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Nearly half century later, Spahn-Marichal duel still the best ever


This article is an adaptation from The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century (Triumph Books, 2011) with parts of the book reprinted with permission. Copyright Jim Kaplan, 2011.

"The best-pitched game ever? Really?"

I've been getting this reaction a lot since the publication of my book, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched.

Opponents trot out the usual suspects like the 1-0 perfect game Cleveland's Addie Joss threw against the White Sox' Ed Walsh on October 2, 1908; the 26-inning, 1-1 tie pitched in 1920 by Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves and Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Dodgers; Harvey Haddix's unprecedented 12-inning, 1959 perfect game that he lost in the 13th; and Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfecto in which losing pitcher Bob Hendley of the Cubs allowed one hit and two base runners.

To be sure, these games were remarkable in their own right: respectively, two future Hall of Famers battling in the last week of a close pennant race (Joss-Walsh); the longest duel in major league history (Cadore-Oeschger); the best one-pitcher performance, (Haddix) and the fewest baserunners allowed in a nine-inning game (Koufax-Hendley).

Yet the epic confrontation between the Braves' Warren Spahn and the Giants' Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963 was sui generis: There was nothing to compare it to.

Consider: On that day, a pair of future Hall of Famers, one with his best days behind him, the other with his career blossoming before him, engaged in a battle never seen before or since. Spahn, already an icon, had debuted during World War II and was in the midst of his 13th and final 20-win season. Marichal, among the game's new breed of Latin stars who were changing the face of baseball, was en route to his first of six 20-win seasons.

The two men battled through 15 scoreless innings before the game was decided in the 16th. It remains the last time any two pitchers have pitched shutout ball for so long in the same game. Not counting the pitchers themselves, there were five future Hall of Famers in the lineups that day. Both men threw more than 200-plus pitches.

Yet the Spahn-Marichal title vaulted over statistics and landed in a universe of pure magic.

It would have been enough just to watch these future immortals pitch. Theirs was an irresistible matchup of experience versus youth at the peak of their powers. Spahn, 42, entered the game with an 11-3 record, had just set the alltime lefthanders' mark of 328 wins and hadn't surrendered a walk in 18 1/3 innings. Marichal, 25, was 12-3 with a 2.38 ERA and had no-hit Houston 17 days earlier.

The stars were perfectly aligned for such a classic duel. At the start of the season, the strike zone had been expanded from "the top of the knees to the armpits" to the "bottom of the knees to the top of the shoulders," a rule change that would help account for 1,019 fewer hits by National League batters than in 1962.

And Marichal and Spahn could not have asked for a better locale. Candlestick Park, now used just for football, was a pitcher's paradise. Named for San Francisco's Candlestick Point, which itself was named for a nearly extinct wader called the candlestick bird as well as the nearby jagged rocks and trees that resembled candlesticks, the Stick was invariably chilly because the wind came off the waters of San Francisco Bay. Balls don't carry as far in cold weather as they do when it's humid, nor do hitters fare as well when their hands are cold.

That evening's lineups featured Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda of the Giants and Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews of the Braves, all bound for Cooperstown. With help from hitters like Ed Bailey and Felipe Alou, San Francisco would lead the league in homers by 58 over second-place Milwaukee.

And so Spahn and Marichal took the mound, two seemingly different and amazingly similar men. Spahn was lefthanded, white and American, with a gaunt face and a hooked nose, while Marichal was righthanded, bronzed, Dominican, and round-faced handsome. But both used a high-kicking style that made it hard for batters to pick up their release points and pitch selections. Less known by baseball historians, each man had a formative experience with a relative and with the military.

Edward Spahn, Warren's father, built a mound in the backyard of their Buffalo, N.Y., home, and obsessively taught his boy pitching. "Control ... control... control," Spahn said. "'If you're going to throw a baseball,' he used to say to me, 'aim it at some target, don't just throw it.'"

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Equally important, Edward taught his son self-control: "Don't pop off too much. The guy who is noisy, always blowing off, is the guy who has an inferiority complex. Be yourself, be polite, respect other people's feelings, and treat them with deference."

