Making a comeback is something no one ever really wants to do. Truth is, the normal long-term goal is to avoid ever having to recover from anything. That said, though, a comeback is something just about everyone loves to see.
What is more compelling than seeing fate turn on a dime? It is downright inspiring to watch someone who is hurting get well, or to see losers become winners. It lifts the spirit to say "welcome home" to somebody who has been gone a while.
It just so happens that baseball specializes in those moments. Comebacks are in the game’s DNA: The 1951 Giants, 1978 Yankees, 1973 Mets, 2004 Red Sox. Pitchers reviving their careers after surgery. Legends returning to the teams they played for when they were rookies. Superstars rejoining their teams after World War II. Retirees deciding to give it another try.
Seemingly more than other sports and possibly more than life in general, baseball is about recovery and revival. That might be because its long season offers so many opportunities for peaks and valleys. Maybe it is because the sport has a strong institutional memory, or that its warm, sentimental side embraces heart-tugging stories. In any case, history shows that baseball recoveries are numerous and that they come in all sizes: personal, team-centered, industry-wide.
Right now, the game itself is seeking to make a major comeback. The major leagues are warming up for a full season after the chilling effects of a pandemic that spread sickness and fear and limited the 2020 schedule to 60 games in empty stadiums. It would be fine with all concerned, too, if the sport did so well that it gave a bounce to the world around it.
With that as context, we introduce the 2021 edition of Baseball 101, Newsday’s annual look into the soul of the game through one specific lens, using 101 examples. This year’s seminar is "101 Comebacks."
The subject is a treatise on enormous possibilities. One of the entries involves a pitcher who had a strong season in 2020 despite missing six years because of a mental block known as "the yips." Another details a catcher who rebounded from a long-term injury and then shook off COVID-19.
"101 Comebacks" is a course in history, with a chaser of hope.
People in our time might take encouragement from the story of baseball in the 1920s. The game was reeling from the Chicago White Sox betting scandal in the 1919 World Series (eight players were accused of trying to lose on purpose). World War I was still a raw memory. And the world was getting over the throes of a pandemic.
Baseball in general, the emergent Yankees in particular and newly acquired Babe Ruth specifically helped put the bees' knees, the hotsy-totsy in the Roaring Twenties.
"Almost overnight, the sport entered a new era, one of being a much bigger business. Attention was turning to Ruth, to the Yankees’ first pennant, New York’s first subway series, and emerging radio broadcasts for baseball," said historian Marty Appel, author of "Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from before the Babe to After the Boss."
Appel, the former public relations director for the Yankees and the American League, added, "The Roaring Twenties and silent movies put entertainment in people’s minds. And baseball took a prominent place in that. Ruth was quickly the biggest celebrity in America, after the president and Charlie Chaplin. Pandemic? What pandemic?"
Baseball comebacks have not always been pure or complete.
Evidence surfaced years later that the 1951 Giants used an elaborate scheme involving a telescope and a buzzer system to steal signs as they made their late-season run. Having fallen 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers after the first game of Brooklyn's doubleheader on Aug. 11, they went 37-7 to conclude the regular season, tying the Dodgers for first place. Then they capped their comeback with one final incredible comeback: In the third and deciding game of a playoff series with the Dodgers, the Giants trailed 4-1 entering the bottom of the ninth before Bobby Thomson's ''Shot Heard 'Round the World'' delivered three runs and a World Series berth.
Nearly 75 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut began a recovery from decades of discrimination, the sport still is grappling with the issue of race.
The big leagues’ resurgent popularity after the 1994 strike was fueled in large part by the pursuit of hallowed home run records, but that later was proved to be artificially inflated by performance-enhancing drugs.
There is no telling if the sport and society can remain healthy enough to make this a truly successful comeback year. Still, there is no question that baseball has shown resilience all along.
With that, Newsday’s annual Baseball 101 is a listing — not a ranking, except for No. 1 — of memorable comebacks.
No. 1: Mike Piazza's post-9/11 home run at Shea Stadium
For more than a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shea Stadium officially had been designated a "staging area" for the massive rescue effort. It was where people dropped off donated supplies and where Mets officials and players volunteered their free time to unload trucks and unpack boxes.
On the night of Friday, Sept. 21, 2001, Shea became a staging area for New York City’s ultimate recovery.
With cheers, tears, bagpipes and one unforgettable ballgame, the city was on its way again. The first sporting event in New York after the worst tragedy that most Americans could remember stands apart among the great comebacks in baseball history.
