SAN FRANCISCO — Tell today's starting pitchers there was a time when strikes were balls, fair was foul and safe was out, and those things will sound just as plausible as what took place 50 years ago Tuesday.
On July 2, 1963, Juan Marichal pitched a 16-inning shutout against the Milwaukee Braves, outdueling Warren Spahn, who pitched 151/3 scoreless innings before Willie Mays won it 1-0 with a home run.
Marichal threw 227 pitches; Spahn threw 201.
“It's almost hard to believe that something like that happened,” Giants right-hander Matt Cain said.
“You can't even comprehend something like that in today's game,” Barry Zito said.
Marichal vs. Spahn at Candlestick Park remains among baseball's greatest pitching duels—two Hall of Famers going toe-to-toe for 4 hours and 10 minutes.
Spahn, who lived in Hartshorne and died in Broken Arrow, was 42 years old and in the last of his 13 20-win seasons; Marichal was 25 and on his way to winning 20 games for the first time.
Well aware of each other's talent, as well as the age gap, neither pitcher would surrender until the other one came out of the game, much to the chagrin of their increasingly irritated managers. The result was a game for the ages.
“I don't think any of us realized at the time how special it was,” Willie McCovey, 75, says now. “It was just a game we were trying to win.”
In honor of the golden anniversary, we asked players from that game to reflect upon what it means to them a half-century later.
Spahn is gone—he died in 2003 at age 82 — but Marichal, 75, is still going strong.
“Oh, my god, that was long time ago,” he said. “But I remember that game like it was yesterday.”
COLD NIGHT, RED-HOT ARMS
Among the 15,921 people to file into the Candlestick Park stands on that chilly Tuesday night was a 28-year-old lifelong Braves fan named Bud Selig. It was his first visit to San Francisco in the summer, and he was woefully underdressed.
“I mean, I felt like I was in Milwaukee in January,” Selig recalled.
But neither Selig, nor anyone else in the park that night, was caught off guard by the excellent pitching. Both starters were established stars.
Spahn entered play with an 11-3 record and had already won more games (338), with more shutouts (58) and more innings (4,628) than any left-hander in history. Age would catch up to him soon, but there were no cracks yet: His 23 wins that ‘63 season would match his career high.
“This kind of typified how Spahnie looked at things,” recalled catcher Del Crandall, now 83. “Every year after he got into his 30s, some sportswriter would come up to him in spring training and say, ‘Do you anticipate having the same type of year you did last year?'
“And Spahn would look at the guy in disbelief and say, ‘Why not? I'm only five months older than I was at the end of last season.' ”
Marichal, meanwhile, was in his third full season and making the leap from promising newcomer to full-fledged star. Less than a month earlier, on June 15, he had thrown a no-hitter against the Houston Colt .45s, the first-no hitter by a Giants pitcher since Carl Hubbell in 1929.
Orlando Cepeda, who played for the Giants from 1958-66, said Sandy Koufax was the best left-hander he ever saw. Marichal was the best right-hander.
“Hank Aaron said the same thing,” Cepeda, 75, said. “Stan Musial told me that. Duke Snider told me that. Eddie Mathews. Ernie Banks. Frank Robinson. They all told me that Juan Marichal is the best right-handed pitcher they ever faced.”
Despite their differences in age, both starters that night shared one trait: an exaggerated leg kick to propel their delivery. (Roger Angell once wrote that Marichal “throws like some enormous and dangerous farm instrument.”)
For an idea of what his delivery looked like, check out the statue of Marichal outside AT&T Park, where his left foot soars over his right shoulder.
There's a similar statue of Spahn outside Turner Field in Atlanta. In 2003, a few months before his death, he attended the unveiling of the artwork depicting his delivery in midkick, his right foot pointing forever toward the sky.
OFFENSE BE DAMNED
Because scoring was next to impossible that night, McCovey still rankles at the mention of the moon-scraping shot he hit down the right-field line with one out in the bottom of the ninth.
First-base umpire Chris Pelekoudas ruled it foul. McCovey is still arguing the call.
“He didn't make the call right away. I hit it so high and so far, he waited until it landed “¦ which was in Oakland,” McCovey said, chuckling at the memory. “He was the only person in the ballpark who thought it was foul.”
Crandall said the umpire got the call right. “Of course, I might have been a little prejudiced,” he added.
The Braves' had a chance in the fourth inning. With two on and two out, Crandall whisked a single to center. But Mays played the ball on one hop and, with his typical fluidity, unleashed a laser throw to nail Norm Larker at the plate.
