The first time the Boston Red Sox ended years of frustration by finally returning to the World Series was the first time they'd meet the St. Louis Cardinals with a title on the line. Before the 1946 World Series began, it had been 28 years since the Sox played in the Fall Classic -- the longest wait in years without an appearance of the 86-year championship drought that ended in 2004.
In the Cardinals, Boston would face the team that was representing the National League for the fourth time in five seasons, a frequency matched in NL history only by the 1991-96 Braves, a star-studded club in the heyday of a storied franchise's history.
As it turned out, it would be quite the debut for what has turned into a storybook matchup of teams, the first of two seven-game standoffs, which were followed by a sweep in 2004 and a '13 classic with crazy twists headed for Game 6 in Boston on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT air time, 8:07 p.m. ET/7:07 p.m. CT first pitch on FOX).
The 1946 Series had its own bizarre twists, from -- yes, you guessed it -- an obstruction call for the go-ahead run in Game 1 all the way to Enos Slaughter's "Mad Dash" for the Series-clinching run in Game 7.
With that last run, the long wait would continue for the Red Sox, as the Cards prevailed at home, giving St. Louis its third title in five seasons, which still stands as the best run of championships of any NL team in history.
It was the year after World War II ended, and that meant Boston stars like Ted Williams and his famous teammates who became lifelong friends were back on the field, having served in the military, some like Williams for three years. The Cardinals' Slaughter and Stan Musial, both future Hall of Famers, were also back from the service.
With Williams coming off his first American League Most Valuable Player Award season and Musial earning the NL MVP Award, the '46 Series was set up as the best of the best. But one of the teams almost didn't make it.
The Red Sox had been running away with the AL since hosting the All-Star Game at Fenway Park -- "The Teammates," as David Halberstam's 2003 book called Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio, all in the starting lineup for the AL. While the Red Sox were wrapping up their first pennant since 1918, winning with 12 games to spare, the Redbirds wound up the 154-game season tied with the Dodgers, so a best-of-three tiebreaker series -- that's how they did it until divisional play began in 1969 -- began, the Cards taking the first two to claim the pennant.
Starting with Game 1 at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, this would live up to the billing of a Series that featured so many stars and so many storylines -- and at a time when America was glad to focus on its national pastime, with wartime over.
Game 1 would provide a bit of controversy, but it ultimately was won with the power of Rudy York's bat. The Cardinals took a 2-1 lead in the eighth when Whitey Kurowski wound up tangled up at third base with Boston's Pinky Higgins, and Kurowski was awarded home plate on an obstruction call -- sound familiar? But the Red Sox would rally in the ninth, Higgins reaching base and his pinch-runner Don Gutteridge scoring on a Tom McBride RBI single to tie it, and then York would provide the winning margin in a 3-2 victory with a homer in the 10th.
"Only three more to go, boys," Sox manager Joe Cronin shouted in the Boston clubhouse afterward.
The Cards would snap back in Game 2 behind the pitching of Harry "The Cat" Brecheen, who wound up winning three games in the series with a 0.45 ERA in 20 innings -- a performance that would have been in line for World Series MVP honors, but that award didn't exist at the time.
In Game 2, Brecheen held the Red Sox to just four hits in a shutout, the 5-foot-10 lefty standing tall in a 3-0 Cardinals win.
"You know I think I could have pitched nine more out there today. I was getting stronger all the time," Brecheen said to teammate Kurowski, according to a contemporary wire report.
That outcome knotted up the Series as it headed to Boston in the 2-3-2 format that was restored after two Series went 3-4 to cut down on travel in wartime. It would be the first World Series game at Fenway Park since 1918's Game 6 clincher, and the Red Sox wouldn't disappoint the home crowd. Dave Ferris pitched a shutout and York blasted another homer, this one a three-run shot in the first inning of a 4-0 victory.
But perhaps the hit that got people's attention the most was a dribbler toward third base. The "Williams shift" was first used by Cleveland's Lou Boudreau in July of that year, and during the Series it was dubbed a Dyer-gram, after Sox manager Eddie Dyer. The shift had been effective so far in the Series, but the Splendid Splinter decided to do something about it in the third inning of Game 3, laying a bunt single down the third-base line.
"Yes, that bunt was nice," Williams would say later.
The Cardinals' hitters bounced back from the shutout with a Game 4 performance powered by 20 hits -- then a World Series record -- and three teammates each had four hits for the first time in a World Series game: Slaughter, Kurowski and 20-year-old catcher Joe Garagiola. With Red Munger going the distance, the Cards took a 12-3 win that tied up the Series.
"Boy, we really were on the hit parade," first-year manager Dyer said of the Cardinals. "And that Munger, did he pitch his heart out after he got the ants out of his pants."
Game 5 would turn against the Cards early as starter Howie Pollet, who'd had some shoulder issues, was pulled after facing just four batters and recording one out. The Red Sox scored just once in the first, on Williams' first RBI of the Series, and a three-run rally in the seventh put them over the top for a 6-3 victory that put Boston one win away from a championship.
But the Cardinals would be back home in St. Louis and Brecheen would be back on the mound for Game 6, and that would make all the difference in the world. Once again going the distance, Brecheen allowed one run on seven hits, scoring the first run for the Redbirds as well in a 4-1 outcome.
"Yahoo, one run off me in 18 innings. Ain't that something?" Brecheen said.
The '46 Series would come down to a Game 7, and it would come down to one of the most discussed plays in World Series history -- the Mad Dash. A two-run double by DiMaggio had tied the score at 3-all heading into the bottom of the eighth, and Slaughter reached on a single. He was running on the pitch when Harry "The Hat" Walker laced a double to left-center, and Slaughter kept on running, and after Sox shortstop Pesky hesitated before sending the relay throw toward home, Slaughter slid in with what proved to be the winning run.
Perhaps foretelling his famous play, Slaughter had said before the Series began, "There's only one thing to playing ball. That's to hustle -- the only way I know to play."
The Red Sox put the tying run on third base with one out against Brecheen, who got the call out of the bullpen one day after throwing a complete game. He got McBride to ground into a force at second for the final out, and the Cardinals were World Series champions with a 4-3 victory in Game 7, and a 4-3 victory in the Series.
The Sox would have to wait another 21 years before making it back to the World Series, meeting the Cards again in 1967, and this one would be Hall of Famer Williams' only crack at the Fall Classic -- a rough go at that, as he batted just .200 with five singles and five walks.
A season that was such a thrill for Boston, from the All-Star Game through to a dominant run to the AL pennant and into the World Series, was over.
"Winning the pennant early didn't help, but I've got no alibi," Cronin said afterward. "We lost to a good ballclub."
That club was the Cardinals, a team that was the NL's best that decade and for the third time in five years was the best in all of baseball.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.