As Mets manager Bobby Valentine said after his club’s stirring 3-2 win over Atlanta that night, "Enough has been taken away from the city, enough has been taken away from individuals. We need to allow people to be as whole as possible."
Prominent in the swirl of emotions that night was trepidation: No one was quite sure how safe it was to hold a large outdoor gathering. Still, 41,235 people showed up. As Valentine said that night, "We are fighting fear in the name of freedom."
Before the game, fans spontaneously chanted "U-S-A!" when a color guard marched through the centerfield gate. They vigorously joined Diana Ross and local choirs in singing "God Bless America" and did the same with Marc Anthony’s performance of the national anthem. They grew silent as a police bagpipe group played "Amazing Grace" in tribute to those who had died.
Players from the two teams, which were bitter rivals, stood at the respective baselines for the ceremony, then hugged each other before the first pitch.
The loudest cheers and strongest emotional chord, though, came in the bottom of the eighth. Mets star Mike Piazza blasted a two-run home run over the left-centerfield fence to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead.
Given the context, of course, it was clear that the outcome of a single ballgame was not earth-shaking — not to a populace that had been dealing with real life and death. But at least it was the first thing to be really happy about in a while.
"I’m just so happy I gave the people something to cheer," the then-future Hall of Fame catcher said after the game.
Even the Mets' opponent did not begrudge its rival and New York of that moment. Ten years later, third baseman Chipper Jones said, "Those fans who showed up that night, they just wanted to see some baseball. They just wanted to see two good baseball teams and forget about their troubles for a few hours . . . Mike Piazza hitting that home run on that particular night at that particular stadium was absolutely perfect."
The hope engendered by that occasion echoes to this day, when the nation could use some more of it. The Mets and Yankees will play each other this Sept. 11 at Citi Field, not far from where Piazza’s homer landed.
The next 100 comebacks
2. Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini, who missed the entire 2020 season because of colon cancer, received a standing ovation from fans and both benches when he stepped to the plate during Baltimore’s first spring training game last month.
3. New Mets pitcher Carlos Carrasco, in remission from leukemia, had a 2.70 earned run average for Cleveland in 2020.
4. Tommy John was out for the 1975 season with an elbow injury that appeared to be career-ending. He recovered to pitch for 14 more years, thanks to a revolutionary surgical procedure that came to bear his name.
5. Lou Brissie was left for dead after a German mortar attack on Dec. 7, 1944, but a soldier who was collecting corpses noticed Corporal Brissie was alive. Formerly a top prospect for the Philadelphia Athletics, he withstood a shattered left leg and pitched six seasons in the majors, wearing a knee-to-ankle brace.
6. In his first game back with the Yankees in 1996 after surgery to remove an aneurysm in his pitching arm, David Cone threw seven innings of no-hit ball against the Athletics.
7. In his first at-bat in four months after a grueling rehab from spinal stenosis, David Wright hit an upper-deck home run in Philadelphia for the pennant-bound 2015 Mets.
8. Denied entry to the major leagues during his prime by baseball’s whites-only segregation, Satchel Paige debuted at 42 with Cleveland in 1948. He retired in 1953 but returned to pitch a game for the Athletics in 1965, at 59, and threw three scoreless innings.
9. George Steinbrenner returned to the Yankees from a major league ban in 1993. He posed for Sports Illustrated dressed as the (formerly exiled) emperor Napoleon, riding a horse.
10. The 1935 Cubs, fourth in the eight-team National League and 10 1/2 games out of first on July 4, went on a 21-game winning streak in September and won the pennant.
12. Sandy Alderson left his job as Mets general manager in 2018 after being diagnosed with cancer. Having been pronounced cancer-free in 2019, he returned as the Mets’ team president in late 2020.
13. AJ Hinch and Alex Cora were fired as managers of the Astros and Red Sox, respectively, for their parts in Houston’s cheating scandal. Both are back this season, Hinch as Tigers manager and Cora as Red Sox manager.
14. Royals catcher Salvador Perez sat out the 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery, tested positive for COVID-19 last July and still was named to the 2020 All-MLB first team.
15. After Babe Ruth’s debut as a Yankee in 1920, the team drew at least a million fans eight times in the decade, leading baseball’s comeback from the 1919 "Black Sox" betting scandal.
16. Willie Mays, who left for San Francisco when the Giants moved west in 1957, returned to New York with a trade to the Mets on May 11, 1972. He hit the deciding home run in his first game as a Met.
17. Hank Aaron was a rookie with Milwaukee in 1954, moved with the team to Atlanta in 1966 and came back to Milwaukee as the career home run king in 1974 after a trade to the Brewers.
