Greatest Moments: No. 11, Almost Perfect

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, January 20, 2011

(Editor's Note: Twentieth in a series recalling the 30 greatest moments in Cubs history.)

It was perhaps the most bittersweet no-hitter in major league history.

pappas.jpg

The Cubs' Milt Pappas had to settle for a no-hitter after losing a perfect game with two outs in the ninth when he walked San Diego's Larry Stahl at Wrigley Field on Sept. 2, 1972.

Milt Pappas woke up on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 2, 1972 with a cold and considered calling in sick.

It had been a rough year for Pappas on a personal level and a difficult season for the Cubs.

On March 10, Milt's father, Steve, died of stomach cancer. Two weeks later in a spring training game, he broke the little finger on his pitching hand while attempting a bunt. He missed the end of spring training, but was ready to go when the season started. But throughout an inconsistent first half, Pappas was administered 30 cortisone shots while battling a sore elbow and then back pain.

The Cubs, meanwhile, were an aging team that for the fourth consecutive year couldn't quite put it together.

Two of the team's mainstays were no longer on the roster. Ernie Banks retired following the 1971 season and a disgruntled Ken Holtzman was traded to the Oakland Athletics during the offseason.

The Cubs lost 10 of their first 13, bounced back to go 12 over .500 by June 20 and to two games behind first-place Pittsburgh in the NL East, and then proceeded to lose 11 of their next 14.

Joe Pepitone retired on May 1, saying that he had lost his passion for the game but changed his mind and was welcomed back on July 1.

When Whitey Lockman replaced Leo Durocher as manager on July 25, the Cubs were 46-44, 10 games behind the Pirates. They never got within nine games of Pittsburgh the rest of the way.

Pappas dropped to 6-7 when he lost a 2-0 complete-game performance at Philadelphia to eventual NL Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, but that would prove to be his last loss. He had won five consecutive starts by Sept. 2 and after his wife, Carole, convinced him to go to the ballpark he was on the mound delivering the game's first pitch to San Diego's Enzo Hernandez.

The last-place Padres did not exactly present Pappas with a Murderer's Row lineup and Pappas mowed through the weak lineup.

He retired one through six hitters Hernandez, Dave Roberts, Leron Lee, Nate Colbert, Cito Gaston, and Derrel Thomas three times each through eight innings. Johnny Jeter, Fred Kendall, and pitcher Mike Caldwell were each retired in two trips to the plate.

Pappas set down the first 24 batters he faced and when he batted in the bottom of the eighth with the Cubs ahead 5-0, he received a standing ovation from the Wrigley Field crowd of 11,144.

The Cubs led 8-0 when he walked to the mound in the ninth, three outs away from becoming the ninth pitcher in major league history to throw a regular season perfect game.

Leadoff hitter Jeter lifted a lazy fly to left-center. Center fielder Bill North started back on the ball at the crack of the bat, and then realized he had misjudged it. He slammed on the brakes, with the intention of changing directions in and to his right, but slipped and fell.

"Shit!" thought Pappas who was fully aware that he was on the cusp of history.

But Billy Williams, seemingly out of nowhere roared over from left field and with an outstretched arm mad a fine running catch.

"I started breathing again and my heart hit a heavy dub," Pappas remembered in Out At Home (LKP Group, 1999). "Outwardly, I showed little emotion, but inwardly, I thought I'd been brought backfrom the brink of death."

The next batter, Kendall, hit a routine grounder to short. Don Kessinger scooped it up and made the throw to first basemanJim Hickman. Two out!

Up stepped pinch hitter Larry Stahl.

The Wrigley crowd was standing as Stahl swung and missed for strike one. He took the second pitch, which was outside, for a ball. Stahl swung and missed for strike two.

Pappas, who like the hitter was sweating bullets, had Stahl right where he wanted him. Catcher Randy Hundley called for a slider, Pappas' best pitch that day. Milt obliged and thought he had shaved the outside corner with a knee-high pitch. Home plate umpire Bruce Froemming called it ball two, low and outside.

"Damn!" Pappas thought.

Hundley again called for a slider and again Pappas froze Stahl with a knee high pitch away. Froemming called it ball three, again low and outside.

"What the hell's wrong with him?" Pappas thought. "With both of them? How could Froemming call that a ball and Stahl just stand there? Those pitched were strikes dammit!

The 3-and-2 pitch, another slider, was again knee high and away, and again called a ball by Froemming.

"And Pappas is enraged!" Jack Brickhouse told viewers on Channel 9 as Pappas kicked the rubber and hollered at a smirking Froemming.

Pappas regained his composure to retire San Diego's Garry Jestadt on a popout to second baseman Carmen Fanzone to complete perhaps the most anti-climactic no-hitter in major league history.

Pappas said the crush of teammates that rushed him on the mound was the only thing that prevented him from going after Froemming.

"The pitch was outside," Froemming told the New York Times earlier this year. "I didn't miss the pitch; Pappas missed the pitch. You can look at the tape. Pappas, the next day, said, 'I know the pitch was outside, but you could have given it to me.' That pitch has gotten better over the years. That pitch is right down the middle now."

Pappas conceded that all three pitches were balls after the game.

"I was hoping he would sympathize with me and give me a call," Pappas said. "But they were balls, no question about it."

Pappas later said those comments were made for public consumption to prevent him from being fined by the league.

"I know in my heart, until my dying day that Bruce Froemming robbed me of a perfect game, and I believe that he did it deliberately," Pappas wrote in Out at Home. "I don't think he'll ever admit it, so I don't have to worry about ever forgiving him."

It was the last no-hitter by a Cubs pitcher until Carlos Zambrano against Houston on Sept. 14, 2008.

"I've been in professional baseball 30 years, and this is the first time I've been on the winning side of a no-hitter," Lockman said. "I couldn't believe the thrill. What a thrill, What a thrill."

It was the sixth straight start in which Pappas earned a win and he ran the streak to 11 to finish 17-7.

He was released during spring training of 1974 with a career record of 209-164 over 17 major league seasons. He needed one more National League win to join Cy Young, Al Orth, and Jim Bunning as pitchers who won 100 games in each league. There have since been five more men who have accomplished the feat: Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Dennis Martinez, and Randy Johnson.

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