The 10 biggest errors in baseball history

Kevin Kaduk
Big League Stew

The 500,000th error in baseball regular-season history will likely happen sometime this weekend, an unofficial meathanded milestone that our own Jeff Passan writes about here.

Here's the thing, though: An overwhelming majority of the players who authored those half-million miscues had the luxury of quickly shaking off the embarrassment. The sheer length of a Major League Baseball season means that the only real consequence of committing an error is that maybe you'll end up as the subject of a Big League Stew post after a particularly unique flub or maybe hit Keith Olbermann's mom with a wayward throw. Most of the time, though, you just shake it off and move on to the next at-bat, the next inning, the next game. That's the built-in luxury of a baseball schedule that is 162 games long.

The errors that stick with everyone are the ones that come in the postseason, a fall stage that provides absolutely nowhere to hide (as Brooks Conrad learned a couple of years ago). Screw up on a key play, turn the momentum of a series against your team and you run a real chance of that moment in time being mentioned before any of your career's accomplishments. A big error in the World Series can — and will — lead your obituary 60 years down the road. The only upside? Perhaps your snafu will become a cultural touchstone big enough to land you on a classic episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

With that in mind, here's a look at the top 10 errors in baseball history. They're all from postseason play and there's a good reason for that: They're the only ones that really mean anything and therefore they're the only ones that anyone really remembers.

10. Matt Holliday in Game 2 of the 2009 NLDS

We start our list with one from the Stew era. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the St. Louis Cardinals were about to tie the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2009 NLDS at a game apiece. But Holliday lost James Loney's liner to left in the Dodger Stadium lights and the ball bounced off his midsection in comical fashion, starting a two-run rally that gave Los Angeles a surprise victory en route to a series sweep.

"I had it," Holliday told reporters. "I was coming in to get it, then all of a sudden it hits the lights. You can't see. Obviously, I can catch a ball hit right at me. It wasn't a lack of effort. I just couldn't see it."

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9. Leon Durham in Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS

Leon Durham's error on Tim Flannery's grounder in the seventh inning of the decisive Game 5 wasn't the main reason the Cubs' World Series dreams ended in 1984, but it was quickly adopted as the main metaphor for a NLCS that featured Chicago blowing a 2-0 series lead. The Padres were able to score the tying run off the play and San Diego won the game and the series two innings later.

An interesting footnote to this play is that Ryne Sandberg had accidentally soaked Durham's glove with Gatorade when he attempted to get a drink earlier in the game. Durham has said that his glove was dry by the time he made the error, but still remembers coach Don Zimmer telling him to keep playing with the glove because it'd bring him good luck.

"All I can remember is the Gatorade flowing all over everywhere and Bull trying to dry his glove off with towels," Zimmer later said. "But we didn't get beat by that error. People make too big a deal about that error. He could have had three gloves on and he wasn't going to catch it. Sometimes, things just aren't meant to be."

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8. Willie Davis in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series

Willie Davis put together a great career for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the '60s and '70s and, as you can tell from the song above, had one heck of a singing voice. He recorded "That's The Way The Ball Bounces" in 1963, which is strange given what happened to the three-time Gold Glove winner three years later. Davis committed a record three errors in one inning during Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, losing one ball in the sun, dropping another and then overthrowing third base. The trio of snafus made up for half of the Dodgers' six errors behind Sandy Koufax that day and the Dodgers went on to be swept by the Baltimore Orioles. (It would turn out to be the last game that Koufax ever pitched.) Davis died in 2010 and his error-filled day 44 years earlier received prominent play in the stories of his death.

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7. Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series

Mariano Rivera's moments of vulnerability in the postseason have been rare, but the New York Yankees closer's best-known failure came in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series when he surrendered the series to Arizona on a walkoff single from Luis Gonzalez. The Diamondbacks' comeback might not have happened, though, if Rivera had not committed a throwing error after fielding Damian Miller's sacrifice bunt attempt with no outs. The errant throw allowed pinch runner David Dellucci to take second and it set the stage for one of the most famous endings in World Series history.

Rivera's spot on this list is proof that not even the game's greatest players are immune to screwing up in the spotlight. At the time of this error, Rivera had  made only one error in 403 regular season appearances. His career total now stands at six regular-season errors through 1,051 appearances.

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6. Hank Gowdy in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series

If one were to write up a wishlist of old plays to see on film, the error that Hank Gowdy made in the 12th inning of the final game of the 1924 World Series between the Washington Senators and New York Giants would be near the top. With the score tied at three, Washington's Muddy Ruel lifted a high pop-up in foul territory that looked like it would go for the second out of the inning.

But Gowdy, the Giants catcher, somehow got his foot caught in his own mask — "It held me like a bear trap," he famously later said — and fell to the ground without making the catch. Ruel used his new life to hit a double and would later score the winning run to give Washington its only World Series championship.

Gowdy's legacy, however, does not lead with that error, but with his remarkable military service. He is said to be the first baseball player to sign up for service in World War I and later left his coaching job to serve as a captain in World War II at the age of 53. He's believed to be the only big-league baseball player to serve in both wars.

