Many baseball fans are familiar with the story of Armando Galarraga’s lost perfect game in 2010.1 In the days before instant replays were used to review close plays at first base, an honest mistake by umpire Jim Joyce with two out in the ninth inning was all that separated Galarraga from perfection.
What is less well known is that more than a century earlier, George “Hooks” Wiltse suffered a similar fate — except that the umpire’s error denied him a 10-inning perfect game. Still, the New York Giants southpaw recovered to complete the first extra-inning no-hitter of the twentieth century and record one of the greatest pitching performances in baseball history.2
John McGraw’s squad had high hopes of reclaiming the National League pennant in 1908 from the two-time defending champion Chicago Cubs.3 The Giants’ record stood at a disappointing 23-23 on June 12 before the team caught fire and won 16 of its next 21 games to get back in the race. They came into their Independence Day doubleheader against the Phillies at the Polo Grounds trailing the league-leading Pirates by three games. The powerful Cubs, led by Mordecai Brown and Joe Tinker, were only 1½ games behind the Bucs.
Wiltse, who had raised his record to 9-8 by winning his three previous outings, got the start for New York in the morning affair. The curveball specialist had set a record in 1904 by winning his first 12 decisions in the big leagues.4 Four years later, he had overtaken a fading “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity as the Giants’ number-two starter behind the great Christy Mathewson. Wiltse and Mathewson both enjoyed career years in 1908; Matty went 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA, while Wiltse was 23-14 with a 2.24 ERA.5
The fifth-place Phillies countered with their ace, George McQuillan (11-8). The 23-year-old right-hander was on his way to winning 23 games in his first full season in the majors. He posted 8.9 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) in 1908, surpassing every National League pitcher other than Mathewson and Brown.6
Wiltse had his work cut out for him on this day. The heart of the Philadelphia lineup was made up of John Titus, Sherry Magee, and Kitty Bransfield, all of whom finished in the Top 10 in the NL batting race despite playing their home games in the Baker Bowl, which played as a pitchers’ park that season.7 Bransfield was one of just five .300 hitters in the entire league that season. The number-six batter, center fielder Fred Osborn, was also a well-above-average hitter in 1908.8
In theory at least, the Phillies hitters were far more dangerous at the Polo Grounds than at home. The wooden ballpark in Coogan’s Hollow, originally known as Brotherhood Park, had opened in 1890 for the Giants team that played in the Players’ League.9 With its distinctive horseshoe shape, it was the most extreme hitters’ park (for hits) in the National League in 1908.10 The park’s dimensions were 258 feet to right field, 277 feet to left, and a colossal 500 feet to straightaway center field.
But the hitter-friendly Polo Grounds was of no benefit to the Phillies in this game, as Wiltse used his side-arm delivery to cut through their batting lineup like a hot knife through butter. After retiring the first nine men in order, Wiltse faced Philadelphia third baseman Eddie Grant to open the top of the fourth inning. Grant hit a line drive that right fielder Turkey Mike Donlin flagged down with a nice running catch.11 It was the closest the Phillies came to a hit all game. Wiltse, one of the best-fielding pitchers of his era, took care of two other difficult chances himself.12
New York’s potent offense failed to get on the scoreboard despite five leadoff singles in the first six innings, and the game remained scoreless. From the sixth inning on, the 8,000 fans in attendance were mesmerized by Wiltse’s quest for a perfect game.13 According to Sporting Life, “they cheered him on inning by inning, the volume growing apace with the progress of the game.”14
Featuring “superb control and blinding speed,” Wiltse retired the first 26 Phillies in a row.15 With two out in the top of the ninth inning and the game still scoreless, Wiltse faced McQuillan, a weak-hitting pitcher. On a 1-and-2 count, the Giants hurler threw a curveball that started outside and broke sharply to “cut the heart out of the plate.”16 McQuillan, thinking he had just watched strike three go by, began to walk away from home plate.17
But umpire Cy Rigler, normally an excellent judge of balls and strikes, called it a ball.18 Even the Philadelphia Inquirer admitted Wiltse had “fanned” McQuillan.19 The at-bat continued. The very next pitch from Wiltse hit McQuillan in the shoulder, and the perfect game was no more. The next batter, Grant, grounded out to end the inning and keep the no-hitter intact.
