Nelson Briles (Trading Card DB)

August 22, 1972: Nelson Briles near-perfect in Pirates’ 1-0 win over Giants

This article was written by John Fredland

Nelson Briles (Trading Card DB)On an August night at Candlestick Park in 1972, Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Nelson Briles missed perfection by inches – and escaped with a win by an equally slim margin. Two innings after Ken Henderson’s line drive eluded first baseman Willie Stargell for the San Francisco Giants’ only hit and baserunner of the game, substitute left fielder Rennie Stennett reached above the fence for a homer-robbing, game-ending catch of Bobby Bonds’ deep drive, sealing Pittsburgh’s 1-0 win.

Northern California native Nelson Kelley Briles already had a World Series complete-game win and three seasons with double-digit victories when the Pirates acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in a four-player trade in January 1971.1 Rebounding from a 6.24 ERA in 1970, Briles turned out to be a valuable swingman for Pittsburgh’s 1971 World Series champions. 2 He won eight regular-season games, including three complete games in September, then blanked the Baltimore Orioles on two hits in Game Five of the World Series.3

In 1972 Briles – a nightclub singer and television sports broadcaster during the offseason4 – became a full-time member of Pittsburgh’s rotation.5 At 30 games over .500, 11½ games ahead of the second-place New York Mets, the Pirates arrived in San Francisco on August 22 with their third straight National League East title in sight.6 The 28-year-old Briles, who had pitched 8⅓ innings and held the Giants without an earned run in Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win in the first game of a doubleheader on June 15,7 took 11 wins into his start in the series opener, matching Dock Ellis for second on the team behind Steve Blass.8

The Giants had won the NL West in 1971 before dropping the NLCS to the Pirates, but in ’72 they fell 23 games under .500 by June 20 to crush hopes for a repeat title.9 Franchise pillar Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets.10 They were in fifth place, 21½ games behind the Cincinnati Reds, when they hosted the Pirates.

Longtime Giants ace Juan Marichal’s season mirrored his club’s struggles. An All-Star in 1971, Marichal missed three weeks in June and July 1972 with a back injury, shortly after owner Horace Stoneham had denied a rumored Marichal trade to the Pirates.11

By August Marichal had shortened his trademark high leg kick to ease strain on his back.12 He faced Pittsburgh with a season ERA of 3.84, nearly a run over his 1971 total.

But the 34-year-old Dominican’s 5-13 record also reflected factors beyond his pitching skill. The Giants had been shut out in five of his losses and leaked five unearned runs in another start.13

With two outs in the first against Pittsburgh, Marichal again encountered hard luck. Roberto Clemente, starting for only the second time since July 9 after a virus and various injuries had sidelined him for most of a six-week period,14 hit a high hopper to second. Tito Fuentes threw wildly to first, and Clemente took second on the error.

Stargell, who grew up across the San Francisco Bay in Alameda, California, capitalized, doubling to the fence in center to drive in Clemente. It was Stargell’s 95th RBI, best in the majors, and the Pirates led, 1-0.

Cheered by approximately 25 family and friends among Candlestick Park’s crowd, Briles zipped through the first three innings without allowing a hard-hit ball, much less a baserunner.15 He capped his first trip through the order by striking out the side in the third, including two recent products of the Giants’ strong farm system16 – 22-year-old center fielder Garry Maddox and 23-year-old third baseman Dave Kingman.

“[Briles] threw his slider effectively to right-handed hitters and his palm ball to left-handers,” Pirates catcher Milt May said afterward. “He used both to set up the fastball.”17

San Francisco managed its first solid contact in the fourth, when Henderson, as the San Francisco Examiner reported, “slammed a whistling line drive” at second baseman Dave Cash. According to the Pittsburgh Press, Cash “didn’t have time to move, but reached across his body to make a shoe-top high catch” for the third out.18

Briles later acknowledged that he was thinking about a no-hitter by this point.19 Three groundouts in the fifth made it 15 outs in a row.20

After the first-inning run, Marichal matched Briles zero for zero. The Pirates had at least one baserunner in four of the next five innings, but none passed second. Clemente’s 2,962nd career hit, a one-out single in the sixth, was followed by Stargell’s grounding into a double play.

