Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Review: "The Greatest Game Ever Pitched" by Jim Kaplan

Fifty years ago this month, on July 2, 1963 to be exact, the Milwaukee Braves  played the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.  Pitching that night was 25 year old Juan Marichal (12-3) for the Giants and 42 year old Warren Spahn (11-3) for the Braves.  Marichal, who would one day be the first Dominican to be elected to the Hall of Fame, was a young All-Star pitcher for the Giants, and Spahn, a sure fire future Hall of Famer  was, in spite of that nice record, surely approaching the end of the line.  Still, it promised to be an interesting pitching match-up.

Well, was it ever!  After nine innings, the game was tied 0-0. Same after 10, 12, 14, and 15 innings, and through it all, both Marichal and, amazingly, Spahn kept at it.  At several points in extra innings, Giants manager Alvin Dark wanted to relieve Marichal, but Juan refused to come out as long as his 42 year old opponent stayed out there.  With one out in the bottom of the 16th, Spahn finally blinked and hung a curve ball to Willie Mays, who hit it out of the park for a 1-0 Giants win.  How appropriate that someone the caliber of Mays hit the deciding home run.

In all, over 400 pitches were thrown by the two pitchers, who both took their next turn, although Spahn did take an extra day of rest.  Three Hall of Famers played for the Braves that night, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, and Spahn, and four played for the Giants, Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Marichal, and another Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry, was in the Giants dugout.

While Kaplan details the game itself, the book really serves as dual biography of sorts of both Spahn and Marichal, and this is important because it serves to make several generations of baseball fans aware of the greatness of Warren Spahn, who is surely the most unappreciated pitching superstar in history.  To wit:

If you are under, say, 50 years old, maybe you know that Spahn is the winningest left handed pitcher of all time with 363 wins, but did you know that he also won more games than any other pitcher in the post-World War II era with those 363 wins?  (Greg Maddux come closest with 355 wins.)  And did you know that his 363 wins ranks sixth all time, and that four the five guys ahead of all played all or most of their careers in the dead ball era?

Did you also know that Spahn served in WW II, was a decorated honest-to-God war hero and lost over three years of his baseball career due to military service.  He would be 25 years old before he won his first big league game.  Interestingly enough, Spahn always brushed aside the "what if" musings of people who said that he may have lost 30 to 40 wins in his career due to his service in WW II.  By contrast, Bob Feller, when discussing his wartime service always noted that "I'd have won more games than Warren Spahn" if not for the time lost due to the war.

In 1999, the Oklahoma (where Spahn lived) Sports Museum established a Warren Spahn Award to be given to the best left handed pitcher in baseball each year.  One year, when presenting the award to Randy Johnson, Spahn asked him what kind of year he had. Johnson replied that he threw 270 innings and had 12 complete games. "That's a nice year, Randy," Spahn replied "but I did that every year".  Indeed he did, averaging 269 innings and 20 complete games over his full 19 seasons.

And, of course, Marichal should not be forgotten by today's generations of fans either, and Kaplan gives him his due as well, and even spends time on the ugly incident in 1965 when Marichal attacked Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a bat in an on field brawl, but it turned out to be a great story of redemption and forgiveness and the Marichal and Roseboro and their families became close friends right up until Roseboro's death.

There may be too much whining about pitch counts and they-don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore ramblings in the book, but don't let that stop you from reading it.

Interestingly enough, since the Spahn-Marichal 1963 Classic, only one pitcher has thrown a 16 inning complete game, Gaylord Perry in 1967, and the longest game in which two pitchers went the distance was a 13 inning affair in 1976 involving Catfish Hunter of the Yankees and Frank Tanana of the Angels.

I think it's safe to say that there will never be another game like that one again, and if you want to see something really cool, here is the box score of that July 2,1963 game.  It really was one for the ages.

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