18. The public address announcer read only "Number 41," never mentioning the name, when tumultuous cheering filled Shea Stadium on the return of Tom Seaver to the Mets in 1983. The second act didn’t last long, though, because the Mets left him unprotected in the 1984 free-agent compensation draft — believing no one would take him because of his age (39) and high salary — and were stunned when he was claimed by the White Sox. He was pitching for the Sox when he beat the Yankees to earn his 300th victory.
19. After a hip injury in 1991 ended his NFL career, Bo Jackson played two more seasons with the White Sox and Angels.
20. Daniel Bard was out of the big leagues for six years because of pitching yips. He came back in 2020 with the Rockies and went 4-2 with six saves and a 3.65 ERA.
21. Tony La Russa retired from managing in 2011 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. But he was back as White Sox manager this spring training.
22. Manager Jack McKeon came out of retirement at 72 in May 2003 and went on to win the World Series with the Marlins.
23. Trailing the Red Sox by 14 games on July 19, the 1978 Yankees won a one-game tiebreaker against Boston and went on to earn their second consecutive World Series championship.
24. Three outs away from being swept by the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Red Sox scored a run in the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera to force extra innings in Game 4, won that game and then captured the next three, becoming the first (and still only) MLB team to take a postseason series after being down 3-0.
25. That Red Sox team ended its World Series sweep over the Cardinals with a "comebacker," a grounder to the pitcher, for the final out.
26. White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton lost his right leg in a 1938 hunting accident. With a prosthetic leg, he returned to pitch in eight minor-league seasons.
27. Yankees manager Joe Torre missed more than a month at the start of the 1999 season after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He returned on May 18 and led the team to its third championship in four years.
28. On Aug. 5, 2001, Cleveland overcame the Mariners’ 12-0 lead and won, 15-14, in 11 innings.
29. The Yankees returned to the Bronx in 1976, after two seasons at Shea Stadium during the Yankee Stadium renovation, and won their first pennant in 12 years.
30. Five years after the Dodgers and Giants left for California in 1957, National League baseball returned to New York with the expansion Mets.
31. Pro baseball came back to Brooklyn in 2001 with the Mets’ short-season Class A team, the Cyclones.
32. First they were the Los Angeles Angels, a 1961 expansion franchise. Then they were the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels. They were renamed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and finally, in 2013, returned to being just the Los Angeles Angels.
33. Andy Pettitte came back to the Yankees in 2007 after three seasons with his hometown Astros. He returned to the Yankees again in 2012 after a year of retirement.
34. Comedian/author Bill Scheft, performing at the 2007 New York Baseball Writers’ Association Dinner (after similar appearances in 1994 and 2000): "I come back every six or seven years, like cicadas. Or Rickey Henderson."
35. Rickey Henderson broke in with the Athletics and came back, after having been on other teams, in 1989, 1994 and 1998.
36. Brooklyn Dodgers hero Gil Hodges returned to New York as a Mets first baseman in 1962. He came back again as Mets manager in 1968.
37. Brooklyn Dodgers icon Duke Snider made a New York reprise as a Mets outfielder in 1963.
38. The New York Highlanders introduced pinstripes on their uniform in 1912, discontinued pinstripes the next two years but brought them back to stay in 1915. (In the meantime, the franchise changed its name from Highlanders to Yankees.)
39. After its entire 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, minor league baseball is back this year.
40. The 1986 Mets trailed three games to two and were within one out of elimination in the World Series, then rallied to win Game 6 on Mookie Wilson’s "little roller up along first." They also won Game 7.
41. Stan Musial, assumed to be finished at 41 after three sub-.300 seasons (1959-61), rebounded in 1962 with a .330 average and .416 on-base percentage.
42. Kirk Gibson recovered just well enough from serious leg injuries to limp toward home plate in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series as a pinch hitter — and hit a walk-off home run off Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley.
43. Arm injuries relegated former hard-throwing All-Star Jim Bouton to a part-time Yankees reliever. He came back as a knuckleball pitcher with the 1969 Seattle Pilots, kept a diary and wrote the book "Ball Four," which changed baseball culture.
44. Bob Feller rejoined Cleveland on Aug. 24, 1945, after 44 months and eight battle stars in the Navy. He pitched a complete game and struck out 12 in a 4-2 win. The next season, he had career highs in wins (26), complete games (36) and strikeouts (348).
45. Alex Rodriguez went from ultimate outcast — suing Major League Baseball after being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs — to consummate insider as a TV analyst on two networks and a finalist to own the Mets.
