Midsummer Classic’s history filled with thrilling moments
The first MLB All-Star Game was pitched as an event to boost morale amid the throes of the Great Depression, but the joy the game has brought to millions of fans has stretched way beyond one summer afternoon in 1933.
From Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Ken Griffey Jr., virtually every baseball star has suited up for the Midsummer Classic and dazzled with their talent against the absolute best competition in the world. Nearly a century’s worth of All-Star Games have brought us a little bit of everything: walk-offs, spectacular defense and dominant pitching performances, to name a few. But some Classics have truly lived up to the nickname, thrilling fans from start to finish with heart-pounding drama and unforgettable storylines.
Below is a ranking of the 10 most memorable showdowns between the American and National Leagues:
1994 — NL 8, AL 7 (10 innings)
The NL was determined to snap a six-year losing streak and needed all their mettle to over come the Junior Circuit in this one. The game began with Meat Loaf’s memorable rendition of the national anthem and a first pitch from Willie Stargell, to the delight of the crowd at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. The leagues traded leads twice until the bottom of the ninth, when the NL erased a two-run deficit thanks to Craig Biggio’s hustle to beat out a double play and Fred McGriff’s pinch-hit, game-tying homer off Lee Smith.
McGriff’s dramatic blast sent this one into the 10th, when Tony Gwynn led off with a single and then motored home for the winning run on Moises Alou’s double to the gap. Think this game didn’t matter? Check out Gwynn’s reaction after he slid under Ivan Rodriguez’s tag.
“It’s the only time in my career I really acted like I was in high school,” Gwynn later recalled. “[I just let out] a spontaneous, ‘Yeah!'”
2008 — AL 4, NL 3 (15 innings)
Baseball’s biggest stars sent off old Yankee Stadium in about as memorable a way as they could. Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton led off the festivities with a mind-boggling 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby, while Twins star Justin Morneau eventually outlasted Hamilton to take home the Derby crown.
The following night became an instant classic. Miguel Tejada scored on Adrián González’s sacrifice fly to give the NL a one-run lead in the top of the eighth, but Evan Longoria’s ground-rule RBI double tied it up in the bottom half. The Senior Circuit forced out two potential game-winning runs at home plate in the bottom of the 10th, and then Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth threw out Rays catcher Dioner Navarro at home in the 11th.
The NL had its own chance to score with the bases loaded in the top of the 12th before Joakim Soria and George Sherrill struck out back-to-back hitters to strand the runners. On the game went into the 15th inning, tying for the longest All-Star contest in history, before Morneau raced home to score on Michael Young’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly. The AL notched a hard-earned marathon win.
1970 — NL 5, AL 4 (12 innings)
Cincinnati completed state-of-the-art Riverfront Stadium just in time for the 1970 Midsummer Classic, and Reds fans were treated to five of their own stars (Johnny Bench, Jim Merritt, Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Wayne Simpson) on the NL roster. President Richard Nixon delivered the first pitch, becoming just the second sitting U.S. president to attend the All-Star Game after Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937.
The pomp and circumstance coming into the game was topped by the action on the field. Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer delivered on a pitching matchup for the ages by trading three shutout innings apiece. The AL eventually took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, where Giants catcher Dick Dietz led off with a homer off Catfish Hunter. The NL scored two more runs on Willie McCovey’s RBI single and Roberto Clemente’s sac fly to send the game into extras.
The real fireworks set off in the bottom of the 12th, when Rose thundered toward home plate and barreled into Indians catcher Ray Fosse to jar the relay throw loose. The NL won the game, but Fosse suffered a career-altering separated shoulder after one of the most famous moments in All-Star Game history.
2003 — AL 7, NL 6
This game began with some old-school flair, with the center-field scoreboard at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field (now Guaranteed Rate Field) shooting off fireworks during the national anthem in a nod to the old Comiskey Park. It ended with a genuine shocker.
Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, right in the thick of his perfect 2003 season (55-for-55 in save opportunities) and his regular-season record streak of 84 successful saves, came on with a two-run lead in the eighth. He allowed an RBI single to Vernon Wells and a huge, two-run homer to Hank Blalock for the rarest of blown saves. Red Sox closer Keith Foulke held up his end with a perfect ninth, and Angels slugger Garret Anderson (3-for-4 with a double and a homer) took home the game’s MVP honors — one night after he won the Home Run Derby.
1961 (first game) — NL 5, AL 4 (10 innings)
This Midsummer Classic saved its drama for the end.
The NL carried a 3-1 lead into the top of the ninth, but Al Kaline singled home Nellie Fox to start an AL rally. Sandy Koufax, making his first All-Star Game appearance, gave up a single to Roger Maris (his only batter faced), and then a Stu Miller balk and an error brought Kaline home for the game-tying run. The AL went on to load the bases with two outs, but manager Paul Richards chose to leave pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm in to bat. Wilhelm, a career .088 hitter over 493 plate appearances, flied out to left.
