“The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century” by Jim Kaplan, foreward by Greg Spahn, Triumph Books, 2011. 242 pp., $24.95.
Pitching for the Milwaukee Braves, Warren Spahn was 42 years old on July 2, 1963, when he matched up against Juan Marichal, 26, of the Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, in a game that ranks with the best pitching performances of all time.
The game lasted 16 innings and both pitchers went the distance. One team had nine hits, the other eight. The final score was 1-0. The Giants lineup was loaded with big names — Harvey Kuenn, Willy Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda, and, of course, Juan Marichal. (Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, and Marichal are in the Hall of Fame.) The Braves countered with Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Spahn, all Hall of Famers.
The game is the subject of a new book by Jim Kaplan called “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched,” with the subtitle, “Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century.” A summer resident of Oak Bluffs, Kaplan covered baseball for Sports Illustrated for 16 years in the 1970s and 80s, and 13 of the 19 books he has written are about baseball.
Born in 1921 in Buffalo, Warren Spahn was taught to play baseball by his father, Edward, who schooled his son obsessively in the fundamentals of the game in their backyard. It wasn’t much fun at times, but it worked. Spahn later credited his father for developing his smooth delivery, and for teaching him that control was more important than throwing smoke or bending balls in impossible parabolas. He threw straight overhand, which he believed was easier on his arm, and he kicked his right leg head high, a signature move that kept the ball hidden until the last possible moment.
By the time Spahn was 15 he was playing six days a week, on three different teams. At South Park High School, he hit .487 as a sophomore, before pitching his team to the city championship the next two years.In 1940, he signed with the Boston Bees, soon to be the Braves, for $80 a week. His minor league career featured stops in Bradford, Penn., in Evansville, Ind., and in Hartford, Conn., over two years.
He was promoted to the parent club three times in 1942, with unspectacular results. Even so, his potential was obvious.
In December 1942, Spahn enlisted in the Army. He fought in France, Belgium, and Germany, earning a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant from staff sergeant. Without the maturity he developed during the war, he later said, he wouldn’t have been able to pitch until he was 45.
Juan Marichal was born in 1937 in a small farming village in the Dominican Republic — a world away from Buffalo, New York. His father died when Juan was three, leaving his mother with four children to raise and a farm to run. His house had palm bark walls and a thatched roof. As a young boy, he worked on the farm in the morning and walked five miles to school in the afternoon.
He listened to baseball on a transistor radio and played the game whenever he could, at first with his young sidekicks who made their own bats from local trees and gloves from burlap and cardboard. His idol and mentor was his brother, Gonzalo, who was seven years older and a shortstop for a local team.
In his dreams, Juan saw himself as a big league shortstop until he was smitten by the wild windup of a Dominican legend named Bombo Ramos. From then on he wanted to be a pitcher and he didn’t waste any time learning the craft. Along the way, he too developed an extraordinarily high leg kick, as Spahn had. If they had ever warmed up in a bullpen side by side, they would have looked like mirror images of each other — Spahn throwing from the left side, Marichal from the right — both with pinpoint control.
Marichal quit school when he was 15 and began playing for a succession of teams sponsored by large companies — Esso, Bermudez Rum, United Fruit. When he was 18 he was drafted by the Dominican Air Force team, which played in the highest league in the country. A year later, in September 1957, he signed with the New York Giants for a $500 bonus. Marichal spent a couple of years in the minors — in Michigan City, Ind., in Springfield, Mass., and finally in Tacoma, Wash. — before he was called up to the Giants, now playing in San Francisco, in July 1960.
As much as “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched” is about a specific game, it is also the stories of two players from very different backgrounds who climbed to the very top of their game through a combination of talent, hard work, and desire. Neither of them thought of pitching or playing baseball in general as hard work. How could they when their childhood chums were stuck working in steel mills in Buffalo or trapped in the stifling poverty of the Dominican Republic?
Similar sociological and historical insights fill and enrich the book. As Kaplan chronicles the evolution of baseball in the intervening 50 years, with the liberal use of side trips and parallel tracks, he also reminds us how the country has changed, how the world has changed.Kaplan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the game allows him great freedom in the construction and pacing of the story. He is not afraid to intersperse anecdotes any where any time, including one between the moment when Willy Mays one-hopped a Dell Crandall liner in center field and four or five seconds later when his perfect throw cuts down Norm Larker at the plate.
The game, and this book that recounts it and uses it as an access point to a much broader stage, is a true gift for those of us who love baseball and its infinite intricacies, its numbing repetitiveness, its ability to make the players we idolize look just as human as the rest of us, and its fantastically joyous moments when things go just right — a drive deep into the alley, a throw from 200 feet right to the sternum, a scoring dash from first on a barely fair ball that finds its way into the right field corner. That’s baseball, and that’s “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched.”
Think about it: two starting pitchers still in the game after 15 innings? Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, whose stories merged on the mound at Candlestick Park on July 2, 1953, leading characters in a game, a drama, where they matched each other, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, for four hours and ten minutes. Except for that one last hit.
Author’s Talk with Jim Kaplan, 5 pm, Wednesday, July 6, West Tisbury Library. 508-693-3366.