The book: “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century”
The author: Jim Kaplan
The vital stats: Triumph Books, 256 pages, $24.95.
The pitch: As the Dodgers make their first trip into San Francisco, we go back to a contest that took place on July 2, 1963 at Candlestick Park.
It’ll never be duplicated.
Yet, was it the greatest game ever pitched? Kaplan, a former Sports Illustrated writer, seems to build an argument for it — the Braves’ 42-year-old Spahn and the Giants’ 25-year-old Marichal, two future Hall of Famers, began a duel at 8:21 p.m. and had 16 innings wrapped up in just over four hours, when (spoiler alert) Willie Mays hit a walk-off homer.
Just 15,000-plus saw it first hand — including Bud Selig, as it turned out. So did Spahn’s son, Greg, who points out in the introduction that this was a time when we “were able to follow baseball without the distractions of strikes, lockouts, mascots, endless announcements and loud music. Attending a ballgame was an unexpurgated joy.”
Even in chilly Candlestick Park? We beg to ddddddiffffffer.
Kaplan’s reconstruction efforts of a contest he didn’t actually see come through interviews with Marichal and others (Spahn died in 2003), refocing on an event that would have been an instant classic on ESPN had it been played in the last 10 years.
Back then, before five-man rotations, strict pitch counts, specialized relief pitchers and frequent substitutions, games like this were more the norm.
But still, 16 innings for each starter? You’ve got our attention.
In addition to telling the story again, Kaplan’s sidebars highlight other games that could be considered the “greatest,” and are a welcome addition — before getting a taste of this one, we’d have thought the perfect game that Sandy Koufax threw against the Chicago Cubs in 1965, where losing pitcher Bob Hendley had a one-hitter and lost 1-0 in one hour, 43 minutes at Dodger Stadium was far greater. In a way, it is. Maybe because our memory wants to believe it to be so.
After a rather slow start to the story, Kaplan has already given an account of the whole Marichal-Spahn dual by page 131. You can only do much to Retrosheet.org. With with 70 pages to go, it turns into a mini-bio about how the careers of Marichal and Spahn end up — they become teammates briefly for the second half of the ’65 season in San Francisco. Nearly 20 pages are dedicated to Marichal’s bat-striking incident with the Dodgers’ Johnny Roseboro, which could be a book unto itself.
How it goes down in the scorebook: Not the most compelling read, but if you make it through, we’d like to give you the Veni-Vidi-Vixi pin — I came, I saw, I survived — like the ones they used to give out to fans who actually endured extra-inning games at Candlestick. Too bad those who actually made it to the end of this one didn’t get the prized badge of honor. They got something better instead — a memory of a game that hardly anyone else saw. If they’ve got enough patience to get through this book, they’ll be rewarded as well.
How it happened: A Retrosheet.com account of the game, which is also captured in the appendix of the book (linked here).
Coming up: A Marichal autobiography called “My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown,” with Lew Freedman, is scheduled to come out later this summer (linked here).