White Sox fan Dennis Zweifel decided to leave Comiskey Park early on the night of August 28, 1968, looking to pop into one of the taverns lining Halsted Street on Chicago’s Near South Side. The ballgame crowd, cheering on the performance of rookie pitcher Gerald “Jerry” Nyman, ultimately faded from Zweifel’s ears with every step he took farther from the stadium.
As he turned left down Halsted from 35th Street, however, Zweifel noticed the growing murmur of a second crowd – as if he had shut down a lawnmower, only to discover that he had stumbled upon a buzzing bees’ nest in the next instant.
The rumbling of the new throng grew more intense. Squinting down the dark asphalt, Zweifel could make out its origins. The commotion was emanating from the gate of the International Amphitheatre at 42nd Street, a nondescript structure built in 1934 as an exhibition venue for the adjacent Union Stockyards and now the home of the two-year-old Chicago Bulls basketball team. But instead of a collection of happy, entertained sports followers, the group toward which Zweifel now carefully slithered was a mob filled with anger and hostility.
At the corner of 42nd and Halsted, activists were denouncing those inside the Amphitheatre, the participants in the Democratic National Convention. Some of the protesters had marched five miles to the location from their main downtown rendezvous point, the entrance to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, the conventioneers’ place of lodging, across the street from Grant Park. The scene outside the hotel turned ugly with each passing hour, with those already in front of the Amphitheatre at the time of Nyman’s first pitch having eluded a war zone that escalated throughout the night. “The principal clash of the police and a portion of the 5,000 demonstrators still around the hotel area came around 8:00 p.m.,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “when demonstrators blocked Michigan Avenue at Balbo Drive.”1
Zweifel had been one of just over 10,000 attendees at Comiskey Park largely unaware of the events taking place throughout the city while the White Sox were hosting the New York Yankees. The Yankees entered the night with an even 65-65 record and the unusual standing – for them – of sixth place in the American League. The White Sox, meanwhile at 27 games back, were struggling to stay out of the cellar at 55-77, just four games ahead of the last-place Washington Senators.
Pressure was being heaped on Yankees manager Ralph Houk to make a late-season charge. The team had spent three straight seasons in the second division, a nearly unprecedented performance that included a last-place finish in 1967– the first time the franchise found itself at the very bottom since 1912.
That night the Yankees’ frustration would only continue.
“Understandably fatigued after playing nine games in five days,” wrote Leonard Koppett in the New York Times, “the Yankees had thoroughly as unsuccessful a time in Chicago tonight as the peace-plank doves inside the Democratic convention and the chanting yippies in Grant Park.”2
A week earlier, Nyman had been elevated from the minors to take the roster spot of Joe Horlen, who was sidelined with a bad back. Nyman, a Mormon and one of eight children of a Utah chicken farmer, had been “only a fringe member of the Brigham Young University baseball team,” the Tribune disclosed, “and recalled that he had to constantly check the list to see if he’d been cut from the squad in 1963 and 1964.”3 At a Dodgers tryout in the summer of 1964, he was told to “forget about baseball.”4 Nonetheless, he refused to give up; and before returning to Utah, he attended one more audition in California with the White Sox and was signed. “I got a small bonus, but I’d have taken anything,” Nyman said.5
Nyman had made his major-league debut four days earlier against the Twins, pitching two-thirds if an inning of relief in the second game of a doubleheader at Comiskey in which he allowed a double and a walk with one strikeout in a 9-1 Minnesota romp. He had been summoned from Honolulu in the Pacific Coast League, where he beat the crosstown Cubs’ Tacoma team for his seventh win of the summer before leaving or Chicago with a 3.09 ERA. “Nyman is small as pitchers go,” Tribune sportswriter Richard Dozer informed his readers of the new arrival. “He’s 5-10, weighs only 163, and says he needs a lot of milkshakes to keep his weight even that high.”6
With a team batting average of .212 heading into the game against Nyman, the Yankees – characteristic of many clubs that season – had been kept afloat by their pitching staff. One of the leaders was the evening’s starter, Mel Stottlemyre, going after win number 18 and entering the game with a 2.49 ERA after two straight complete-game wins against the Twins and the Detroit Tigers.
Striding to the hill, Nyman was almost overcome with jitters after seeing Mickey Mantle in the visitors’ dugout, with the star toiling in his final major-league season. “The young lefthander candidly admitted that he undertook last night’s emergency project with fear in his heart,” Dozer wrote, “and was completely awed by facing Mantle and company – a team which he revealed had been the longtime favorite of his dad.”7
Horace Clarke opened the game with an infield hit, and Nyman nervously walked Mantle two batters later. Next was the Yankees’ leading hitter, Roy White, but Nyman got him to tap a soft grounder back to the mound. Suddenly feeling as though he really belonged in the majors, Nyman pounced on the ball and sent Mantle back to the dugout by firing a strike to Luis Aparicio at second who relayed to first baseman Tommy McCraw to complete the double play.
The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third, when Nyman led off in his first big league at-bat. He jumped on a Stottlemyre pitch and rocketed a single off the glove of the Yankees’ 27-year-old rookie third baseman Bobby Cox.
Luis Aparicio bunted Nyman to second, then the inexperienced baserunner stopped at third when Sandy Alomar looped a single to center field that could have scored him. But Tommy Davis then lined a hit to center, allowing the rookie pitcher to trot home with the game’s first run. McCraw and Walt Williams followed with hits as well, and the White Sox had staked Nyman to a 3-0 lead.
It was more than the novice hurler would need.
By the time Mantle led off the ninth, the 3-0 score held up as only two Yankees had reached second base. Nyman was jolted when Mantle started the ninth by pulling a sharp single to left; but White followed by skidding a double-play ball once again, this time to Alomar at second. And when Andy Kosco bounced a ball to Pete Ward at third, Nyman had shut out one of baseball’s legendary franchises in his first start, in a game that lasted 1 hour and 55 minutes.
Producing 18 outs on grounders, Nyman credited catcher Jerry McNertney with calling a terrific game behind the plate – while the backstop affirmed that Nyman had shaken him off only once during the evening. “I had a better fastball in the last three or four innings,” Nyman said. “It had zip on it.”8
Around the time the White Sox were converging on the pitcher’s mound to congratulate Nyman, Hubert H. Humphrey was receiving the Democratic nomination for president of the United States on the delegates’ first vote inside the Amphitheatre.
Nyman would rarely again soar to such heights. He won only once in five starts in September, struggled to stay in the rotation in 1969 (despite a one-hit shutout in his first start that season), and was out of the majors after a brief stint with the San Diego Padres in 1970 before embarking on a long career in coaching. Even so, his grand entrance onto the big-league stage would always be coupled with one of the more historic – yet infamous – nights in Chicago history.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:
1 “Scores Hurt in Battle on Michigan Av.,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1968: 1, 1.
2 Leonard Koppett, “White Sox Down Yanks, 3-0,” New York Times, August 29, 1968: 47.
3 “Gerry Got to Majors Hard Way,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1968: 3, 8.
6 Richard Dozer, “Nyman Wins 1st Start in Majors, 3-0,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1968: 3, 8.