As Roberto Clemente’s career was entering its twilight period, a Puerto Rican prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system was drawing rave reviews from the future Hall of Famer. Though the prospect was traded to the Oakland Athletics in a controversial swap in 1970, he never forgot the lessons Clemente taught him in Pittsburgh, and on one July night in 1971, Angel Mangual drew from that mentorship to thrill the weary-eyed fans at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium.
On a 2-and-2 count in the bottom of the 20th inning, Mangual did his best Clemente impression and poked an opposite-field RBI single to right to end the longest scoreless game in American League history around 1:08 A.M. Had the 24-year-old rookie made an out, the game, which started on July 9 and lasted 5 hours, 5 minutes into the early-morning hours of July 10, would have been suspended because of the AL’s curfew rule, which prevented new innings from beginning after 1 A.M. Instead, the Athletics walked away with a 1-0 win over the California Angels, who added another discouraging chapter to a bizarre stretch of baseball.
“I try to hit the ball to right field all the time,” said Mangual. “Clemente told me that you can see the ball better if you do that.”1
“It was too close to take,” Mangual added of the game’s final pitch. “I was lucky. I was tired and just trying to make contact, that’s all. I stuck out my bat and the ball fell in.”2
Mangual’s single was just the seventh hit for the Athletics in a game that started as a strikeout duel between Oakland’s Vida Blue and California’s Rudy May before turning into a grueling marathon of fortitude that captured the soul of the Angels’ Tony Conigliaro – who was ejected in the 19th inning after striking out for the fifth time and called a press conference four hours later to announce his retirement at age 26.
Curt Blefary was hit by a pitch to open the 20th for Oakland, and after Mike Epstein fouled out, Dick Green singled to left to give the A’s a runner in scoring position for the first time since they left the bases loaded in the 14th. Pitcher Catfish Hunter entered as a pinch-hitter3 and struck out to send Mangual to the plate.
As Mangual’s hit looped into right, Blefary focused on ending the game.
“I knew the ball would fall in,” said Blefary, not known as a speedster on the basepaths. “It was just a matter of me beating the throw home.”4
As the Athletics – and what was left of a crowd of 22,938 – celebrated their series-opening victory, which improved their AL-best record to 55-29, the Angels slumped to their hotel after playing for the 19th time over 17 straight days. Conigliaro’s ejection was another misadventure for a team still reeling from the suspension of 1970 AL batting champion Alex Johnson, who was sent home on June 26 for “failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games with which he is concerned”5 and never played for the Angels again. He departed with a fiery message: “I’ve got to leave this club. Going to hell would be an improvement.”6
Conigliaro – who never fully recovered from getting hit in the face by a pitch in August 1967 – struck out while trying to bunt with two strikes and broke into a wild fit of frustration. After arguing at home plate, he threw his batting helmet into the air and struck it with his bat some 50 to 60 feet down the first-base line. He was ejected by first-base umpire George Maloney.
“I almost lost my mind out there in the field tonight,” Conigliaro said during a 5 A.M. press conference at the Edgewater-Hyatt House, where he announced his retirement. “When I came back to the room. I was twitching and my stomach was in knots. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s something that had to be done or I’d be in a straitjacket with the rest of the nuts. I was on the ledge tonight.”7
The Angels won two of the next three games to salvage a series split and finish a weeklong road trip with a 5-2 mark, a positive blip among the carnage. Still, they faced a 42-50 record at the All-Star break and weren’t able to play any better in the second half on the way to a 76-86 record and a finish 25½ games behind Oakland.
“I can’t think of a manager who has had it tougher than Lefty has and I can’t think of a man who might have done a better job,” said Angels owner Gene Autry in early August. “We lost a player [Johnson] we thought would repeat as the league batting champion. We lost a player [Conigliaro] who hit 36 home runs last year. We’ve been without a guy who is as good as any shortstop in the league [Jim Fregosi, a six-time All-Star who missed 24 games between July 7 and August 4 with a foot injury]. I think that in his patience, Lefty has shown a lot of the characteristics of a Walter Alston.”9
Before the late-game excitement, the game had all the markers of a classic pitching duel.
Blue, less than three weeks from his 22nd birthday, came into his second straight start against the Angels seeking his 18th victory of the season. Five days earlier, he had earned the win in a 2-1 victory over California in what he described as “the toughest game of the year,” in front of an Anaheim Stadium-record crowd of 44,631.10 May likewise was coming off a grinding win over the Athletics. One day after Blue’s start, May got his season back on track, picking up his first win since May 8 by defeating Oakland 2-1 on July 5.11
Over the first 11 innings on July 9, Blue recorded a career-high 17 strikeouts, while May went 12 innings and matched his career best with 13 strikeouts.12 They became the first pair of starters to each strike out at least 13 hitters in the same game since September 1964,13 and the first set of AL starters to do so since September 1906.14 During the game, the Angels struck out a major-league record 26 times,15 while the Athletics added another 17 to set the since-broken big-league record of 43 total combined strikeouts.
Blue – the eventual AL All-Star Game starter, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Award winner – fell one shy of the franchise’s single-game strikeout record after throwing 129 pitches, and his 188 total strikeouts were already the second-most in a season by an Athletics pitcher since they left Philadelphia after the 1954 season.16 California’s Billy Cowan, who was platooning with Tony Gonzalez after Johnson’s suspension, tied the dubious major-league record by striking out six times in the game.