Maddox flied to center to open San Francisco’s sixth, bringing up Kingman. The 6-foot-6 University of Southern California product was called up before a series with Pittsburgh in 1971 and immediately made his mark on the Pirates staff.21 Pinch-hitting against Briles in his second major-league game, Kingman clubbed an RBI double in the fourth inning, then belted a grand slam off Dave Giusti three innings later.22 The next day, Kingman hit two homers against Ellis in the second game of a doubleheader.23

He had struggled making contact in 1972; his third-inning strikeout against Briles was his 108th of the season, and his batting average was only .219. But Kingman had continued to establish himself as a power threat, with 24 home runs going into the game.24

Briles’ first three pitches to Kingman missed the strike zone. Swinging away at 3-and-0, Kingman pulled a 400-foot foul ball to left, then hit another foul behind home plate. Finally, he looked at a slider for strike three.

Marichal flied out, keeping Briles perfect through six.

“Briles made so many good pitches it was hard to believe,” Marichal said.25

The Giants’ seventh opened with two more outs, as Bonds and 22-year-old All-Star shortstop Chris Speier were retired. Briles’ perfect string was 20 in a row; the switch-hitting Henderson stepped up.

Batting only .190 on July 31, Henderson had boosted his average 65 points and was on a 17-game hitting streak.26 Briles’ first pitch was a strike.

The next one was an inside fastball. Henderson pulled a liner toward Stargell at first.

Stargell was primarily a left fielder prior to 1972, but knee injuries had forced him into the infield. In July manager Bill Virdon had announced that Stargell would play first for the rest of the season.27

Stargell jumped up and extended his arm. The ball hit his glove and trickled into right. It was scored a single, ending Briles’ bid for the majors’ first perfect game since Catfish Hunter’s in 1968.

“I really feel I should have caught the ball,” Stargell said. “I jumped as much as I needed. But before I knew anything the ball was right by me. When I came down, I thought I had it. My height was enough but somewhere along the line the ball and the glove didn’t meet. I saw it rolling toward right field and I was stunned.”28

“I didn’t think Stargell had a chance to come as close as he did to catching it,” Henderson said.29

Briles recovered to retire Willie McCovey on a fly ball for the third out. A one-two-three eighth inning followed, punctuated by Clemente’s running catch of Dave Rader’s fly ball near the right-field fence.

Aiming to keep the Giants within a run, Marichal opened the ninth by setting down the first two Pirates. When Stargell singled, Stennett ran for him. Richie Hebner doubled Stennett to third, but left fielder Bob Robertson grounded out to strand the runners.30

Three outs from a shutout, nursing a one-run lead, Virdon shuffled his defense. Robertson moved to first; Stennett took over in left.

The first two outs came on routine grounders by Kingman and pinch-hitter Ed Goodson. Bonds was next.

The count went full; it was only the fifth time a Giants hitter had seen three balls. Briles, who had given up two homers to Bonds with St. Louis, threw a slider.31

Bonds drove it high and deep to left, toward Candlestick Park’s see-through fence, into the wind, as the Pirates, Giants, and crowd of 9,389 looked on.

It was Stennett’s first chance of the night after eight innings on the bench. Wanting his bat and speed in their lineup, the Pirates had split the 23-year-old Panamanian’s first full major-league season between the infield and outfield.32

Here, Stennett backed up against the fence, leaped, and caught the ball. He had preserved Briles’ 28-batter, one-hit, 1-0 win.

“It looked like it was going out,” Stennett said. “But I jumped and caught it at the top of the fence.”33

“I was praying the wind would keep it in,” Briles added. “If Rennie thinks it was over the fence, let it be over the fence. Just so long as he caught it.”34

The Pirates clinched the division on September 21.35 Briles finished with a 14-11 record, including three 1-0 losses of his own, all against the Mets.36 He received a no-decision in his only NLCS start, as Pittsburgh dropped a dramatic five-game series to the Reds.37

Over a 14-season career, Briles made 279 regular-season starts. His brush with perfection in San Francisco was his only complete-game one-hitter.

“It’s funny to be so happy and then so disappointed at the same time,” Briles said, that night at Candlestick Park. “But how can you not be happy about winning a 1-0 game?”38



This article was fact-checked by Laura Peebles and copy-edited by Len Levin. SABR member Kurt Blumenau provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article. The author was inspired to write about Briles’ near-perfect game when Jim Trdinich, Pittsburgh Pirates team historian, highlighted it on Twitter on August 22, 2022, the 50th anniversary of the game.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted and for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play. He also relied on coverage from the Oakland Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Press, and San Francisco Examiner newspapers.



