On this day in 1972, Milt Pappas threw a no-hitter at Wrigley Field, the second of the season for the Cubs at Wrigley.
A “disappointing no-hitter” sounds like the baseball oxymoron of all time, but Pappas’ gem over the San Diego Padres has come to be known as exactly that. After the Cubs opened up an 8-0 lead, all eyes turned to Pappas, who went to the 9th inning with a perfect game on the line.
“A pitcher is aware of what’s going on and by the time you get to the 7th or 8th inning, the bench knows what is going on,” said Pappas. “That day, when I came in after the 8th inning and I still had the perfect game, I walked down the bench and no one said a word. That was ridiculous and I wanted my guys to get going, so I said, ‘hey guys, I’m throwing a no-hitter’ and that got them loose and were laughing. Then I got tight, because where I was sitting in the dugout, the cops and ushers were gathering and making a racket, so I had to ask them to be quiet.”
The 9th inning opened with a routine fly to center field off the bat of John Jeter, but Cubs center fielder Bill North had his feet go out from under him and it looked like the perfect game might fall with him. From out of nowhere, Billy Williams raced in, hat flying off, and reached out to grab the ball for the first out. “When I saw Billy North slip down, my heart sank down to my toes and I thought there goes everything,” said Pappas. “Thankfully, Billy was hustling.”
Williams never took anything for granted as a player, especially with history on the line. “As I was drifting over I could see him and all of a sudden I had to come in and make a shoe string catch to catch the ball,” he said. Moments later, Fred Kendall (Jason’s father) ripped a drive to left that was barely foul, then grounded to Don Kessinger at short for the second out.
The Padres sent up Larry Stahl to pinch-hit with the perfect game on the line and Pappas quickly got ahead 1-2. After having everything go his way throughout the game, fortune (and the home plate umpire) deserted him at the last minute.
“I’m one pitch from the greatest thing a pitcher can do,” he said. “Next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, ball two. Next pitch, another slider on the corner, ball three. All these pitches were right there and I’m saying ‘c’mon, Froemming, they’re all right there.’ Now comes the 3-2 pitch, again on the outside corner, ball four. I went crazy. I called Bruce Froemming every name you can think of. I knew he didn’t have the guts to throw me out, because I still had the no-hitter. The next guy, Garry Jestadt popped up to Carmen Fanzone and I got the no-hitter, which was great. But those balls should have been called strikes.”
Randy Hundley was behind the plate for his second no-hitter of the year (Burt Hooton had thrown one in April). “That was a little disappointing in that we didn’t get the perfect game,” said Hundley. “There were a couple of pitches that were questionable, but I think if Bruce Froemming had called those pitches, nobody would have ever said a word about it. We ended up walking one hitter and the next hitter pops up and we get the no-hitter. It would have been wonderful to have had a perfect game. We probably wouldn’t be talking about it if we had a perfect game at this time.”
The Cubs catcher still marvels at Pappas’ pinpoint control that day. “One of the things about Milt was he hardly ever shook me off,” Hundley said. “I would go down with the sign and he would come with the pitch right away. The same thing happened this day. He only had a fastball and slider to work with. It was frustrating at times to get hitters out with just two pitches, but I’m telling you, I could sit there and close my eyes and he could hit that mitt. It was just unbelievable how he did and what great control he had that day.”
In the Chicago Tribune the next day, Pappas talked about understanding the close pitches, but the years have hardened his stance. “When you look at the last pitch to Dale Mitchell in Don Larsen’s perfect game, it’s not even close, but there was a perfect game on the line. The thing that got me was that smirk on Froemming’s face after the pitch. The next day, he actually asked me to sign a baseball,and I said ‘I would be more than happy to Bruce and you know where you can stick it.’ “
Ferguson Jenkins never threw a no-hitter in his career, but was excited to see another teammate join that exclusive club. “I was on the bench charting the game,” he said. “Milt to this day said Bruce Froemming should have called it a strike, but, hey, the umpire is going to call his game. He pitched a no-hitter, but not a perfect game. Not bad.”
Rick Monday was with the Cubs at the time, but he wants no part of controversy. “I was at a banquet one night with Bruce and he was asked by someone in the audience ‘You know you were the umpire behind home plate when Pappas had the no-hitter going, there were two outs in the top of the ninth and you called ball four. Did you know had a chance to become only the 13th umpire to ever call a perfect game in major league history?’ Bruce looked at the guy and said ‘was it really that important?’ and the guy said ‘oh yeah’. And Bruce said ‘name the other twelve home plate umpires during the perfect games.’ And that is Bruce’s take. Don’t get in between them. If you are invited to the same dinner party, you might want to stay a little bit farther away from them. Was the pitch outside? Two guys had real good looks at it and they both differ in their opinions.”
“That was the only time I ever pitched a no-hitter all my years of Babe Ruth, high school, minor leagues, anything,” said Pappas. His gem was ended a run of four Cub no-hitters in four seasons (Holtzman 1969, Holtzman 1971, Hooton 1972). Pappas is the only man in major league history to lose a perfect game with one out to go and complete a no-hitter by retiring the next batter. He is also the only pitcher to lose a perfect game by walking the 27th batter.