Saturday, July 6, 2013

Milwaukee Brave Denis Menke recalls the greatest game ever pitched 50 years later

On July 2nd, 1963, a 42-year-old Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves squared off against the 25-year-old Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants in a duel for the ages. Sixteen innings later, the game ended with one of the future Hall of Famers on the mound watching the flight of a home run by another legend carry off into exile. What transpired in between those 16 innings makes this matchup one that many experts argue is the greatest game ever pitched.

Denis Menke, just a few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, was a promising infielder for the Braves learning under the tutelage of veterans such as Frank Bolling, Roy McMillan, and Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews. Menke started that game on the bench, but was unexpectedly tapped by manager Bobby Bragan to enter the game in the fourth inning.
Denis Menke - 1963 Topps
"Eddie [Mathews] got hurt, that's the only reason he came out of that game," the 72-year-old Menke said Tuesday evening from his home in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Menke spent the remaining 12 innings of the game at third base, cementing his place in the legendary contest.

"It was just amazing, the people that were involved in that game, it was really something," he said. "You think about it now all of the Hall of Famers that were in that game." (There were seven future Hall of Famers that participated in that game, and an eighth in Gaylord Perry in the bullpen for the Giants.)

He managed two hits off of the stingy Marichal, who struck out ten Braves hitters that day. Despite the Dominican pitcher's dominance, Menke felt comfortable in the box.

"I didn't mind facing Marichal because I knew he was always going to be around the plate," he said. "He was going to give you a pitch to hit, what you did with it was up to you. He could throw a strike from any position, sidearm, overhand, three-quarters ... any pitch! That was what was amazing about him."

Maybe even more impressive than Marichal's efforts was the performance of Spahn at that stage in his career. At 42, he was a year older than the Giants manager Alvin Dark and still excelling at his craft.

"With Spahnie, I don't think he ever thought his age came into play," Menke said. "He was such a competitor and he just enjoyed the competition. I think that's one reason why he just kept on going. He had one of those great arms that could keep on throwing. His motion was so good. It was just one of those things you had to marvel at."

As each team put up zeroes, it became an increasing battle of wits between the two mounds men. Neither man wanted to leave the game. Pitch counts be damned, their pride was a bigger issue.

"You look at Marichal on the other end that was 25-years-old. He wasn't going to let a 42-year-old man to show him up. He wasn't going to come out of that game," Menke said.

The Braves had a scare in the 9th inning when Willie McCovey hit a towering fly ball down the left field line. Menke, who was playing third base, took a long look at it and couldn't tell whether the ball was fair or foul.

"McCovey in the 9th inning hit one just foul," Menke said. "Nobody knows if it was really foul. In Candlestick, they way the wind blew, McCovey hit 'em so high, it was hard to tell if it was fair or foul. I was on the third base side and they asked me if I could tell and I said, 'Nope.' For our sake, the umpire made the right call."

Both teams barely reached base in the extra frames until the 14th inning when an error by Menke loaded the bases for the Giants. Spahn extinguished that fire by getting catcher Ed Bailey to hit a pop-up to center field, but when Willie Mays stepped to the plate in the 16th, it was 1951 all over again. Mays garnered his first major league hit, a home run off of Spahn in 1951.

The Giants center fielder wasted no time this at-bat, and hit Spahn's first offering over the left-field fence for a home run. Spahn said it was a screwball that, "didn't break worth a damn." Finally after four hours, the game was over.

Spahn finished the year 23-7, tying his 1953 for his best season ever. It would also be his last effective run in the majors. He would pitch two more years in the major leagues, posting marks of well under .500 for the Braves, New York Mets and ironically the Giants. Marichal ended 1963 with a 25-8 record, starting a string of four consecutive 20-win seasons. The two would combine for 606 career victories, earning them both enshrinement in Cooperstown.

A half-century later, this particular contest left an indelible mark on Menke, an incredible feat for someone who spent 40 years as a player, coach, and minor league manager.

"I give those two pitchers a lot of credit because I don't think we'll ever see a game like that again."


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