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The 50th anniversary of the Spahn/Marichal game

Ezra Shaw

Fifty years ago today, they played the best baseball game ever.

Oh, you can quibble with the details about which game was the best ever if you want. But when Jim Caple asked reporters and players for their time-travel game, the 16-inning duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal was a popular answer. The only thing wrong with the Spahn/Marichal game is that Spahn wasn't on the Dodgers and Tommy Lasorda wasn't eaten by a pterodactyl, but those are the minor quibbles.

Seven Hall of Famers played in the game: Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Spahn, and Marichal. It ended on a Mays homer, which is just perfect. If it ended on a Snuff Curpton error, it would lose some of the effect. Instead, it was Mays in the bottom of the 16th.

The story goes that the 42-year-old Spahn was never really the same after the game. Except in the next 10 games after the 16-inning marathon, Spahn was 9-1 with a 1.72 ERA, nine complete games, and two shutouts. Warren Spahn was kind of a badass, everybody.

But on that day, Juan Marichal was badassier. He pitched all 16 innings, striking out 10 without allowing a run. From a Sports Illustrated feature on the game:

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.

That feature was written by Jim Kaplan, and he was asked to do it because he wrote an entire book on the danged game. It's a good book, highly recommended.

Just as good as Mays hitting the walk-off homer? Mays gunning down a runner at the plate. From Chris Jaffe:

Through nine innings, neither team scored, of course. Even threats were rare. Milwaukee had two opportunities but blew both with outs on the bases. With two outs in the fourth, the Braves put together a mini-rally with a walk and a single that put runners on first and second. When catcher Del Crandall singled, the team waved the lead runner around third to score, but Mays gunned him down at the plate to end the inning. It wouldn’t be the last time Mays made a big play in this game.

For you young kids out there, Willie Mays was like the Juan Perez of his time.

No one kept track of the pitches, but both pitchers are assumed to have thrown over 200. The game score for Marichal was the highest in San Francisco history, tied with Gaylord Perry, who pitched the first 16 innings of a game the Giants won, 1-0, in 21 innings. Dick Groat won that one for the Giants with a bases-loaded walk, which is a great sentence on several levels.

But back to Marichal. Here's a snippet of him talking about the game:

So if you have a 50-year-old bottle of scotch, break it open. And invite me over. It's the 50th anniversary of the greatest game ever played.