Spahn-Marichal Marathon: Best-Pitched Game?
Long before pitch counts, five-man rotations, and an array of relief pitchers became the backbone of baseball philosophy, two future Hall of Famers locked horns in a 16-inning marathon that both completed.
According to author Jim Kaplan, who chronicled that July 2, 1963 match in a book called The Greatest Game Ever Pitched, it will never happen again.
“They’re slaves to the pitch count,” he said of modern managers. “You can have a guy who’s lights out but when he reaches 100 pitches, they look to the bullpen.”
The bullpens were quiet on July 2, 1963, when Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves dueled Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants on a cold, windy night in Candlestick Park. Marichal, 25 at the time, threw 227 pitches, while Spahn, at the ripe old age of 42, tossed 201 — with the last one sailing over the fence with one out in the 16th.
Willie Mays, whoÂ had previously converted a Spahn pitch into his first big-league homer, also hit the solo shot that ended the 16-inning marathon.
“Spahn and Marichal were almost mirror images,” Kaplan recalled. “Both had high leg-kicks that made it more difficult for batters to pick up the ball and determine what was coming.”
Although the crafty Spahn fanned only two men that night, he retired Mays and Willie McCovey in all but two of their 12 at-bats.
Two other future denizens of Cooperstown, Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, were held hitless by Marichal in a combined eight official at-bats.
“Spahn started out as a high fastball pitcher, then added a screwball when he started to lose it, and a couple of years before the 16-inning game added a slider,” Kaplan said. “He pitched 259 2/3 innings in 1963 but nobody has worked that much since 2003.”
The author, who spent 16 years at Sports Illustrated before becoming a full-time freelancer, interviewed Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda, McCovey, and other participants from the San Francisco side, along with Spahn’s son Greg and catcher Del Crandall.
“Crandall caught Spahn but couldn’t remember the game,” he said. “In fact, it didn’t get that much attention at the time. Frank Bolling, who also played in the game, forgot about it too.”
It was standard baseball practice in 1963 for pitchers to finish what they started and to work every fourth day. Spahn, whose career lasted two more seasons, had more complete games (382) than victories (363) but still won more often than any pitcher since World War II and any lefthander in baseball history.
“He was so steady,” Kaplan pointed out. “He had almost the same earned run average in the regular season, the All-Star Game, and the postseason. He won 20 games so often (13 different seasons) that he was almost taken for granted.”
Mays was never taken for granted.Â TheÂ svelte centerfielderÂ preserved Marichal’s shutout by nailing Norm Larker at the plate with two outs in the fourth inning. According to Kaplan, Mays estimated that he lost 150 home runs playing home games in Candlestick, where he changed his natural stroke to compensate for prevailing winds that seemed to blow from left to right. Still, Mays managed to hit 660 career home runs, including the one that ended the Spahn-Marichal marathon.
The scoreless duel would have ended in regulation time if umpire Chris Pelekoudas had made a different call in the home ninth inning. Kaplan said a McCovey drive that cleared the fence near the right-field line was a foul ball. “Most of the Giants thought it was fair,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s a little luck involved.”
There was also luck involved with his latest book, Kaplan’s 19th. “I’ve always been a fan of pitching and fielding,” he said. “I like close, taut games with zeroes strung out across the scoreboard. Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated and Mark Brand of the Philadelphia Daily News talked about the 16-inning game with me and I started looking into it. I decided it was worth a whole book.”
Kaplan confirmed that Spahn and Marichal both refused to leave the game. The former told Milwaukee manager Bobby Bragan he would not leave “as long as that young guy is out there.” Marichal said the opposite to manager Alvin Dark.
Although both Spahn and Marichal were among a handful of elite pitchers who won at least 100 more games than they lost, Marichal won six of their seven head-t0-head matches.
“Marichal caught Spahn near the end of his career,” Kaplan said. “That night, Spahn probably pitched better for the first nine innings but Marichal was unhittable over the last seven.”
Whether pitching so many innings at such an advanced athletic age hurt Spahn remains open to conjecture.
“Spahn thought he went straight downhill after that game but it happened in the middle of the season,” said Kaplan. “After awhile, age just caught up to Spahn. It was not his arm but his legs that gave out.”
In 1963, the venerable lefthander went 23-7 with seven shutouts. But he never had another winning season, finally finishing with San Francisco two years later.
Marichal, plagued by back problems and other ailments, won 243 games — including a one-hit shutout over Philadelphia in his 1960 debut. Only a bloop single by Clay Dalrymple separated the Dominican righthander from a no-hitter.
Spahn pitched two no-hitters, less than six months apart, at the ages of 39 and 40. “I really wonder if anyone, lefty or righty, will ever win that many games again,” said Kaplan of Spahn. “Greg Maddux, as good a pitcher as you can imagine, fell a little bit short with 355 (more than any of the 10 living 300-game winners).
“When you’re pitching every fourth day, you can pitch, take a day off, throw, take a day off, then pitch again. I would like to see that happen again. We all have anecdotes of what happens otherwise. Jon Lester pitched eight terrific innings in a game last year and the Red Sox gave the ball to Jonathan Papelbon, who blew the game. That was a shame to see.”
Kaplan, a Cambridge, MA native with a degree in history from Yale, grew up in New England and still roots for the Red Sox. He also roots for the return of the four-man rotation.
“Things started to go downhill when Billy Martin worked a very young A’s staff too many innings in the early ’80s,” he said. “The good news is that complete games are starting to come back. [Rangers president] Nolan Ryan threw out pitch counts with Texas last year and that’s why Cliff Lee pitched seven complete games. Teams are wising up to the fact that a pitcher who’s going well can finish the game.”
The Greatest Game Ever Pitched, a hardcoverÂ from Triumph Books, is available through amazon.com and at major bookstores.
Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 35 baseball books, including The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners? He has a story in the 2011 All-Star Game Program.