and I only hit one home run in my entire baseball career, because a tree had grown so far over a tall fence in right field that hitting a tree meant hitting a home run. I was the only kid to ever run the bases incredulous, not confident. There must be some mistake: that’s how underdogs think. I want to marvel at the talents of the over-confident, overpaid, under-hygiened. And the Gorillas were a cigar-smoking jackhole mob.
And the crowd loved it. Caps only landed long enough to be thrown in the air again. They recall the William Carlos Williams poem “The crowd at the ballgame”:
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
the power of their faces
This was their kind of team and this was what they expected. But what does New York expect even more than winners? Haters.
The hometown Tea Totalers were a team worth ignoring and disowning. And they were doing a great job of being ignorable. Down by more than ninety runs after four innings, their chances in the game looked bleak. One of their main sluggers claimed to be ninety-three and a half years old. Their pitcher looked similarly aged. They were completely outclassed. Even when the pitcher threw a strike, the umpire was beaten by a Gorilla until it was called a ball.
But even this type of dominance didn’t satisfy the Gashouse Gorillas. They paid no mind to the fans throwing caps in the air. They did not hear the zealous announcer. They heard the one dissenter booing from a hole he’d burrowed into the field. That voice is the voice all baseball fans get to use when they’ve had a few beers and a few dogs. Or carrots in hotdogs buns. This fan believed he could beat the entire baseball team entirely by himself. And got the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to replace an entire team mid-game.
There are very few chances to individually dominate the game of baseball. You generally have one at-bat every three innings. Pitchers these days usually only get six or seven innings to weave their masterpieces. After that, you have to rely on the bullpen not to punch a hole on your Mona Lisa. So to have a player throw his first pitch and then run behind the plate and catch it, you knew you were in for something special. Bugs Bunny was not known as a pitcher for his fastballs. He was a pitcher that played on the black. “The Bugs Bunny Change-up” is still the gold standard of all off-speed pitches. It is unhittable, filthy nonsense. The kind that makes big sluggers look silly.
Like most geniuses, genius pitchers like to talk to themselves on the mound. Sometimes directly to an unseen movie camera. Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers in the seventies comes to mind. And when Bunny said “I think I’ll perplex him with my slow pitch” he wasn’t bragging. It is possibly the most mystifying pitch in the history of Baseball. Even the mysterious eephus pitch or the wacky knuckleball never struck out three batters in one inning on one pitch.
Bugs Bunny may be remembered for his pitching prowess, but he was prodigious at the plate as well. Coming back after being down ninety-five runs is unheard of in all the major North American sports, and is probably only humanly possible in bowling and cricket, whose rules are unknowable. Bugs wasn’t a bopper with the bat like the Gorillas, but what he lacked in pop he made up for in guile. He hotdogged it around the bases, and would clearly have been out at the plate had he not whipped out a poster of an attractive lady to distract the Gorilla ready to tag him. He outsmarted a Gorilla who had beat up and replaced the umpire at home. He sent one to an early grave with a clean liner to the outfield and left another one conked-out against the wall. Balls collided with players like the inside of a pinball machines. But perhaps Bunny’s greatest feat was defeating the scoreboard itself. If you added up all of the Gorillas’ runs in the first four innings (all earned against the Tea Totallers’ elderly pitcher with the wacky sideburns) you would get ninety-six. The game should have been a tie when the final out was made. Extra innings should have been played! What wonders might have awaited.
We’ll never know. Instead, we got one of the most controversial finishes in all of sports. Bunny gave up a long drive that left the stadium. Did he give up? He did not. He raced from the stadium and jumped into a cab — a cab, somehow driven by a Gorillas’ player, that started off in the wrong direction. Bunny had enough time to switch to a downtown bus, go to the top of the “Umpire State Building,” hoist himself up a flagpole and toss his glove into the stratosphere. It was an incredible catch, but was it legal? Should the game have ended? You can catch a ball on the field and fall out of play and it’s an out. But can you really travel a mile downtown to make a catch? That’s one for the rulebook junkies.
Scoring ninety-six runs and driving in ninety-six RBIs in one game are records that will never be broken. Bugs Bunny is the kind of ball player we can all cheer for. He’s a gamer, and will do whatever it takes to win. You may not want to hang out with him off the field, because he’s a loudmouth and a self admitted “stinker.” But I could watch him play all day. He supplied the greatest performance in all of sports, and when I walk down the street with my kids someday and see him leaning up against a building, chomping a carrot, I will tell them: “That’s the greatest baseball player I have ever seen.”
And that’s the magic of baseball. Not the slugging or the fastballs. But the magic of the thing. You leave the park thinking, I’ll never see anything like that again.