“The Greatest Game Ever Pitched” At 50
Today is the 50th anniversary of a pitching duel I chronicled in a book called “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched.” On July 2-3, 1963, 42-year-old Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves and 25-year-old Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants staged a 16-inning, 428-pitch clash that might still be going if it weren’t for a deus-ex-machina conclusion after midnight. I will flesh out my claim of best-pitched game in due course, but first here’s the competition among major-league games that both starting pitchers finished:
• The duel most often cited is the May 26, 1959, game in which the Pirates’ Harvey Haddix threw a 12-inning perfect game, only to lose, 1-0, in the 13th to the Braves’ Lou Burdette.
• A close second: the September 9, 1965, nail-biter in which the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax threw a 1-0 perfect game against the Cubs’ Bob Hendley, who himself had a no-hitter going for six innings before yielding a bloop single, the game’s only hit, that barely reached the outfield grass before the first baseman ran it down in foul territory.
• In the most famous perfect game, on October 6, 1956, the Yankees’ Don Larsen allowed no baserunners while beating the Dodgers’ Sal Maglie, who allowed five hits, 2-0, in Game Five of the World Series. As Larsen told blogger Bill Chuck, his feat can only be equaled, not beaten.
• On May 2, 1917, the Reds’ Fred Toney and the Cubs’ Hippo Vaughn pitched nine innings of no-hit ball (the only time that’s happened in major-league history) before Chicago’s Larry Kopf singled, went to third when centerfielder Cy Williams dropped Hal Chase’s fly and scored on a bunt by Jim Thorpe (yes, that Jim Thorpe). Toney preserved his no-hitter to win, 1-0.
• In the majors’ longest game (innings-wise), the Dodgers’ Leon Cadore and the Braves’ Joe Oeschger dueled to a 26-inning, 1-1 tie that was called by darkness on May 1, 1920.
• Baseball historian Gabriel Schechter’s favorite set-to involved two future Hall of Fame pitchers tangling late in a pennant race. On October 2, 1908, the Cleveland Naps’ Addie Joss (23-11 at game time) threw a 1-0 perfecto past the White Sox’ Ed Walsh (39-14!), who allowed four only hits and struck out 15.
• My favorite sleeper: The Red Sox’ Babe Ruth outdueled the Brooklyn Robins’ Sherry Smith, 2-1, in the 14-inning, Game Two of the 1916 World series. In only two hours and 32 minutes, 47,373 fans at Braves Field saw what chroniclers Richard M. Cohen and David S. Neft called “the most tenacious pitching duel in Series history.”
Diligent baseball historians will cite their own favorites, but let’s not stray from the topic at hand. Given such stiff competition, one might wonder, why do I insist that the Marichal-Spahn classic is the greatest game ever pitched? In response, I contend that too much debate in baseball revolves around statistics and too little around scene.
July 2, 1963, was the best pitched game’s perfect storm. San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, with its typical cold and wind, prevented fly balls from sailing the way they do in hotter weather. In 1963, the strike zone was extended from the bottom of the knees to the top of the shoulders: another pitcher’s plus. And the principals were at the peak of their powers. Spahn, 11-3, with a 3.12 ERA, was facing the same eight position players he’d no-hit in 1961. Marichal, (12-3, 2.38) had no-hit Houston 17 days earlier.
Marichal and Spahn, Juan and Warren, Manito and Meatnose, they were very different yet very much the same. A café-au-lait-colored, right-handed Dominican with a full head of hair and a round-faced, round-nosed mien, Marichal presaged a merrier, multi-cultured national pastime. A pale-faced, lefthanded American with a receding hairline and a conspicuous nose, Spahn dated back to the days when baseball was all white. The young/old, Dominican/American, prospective Hall-of-Famer/sure shot contrasts — not to mention the Braves’ Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and the Giants’ Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, all eventual Cooperstownians, in the lineups — attracted 15,921 fans to a Candlestick game starting at 8:21 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Their differences aside, Marichal and Spahn were magicians who used a high-kicking delivery with a rich assortment of pitches. And both men had formative experiences with a relative and the military.
Young Juan used to ride a horse six miles from his Laguna Verde home to watch his brother Gonzalo pitch in Monte Cristi, then quiz him from behind as they both rode home. After beating the Dominican Air Force nine, he received a telegram reading, “Report Immediately to the Air Force team.” He was drafted to play baseball!
At a youth tournament in Mexico, he and the other Dominicans encountered fans with knives and guns sitting on top of their dugout. The Mexicans won the tournament. The Dominicans escaped. And in the aftermath, Marichal never found batters very intimidating again.
Young Warren was tutored by his father Edward, who built a mound behind their house in Buffalo, New York. Above all, he taught his son control: personal as well as pitching. “Don’t pop off too much,” he said. “The guy who is noisy, always blowing off, is the guy who has an inferiority complex. Be yourself, be polite, respect other people’s feelings and treat them with deference.”
During World War II, Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the struggle over the bridge at Remagen, received a battlefield commission and won a purple heart. When he returned to the majors to win his first game at age 25, he too wasn’t intimidated by hitters. “No one is shooting at me,” he said.
Like most great duels, this fateful encounter included great fielding and good fortune as well as fine pitching. With Norm Larker edging off second and two outs in the fourth inning, Del Crandall hit a sinking liner to center that Willie Mays elected to short hop rather than dive for. Batter with good lead running on contact, ball hit to center: it spelled a sure run. Except that Mays uncorked a throw that San Francisco writers accustomed to his heroics still called “one amazing motion” and a “100 percent perfect peg” to nail Larker at home. And in the last of the ninth, the Giants’ McCovey hit a moon shot over the right-field foul pole that looked fair to most everyone but first base umpire Chris Pelekoudas.
And so the game went into extra innings, with Marichal using his entire arsenal but especially his fastball, and Spahn getting righties out with his screwball and lefties out with his curve. As evening turned to a.m., Marichal brushed off his manager Alvin Dark, saying, “Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He’s 42, I’m 25, and you can’t take me out until that man is not pitching.”
In the bottom of the 16th, that man Spahn finished off Harvey Kuenn with nothing but screwballs. The clock was about to show 12:31 a.m. Swelling now, Spahn threw his 201st pitch (Marichal had thrown 227), another scroogie, to Mays. The pitch hung. Mays swung. As the ball sailed over the head of Braves third baseman Denis Menke, Dark pulled for it to stay fair. The Braves pulled for the wind to keep it in the park. Rising high in the night sky, the drive hung tantalizingly.
Where did it land? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Jim Kaplan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is author of “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century” (Triumph Books).