On July 14 the Cincinnati Reds hosted the Houston Astros for a Sunday doubleheader between two teams going nowhere fast. The day before, Cincinnati lost to the San Francisco Giants, 8-1, to fall to 42-42, good for fifth place and a 12½-game deficit behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals. The Astros fell to the Cards 5-4 and strengthened their hold on last place at 36-51, 20 games off the pace.
The Reds were loaded with offensive talent that paced the league in runs, hits, doubles, average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and total bases, and led all of baseball at 4.2 runs per game. The Astros were weak on offense and defense, ranking eighth in runs per game and last in defensive efficiency,1 and their pitching was seventh worst in the National League in runs allowed per game, but they boasted the highest strikeout total.
Game one at Crosley Field saw Houston edge Cincinnati, 5-4, behind the pitching of five relievers who tossed six scoreless innings in relief of starter Dave Giusti, and the hitting of Denis Menke, who went 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI, and scored the winning run on a double by catcher Ron Brand in the top of the 10th inning.
Astros flamethrower Don Wilson got the ball in the second tilt and was opposed by 27-year-old journeyman left-hander Gerry Arrigo, who was in his eighth big-league season. At only 23 years old Wilson had flashes of brilliance mixed with maddening inconsistency through his first 50 major-league appearances since his debut on September 29, 1966. In his second major-league start, a late-April 1967 tilt against the Reds at the Houston Astrodome, he faced five batters, allowed four runs on five singles, and was yanked from the game.
But Wilson rebounded nicely and by mid-June had repaired his ERA thanks in part to a complete game against the Giants on June 14, in which he struck out a then career-high 13 batters, followed by a masterful performance against the Atlanta Braves on June 18, in which he fanned 15 and tossed the first no-hitter of his career. Wilson finished his first full season at only 10-9 but with a 2.79 ERA that almost cracked the top 10 in the National League, and 7.78 strikeouts per nine innings that was good for fourth in the circuit.
A magazine called Sports Stars of 1968: Baseball predicted that Wilson would be one of the stars of the ’70s and for good reason.2 Astros manager Grady Hatton insisted Wilson had the best high fastball in the league3 and called him “young, strong and eager.”4 Bill James wrote later that Wilson’s fastball had “fantastic movement – sometimes diving, sometimes sailing, sometimes breaking sharply,”5 and former major-league hurler Dick Bosman swore that Wilson’s fastball “actually went up on the way to the plate.”6
But as the 1968 season unfolded, the powerful right-hander began losing confidence in his best pitch.7 From April 11 to July 6, Wilson went 5-11 with a 4.32 ERA and his K/9 was 6.2, down 21 percent from the year before. In fact, he’d fanned more than five batters in a game only three times, registering a season-best nine against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 6.
Arrigo, a Chicago native, began his career in the White Sox organization before ending up in Minnesota, where he pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the Twins until 1964. The next three years found him pitching for the Reds, New York Mets, and Reds again before he earned a rotation spot in 1968.
In eight years Arrigo went only 19-20 with a 4.29 ERA in 133 games, but was enjoying a resurgence as a starter in 1968, although his won-lost record betrayed his effectiveness. He was only 4-4 going into his start against Wilson and the Astros but boasted a 2.77 ERA in just over 100 innings. Thanks to the July 8-10 All-Star break, neither man had pitched since July 7, Arrigo taking the mound with six days’ rest and Wilson with seven.
Arrigo struggled a bit in the top of the first but escaped unscathed – he fanned Dick Simpson to begin the game, then walked Hector Torres, who promptly stole second; Rusty Staub hit a foul pop to third for the second out; Jim Wynn walked to put runners on first and second, but Menke flied out to left to end the threat.
Wilson and catcher John Bateman devised a simple but effective strategy before the hurler took the mound. “We didn’t pitch to spots,” Bateman explained after the game. “We just let it out. I just sat in the middle of the plate and let him throw.”8
Wilson struck out first baseman Jim Beauchamp looking to lead off the Reds first, but walked Alex Johnson and tossed a wild pitch with Lee May at the plate that sent Johnson to second. Before inconsistency could rear its ugly head, however, Wilson struck out May and Tony Perez to end the inning. Arrigo had little trouble in the top of the second and retired Bob Aspromonte, then coaxed a double-play grounder off Bateman’s bat after a walk to Doug Rader.
