Here’s an excerpt from my book, Falling in Love With Baseball, in honor of the 50th anniversary of probably the most deplorable umpire’s judgment call in baseball history. To find out what that judgement call was please read on.
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In 1968, known as the “Year of the Pitcher”, Don Drysdale of the Dodgers broke Walter “Big Train” Johnson’s fifty-five-year-old consecutive scoreless innings record. The Giants and an umpire played key roles in Drysdale setting the record. Going into a big three-game series in L.A., the Giants hoped to maintain or extend their slim 1½ game lead over the Braves for first place. The Dodgers were just trying to get to .500.
It happened in Dodger Stadium as I was watching as a fifteen-year-old kid. To be precise, it was the day after Memorial Day on May 31st, a Friday night game. Yes, kids, until 1971, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th regardless of what day of the week that date fell. Back then, the only Giants games we got on TV were the nine Giants games at Dodger Stadium and the odd Game of the Week, if it was on the road! Drysdale was closing in on Giants’ Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who had fired 45⅓ innings of consecutive blanks in 1933. King Carl’s record was considered the modern record because Walter Johnson’s record from 1913 was during baseball’s “dead ball” era. In a fascinating twist, Hubbell was the director of the Giants’ farm system that night as Don “Big D” Drysdale took the mound.
Drysdale shutout the Giants through eight innings, and the scoreless innings streak stood at forty-three innings entering the ninth. The Giants quickly loaded the bases with no outs. Up to the plate stepped Dick Dietz, the seventh-place hitter. With the Giants only trailing 3–0, not only was the scoreless streak in jeopardy, but also the game. On a 2–2 count, Drysdale threw a slider high and inside. Dietz threw his arm up to protect himself, and the ball hit his left arm. I jumped up to shout gleefully, “That’s it! The streak’s over, Drysdale!” I was totally stupefied when the home plate umpire made an unfamiliar gesture and called Dietz back from his jog to first. My Dad and I sat there in silence as Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges tried to decipher what was going on.
When it was clear that home plate ump Harry Wendelstedt was claiming Dietz made no effort to avoid getting hit by the pitch, my dad and I yelled in righteous indignation that the call was bush! Rather than a run being forced in and a 3–1 game, it was a ball to run the count full. Harry Wendelstedt had his own delusional idea of what had happened. My father said it was the worst “homer” call he’d ever seen! I was inconsolable, shouting at the TV as Giants manager Herman Franks got tossed for his animated tirade over the horrible call.
In the end, it was ruled ball three and with the count now full, Dietz popped out to short left field. It was much too short for pinch runner Nate Oliver to score from third. I howled at the TV and my mother came rushing in to find out what all the commotion was about. We told her the Giants had been robbed with the worst call in baseball history! She shrugged, said “too bad,” and went back to the kitchen.
Ty Cline, a utility outfielder who batted lefty, pinch hit for light-hitting righty Hal Lanier. Ty grounded to first baseman Wes Parker, a slick fielding Gold Glover, who came home to force out Nate Oliver. My outrage grew, as now it would take a base hit or a Dodger mistake to break the streak. An extra base hit could tie it up! Jack Hiatt, who is still working for the Giants at the time of this writing, pinch hit for the pitcher Mike McCormick. I was on the edge of my seat with nervousness and mounting outrage.
Jack Hiatt was one of my favorite Giants. He was a catcher, the same position I played. He had power and could put us ahead with a grand slam. In a game we attended at The Stick in April, he had hit a triple off Drysdale and a homer off Jim Brewer. That game was curiously also a match-up of McCormick and Drysdale, which the Giants won 3–0.
Now unless Hiatt did something here, we would lose by that same score! Being the ever-optimistic teenager, I reminded my father of Jack’s grand slam the previous year off the Pirates’ fine relief ace, Elroy Face. I didn’t forget grand slams back then. With another grand slammer here, he could put us ahead! C’mon, Jack, hit it out off this bum!
Hiatt popped out to Parker at first to end the game. I sat still for a moment and then erupted with some choice cuss words! My father just shook his head and repeated that was the worst call he had ever seen. My dear mother rushed in to demand I watch my mouth around my younger siblings! Final score: 3–0 Dodgers.
