Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Greatest Pitching Duels of the Century

Sticking to my policy of reviewing only books I can highly recommend, I bring you a gem by Jim Kaplan, long-time "Sports Illustrated" writer and author of a dozen previous baseball books, including a fine biography of Lefty Grove. His new volume, titled The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century (published by Triumph Books,, is a double biography of the two great pitchers whose careers intersected in spectacular fashion on July 2, 1963.

On that night, in a showdown witnessed by a smallish crowd at Candlestick Park, the two future Hall of Famers dueled for 15 scoreless innings before Willie Mays homered in the bottom of the 16th to give the Giants and Marichal a hard-won 1-0 victory. Both pitchers threw over 200 pitches in the game, just one reason why we are unlikely to see this kind of marathon duel repeated in our lifetimes. What made the duel more remarkable was that Spahn was 42 years old when he refused to budge against the 25-year-old Marichal.

What makes Kaplan's book so captivating is not so much the blow-by-blow description of the game itself--interspersed a few innings at a time--as it is his account of how the two pitching masters arrived at that moment in time as equals despite the differences in their ages and the paths they followed to that unforgettable night at Candlestick Park. Kaplan describes in detail how their pitching styles were similar; the righty Marichal and southpaw Spahn were mirror images; both used extremely high leg kicks to gain leverage and take strain off their arms, and both served up a baffling array of pitches at different speeds that wrecked hitters' timing.

More than that, he focuses on their mental approach to the game and to life. Both had nearly died before having their chance at greatness. Spahn was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, while Marichal miraculously revived from a six-day coma when he was nine years old. Both found joy in playing the game of baseball and dedicated themselves to the hard work necessary to excel at that game. Before and after that night in San Francisco, both exhibited determination, stamina, and a will to win, all of which were manifested brilliantly as they went deeper into the game, refusing to yield to fatigue or to each other. When the night began, Spahn had a record of 11-3, a grizzled veteran on his way to a 23-7 season, his 13th 20-win season; Marichal was 12-3 and headed for a 25-8 record in his third full season in the majors. Spahn had been the outstanding pitcher of the 1950s and Marichal would stake his claim to that title for the 1960s.

As the night wore on, their guile kept them ahead of the hitters, and their wide repertoires allowed them to keep fooling hitters even in their sixth and seventh at-bats. Today's managers are afraid to make their starting pitchers, with their limited arsenal of pitches, face hitters more than three times in a game. That is only one of the differences between today's game and the 1960s that Kaplan ably points out. Here is his nutshell view of the change in players' interaction with fans:

In the 1950s, players were all business on the field but pretty good about handshakes and autographs off
it. Today's athletes genuflect to the three P's: PR, patriotism, and piety. They make a show of throwing
the ball into the stands after the last out of an inning. They stand for "God Bless America," which has
replaced "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at many parks during the seventh-inning stretch. And they're
constantly pointing to the heavens, as if God just hit that 450' dinger. But just try to approach a ballplayer
as he leaves the clubhouse. You are no competition for his cell phone.

We get much more than a great ballgame in this chronicle of two stars converging on history. This is, after all, a double biography, and Kaplan allows to see Spahn as a product of his blue-collar background in Buffalo, and Marichal in the context of the history of his native Dominican Republic. We see them coming and going, and some of the most moving passages cover their post-career lives as both men attempted to pass on their love and knowledge of baseball and cement their legacies. Among other things, Kaplan provides the best account I've read of the unfortunate 1965 bruhaha between Marichal and Dodgers catcher John Roseboro.

Reading this book, what emerges is a vivid double portrait of two great men, different in so many ways but alike in the most important respects, who seemed inevitably poised for this epic showdown. It didn't have to happen--the careers of many great pitchers have dovetailed without a similarly spectacular confrontation. Aging Walter Johnson, for instance, won his two starts against rookie Lefty Grove in 1925, 5-3 and 2-1 without any extra innings; Tom Seaver never faced Roger Clemens during their three years together in the American League. We're lucky to witness such match-ups. Only 15,921 fans paid to see Spahn and Marichal that night, so we're lucky to have Kaplan's first-rate account of it.