Donlin reached on a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth, but he was stranded on the basepaths, forcing the game into extra innings. Wiltse returned to the mound for the 10th and quickly disposed of Otto Knabe, Titus, and Magee in order.
Art Devlin opened the bottom of the 10th with a clean single to left field.20 The next batter, light-hitting Spike Shannon, laid down a bunt that Grant threw over first baseman Bransfield’s head for an error, putting runners on second and third with nobody out.
Philadelphia manager Billy Murray brought his infield in. Al Bridwell followed with a hot smash that got away from shortstop Ernie Courtney, and Devlin scampered home with the winning run.21 The enthusiastic crowd rushed the field and cheered for nearly five minutes.22 The Evening World predicted that the game “will go down in history as one of the greatest events of the diamond.”23
Wiltse had recorded the first walk-off no-hitter of the twentieth century.24 The 28-year-old moundsman retired 30 of 31 batters, with the only runner reaching base on a hit-by-pitch immediately following the missed strike-three call by Rigler. The respected arbiter, who was named NL chief of umpires in 1935, acknowledged that he made the wrong call. “Every time I saw Charlie Rigler after that he gave me a cigar,” Wiltse recalled in 1953. “He admits (the disputed ball) was one of the pitches he missed.”25
Only four days earlier, 41-year-old Cy Young had pitched a no-hitter in which just one New York Highlanders baserunner — the leadoff batter in the bottom of the first — had reached base. Incredibly, Wiltse topped Young’s third career no-hitter by allowing only one baserunner in 10 innings. As of the end of the 2020 season, Wiltse remained the only National, American, or Federal League pitcher dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century to throw an extra-inning no-hitter without walking a batter.
The Giants, Cubs, and Pirates continued to battle for the remainder of the 1908 season in one of the most exciting pennant races in National League history. The season ended with New York and Chicago tied atop the standings and Pittsburgh only a half game back. The following day, the Cubs clinched their third consecutive pennant by defeating New York in a thrilling one-game playoff. Giants fans couldn’t help but look back on the “Merkle Boner” against the Cubs on September 23 and wonder whether it had cost their team the pennant. Incidentally, the first-base coach when Fred Merkle neglected to touch second base was none other than Hooks Wiltse.26
Wiltse may have missed out on a World Series appearance in 1908, but he still had his spectacular near-perfect game on Independence Day. Given the strength of the Philadelphia lineup, the hitter-friendly nature of the Polo Grounds, and the fact that the only batter to reach base in 10 innings was on a hit-by-pitch immediately following a missed strikeout call, it’s reasonable to come to the following conclusion: Between 1901 and 2020, Hooks Wiltse tossed the greatest regular-season no-hitter in the National, American, or Federal Leagues.27
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers retired the first 26 Cleveland batters he faced. The 27th batter of the game, Jason Donald, hit a groundball in the hole to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who threw to Galarraga covering first. Video replays showed that Donald was clearly out, but first-base umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. The official scorer had no choice but to rule it an infield single, breaking up the perfect game and no-hitter. The next batter, Trevor Crowe, grounded out to end the game.
2 According to Retrosheet and Baseball Reference, as of January 2021, the only previous extra-inning no-hitter in the big leagues was thrown in the American Association by Sam Kimber of Brooklyn against Toledo on October 4, 1884. The game ended in a scoreless tie when it was called on account of darkness. As of the end of the 2020 season, three other extra-inning no-hitters had been thrown by Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds against the Chicago Cubs on May 2, 1917; Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds against the Chicago Cubs on August 19, 1965; and Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon of the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Houston Astros on July 12, 1997. All the extra-inning no-hitters were 10 innings in duration.
3 The Cubs lost the 1906 World Series to the Chicago White Sox. They defeated the Detroit Tigers in the 1907 World Series.
4 Wiltse’s record was tied 72 years later by reliever Butch Metzger. Metzger’s 12 wins were split across three seasons (1974-76) with the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. As of the end of the 2020 season, no other National, American, or Federal League pitcher (dating back to 1901) had won the first 12 decisions of his career.