Four days later, tragically, on the very night Drysdale surpassed Carl Hubbell’s record to set the modern MLB record, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in L.A. Those days are seared into my memory like it was yesterday! The despised Don Drysdale, who had a nasty habit of knocking down my idol Willie Mays for years, went on to set the major league record for scoreless innings at fifty-eight. Another despised Dodgers pitcher, Orel Hershiser, broke Drysdale’s record twenty years later with fifty-nine consecutive scoreless frames, a record that still stands today.
Fast forward nine years later to August 1977. I was working for Levi Strauss in downtown San Francisco as a computer programmer. I’d been working on a long, grueling project in Amarillo, Texas. Our project team had just returned from a miserable two weeks in Amarillo, and we were scheduled to return the following Monday. We’d put in one-hundred-hour work weeks while there. Amarillo was by far my least favorite travel destination! Under the circumstance to make up for the many hours of unpaid overtime, we could get some compensatory time off. Being a baseball fanatic, I chose a day game during the week as my time off.
I chose that afternoon for a ball game not merely because I could take the time off. I wanted to go see one of my childhood Giants idols, Willie McCovey. “Stretch” was having a late-career resurgence that year after rejoining the Giants. Big Mac had been exiled for three years, first to San Diego then, of all places, Oakland for the final month of 1976. I never got used to seeing Stretch in any colors other than Giants’ orange and black. He looked particularly out of place in the green and gold of Charlie Finley’s A’s!
Willie McCovey was rejuvenated at age thirty-nine that year by being back where he belonged. He hit twenty-eight homers, his final season of twenty or more. He drove in eighty-six and hit .280. It wasn’t surprising that he finished a respectable twentieth in the NL MVP voting that fall. I also wanted to see Ed Halicki pitch that afternoon. Nicknamed “Ho Ho” for his six-foot-seven-inch height, Halicki was one of the Giants’ promising hard-throwing young pitchers. Along with John “The Count” Montefusco, Bob Knepper, and the “old man at twenty-nine” Jim Barr, the Giants had the makings of a formidable staff for years to come. In fact, the following year, 1978, with the addition of Vida Blue the Giants made a good run at the Dodgers, the NL Champions that year. That summer The Sporting News, the “baseball bible,” featured a great color cover photo of Vida, Montefusco, Knepper, and Barr with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Halicki had tossed a no-hitter at the Mets two years before, in 1979, at Candlestick. That was the last no-hitter at home for a Giants pitcher for thirty-four long years. Jonathan Sánchez broke the long drought in 2009. Curiously, forty years after Halicki’s no-no, in 2015 Chris Heston no-hit the Mets, but in New York. I’d never seen a MLB no-hitter in person, and I was hoping for a repeat no-hit performance by Halicki.
Back then, the Giants played more weekday day games because The Stick was only for diehard fans during night games! During extra innings of night games, the Giants gave out Croix de Candlestick pins to those hardy fans who remained to brave the frigid winds and cold temps of The Stick. Being a confirmed diehard fan, I earned my share of those prized pins. It was like a badge of honor to have numerous Croix sitting proudly on your Giants cap!
The Giants called some of these weekday day games Businessman’s Specials. Businessman’s Specials started a bit earlier so businessmen could stretch their lunch hour and take in a game. Back then, games rarely lasted three hours unless there were extra innings. At twenty-four, I didn’t feel like the typical “businessman.” But I’d definitely earned the time off with my two weeks of overtime in Amarillo, and the ballpark was my natural habitat. I always get a thrill, even today, walking into a ballpark and seeing the diamond with its emerald green turf, albeit detestable Astroturf in those days at The Stick.
I didn’t have a ticket. But in those days, that wasn’t a problem at all! The Giants during those lean years were one of the worst teams in attendance. T hat year, 1977, the Giants finished dead last in NL attendance. The previous year, in 1976, the team had nearly moved to Toronto!
Like in 1992, the Giants were saved by lastminute “white knights.” In 1976, the white knights were prominent real estate tycoon Bob Lurie from San Francisco and his partner, cattleman Bud Herseth from Phoenix. As I headed to The Stick on the Muni ballpark express from the old Transbay Terminal, I wasn’t worried at all about a ticket. No worries about paying astronomical StubHub prices back then.
When I got to the ticket window, I nailed a box seat right behind home plate in the second row for less than ten dollars! I grabbed a beer, dog, and bag of peanuts on my way to my seat. My total cost at that point? Less than twenty dollars! Going to a baseball game was certainly easier on the wallet in 1977!