1 Outfielder Matty Alou and pitcher George Brunet went to St. Louis for Briles and outfielder Vic Davalillo. Charley Feeney, “Bucs Get Briles, Davalillo for Alou,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 30, 1971: 8.

2 In his autobiography, Pittsburgh teammate Steve Blass noted that Briles “had to work hard to alter his delivery after [the major leagues] lowered the mound following the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. His follow-through would take so much out of him that he sometimes would fall flat on his face. … After watching his ERA soar from 2.81 in 1968 to 6.24 in 1970, he bounced back to have a very good first season with us.” Steve Blass with Erik Sherman, Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life (Chicago: Triumph, 2012), 149-150.

3 Richard Dozer, “Cubs Labor Pains: Pirates Win Pair,” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1971: 3,1; Ian MacDonald, “Mauch Says Bucs Won’t Be Headed,” Montreal Gazette, September 13, 1971: 19; Bill Christine, “Murtaugh Picks Blass as Playoff Starter,” Pittsburgh Press, September 24, 1971: 38; Charley Feeney, “Briles Blanks ’Em; Bucs 1 up: Confetti Flies After 4-0 Win,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 15, 1971: 1.

4 A 1972 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reported that Briles’ nightclub show included performances of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”; the Spiral Starecase’s 1969 hit “More Today Than Yesterday”; and the Spanish-language “Cuando Calienta el Sol,” whose English translation had been a 1964 hit for the Ray Charles Singers as “Love Me with All Your Heart.” Neal Russo, “Briles Cashing In on Series Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1972: 2E.

5 Charley Feeney, “Playing Games,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 16, 1972: 31.

6 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Increase Lead, Top Padres Twice: Ellis, Kison Cop Wins, 9-3 and 5-2,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 21, 1972: 22.

7 Bob Smizik, “Oliver Does It All, Bucs Win Pair,” Pittsburgh Press, June 16, 1972: 30.

8 Blass had 14 wins at that point of the season and finished at 19-8.

9 Wells Twombly, “Disaster Report,” San Francisco Examiner, June 1, 1972: 53.

10 “Mays to Mets for Cash, Pitcher,” San Francisco Examiner, May 11, 1972: 57.

11 Pat Frizzell, “Marichal Trade Rumor Is Denied,” Oakland Tribune, June 6, 1972: 41E; Bucky Walter, “Juan May Try Today,” San Francisco Examiner, July 2, 1972: C-2.

12 Bucky Walter, “Juan Faces ‘Slugging Bucs,’” San Francisco Examiner, August 22, 1972: 45.

13 Pat Frizzell, “Giants Stymied: Carlton Pitches a Gem,” Oakland Tribune, April 26, 1972: 57E; Bucky Walter, “Giants Hit ‘Grammar School Level’: Fox Puts Harsh Rating on Loss,” San Francisco Examiner, May 10, 1972: 61; Pat Frizzell, “Marichal Now 1-6,” Oakland Tribune, May 14, 1972: 45E; Pat Frizzell, “Giants Do Nothing Right: Losing Streak Hits 5,” Oakland Tribune, June 8, 1972: 39E; Bucky Walter, “Marichal in Traction – Deals Hinted,” San Francisco Examiner, June 12, 1972: 45; Wells Twombly, “Barr Comes of Age,” San Francisco Examiner, July 31, 1972: 51.

14 Charley Feeney, “Bucs Put End to Red-Faced Nonsense: Clemente, Starg Aid Blass’ 11th,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 24, 1972: 18; Bob Smizik, “Absence of Clemente Catching Up with Bucs,” Pittsburgh Press, August 18, 1972: 31.

15 Tom Kane, “Briles Zips by Giants on 1-Hitter,” Sacramento Bee, August 23, 1972: B9; Pat Frizzell, “Giant Hit Tainted,” Oakland Tribune, August 23, 1972: 41E.

16 Every member of San Francisco’s lineup had spent his entire professional career in the Giants organization. “But the dimming of [veteran stars Mays, Marichal, and Willie McCovey] helped turn attention to the remarkable abundance of impressive young talent that continued to emerge from the organization’s amazing farm system,” Giants historian Steven Treder wrote in 2021. “[T]he 1972 Giants were one of the very youngest teams in baseball and impressively athletic.” Steven Treder, Forty Years a Giant: The Life of Horace Stoneham (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 388.