5 Mathewson and Wiltse combined to pitch 720⅔ innings and record the win in 60 of the Giants’ 98 victories. As of the end of the 2020 season, Mathewson’s 37 wins still stood as the most wins in the National League in a single season since the start of the twentieth century.
6 Mathewson recorded 11.9 bWAR in 1908, while Brown posted 9.1 bWAR.
7 Over its history, the Baker Bowl was generally considered a hitters’ park, especially for left-handed batters. While it greatly inflated home-run numbers beginning in 1911, the Baker Bowl had a one-year park factor for hits of 96 in 1908. The Phillies hit .243 at home and .245 on the road that season. Not a single Phillies batter hit a home run at the Baker Bowl in 1908.
8 National League batters hit only .239 in 1908. Osborn hit .267 that season, but his neutralized batting average was .291. Neutralized batting averages eliminate the impact of a player’s home ballpark.
9 This facility, known precisely as “Polo Grounds IV,” was built on farmland known as Coogan’s Hollow. The ballpark burned down in April 1911 and was replaced later in the season by the steel-and-concrete version of the Polo Grounds (“Polo Grounds V”) that served as the Giants’ home until they moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season.
10 The Polo Grounds had a one-year park factor for hits of 107 in 1908 (i.e. 7 percent more hits occurred there as compared to a league-average park). South End Grounds III, home of the Boston Braves, was the most extreme hitters’ park in the National League for runs in 1908.
11 Joe Cox, Almost Perfect: The Heartbreaking Pursuit of Pitching’s Holy Grail (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2017).
12 “Wiltse’s No-Hit Game,” Sporting Life, July 11, 1908: 6.
13 “Giants Win Two from the Quakers,” New-York Tribune, July 5, 1908: 10.
14 “Wiltse’s No-Hit Game.”
15 “Wiltse’s No-Hit Game.”
16 “Giants Win Two Games,” Brooklyn Citizen, July 5, 1908: 6; Cox.
17 “Giants Win Two Games.”
19 “Wiltse Too Much for the Phillies,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 5, 1908: 24.
20 “Wiltse Too Much for the Phillies.”
21 “Wiltse Pitches a No-Hit, No-Run 10-Inning Game,” (New York) Evening World, July 4, 1908: 4; Cox. Courtney had entered the game after Philadelphia’s starting shortstop, Mickey Doolin, was ejected for grabbing umpire Rigler during an argument in the bottom of the fourth inning.
22 “Giants Win Two from the Quakers.”
23 “Wiltse Pitches a No-Hit, No-Run 10-Inning Game.”
24 From 1901 to the end of the 2020 season, there were six walk-off no-hitters in the National, American, and Federal Leagues. Aside from Wiltse’s no-hitter, the other five were thrown by Frank Smith of the Chicago White Sox against the Philadelphia Athletics on September 20, 1908; Dick Fowler of the Philadelphia Athletics against the St. Louis Browns in the second game of a doubleheader on September 9, 1945; Virgil Trucks of the Detroit Tigers against the Washington Senators on May 15, 1952; Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon of the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Houston Astros on July 12, 1997 (10 innings); and Henderson Alvarez III of the Miami Marlins against the Detroit Tigers on September 29, 2013.
26 Gabriel Schechter, “Hooks Wiltse,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/hooks-wiltse/, accessed January 29, 2021. Wiltse pitched two scoreless innings in the tiebreaker after Mathewson was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Cubs, behind Brown’s stellar 8⅓ innings of relief, won, 4-2.
27 Gary Belleville, “Who Threw the Greatest Regular-Season No-Hitter since 1901?” Baseball Research Journal 50 (Spring 2021). This Baseball Research Journal article performed an analysis of all 263 no-hitters thrown between 1901 and 2020 in the National, American, and Federal Leagues. It introduced a methodology for objectively comparing the difficulty of a no-hitter and concluded that Hooks Wiltse’s 10-inning no-hitter was the greatest regular-season no-hitter thrown in that period. The Phillies lineup that he faced had a composite batting average of .293. This composite batting average approximates the combined season batting average of the Phillies lineup had they played all their regular-season games in the Polo Grounds, with each player having the same proportion of at-bats during the season as in the no-hitter.