It was a clear blue-sky August day that’s typical for the Bay Area in the summer. As I settled into my primo seat, I took off my tie and suit jacket. It was warm enough in the sun at that time of day. The brisk winds that made Candlestick Park infamous usually appeared in the late afternoon. The beer was cold from the first long, satisfying quaff. It sure hit the spot on a sunny day at “The Yard.” There’s two things that never taste as good as at The Yard: beer and hot dogs! I looked forward to a few hours of enjoyment watching my favorite team play my favorite sport.
When they showed the umpires for the game on the scoreboard, imagine my surprise when I discovered Harry Wendelstedt was behind the plate for the game! The memory of his atrocious call that enabled Drysdale to set the scoreless innings record in 1968 still incensed me. And here I was, easily within earshot of the scoundrel who made that pathetic hometown call. Immediately I shouted in my best deep masculine voice, “You’re a bum, Wendelstedt!” just to stretch out my vocal cords. Harry turned to see who was riding him even before the first pitch.
Well, I was young and strong-voiced back then. As the game progressed, I proceeded to really let Harry have it. “Hey, Harry! Did Drysdale share his bogus record with you?” was one of my favorite taunts. Harry heard me loud and clear, as there were only about four thousand at the game that day. They were playing the Astros. I remember the Giants’ young catcher Gary Alexander got a kick out of me riding Harry and he even hit a home run that day!
The beer was having its effect on me about the sixth inning. My inhibitions dulled by four beers, I kept up my ragging on Wendelstedt. Young catcher Alexander’s two-run homer had put the Giants ahead 4–2 at the end of four. The Astros fought back to tie it up in the fifth. The Giants took the lead back 5–4 in the bottom of the fifth. Halicki was done after six innings, with the Giants still clinging to the 5–4 lead. Our ace reliever, the usually lights-out lefty Gary Lavelle, started the seventh.
Lavelle had been our bullpen ace for the last few years. In 1977, he was our lone representative in Yankee Stadium at the All-Star game. He had pitched two scoreless innings in the National League’s victory. He entered the game with a sparkling ERA of 1.47! I was confident he would close out the Astros for the final three innings and my afternoon off would be rewarded with a victory. I began to let up on Harry as I basked in the lead and sun, along with an increasingly pleasant buzz from the suds.
Instead, Lavelle got bombed, giving up three runs before Randy Moffitt extinguished the flames. Moffitt was the younger brother of famous ladies’ tennis player Billie Jean King. We trailed now 7–5, entering the bottom of the seventh. There was still plenty of time for a comeback victory. But my mood had changed witnessing the torching of Lavelle, and I lit into Harry with renewed vigor!
After I questioned Harry’s eyesight, judgment, and whether he had on his blue Dodgers shorts, between innings Harry approached me in the stands. I stood up to yell more insults as he closed in. In a calm, half-amused voice, he said, “Young man, you’ve had too much beer and if you don’t stop your disturbance, I’ll toss you out of here!”
I laughed. “Why? Can’t you take the truth, Wendelstedt! That call in 1968 was total BS, Harry, and you know it! Besides, I haven’t used any profanities.” Harry’s face reddened as I had dragged out his last name for effect…
He smirked and added, “You’re close to getting tossed! Now sit down and watch baseball. If I hear one more insult, you’re gone!” He got mad and the vein on his neck stuck out halfway through his warning to m
Not wanting to get my afternoon in the sun cut short, I sat down and bit my tongue for two and a half innings. I wasn’t drunk enough to lose my sense of danger. Two guys behind me who had had more beer than me tried to egg me on. “Don’t let him have the last word! All Giants fans know that was a BS call! Let him have it, guy!” they half laughed, as they egged me on. I almost made their day and stood up to yell what surely would’ve been my final insult at Harry.
Just then, an older, well-dressed woman seated next to me, who had been quietly watching me in amusement the whole game, said, “Don’t get thrown out, son. Sit down and watch the Giants come back to win!” She smiled and gently tugged my arm as she said this. I sat down. Saved by a wise voice of reason at the last moment!
When one of my idols, Willie McCovey, flied out to center field to end the game in a loss, I couldn’t stand it. I shouted a loud stream of final, sore loser insults at Wendelstedt. He ignored me and walked towards the right field exit from the field. I thanked the nice older woman for saving my butt from getting tossed. She said the umpire was very close to tossing me out if I yelled one more insult. As we gathered up our stuff and I put on my coat, she said in a low voice, “You were right. That call in 1968 was BS!” We both laughed heartily and walked out together.