Imagine the initial Twitter barrage that would’ve been aimed at Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack in October 1929, at the very least to distract followers from the developing situation on Wall Street. As Mack laid out his rotation for the World Series against the Cubs, he didn’t pick ace Lefty Grove to pitch Game 1. Nor did he choose Rube Walberg or George Earnshaw, his other star pitchers.
No, Mack picked the 35-year-old Howard Ehmke, who had started only eight games for the Athletics that season. It was a decision that made no sense on its face, but was something that Mack apparently had been working on for weeks: Long before the days of videotape, statistical data banks and teams of scouts, the Philadelphia manager had sent Ehmke to clandestinely follow the Cubs and scout them.
October decisions are forever recalled through the prism of the result, and Mack’s call is regarded as perhaps the gutsiest in baseball history: Ehmke set a World Series record by striking out 13 hitters in a 3-1 victory, a record that would stand for decades. After that, Ehmke made only one more regular-season start in the major leagues.
Measured against the Ehmke standard, Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s lineup choices for the National League wild-card game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday probably won’t last in history. But they were fascinating, cutting against the grain of conventional wisdom. Most importantly, they worked.