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Perfect Pitch

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No, not a perfect game… but a few days (July 2) ago marked the 50th anniversary of what many baseball historians think is the greatest pitching duel ever (between the Milwaukee Braves’ lefty Warren Spahn and the San Francisco Giants’ Juan Marichal). Grantland’s Jonah Keri had a great piece up the other day on it.

As unhittable as Spahn and Marichal were that day, both pitchers caught a few breaks to make it all the way to the 16th inning. In the fourth, Marichal retired future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews to start the inning. He then walked Norm Larker and ceded a single to Mack Jones. Del Crandall then laced a sinking line drive to center. Playing center field for the Giants, another future Hall of Famer had a split second to decide whether to dive for the ball or let it bounce in front of him. Willie Mays opted for the latter, then came up firing, gunning down Larker at home to preserve the scoreless tie. In the seventh, Marichal narrowly dodged a home run when a Braves hitter swatted one off the right-field wall. The drive was launched by none other than Spahn. This was no close-your-eyes-and-pray moment, though. Spahn had serious pop for a pitcher, smacking 35 home runs in his 21-year career. Regardless, Marichal stranded him at second.

The Giants thought they had the game won in the bottom of the ninth. Willie McCovey (another future Hall of Famer) cranked a moonshot that seemed to fly right over the foul pole in right for a walkoff home run. Not so, ruled Chris Pelekoudas, who called the ball foul. McCovey was angry over the call at the time, but had a sense of humor about it after the game. “I think Chris was admiring it so much that he forgot it was fair,” he said. “You had to admire it. I hit it pretty good.”

Locked in that duel heading to the 10th, there was no way Spahn or Marichal were coming out. Not in that era. Jack Harshman tossed 16 shutout innings to give the White Sox a win in ’54 and Jerry Walker did the same for the Orioles in ‘59. Gaylord Perry followed suit in ’67, and remains the last pitcher to throw 16 shutout innings for a win in the big leagues. Though pitch counts weren’t tracked with any consistency back then, Nolan Ryan’s pitching coach did keep track when Ryan locked up with Luis Tiant for a classic extra-inning battle on June 14, 1974: 235 pitches, read Tom Morgan’s handheld clicker.

Even with pitch-count tracking a fluid affair and teams rarely giving much thought to the potential damage caused by a marathon-length outing, managers weren’t completely oblivious. Giants manager Alvin Dark buzzed around Marichal as the innings piled up, asking his starter if he could keep going. Exasperated, Marichal finally spoke up. “He’s 42 and I’m 25,” he said, “and you can’t take me out until that man is not pitching.” It wasn’t just that Spahn was 42. As Kaplan recounted, Spahn’s habit between innings was to smoke an unfiltered Camel cigarette, then stamp it out just before striding back to the mound.

A 16 inning one run duel involving 7 future Hall of Famers… go read the whole thing. And there’s this also:

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