Marichal, Spahn took pitcher's role to new heights

Marichal, Spahn took pitcher's role to new heights

On a July night 50 years ago, to the nearly 16,000 fans who braved the piercing winds under a full moon at Candlestick Park to watch the San Francisco Giants play the Milwaukee Braves, it seemed like just another mid-week, mid-season game.

But as the zeros piled up on the scoreboard inning after inning, what unfolded before them represented the beginnings of the Era of the Pitcher that would dominate the game throughout the mid 60s and early 70s (such as Sandy Koufax, the Orioles' four 20-game winners, Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain's 31 wins).

The game ended 1-0 on the 428th pitch with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 16th inning with just two hurlers throwing nearly a doubleheader by themselves. Unimaginable in today's game.

And this wasn't a fluky performance by a couple of journeymen. These were two future Hall of Famers going at it, determined to outlast the other. Neither backed off.

It was also a case of experience vs. youth.

Milwaukee's Warren Spahn, 42 and already a 300-plus game-winner, was a wily and wiry high-kicking lefty with pinpoint control and a baffling screwball. He was coming into the game with an 11-3 mark and would be an All-Star yet again that season.

San Francisco's Juan Marichal, 25, a high-kicking righty from the Dominican Republic, was 12-3 and on his way to the first of six 20-win seasons. The rising star had no-hit the Astros just a few weeks prior.

Both teams had explosive lineups. Braves sluggers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron would be headed to Cooperstown, as would the Giants' Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. To support that power, each squad enjoyed solid run producers like Del Crandall, Felipe Alou, Harvey Kuenn and Denis Menke.

But scoring would be elusive in this game, as the night would belong to the two starters, pitchers who had the respect of their opponents.

"He [Spahn] was crafty with superb location. All pitchers have a book on hitters and Warren was getting to the right spots, inning after inning," said Giants first baseman McCovey.

Regarding Marichal, Braves infielder Menke, who would go 2-for-5 that night, said, "What made Juan so tough -- and believe me, I was lucky that night -- was that he could throw any pitch from any angle at any time for a strike. That is a great advantage."

The two pitchers dominated early. It wasn't until the fourth inning that a real scoring threat was at hand. After getting Aaron to fly out and striking out Mathews, Marichal walked Norm Larker who advanced to second on Mack Jones' single. So with two outs and two men on, catcher Del Crandall roped a shot to center that Mays took on one hop and nailed Larker at the plate.

"That was no surprise," said Menke, who watched it from the dugout. "Mays was aggressive and knew what was going on all the time. Larker was doomed."

The game was still 0-0 when Spahn came to hit in the top of the seventh. The pitcher could also swing the bat, being among the leaders at his position with 35 career home runs. And he nearly hit it out. Spahn took Marichal deep to right field, bouncing off the wall for a double. However, he was stranded and headed back to the mound still locked in a scoreless game.

Heading to the bottom of the ninth, it was still 0-0, but Spahn -- who had not walked anyone and struck out five to that point -- nearly gave up a home run himself.

In the game's most controversial play, some would argue that McCovey was robbed of a walk-off home run.

The Giants slugger smacked a Spahn breaking ball for one of his signature towering rockets that arched far over the right-field foul pole. The fans rose to their feet as one believing they just saw the game-winning hit and the press scrambled to get down to the locker rooms and gather some postgame quotes. McCovey was starting his home run trot.

But first-base umpire Chris Pelekoudas called it foul.

"I still think I did it," says McCovey, a half-century later. "I don't know what Pelekoudas was looking at. Chris got the call wrong. I hit a breaking ball that was fair. It just bugs me that I didn't win it. I would love to have gotten us out in nine."

McCovey would ground out and the game would go to extra innings.

Both Marichal and Spahn continued to look strong. Neither were dropping their arms or getting pitches up in the strike zone, which was what mattered more to managers back then. And as the intensity ratcheted up, each pitcher had a way to cope with it. Marichal would chomp on Bazooka bubble gum while sitting on the bench studying his rival on the mound. Spahn, a decorated World War II veteran, would come off the mound and enjoy a cigarette down in the runway behind the dugout.

This was an era where managers didn't put a lot of stock in pitch counts and starters had a mentality of finishing what they started.

But as the innings rolled by, 10, 11, 12 ... everyone wondered which pitcher would flinch first. Giants manager Alvin Dark asked his pitcher if he was ready to come out.

Coming back to the bench after getting the Braves out in the 14th inning, Marichal explained to his skipper in no uncertain terms how he felt about coming out.

"Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25. You can't take me out until that man is not pitching," Marichal said.

But the ultra-competitive young man recalls how he almost called it a night.

"In the 15th inning, I told Alvin that I was out. He warmed up a reliever," Marichal explained. "But when I saw Spahn close the inning so easily, I ran out to the mound to pitch again. This bothered Mr. Dark, but in the end, it all worked out."

Indeed, it did work out ... for the Giants.

After retiring the Braves in the top of the 16th, Marichal was walking back to the dugout. As Mays came up to him jogging in from the outfield, the pitcher revealed what he confided to his teammate.

"I told Mays that I wasn't going to pitch anymore," Marichal said. "Willie said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to win this game for you.'"

After Kuenn flied out to center, Mays, whose first career home run was against Spahn, came to the plate in the bottom of the 16th 0-for-5 with a walk against the southpaw.

It was now Wednesday at 12:30 a.m. The fans, still riveted by the tremendous pitching competition, were not thinking about making it to work on time in the morning.

So here it is, over four hours later, two of the game's greats going head to head with the game on the line.

Though he hit well overall in his career against Spahn, Mays certainly respected the veteran lefty.

"Spahn had all kinds of good pitches -- everything was working [that night]," Mays said. "I hit .400 off him [in his career], but he seemed to always beat us. He had a high kick and a good screwball. He was tough. [But] on the first pitch I saw, I hit it out. It was a screwball."

The ball sailed over the left-field fence for a game-winning home run.

Marichal had thrown 227 pitches and Spahn had thrown 201. Neither would miss his next start.

Two starters throwing over 200 pitches each in a single game? Today, in the age of multiple reliever roles, it is a record that will never be broken.

No doubt they'd fire the manager and general manager if they tried that now.

But it is interesting to think about. Given the circumstances, who could do it among the current pitchers?

Menke, who enjoyed a long coaching career in the Majors after his playing days, offered his views.

"Nowadays, you get near 100 pitches or 5-6, innings the starter is done," Menke said. "If there's one current pitcher that could do it, it'd be Detroit's [Justin] Verlander. He has the competitive instincts, the desire to see the game through to the end.

"That is what pitchers had back then. Spahn was over 40 years old, but was clever and competitive as heck. Starters didn't want someone coming in for them. No setup [men] or closers, starters wanted to finish and often didn't trust another pitcher. Nolan Ryan had that strong desire to finish what he started. Today, starters are seen as doing their job if they get through five or six innings. So this is a record that will never be broken."

Randy O. Williams is an MLB Rewards Guest Columnist. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.