Round Robin Baseball
Here’s something new–at least I had never heard about it. Remember the National League pennant race of 1964? Phillies fans certainly do. On September 21, with 12 games left in their season, the Phils proceeded to lose 10 straight before finishing with two wins against the Cincinnati Reds who–had they won either–would have finished in a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals for the flag. The Cardinals defeated the Mets on the final day, however, to take the pennant by one game over both the Reds and Phils. Had the Mets won, the NL season would have ended in a three-way deadlock for first place.
Here are the final standings for the three contenders:
Team Name G W L T PCT GB RS RA St. Louis Cardinals 162 93 69 0 .574 - 715 652 Cincinnati Reds 163 92 70 1 .568 1.0 660 566 Philadelphia Phillies 162 92 70 0 .568 1.0 693 632
Never in the history of the game had there been more than a two-way tie, and that only in 1908, 1946, 1951, 1959, and 1962. The first of these had been resolved with a one-game playoff. Truly, that was not a playoff at all but a makeup game to cure the tie that had resulted from the Fred Merkle incident of September 23. By the time the Cardinals and Dodgers tied for the 1946 pennant, the established procedure in the NL was to stage a best of three game playoff. This was repeated in 1951, 1959, and 1962. (The Dodgers won in 1959, lost the other times.) Meanwhile, the American League elected to resolve its tied races with a one-game playoff; the first of these occurred in 1948.
But coming into the last days of the 1964 race, what would have happened if the Cardinals lost to the Mets and three clubs tied? No one knew, including myself, so I went digging. From a Tim Horgan article in the Boston Traveler of September 29, 1964, I saw that the NL had prepared for a three-way tie to be played off in a spectacularly messy round-robin style.
As described by Dave Grote of the NL office, in Horgan’s words:
“N.L. Pres. Warren Giles will draw lots–which means flip a coin–to designate the three clubs involved as Team No. 1, Team No. 2, and Team No. 3. The schedule then runs:
“No. 1 vs. No. 2 at No. 1’s park.
“No. 2 vs. No. 3 at No. 2’s park.
“No. 3 vs. No. 1 at No. 3’s park.”
“‘It’s possible that one of the teams will be eliminated after the first round,’ Grote fervently hoped. Two losses and out you go, you see.
“If that happens, it’ll mean one of the surviving teams sports a 2-0 record, and the other is 1-1. So Giles flips another coin to decide which is Team No. 1 and No. 2. The next game is played in No. 1’s park. If the club that’s 2-0 wins, it’s the champion. But if the team that’s 1-1 prevails, the whole blooming mess moves to Team No. 2’s park for the grand finale.
“Complicated? Not at all, compared to what’ll occur if the three teams wind up with 1-1 records after the first go-round.
“In this tragic event, Giles gives another flip of his now-famous wrist to determine which will hereinafter be known as Team No. 1, 2 and 3. Then No. 2 plays at No. 1 and the winner meets No. 3 at a site to be decided as soon as Giles can borrow another dime. The winner of this game finally earns the right to get skulled by the Yankees.”
“‘We devised the plan in 1956 when the Braves, Reds and Dodgers were neck-and-neck,’ Grote revealed. ‘Some very intelligent people haven’t been able to understand it yet, so don’t worry if you’re confused.'”