“For a long part of the game we were saying, ‘Somebody hurry up and score,'”‰” said Frank Bolling, 81, the Braves second baseman and a four-time All-Star. “We knew it was going to be a low-scoring game because those guys are perfectionists. And they knew how to pitch.”
Marichal allowed only one extra-base hit: Spahn doubled off the right-field wall with two outs in the seventh. “It was about a foot too low to go out,” recalled Spahn's son, Greg, who was in the stands that night. “He would have won his own game. That would have been perfect.”
With each missed chance, it became increasingly clear that one run would be enough to win. But Marichal or Spahn would have to blink first.
“And I'll tell you one thing: You would never get them out of the game, I don't care how long it went,” Bolling said. “If you came to take Warren Spahn out of a game, he'd tried to shoot you.”
MAYS TO THE RESCUE
Alvin Dark tried to take Marichal out for the first time in the ninth. The conversation did not go well. Marichal refused to go, pointing to the Braves dugout at the 42-year-old counterpart and telling his manager, “I am not going to come out of that game as long as that old man is still pitching.”
Dark tried again in the 12th, again to no avail. Before the 15th, Marichal thought he spotted a reliever coming in from the bullpen, so he hastily grabbed his glove and cap and raced out to the mound to reclaim his territory.
“I don't think I did it the right way, but I wanted to stay in the game so bad,” Marichal says now. “I'm not happy about what I did. . . . I think that because we won the game, it saved me a lot of trouble with Alvin Dark.”
Still, Marichal sensed the end was near. After working out of the 16th inning, which required getting Hank Aaron (0 for 6!) one last time, Marichal avoided returning to the dugout right away.
Instead, the pitcher waited by first base for Mays to jog in from center field.
“When he got there, I put my arm on his shoulder and I told him, ‘Alvin Dark is mad at me. He's not going to let me pitch any longer,' ” Marichal recalled.
“So (Mays) touched my back and said, ‘Don't worry. I'm going to win this game for you.' ”
Harvey Kuenn led off the inning with a fly ball to center field. Then Mays hit the first pitch he saw into the left-field stands. He had broken the tape, ending the marathon.
“When I saw the ball leave that park,” Marichal says now, “I was the happiest guy on earth.”
Mays' only hit of the night was hardly a surprise. The Say Hey Kid hit more home runs off Spahn (18) than he did against any other pitcher, starting with the first of his career in 1951.
This one ended Spahn's string of 27 scoreless innings.
“Dad just had nightmares about that pitch,” said Greg Spahn, 64, and living in Broken Arrow, Okla. “It was a hanging screwball over the plate. It got too far inside. I'm sure fatigue was a factor. There was no question the ball was out of the park. Mays hammered it.”
Denis Menke, who went 2 for 5 with a stolen base in that game after replacing Mathews at third base in the fourth, looks back at the ending as bittersweet.
“If it's going to end, you had Mays being the great player that he was and then you had Spahn the great pitcher,” Menke, 72, said. “I guess that's the way it's supposed to end: The big-name people are supposed to end the game.”
THE BEST EVER?
Marichal and Spahn met again less than 24 hours later. Dark approached the Braves the next day to ask if the experienced Spahn would talk to Marichal about how to take care of his body after such a taxing game.
So the two future Hall of Famers headed off to a secluded stretch of right field for a summit on exercise and a healthy lifestyle. Even by the rugged standards of a previous generation, these were iron men. In that 1963 season, Marichal led the N.L. in innings (3211/3) while Spahn led the league in complete games (22).
Four days after the 16-inning marathon, Spahn threw a complete-game shutout against the Astros; Marichal went on to pitch five more complete games in September alone en route to a 25-8 season.
Was it, as a book title would dub it, “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched”? Author Jim Kaplan wrote that book, arguing that the circumstances, including having seven future Hall of Famers on the field (the two pitchers, plus Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Aaron and Mathews) raise it above other contenders, such as the 26-inning, 1-1 tie pitched by Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves and Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1920.
Crandall played in one of the other candidates: On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates took a perfect game into the 13th inning before losing 1-0 to the Braves.
Without saying which game was better, Crandall said players from the Spahn-Marichal game knew they were part of something special.
“I think all of us appreciated it sitting there on the bench and watching two Hall of Famers go at it,” the 11-time All-Star said. “It was quite a thing.”
Wherever the game ranks, the Spahn-Marichal duel can still give that jacketless Braves fan a chill.
Even 50 years later.
“It was a game that you will never forget,” Selig said. “Spahn pitched magnificently for a guy his age—magnificently. And Marichal was phenomenal, too.
“It was stunning. It was really, really just an amazing game.”
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