The Angels produced the game’s first scoring threat in sixth when Jerry Moses hit a leadoff double and moved to third on a one-out single by Sandy Alomar. Alomar stole second, but Blue struck out Ken Berry and Conigliaro to end the inning. Oakland’s offense didn’t stir until the bottom of the ninth. Reggie Jackson drew a leadoff walk and stole second. After Tommy Davis flied out, the Angels intentionally walked Sal Bando, but May struck out Dave Duncan and pinch-hitter Gene Tenace to send the game to extra innings.
The A’s threatened again in the 14th against reliever Eddie Fisher, who got two outs before Davis singled and stole second and Bando was intentionally walked. Blefary pinch-hit and walked to load the bases, but Epstein, also a pinch-hitter, grounded out to extend the game.
All but two of the next 24 batters recorded outs – which helped A’s reliever Rollie Fingers extend his scoreless innings streak to 29 – as the game carried into its 19th inning. Berry and Ken McMullen both singled for California in the 19th off Bob Locker, but were stranded when new reliever Darold Knowles struck out Jim Spencer. Six straight outs followed to set up Oakland’s rally in the bottom of the 20th, which left the 23 innings of scoreless play between the Mets and Astros from 1968 as the longest drought in major-league history.
Mangual poked the game-winning hit four days after he failed in the clutch with two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the ninth of the 2-1 loss to the Angels on July 5. His heroics were a welcome sight for fans still disappointed by the September 1970 trade that sent veteran pitcher Mudcat Grant from Oakland to Pittsburgh.17
“It’s true, you want the fans to get emotionally involved with the players, and they do. I know I was criticized for trading a Mudcat Grant, for instance, but now the fans know what we got for him in Angel Mangual, who is going to develop into quite a ball player,” said Oakland owner Charlie Finley, who called Mangual in the clubhouse after the game with an offer to buy him a $200 suit. “The thing is, he and every player on this ball club are capable of coming through on a given day, and every one of them has done it. I’d like to think we knew what we were doing.”18
As exciting of a moment as it was for Mangual, he cracked one of his ribs on the swing. After attempting to play the next day, he was pulled after one inning, and soon thereafter went on the disabled list until August 1. The Athletics went on to win 101 games and make the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1931 by winning the AL West Division.19
Mangual had a hand in that success. After returning from injury, he played in 43 of Oakland’s final 58 games, and he finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He collected two extra-base hits during the AL Championship Series, showing the kind of promise that Clemente knew he had discovered in his native Puerto Rico several years earlier.
“He talked to the Pittsburgh organization and they signed me in 1966. As soon as they signed me, he started working with me on my hitting,” Mangual said. “He told me to get a heavy lead bat and swing it for 15 minutes every day. Clemente told me I had a lot of ability to be a good ballplayer.”20
This article was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent materials and the box scores. He also used information obtained from coverage from numerous California newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune, and other regional newspapers.
1 Ron Bergman, “A’s Mangual Called Little Clemente,” The Sporting News, July 10, 1971: 8.
2 Glenn Schwarz, “A Game Only 1 Angel Liked,” San Francisco Examiner, July 10, 1971: 25.
5 “It is tragic that a player of his talent has not applied himself,” general manager Dick Walsh added. “We waited this long in hopes of salvaging the individual. I have exhausted my patience.” Associated Press, “Angels Suspend Johnson,” Fresno (California) Bee, June 27, 1971: B2.
6 Don Merry, “Alex: ‘Hell Better Than California’” Long Beach (California) Press-Telegram, June 23, 1971: C1.
7 Ron Rapoport, “Tony C. Fearful of Losing Mind, Quits Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1971: C1.
8 Ron Bergman, “Pick-up A’s Lose, 3-0,” Oakland Tribune, July 11, 1971: 37.
9 Ross Newhan, “Ratliff Home Run Stalls Angels, 2-0,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1971: Part III. Nevertheless, Phillips and general manager Dick Walsh were ousted after the season. Phillips became a scout, but he died of an asthma attack on June 12, 1972, at age 53.
10 Associated Press, “Vida Labels 17th Win ‘My Toughest Game,’” Fresno (California) Bee, July 5, 1971.
11 The win came in May’s fifth start back after missing almost a month with a fractured right wrist he suffered when he tripped over his dog on May 24.
12 May had established his career high on April 21, 1971, over the first nine innings of a 13-inning, 4-2 loss to Oakland. He later struck out 16 batters on August 10, 1972, in a 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
15 Through the 2021 season, the record has been matched four times, by the 2004 Milwaukee Brewers (in a loss to the Angels), the 2017 Chicago Cubs (in a win over the New York Yankees), the 2017 Brewers (in a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers), and the 2019 Atlanta Braves (in a loss to the New York Mets).
16 Catfish Hunter had 196 strikeouts in 1967 for the Kansas City A’s, but Blue blew away that mark with 301 strikeouts for Oakland in 1971. That tally remains the modern team record and third all-time in franchise history. (Rube Waddell had 349 in 1904 and 302 in 1903 for Philadelphia.)
17 Mangual was the player to be named later in the deal and went to the A’s on October 20, 1970. He had heightened expectations after winning Player of the Year honors in 1969 in the Eastern League, and had a solid season in 1970 at Triple A, posting a .281 batting average, 20 home runs, and 87 RBIs in 135 games for the Columbus Jets. At the major-league level, he was blocked by Roberto Clemente, who told him when the trade was completed that it would be beneficial. “When I got traded, Clemente told me it would be better because there was no room at Pittsburgh,” Mangual said. “He told me that I had a better chance in Oakland.” Bergman, “A’s Mangual Called Little Clemente.”
18 George Ross, “One Eye on Moon,” July 11, 1971: 37.
19 Oakland was swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Championship Series, but won the World Series the next three seasons.
20 Bergman, “A’s Mangual Called Little Clemente.”