Another feature of Kaplan's book is a sidebar in each chapter covering in some detail another epic pitching duel, i.e. his other contenders for the twentieth century's "greatest game ever pitched". Here are his choices: Babe Ruth's 14-inning masterpiece in the 1916 World Series; the double no-hitter by Fred Toney and Hippo Vaughn in 1917; the 33-inning game between Rochester and Pawtucket in 1981; another 1981 dandy featuring Ron Darling of Yale and Frank Viola of St. John's; the 1965 game in which Sandy Koufax and Bob Hendley gave up only one hit between them; Jack Morris' 10-inning shutout to clinch the 1991 World Series; and Harvey Haddix's ruined 12-inning perfect game in 1959. Three other sidebars cover Spahn's early-career Braves cohort, Johnny Sain; the link between Marichal and Roseboro; and a summation of extra-inning performances since the Spahn-Marichal marathon.

Apart from a few factual errors which shouldn't have crept into such a fine book (the one that bothered me most was the statement that Spahn won the first Cy Young Award in 1957, forgetting that Don Newcombe won the inaugural CYA in 1956), the above list is my only quarrel with Kaplan's approach. I don't object to the great duels he detailed, but rather to those he omitted. The book's text covers 200 pages plus the end matter, so there was room to include three other extraordinary pitching duels, two of which would make my top five list of the greatest games ever pitched. The third duel deserved mention mainly because it involved Carl Hubbell, who was at Candlestick for the Spahn-Marichal and declared that Spahn should "will his body to medical science" so it could be determined how a 42-year-old arm could throw so many effective pitches in one night. Exactly 30 years earlier, Hubbell himself staged an equally impressive performance (in his prime, at age 30) against the St. Louis Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. For 16 innings, Hubbell and Tex Carleton threw nothing but goose-eggs. Carleton left for a pinch-hitter while Hubbell kept going until the Giants scored the game's only run for him in the bottom of the 18th inning. Hubbell pitched the equivalent of two complete games, facing 59 hitters (the same number faced by Marichal 30 years later--Spahn faced a mere 56), scattering six hits, striking out a dozen Cardinals, and walking. . .nobody! He must have had an eerie but exhilarating sense of deja vu as he watched Spahn and Marichal at Candlestick.

Baseball's most extreme pitching marathon was the 26-inning duel between Joe Oeschger of Brooklyn and Leon Cadore of the Boston Braves on May 1, 1920, in Boston. Kaplan mentions it in passing in the sidebar about the 33-inning game, but dismisses their achievement with the disclaimer that "the lineups they faced were much weaker" than those faced in the 1963. I have a couple of problems with this dismissal. First, in a book that accentuates both the physical stamina and the competitive toughness that compelled Spahn and Marichal to keep going, it is unfair to ignore how those factors influenced what Oeschger and Cadore did. The score was tied 1-1 after six innings that day in Boston, yet both starting pitchers logged 20 more innings before darkness ended their ordeal. Oeschger faced 90 batters that day and Cadore a whopping 96 (both Spahn and Marichal faced fewer than 60). Spahn and Marichal were stubborn about staying in the game, but think of what must have gone through the combat-weary minds of Oeschger and Cadore as they kept mustering the concentration to get through each inning of that marathon.

I also disagree with Kaplan's contention that the 1920 lineups were much weaker. Yes, Spahn faced a very tough Giants lineup that night; in addition to three Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers (Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda), he had to contend with Felipe Alou, Harvey Kuenn, and Ed Bailey, all accomplished hitters having solid seasons. Still, those Giants had a team batting average of .258; the 1920 Dodgers had a team average of .277 and the Braves were at .260, so despite their (Deadball Era) lack of home run power, they weren't exactly chopped liver. The pennant-bound Dodgers were third in the league in scoring, and Cadore held them to one run and 15 hits in 26 innings (Oeschger surrendered only nine hits to the Braves).