46. The 1973 Mets were in last place, 10 games under .500, on Aug. 30. They went 21-8 the rest of the way and reached Game 7 of the World Series.
47. "Oh my goodness gracious!"—Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman reporting that Roger Clemens was coming back to the team in 2007 after a second apparent retirement.
48. Yogi Berra, fired as Yankees manager despite winning the 1964 American League pennant, managed the team again in 1984 before being fired 16 games into the 1985 season.
49. Because of a meeting arranged by Suzyn Waldman, Yogi Berra ended his 14-year feud with George Steinbrenner and returned to Yankee Stadium in 1999.
50. In the 1929 World Series, the Philadelphia Athletics trailed the Cubs 8-0 in Game 4 but scored 10 runs in the bottom of the seventh and went on to close it out in five.
51. Reggie Jackson, having begun his career in 1967 with the Kansas City Athletics, moved with them to Oakland and finished his career with the Athletics in 1987.
52. Joe Morgan, who began with the Astros before becoming a legend with the mid-1970s Reds, returned to the Astros in 1980. Another comeback: Having been raised in Oakland, he finished his career with the Athletics in 1984.
53. Trailing the Dodgers by 13 1/2 games on Aug. 11, the 1951 Giants forced a three-game playoff and won the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run — which capped a comeback from a 4-1 deficit entering the bottom of the ninth.
54. The rough-and-tumble "Gashouse Gang" 1934 Cardinals overcame a seven-game deficit, finishing on an 18-5 run to win the pennant.
55. In his first at-bat after missing two months with a broken foot, Mickey Mantle had a pinch-hit home run on Aug. 4, 1963, against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
56. Bone spurs kept Joe DiMaggio out of the 1949 season until June 28, the start of a three-game series in Boston. The Yankees swept as DiMaggio had four home runs and nine RBIs and made a game-saving catch against Ted Williams.
57. After three years as a Navy pilot during World War II, Ted Williams returned in 1946, led the major leagues with a 1.164 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and helped the Red Sox reach the World Series. He again led the majors in OPS (1.148) in 1954 after missing most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons as a Marine fighter pilot in Korea.
58. The 1925 Pirates were the first major sports team to win a series after falling behind 3-1. They scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Senators, 9-7, in Game 7.
59. The 1968 Tigers overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cardinals in the World Series. Detroit won Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis, outscoring the home team 17-2.
60. Offense made a comeback in 1969 after Major League Baseball lowered the mound. There were 3,119 home runs that season after only 1,995 in 1968.
61. Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky underwent a complicated surgery in October 1988 to remove a cancerous tumor from his pitching arm. He returned to the mound on Aug. 10, 1989, but in his next start, a bone snapped in his arm. Examinations revealed that the cancer had returned and his arm and shoulder were amputated. He came back from that with a career as a motivational speaker.
62. Bobby Murcer, the most popular Yankee of the post-Mantle generation, was traded in 1974 for Bobby Bonds but returned in 1979. He drove in five runs and had the emotion-charged game-winning hit hours after the funeral of his close friend, Thurman Munson.
63. Widespread interest in Cal Ripken Jr.’s drive to break Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, completed on Sept. 6, 1995, helped the sport recover from the 1994 strike.
64. Tigers pitcher John Hiller had three heart attacks in 1971 and retired to jobs as an instructor and batting practice pitcher. He rejoined the roster in 1972, was named American League Fireman of the Year in 1973 and won 17 games in relief in 1974.
65. Mariano Rivera, having missed most of 2012 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, won the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2013, his farewell season. At 43, he had 44 saves and a 6-2 record.
66. Francisco Liriano was the first to win an official Comeback Player of the Year Award twice, in 2010 with the Twins and 2013 with the Pirates.
67. Minnie Minoso returned to the White Sox from retirement twice, in 1976 and 1980, at 50 and 54.
68. When the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005, it was the second time baseball returned to the nation’s capital. The original Washington Senators had become the Minnesota Twins and the expansion Washington Senators had become the Texas Rangers.
69. Having spent one year without a major league team, Kansas City was back in the American League in 1969 as the expansion Royals replaced the departed Athletics.
70. Ken Griffey Jr. returned to Seattle in 2009 after nine seasons in Cincinnati. He homered in his first game back with the Mariners.
71. Gary Carter, 38, still was called "Kid" when he followed stints with the Mets, Dodgers and Giants for one final season back with the Expos in 1992.
72. Tom Glavine recorded his 300th victory as a Met but finished his career in 2008 with his original and longtime team, returning to Atlanta.