17 Frizzell, “Giant Hit Tainted.”

18 Bucky Walter, “Giants Rout Bucs, 8-0,” San Francisco Examiner, August 23, 1972: 55; Bob Smizik, “Willie Makes Nellie’s Night Near-Perfect,” Pittsburgh Press, August 23, 1972: 64.

19 Frizzell, “Giant Hit Tainted.”

20 Nearly two months earlier, on June 24, Briles had retired the first 14 Chicago Cubs he faced before Rick Monday reached on a two-out single in the fifth. Briles ultimately allowed seven hits in 8⅔ innings and was credited with the win in that game, a 3-1 Pittsburgh victory. “Briles Likes No-Hit Pressure, Extends Streak Against Cubs,” Pittsburgh Press, June 25, 1972: D-2.

21 Phil Finch, “Giants Bring Reserves,” San Francisco Examiner, July 30, 1971: 51.

22 Phil Finch, “Walloping Day for Kingman,” San Francisco Examiner, August 1, 1971: C-1.

23 Pat Frizzell, “Kingman Bat Has Impact on Pirates,” Oakland Tribune, August 2, 1971: E29.

24 The June 3, 1972, issue of The Sporting News featured Kingman on its cover, with the headline, “New Home Run King? Giants’ Dave Kingman.” Pat Frizzell, “E for Effort? It Goes to Dave Kingman,” The Sporting News, June 3, 1972: 3.

25 Walter, “Giants Rout Bucs, 8-0.”

26 Charley Feeney, “Giants’ Ken Henderson Offers Hope to Bob Robertson and Long Slump,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 22, 1972: 18.

27 Charley Feeney, “Knee Caps Will’s Move to First,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 6, 1972: 14.

28 Bob Smizik, “Willie Makes Nellie’s Night Near-Perfect,” Pittsburgh Press, August 23, 1972: 64. In his autobiography, Stargell remembered struggling at first base during this part of his career. “At that time, I wasn’t a very good defensive first-baseman anyway,” he wrote. “I’d been mostly an outfielder throughout my professional career and hadn’t really been given enough time to reacquaint myself with first base. At times I felt like a pinball machine at first base, the way balls bounced off me.” Stargell returned to first full-time in 1975 and was named NL co-MVP as a first baseman in 1979. Willie Stargell and Tom Bird, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 160.

29 Frizzell, “Giant Hit Tainted.”

30 Marichal made only two more starts over the remainder of the season. His 16 losses in 1972 were the most of his career; his ERA+ of 94 meant that his earned-run average was worse than league average for only the third time in what turned out to be 14 seasons in San Francisco. He had back surgery soon after the Giants’ final game in October. “Juan, Jim Ray in Fine Fettle,” Oakland Tribune, October 11, 1972: 42E.

31 Over his career, Bonds hit .314 against Briles in 70 at-bats, with five home runs.

32 Stennett became a full-time infielder after the 1972 season and remained there for the rest of his 11-year career. Of his 48 major-league games in the outfield, 41 were in 1972. Bob Smizik, “Stennett May Star in Short Story,” Pittsburgh Press, April 15, 1973: D-3.

33 Frizzell, “Giant Hit Tainted.” A member of the Pirates’ bullpen who watched from behind the fence, pitcher Bob Miller, concurred that the ball was going to clear the fence if Stennett did not catch it. Walter, “Giants Rout Bucs, 8-0.”

34 Smizik, “Willie Makes Nellie’s Night Near-Perfect.”

35 Bob Smizik, “Pirates Quietly Celebrate ‘Dynasty’: Win over Mets Clinches Third Straight East Title,” Pittsburgh Press, September 22, 1972: 26.

36 Bob Smizik, “Mets Medicine Man Matlack Stops Pirates,” Pittsburgh Press, July 28, 1972: 23; Bob Smizik, “Loss to Mets Tough on Briles,” Pittsburgh Press, September 19, 1972: 34; Charley Feeney, “Seaver Stops Clemente, Bucs,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 30, 1972: 8.

37 Bob Smizik, “Pirates Panamanians Prove Point,” Pittsburgh Press, October 10, 1972: 30.

38 Smizik, “Willie Makes Nellie’s Night Near-Perfect.”

Additional Stats

Pittsburgh Pirates 1
San Francisco Giants 0

Candlestick Park
San Francisco, CA


Box Score + PBP:

Corrections? Additions?

If you can help us improve this game story, contact us.


1970s ·