The Junior Circuit jumped ahead in the top of the 10th when Fox scored on another NL error, but Maris struck out to strand Kaline at third. That left the door open for the bottom of the 10th, when Mays doubled home Hank Aaron to tie the game at 4. If that’s not enough star power for you, Roberto Clemente ended the game two batters later with a walk-off single off Wilhelm to right field.
The two leagues were about as evenly matched as one can imagine in ’61, playing to a 1-1 tie in the summer’s second All-Star contest three weeks later (from 1959-1962, two All-Star Games were played).
1955 — NL 6, AL 5 (12 innings)
This one seemed wrapped up early when the AL put up four first-inning runs on a wild pitch and a three-run homer by Mickey Mantle. The Junior Circuit tacked on another run later to carry a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh, but then Mays and Aaron scored to trim the deficit to three. Mays came home again the next inning on Randy Jackson’s RBI single, followed by Aaron’s two-run game-tying single.
The contest remained locked at 5 until the bottom of the 12th, when Cardinals legend Stan Musial hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan for a walk-off homer. Legend has it that Musial turned to AL catcher Yogi Berra and said “Let’s end this thing,” (to which Berra replied, “I’m tired”) before doing just that.
1950 — NL 4, AL 3 (14 innings)
If you like late-game heroics, this one’s for you.
The AL looked to be on the cusp of its 13th victory across the All-Star Game’s first 17 editions until Pirates star Ralph Kiner clubbed a long, game-tying homer to lead off the top of the ninth. That set forth the first Midsummer Classic’s first foray into extra innings, and the leagues traded zeros across the next four frames.
Cardinals star Red Schoendienst — who had sat on the bench for the game’s first 10 1/2 innings — finally broke the deadlock with a solo shot to lead off the 14th, but Bob Feller came in to snuff out any additional NL runs. Ferris Fain reached on a single in the bottom half, bringing a crowd of 46,126 at Comiskey Park on its feet for Joe DiMaggio. Reds pitcher Ewell Blackwell won the day, however, getting the iconic slugger to ground into a double play and bring this thrilling contest to an end.
This All-Star Game went on to have a lasting effect: Ted Williams ran into the wall on a first-inning catch attempt and broke his elbow, but stayed in the game to go 1-for-4. He underwent surgery after the game and did not return until early September.
1979 — NL 7, AL 6
The 50th Midsummer Classic at the Kingdome in Seattle was a memorable one for Mets center fielder Lee Mazzilli, who made the most of the only All-Star Game of his 14-year career. Pinch-hitting for Gary Matthews in the top of the eighth, Mazzilli (who finished his career with just 93 home runs over 4,831 plate appearances) took Jim Kern deep to tie the game at 6. In the next frame, it was Mazzilli who drew a bases-loaded walk off Yankees ace Ron Guidry to bring in the go-ahead run.
Mazzilli wasn’t the NL’s only hero; the ’79 All-Star Game is remembered more for the defense of outfielder Dave Parker. The Pirates star gunned down Jim Rice with a throw to third base in the seventh, then followed with an unbelievable throw on the fly to nail Brian Downing at home plate in the eighth to set the stage for Mazzilli’s unlikely heroics.
1941 — AL 7, NL 5
The 1941 season was, of course, a special one for Williams and his year-end .406 batting average. But if the ’41 All-Star Game wasn’t exactly Williams’ coming-out party (he led the Majors with 145 RBIs as a rookie two years prior), it might have catapulted him to another level of stardom nonetheless.
Williams’ average stood at .405 when he suited up for his second Midsummer Classic, but he and his AL teammates trailed, 5-3, in the top of the ninth. The Junior Circuit loaded the bases for DiMaggio (in the midst of his own 56-game hitting streak, which would end nine days later), who beat out a double-play grounder to keep the rally alive. That set the stage for Williams, who belted a fastball from Cubs pitcher Claude Passeau into the right-field stands for a walk-off homer — and one of the most famous dingers in All-Star Game history.
2002 — NL 7, AL 7 (11 innings)
The 2002 All-Star Game at Milwaukee’s Miller Park had the farthest-reaching impact of any Midsummer Classic, thanks to its ending. But one shouldn’t overlook the moments that happened before the final pitch.
Red Sox All-Stars Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra and Ugueth Urbina unveiled a No. 9 in the outfield grass in honor of the late Ted Williams, who had passed away days before. Torii Hunter made perhaps the greatest catch in All-Star Game history in the bottom of the first, leaping over the wall to rob Barry Bonds (see the video up top) — and getting a playful earful from the Giants slugger on his way back to the dugout. Bonds got his revenge two innings later with an absolute laser home run off Roy Halladay.
But, of course, this game is also remembered for its ending. The leagues remained deadlocked after the top of the 11th, and managers Bob Brenly and Joe Torre met with Commissioner Bud Selig by the first-base dugout. Selig declared that the game would end in a tie if the NL didn’t score in the bottom half, and Freddy Garcia pitched a scoreless 11th. The game’s controversial tie led Major League Baseball to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the team from the winning league in the All-Star Game, beginning the following season, in an effort to add competitive incentive to the showcase game. That system would remain in place through the 2016 season.