The Greatest Game Ever Pitched:> Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Dual of the Century, by Jim Kaplan, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL, 2011, 203 pages $24.95.
Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California, July 2,1963. Two future Hall of Fame pitchers, one at the end of a stunning career, the other at the beginning. Giants versus Braves. Sixteen innings. No relievers.
This is the setting for The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Dual of the Century, by part-time Oak Bluffs resident and seasoned sports writer Jim Kaplan.
Warren Spahn, 42, was a Buffalo, New Yorker and decorated World War II veteran. Juan Marichal was a 25-year old citizen of the Dominican Republic who broke into the big leagues when Latino and African-American professionals had to wait on the bus while white teammates ate in segregated restaurants.
Mr. Kaplan describes The Greatest Game Ever Pitched as a “dual biography, with the magical game that links these greats woven through the text like a river flowing through time.” It is that, but is also a fascinating, multi-layered look at professional baseball in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the introduction Mr. Kaplan writes that “Spahn and Marichal are marvelous, downright mythic fixtures in baseball history. Visualized in action, they resemble nothing so much as bookends, Spahn kicking high with his right foot, Marichal with his left . . . Their importance extends beyond baseball. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and the fight over the Bridge at Remagen, Spahn was one of the most decorated ballplayers in World War II. Everyone in the Dominican Republic knows about Marichal, the first of their countrymen enshrined in Cooperstown, a confidant of Dominican presidents, a philanthropist, a national symbol of pride.”
Marichal and Spahn had much in common. In addition to “signature high-kicking deliveries that made their release points hard to pick up,” both “threw an impressive variety of pitches, and extended their careers by mastering the screwball.” Both had near-death experiences that shaped their character.
That summer night in 1963 the field in the new Candlestick Park was strewn with future Hall of Famers in addition to Marichal and Spahn: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Eddie Mathews. Candlestick was, as always, foggy, wet and windy. Mr. Kaplan writes that “Willie Mays learned that the best way to gauge a fly was to initially stand still, count to three and observe which way the ball was being blown.”
In one sense The Greatest Game Ever Pitched is an ode to baseball in a simpler era, a time when pitchers pitched as long as they were physically able without pitch counts or middle relievers, when ballpark noise meant not blaring music but the crack of ball against bat, and when salaries were modest but better than working in the mills.
But like everything else, baseball wasn’t so simple back then, especially for minority ballplayers, and Mr. Kaplan paints a valuable picture of the struggles encountered by Latino and African-American ballplayers who faced segregation, racism and cultural stereotypes.
Juan Marichal grew up on a farm in the Dominican Republic, a nation where baseball was like a religion. He lived without indoor plumbing but “loved listening to games on a battery-powered radio, hunting with slingshots, fishing, swimming, and diving.” Mr. Marichal: “We didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of food.”
His drive and talent propelled him to United States big leagues, but not without struggles. “Marichal underwent the culture shock familiar to his antecedents: learning a new language from scratch, understanding different coaching, shivering in cold weather, living with a black family in a black part of town and rarely leaving it except to go to the ballpark, staying on the bus while white teammates ate at segregated restaurants and brought him unfamiliar food.” Throughout his career he also had to face the stereotype that Latino players were lazy, a stereotype that Mr. Kaplan refutes.
Warren Spahn’s father encouraged his son’s athletic skills. “He taught me how to follow through with my shoulder and body, how to throw without any strain, how to get the most out of my pitch and out of my weight even when I was a skinny kid . . . I thought it was a lot of drudgery. It was lots more fun just to pick up the ball and throw, but Dad wouldn’t let me play catch unless I did it correctly.”
His father also counseled him to “be yourself, be polite, respect other people’s feelings, and treat them with deference.” Mr. Spahn’s military experience gave him another valuable perspective on baseball and life: “Pressure, what pressure? If I do badly, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? No one is going to shoot at me!”
Warren Spahn’s legacy may best be remembered by the old Boston Braves rhyme about their two best pitchers: “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” Mr. Spahn did not like this rhyme, according to Mr. Kaplan, because it ignored the contributions of the rest of the team.
Juan Marichal’s immense legacy is marred by an one act of aggression that has been forgiven many times over by the victim. He hit Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro in the head with a bat. Mr. Roseboro admitted that he instigated the incident but Mr. Marichal’s shame was immeasurable. A recent, similar incident had gone all but unnoticed. Mr. Kaplan quotes a New York Daily News commentator at the time: “I wonder if the mob would be shouting so if his name weren’t Juan Marichal. What would the mob shout, I wonder, if his name were a nice Nordic name like Frank Thomas, which it just happened to be a couple of months ago . . .”
Mr. Kaplan is the author of 19 books, including 13 on baseball. He spent 16 years writing for Sports Illustrated.
This month the Vineyard’s own summer collegiate baseball team, the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks, opens its inaugural season, a fine excuse to celebrate baseball’s future. And The Greatest Game Ever Pitched is a perfect companion, an insightful and graceful nod to the past and to one masterful game, the kind you always hope for when you head to the ballpark.