Signed as a 19-year-old high school junior, Spahn whipped through the minors, had a cup of coffee with the Braves in 1942, and enlisted in the Army that same year. As a staff sergeant for the Army's 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, he arrived in France in August 1944 and survived for about 10 days on peanut butter sandwiches provided by friendly British soldiers. Of his fellow soldiers, he was quoted as saying in Baseball in Wartime, "That was a tough bunch of guys. We had people there who were let out of prison to go into the service. So those were the people I went overseas with, and they were tough and rough, and I had to fit that mold."

Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the fight over the bridge at Remagen, earned a battlefield commission to second lieutenant, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. "Bullet nicked me here," he once told Lester J. Biederman of the Pittsburgh Press, motioning to a scar on his stomach and neglecting to mention a shrapnel wound in one leg, "and another one grazed me on the neck." As a result, the idea of baseball as a pressure-packed challenge never resonated with him when he returned to the majors in 1946. In Spahn's words, "No one is shooting at me."

Marichal never saw action in a war but the military did play a pivotal role in his career. He had grown up in the Dominican without his father, who died when Juan was three, but he has fond thoughts about his older brother Gonzalo. Juan would ride a horse to wherever Gonzalo was playing baseball, then ride with Gonzalo on the same horse for the return trip, quizzing him all the while about the game. Because Gonzalo mostly played shortstop, Juan preferred shortstop until he saw a game in which Dominican national hero Bombo Ramos was pitching. Like Luis Tiant, Ramos turned his back to the plate on his windup, then came at batters with a blinding sidearm delivery. He also talked to the hitters, saying things like, "You better hit this one because if you don't you won't even see the next one." Marichal pledged to become a Bombonian hurler.

Despite being a good amateur pitcher, Marichal might never have turned professional if he hadn't led the Manzanillo team to a 2-1 victory over Aviación, the Dominican Air Force club, in the 1956 national amateur tournament. The next day he received a telegram reading, "Report immediately to the Air Force." He was being drafted to play baseball.

Within 24 hours, Marichal arrived at the San Isidro base and was welcomed by General Fernando Sánchez. As Marichal was leaving the room, the general presented him with 100 pesos, a huge sum for the time amounting to about $100. His first assignment was to head to Estadio La Normal to try out for a youth tournament in Mexico. Juan actually lived in the clubhouse under the stands for more than a week before making the team that included future major leaguers Manny Mota and Matty Alou. Taking his first plane trip, to Mexico, Juan won one game and saved another against Puerto Rico to advance to the finals against the home team. There he and his teammates encountered fans with knives and guns sitting directly on top of their dugout. "When we went to the bullpen, they showed us their guns," he said. "We were so scared, we couldn't handle the pressure." The Mexicans won. The Dominicans escaped.

Marichal signed with the Giants on September 16, 1957. Less than three years later, he was in the majors, thanks in part to some sage advice from his coach at Class A Springfield, Mass. Andy Gilbert told Marichal he'd get more lefthanded hitters out by throwing overhand. "I couldn't do that unless I kicked high," Marichal says.


By the time the two men took the mound for their fateful encounter, that style had helped them to two of the best seasons in the majors. In a few weeks, both would be members of the National League All-Star team and on this day, both looked the part.

Though Marichal was throwing everything -- he used five different pitches from three different release points and at two different speeds -- he found that his fastball was working best. Spahn had extended his career by adding a screwball in 1956, and now he used it effectively against righthanders.

There were some threats to score early in the game. The Braves' Del Crandall reached on a two-base error with two outs in the second. Did a man in scoring position with two outs endanger Marichal? Hardly. Gaylord Perry, then a young pitcher watching from the Giants' dugout, was learning a lot from watching Marichal and speaking with him. Perry wasn't worried. "I used to win a minor bet in the clubhouse by betting that a run couldn't score from third with two outs against Juan," he said. Sure enough, Marichal got Roy McMillan on a lazy fly to center.

In the fourth inning, Marichal got Aaron on a fly to left and struck out Mathews. Then Norm Larker walked and Mack Jones singled him to center. With two outs and two on, Del Crandall hit a sinking liner to center. Mays elected to one-hop it rather than dive and nailed Larker at the plate in "one amazing motion," according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Bob Stevens.