Wilson continued to let it out and whiffed Vada Pinson, Hal McRae, and Pat Corrales in the second, then fanned himself against Arrigo in the top of the third before Simpson homered to give Houston a 1-0 lead. Arrigo retired Torres and Staub, and the game went to the bottom of the third, where history was made.
Reds shortstop Leo Cardenas struck out to lead off the frame; Arrigo struck out as well, then Beauchamp was called out on strikes for the second time, giving Wilson eight straight strikeouts and a share of the record set by Milwaukee Braves righty Max Surkont on May 25, 1953, and tied by Johnny Podres of the Dodgers in 1962 and Jim Maloney of the Reds in 1963.9
After a scoreless top of the fourth, Wilson’s streak was snapped when Johnson singled to right field to lead off the bottom of the inning. May followed with a base hit to center that sent Johnson to third, then the Reds knotted the score when May and Johnson pulled off a delayed double steal, the former ending up at third on Bateman’s throwing error. But Wilson retired Perez, Pinson, and McRae, who fanned and gave the Astros flamethrower 10 punchouts in only four innings.
The Astros struck back and plated two more in the top of the fifth when Simpson reached on an error by Cardenas, went to second on a single by Torres, and came home on Wynn’s hit to right. Menke was intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a potential double play, but Aspromonte singled to center to drive in Torres, which extended Houston’s lead to 3-1 and knocked Arrigo from the game. Jay Ritchie retired Rader and Bateman to finally get out of the inning, but for all intents and purposes the game was over.
Wilson recorded three more strikeouts in the bottom of the fifth, another in the sixth, and two more in the seventh to give him 16. He admitted later that he was aware of how many strikeouts he’d piled up because teammates Lee Thomas and Nate Colbert were keeping track from the bench.10 In fact, Wilson implored Doug Rader to drop Johnny Bench’s foul popup in the seventh so he’d have a chance to strike him out instead. Rader ignored the young hurler and caught the ball for the second out of the inning.11
Rain began to fall before the Astros pushed another run across in the eighth against reliever Bob Lee on a single, error, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk, and a Torres bunt that plated Rader. Wilson retired the Reds in order in the bottom of the inning but failed to record a strikeout, getting Chico Ruiz, pinch-hitter Fred Whitfield, and Alex Johnson on groundouts.
Houston tacked on two more in the ninth thanks to a free pass to Wynn, a run-scoring double by Menke, a single by Rader, and a sacrifice fly by Bateman. With Lee May, Vada Pinson, and Tony Perez due up for the Reds in the bottom of the ninth Wilson had a chance to establish a new strikeout record. Despite the steady rain and Houston’s five-run lead, the umpires let the game continue.
Wilson fanned May for strikeout number 17 before surrendering a double to Perez. Then Pinson did the unthinkable and bunted with one out, a runner on second, and a five-run deficit, irritating the Astros hurler to no end.12 Now he had only one chance to tie the record and he’d have to do it against 20-year-old rookie catcher and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Bench proved to be no match for Wilson, however, and took a called strike three to end the game and give Wilson a share of the record first set by Bob Feller in 1938, then matched by Sandy Koufax, who did it in 1959 and again in 1962.
“If I threw as many as 180 pitches out there today, 155 of them were fastballs,” Wilson said after the game. “This restores my confidence.”13
This article was published in “Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: A Gem in the Queen City” (SABR, 2018), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com:
1 Defensive Efficiency is a measure of the percentage of balls in play converted into outs.
2 “Stars of the ’70s,” Sports Stars of 1968 – Baseball, Spring 1968.
3 The Sporting News, January 27, 1968.
4 New York Times, March 20, 1968.
5 Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches (New York: Fireside, 2004). 428-429.
6 Email interview with Dick Bosman.
7 The Sporting News, July 28, 1968.
8 The Sporting News, July 28, 1968.
9 Ibid. The record has since been topped a handful of times, including on April 22, 1970, when Mets ace Tom Seaver set the record by striking out 10 San Diego Padres consecutively from the last out of the top of the sixth inning to the final out of the top of the ninth. Bateman also tied a record with nine putouts in the first three innings.
10 The Sporting News, July 28, 1968.
13 Ibid. Wilson made 14 starts after his record-tying performance and was brilliant, going 7-5 with a 2.40 ERA in 97⅔ innings, and fanning eight batters per nine innings.