River Views

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 19, 2013

We’re only a year removed from Matt Cain’s perfect game. Certainly legions of Giants fans would say this was the finest performance ever by a major league pitcher. Older aficionados with a sense of the inherent tragedy built into our national pastime (even pennant winners lose four out of every ten games) might bring up the twelve perfect innings Harvey Haddix threw in 1959 before losing in the thirteenth.

We’re on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary of the greatest game ever thrown by two pitchers in the same game. Then baseball pitchers were far less pampered and pitch counts were largely unknown. Rod Serling might well have stood at the edge of a snowy television screen asking viewers to picture for themselves a scoreless game extending from twilight deep into the night; all the way to the bottom of the sixteenth inning with nary a run crossing the plate for either side. Top it off with both starting pitchers hurling complete games. Such was the case fifty Julys ago. The pitchers were both future Hall of Famers: Hurling for the Milwaukee Braves, Warren Spahn, winningest lefthander in the history of the game. Spahnie was on his way to a 23-7 won-loss record in 1963, at the age of forty-two. That July night at Candlestick Park, Spahn relied more on his screwball than the fastball whose speed had dipped as he approached and passed forty. Many fans may have forgotten, but Spahn, while delivering each pitch, possessed one of the highest leg kicks ever witnessed in the sport. The one pitcher who clearly out-kicked him proved to be his mound opponent that night, the Dominican Dandy, Juan Marichal. Not quite the equal in career long brilliance to Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, Marichal was clearly the finest San Francisco Giants hurler ever.

By 1963 major league baseball stood at its competitive peak. Just sixteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the grand old game, every team was now integrated (the Boston Red Sox were the last). Players from Latin America added further luster to what proved to be the golden age of the major leagues. The National League in particular had embraced the coming of African-American and Latino players. The National League squad at the All-Star Game a week later was so strong that future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey began the game on the bench.

Integration may have enveloped major league baseball by 1963, but three weeks before Marichal and Spahn matched pitches for four hours, Governor George Wallace stood in the front doorway of the University of Alabama, blocking two black students from enrolling. A day later, in Jackson Mississippi, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down on the driveway in front of his home.

In the darkest hours between those catastrophes, John F. Kennedy promised to seek a comprehensive civil rights bill, the first such call to action by an American president. My mother applauded that and my father and I cheered as July 2nd, 1963 turned into July 3rd and Willie Mays drove a one out, sixteenth inning Warren Spahn pitch through the Candlestick wind for a homer, giving the Giants a 1-0 victory.

Three years later Hank Aaron and the Braves would move to Atlanta; granting the Deep South major league status for the first time. Just as Jackie Robinson broke the racial barriers of big league baseball seven years before the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, baseball’s acceptance of the South ran a decade ahead of Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency.

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