73. Don Sutton spent his first 15 seasons with the Dodgers, then pitched for four other teams before finishing with the Dodgers in 1988.
74. Eric Davis was limited to 42 games in 1997 by colon cancer. He hit .327 with 28 home runs and 89 RBIs for the Orioles in 1998.
75. Harry Chiti was traded to the Mets by Cleveland in 1962 for a player to be named and returned to Cleveland as the player to be named.
76. The 2011 Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the wild-card spot on Aug. 24, went 18-8 in September and won the World Series.
77. Andres Galarraga hit 28 home runs for Atlanta in 2000 after missing the 1999 season for cancer treatment. He played seven games for the Angels in 2004 after overcoming cancer a second time.
78. The 1914 "Miracle Braves" were in last place on July 18, then lost an exhibition game, 10-2, to their Buffalo farm team. After that, they went 51-16, won the pennant and beat the favored Athletics in the World Series.
79. Early-20th century ballpark architecture made a booming comeback, fueled by the opening of Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992.
80. Royals third baseman George Brett left Game 2 of the 1980 World Series because of severe hemorrhoid pain. Two days later, after minor surgery, he homered in the first inning of Game 3. Afterward, he said, "My problems are all behind me."
81. The Mets overcame an 8-1 deficit with 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat Atlanta, 11-8, on June 30, 2000.
82. The Dodgers hit four consecutive home runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the Padres 9-9 on Sept. 18, 2006. They won, 11-10, on a walk-off two-run homer in the 10th.
83. Rick Ankiel, a promising starting pitcher for the Cardinals who had serious control problems, came back as an outfielder.
84. Smoky Joe Wood, who went 34-5 with 16 consecutive wins for the 1912 Red Sox, suffered a series of injuries starting with a broken thumb in 1913. Unable to pitch, he became an outfielder and played six seasons for Cleveland.
85. Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell missed nearly half of the 1999 season because of testicular cancer. He played 11 more seasons, making four All-Star Games and winning a Gold Glove.
86. Paul Schreiber pitched briefly for the Brooklyn Robins in 1922 and 1923 and then retired. He was a pitching coach for the Yankees during World War II, and when the depleted staff needed help, it activated Schreiber. That’s a major-league record — 22 years between appearances.
87. Red Sox rookie pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. He returned in 2007 and still is an active major-leaguer, having won three championship rings and posted a 4-1 World Series record.
88. Perennial All-Star Tim Raines underwent treatment for substance abuse in 1982 and missed the entire 2000 season after being diagnosed with lupus. He finished his career in 2002 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
89. Phillies outfielder Eddie Waitkus was shot by a stalker on June 14, 1949, and nearly died on the operating table, but he returned in 1950 and played six more seasons. His story inspired the novel and movie "The Natural."
90. Tony Conigliaro missed the Red Sox’ unlikely trip to the 1967 World Series because of injuries to his eye, face and jaw from being hit by a pitch on Aug. 18. He returned in 1969, had 20 home runs and 82 RBIs, then hit 36 home runs and drove in 116 runs in 1970. Still affected by the beaning, he retired after playing with the Angels in 1971 but returned to play 21 games for the Red Sox in 1975.
91. Jim Eisenreich was forced to retire in 1984 because of the effects of Tourette syndrome, but with treatment and medication, he returned in 1987 and played 12 more years, batting .290 in his career and helping the Marlins win the 1997 World Series.
92. "The Comeback Kid" was a 1980 TV movie about a former minor-leaguer who returns to the game as a coach of underprivileged youngsters.
93. "The Kid Comes Back" was a John R. Tunis young-adult novel about a Brooklyn Dodgers prospect trying to recover from World War II injuries.
94. Former Yankees World Series hero Billy Martin enjoyed a homecoming when he was named the team’s manager in 1975.
95. Martin, having resigned for "health reasons" on July 24, 1978, was brought back five days later on Old-Timers’ Day as the future manager.
96. Martin came back as manager on June 18, 1979.
97. Fired after the 1979 season for off-field fights and hired and fired by the Athletics, Martin came back as Yankees manager on Jan. 11, 1983.
98. Martin, fired in December 1983, was rehired 16 games into the 1985 season.
99. Martin, fired in October 1985, came back to manage the 1988 season.
100. Bill Kunkel pitched in 89 games for the Kansas City Athletics and Yankees from 1961 to 1963. He resurfaced in the major leagues in 1968 as an umpire. (Baseball almanac lists 40 former major-leaguers who became umpires.)
101. After a 16-year hiatus, the Mets brought back Banner Day in 2012. This offseason, the talk among players and fans has been about bringing back black jerseys.