Moreover, the lineup Marichal faced in 1963 was as weak as the 1920 pair, with the single exception of Hank Aaron. The 1963 Braves had a team batting average of .244, and their lineup on July 2nd wasn't even that good. Their second-best hitter, Eddie Mathews, was injured, struck out twice, and left the game. His replacement, Denis Menke, hit .234 that year. Apart from Aaron, only catcher Del Crandall hit more than 11 home runs in 1963, so the rest of the lineup lacked pop. Here are the 1963 batting averages for the rest of the crew that Marichal mowed down so easily: Frank Bolling .244, Roy McMillan .250, Lee Maye .271, Mack Jones .219, and Norm Larker .177. I'm not trying to take anything away here from what Marichal did; I'm just saying that Kaplan shortchanged Oeschger and Cadore.

My own nomination for the best pitching duel wasn't even mentioned by Kaplan, and I don't know why. For one thing, apart from the two World Series games he covered, it was the only game that mattered in a pennant race, adding an element of urgency that was absent on July 2, 1963. I'm referring to the October 2, 1908 game between the pennant-chasing Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Naps, featuring future Hall of Famers Ed Walsh and Addie Joss. With a week left in the season, the Naps trailed the first-place Detroit Tigers by a half-game, with the White Sox one-and-a-half games out. The pressure was on both pitchers, and they were well-equipped. Joss came in sporting a 23-11 record and a 1.20 ERA. Walsh was even better, with a 39-14 record, including pitching both ends of a doubleheader just three days earlier.

Both pitchers were at the top of their game that day in Cleveland. The Naps scored an ugly run off Walsh in the third inning. Joe Birmingham led off with a single and Walsh picked him off, but Birmingham got in a rundown and the White Sox threw the ball away, allowing Birmingham to race to third base with nobody out. Walsh retired the next two batters with no damage, but an Ossee Schreckengost passed out enabled Birmingham to score. That was the only run Walsh surrendered; in eight magnificant innings, he yielded only four hits and struck out a season-high 15. It wasn't magnificent enough, because Joss pitched a perfect game.

For my money, the pitching was the equal of the Koufax-Hendley game, with the added dimensions that it featured two future Hall of Famers in their best seasons in a game that helped decide the pennant race. I wish Kaplan had written about it. Still, it's just a quibble, just my way of filling in the 2% of the glass that's empty in a book that is 98% full. If you want to read not just about a terrific game but also about what makes great baseball players the performers and men that they are, you can't do better than this elegantly written book by an author who is as seasoned and sure of his craft as Warren Spahn was that night.


Mad Guru said...

Returning the correction favor, in the next to last paragraph you write that Joss picked the runner off. It was Walsh.

And not sure if Kaplan mentions it but if there was any pitcher's duel I could see it would be Mathewson v. Brown in June 1905 when the two had no-hitters through eight with Matty finishing his and winning 1-0.

WMiller81 said...

I appreciate this book review for giving us an idea of what to expect when we pick up this book, which definitely sounds worth a read.
I think, though, that you might have considered dividing this review into two separate blog-posts. The first post would have focused more strictly on the book itself, and the second post would've been about the best pitching duels, in your opinion, of all time.
Regards, Bill

Gabriel Schechter said...

Thank you both for the comments. Bill, I did think about making a separate post, for the reason you stated. It was a close call, and I did is this way because: 1) except for the Joss-Walsh duel, my comments were directly related to material in this book; and 2) my full list would've rehashed most of the games that were covered in this book. So I wound up pointing out the missed coincidence about Hubbell's anniversary, disputing the dismissal of Oeschger-Cadore, and giving a brief account of the omitted gem. It does make the blog relatively long -- much like an extra-inning game -- so I'm glad you stayed with it all the way. We'll give you the literary equivalent of a Croix de Candlestick.