With two out in the top of the seventh, Spahn, whose 35 career home runs are among the most ever for a pitcher, nearly hit one out. His long drive bounced off the wall in rightfield and he settled for a double, though he was stranded at second.

Spahn survived a near home run himself in the last of the ninth when McCovey's towering shot seemed to pass over the rightfield foul pole in fair territory. The Giants thought so. Likewise the fans and most of the swells on press row. But not first base umpire Chris Pelekoudas. Nine innings passed with no score.

At that point, Spahn had allowed only five hits and no walks, striking out one. Marichal had surrendered six hits and three walks with four Ks.

Neither showed any signs of being removed. It was commonplace in the '60s for both starters to finish the game, even in extra innings. Managers had little use for pitch counts, instead looking for signs of weakening like dropping the arm or getting pitches up. But when Spahn allowed just two singles (picking one of the baserunners off first) and Marichal one in innings 10-13, people knew both men were as strong as ever.

When he wasn't pitching, Marichal sat on the bench chewing Bazooka bubble gum and studying his rival. Then he would run to the mound, the better to stay warm. For his part, Spahn was used to leaving the field and finding teammate Lou Burdette with a filterless Camel for him in the runway behind the dugout. But Burdette had been traded to the Cardinals, so Spahn probably lit up on his own, getting strength from nicotine like a character in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom. Then he would slowly trudge out to pitch.

Sitting on a bench down the left-field line with the other relievers and substitute catchers, Giants 19-year-old lefthander Al Stanek felt as if he were stranded in a wind tunnel. But he was pumped. "Holy cow!" he remembers thinking, "Two guys out there, one of them over 40!"

Indeed, Spahn's age was softening Giants fans' ardor. Dave Bush, then a sophomore at Cal-Berkeley, later a Chronicle baseball writer, was glued to the radio (the game wasn't televised). The longer the game went, he once told The New Yorker's Roger Angell, the more he pulled for the old guy.

San Francisco manager Alvin Dark kept asking Marichal if he wanted out. "Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side?" Marichal told him. "He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching."

Spahn seemed finished in the bottom of the 14th before working out of a bases-loaded jam. In the 15th he retired the side, and Marichal got through the top of the 16th.

Spahn threw one screwball after another before getting Harvey Kuenn to fly out starting the bottom of the inning. Exactly two hundred pitches, and Spahn was again going strong. The next batter was Willie Mays.

It was now 12:30 a.m. on July 3. Though he had gone 0-for-5, reaching only on an intentional walk, Mays promised the exhausted Marichal, who had thrown 227 pitches, that he would end the game that had seen great fielding plays and errors, stolen bases and pickoffs -- everything but a run.

And now, one great man would face another for the last time in the game. The wind had died down to a soft breeze. Bathed in the strong, dueling lights that cast several shadows over each participant, Candlestick for once projected an otherworldly calm.

Spahn's first pitch to Mays was another screwball. Instantly, Spahn knew he was in trouble. Rather than rotate away from the batter, the ball hung before Mays as juicy and tempting as a shiny apple on a tree. Mays unleashed his signature swing. In a Sports Illustrated retrospective four decades afterward, the late Ron Fimrite, who saw the game as a Chronicle news-side reporter on a night out and would call it the best game he ever saw, described "a high arc to left field, where, after hanging in the night sky for what seemed like an eternity, it landed beyond the fence."

Giants 1, Braves 0.

Nearly two games' worth of action took just four hours and 10 minutes. The fans stood and cheered -- for Mays, for Marichal, for Spahn and for themselves. They didn't know it at the time but they had just seen two of the last three pitchers to ever go past 15 innings in a game, and it had happened in the same game.

Spahn's fateful screwball was the last pitch of an unforgettable night of baseball, even if it is one that Spahn tried forever after to forget. "That pitch probably bothered him more than any he ever threw," said his son Greg. "For years he said that if he had one pitch he'd like to take back, that was it."

But the game cemented Spahn's greatness forever. There he was, the ageless marvel, astounding the fates and fans alike, matching wits and wisdom with the greatest young pitcher of his time. On July 2, 1963, Spahn and Marichal merged as mirrored pitchers, dopplegangers, future friends and authors of baseball's greatest pitching duel. What a pity they'll never meet again, except in baseball heaven.