From Baseball in Wartime:

His regimental commanding officer, Colonel B W Hough, is quoted as saying that Gowdy was one of his top men in a regiment of many great soldiers.  "Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank. The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps 'em forget about the terror of war. He carried the flag and . . . he was one of them who heaved gas bombs at the enemy . . . he was fantastic!"

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5.  Tony Fernandez in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series

Fernandez's error in the 11th inning isn't often mentioned among Cleveland's biggest sport disappointments, partly because closer Jose Mesa earned himself the permanent title of goat by blowing the save — and a chance at the Indians' first title since 1948 — in the ninth. Still, had Fernandez been able to field Craig Counsell's grounder, there's a good chance it would've went for an inning-ending double play (Bobby Bonilla had been on first) and another opportunity for Cleveland's fearsome lineup to score in the 12th.

Instead, Bonilla went to third and Counsell ended up safe at first on the error. Though Bonilla would be thrown out at home after a similar grounder to Fernandez, it was Counsell who raced around third with the winning run on Edgar Renteria's bases-loaded single.

"It didn't bounce any way," Fernandez told reporters of the play. "I don't want to use an excuse. I didn't make the play. I started thinking of going to second with it, and that was probably a mistake. I knew Bobby was not running well."

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4. Alex Gonzalez in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS

Steve Bartman's name somehow proves bigger than Alex Gonzalez's in the annals of Cubs history. But without the Chicago shortstop's eighth-inning error we might not know the unlucky fan's name at all. Gonzalez had a chance to make Bartman's interference with left fielder Moises Alou a curious footnote in a run to the World Series when a young Miguel Cabrera bounded a inning-ending double-play ball his way. He instead flubbed it, opening the door to an eight-run Marlins inning, an epic series flub by the Cubs and a world where a headphones-wearing fan from the suburbs receives more blame for a team meltdown than one of the players who was in position to make a direct impact on the game.

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3. Mickey Owen in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series

The Brooklyn Dodgers were one out away from tying the New York Yankees in the 1941 World Series at two games apiece when fate turned against Mickey Owen. The Dodgers catcher couldn't hang on to what would've been a game-ending strike three to Yankees star Tommy Henrich and the error extended the inning when Henrich ran safely to first. The Yankees used the opportunity to score four runs in the ninth inning for a 7-4 win and would make Brooklyn "Wait 'Til Next Year" (again) after a victory Game 5.

Though there was some speculation that Hugh Casey's pitch was a hard-to-handle spitball, Owen was only evidently fooled by a big curve ball just as much as Henrich was. But while the blunder topped Owen's New York Times obituary in 2005, Brooklyn fans reportedly didn't hold the passed ball against the All-Star catcher for very long.

"I got about 4,000 wires and letters," he told W. C. Heinz in The Saturday Evening Post on the 25th anniversary of the passed ball. "I had offers of jobs and proposals of marriage. Some girls sent their pictures in bathing suits, and my wife tore them up."

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2. Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series

What is there to be said that hasn't been said about Bill Buckner's famous error at Shea Stadium in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? Boston's tendency to self-flagellate before the end of the World Series curse in 2004 undoubtedly had a big impact in the first baseman's misplay becoming as big as it did, but it has been the biggest error in baseball for over 25 years and it could keep that title for another 25 more. A lot of the entries on this list might only ring big in a few geographical locations or among a certain generation. But Buckner's is the one guaranteed to be played over and over whenever there's a list of big errors. It has become a universal blooper.

Though Buckner and Boston fans have some sort of weird peace after his opening day "homecoming" in 2008, there's no question how his obituary will read whenever that day comes.  Not that Buckner is accepting of that fact. And he probably shouldn't be for reasons ranging from Boston bullpen's contributions to the Game 6 loss to the entire Red Sox team failing to bounce back in a Game 7 that could have erased the whole nightmare.

"I'm not just saying this," he told Jeff Passan. "In reality, it was really blown out of proportion. Hey, errors are errors. Some of 'em are more important. I mean, the reality of it is, people in baseball know that error did not specifically cost us the Series. It wasn't the seventh game."

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1. Fred Snodgrass in Game 8 of the 1912 World Series

Like Holliday's appearance at the beginning of this list, Snodgrass had a chance to make a big impact on his postseason game by tightly squeezing a ball hit to him in the outfield. Unlike Holliday, a successful catch by the New York Giants center fielder would have put his team in position to win the World Series in the tiebreaking and decisive eighth game of the 1912 World Series. (Game 2 had been ruled a tied after being called on account of darkness.)

Snodgrass, though, dropped the ball from leadoff hitter Clyde Engle, giving the Boston Red Sox an additional out in staging a rally for the second World Series title in franchise history. They didn't squander the chance and Snodgrass' error became known as "The $30,000 Muff" because the losing team's share of the playoff pot was that much less.

Snodgrass would go on to live a long life, but his obituary in 1974 still carried the following headline: "Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly"

"Hardly a day in my life, hardly an hour, that in some manner or other the dropping of that fly doesn't come up," Snodgrass said. "On the street, in my store, at my home ... it's all the same. They might choke up before they ask me and they hesitate -- but they always ask."

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