The American League East was muddled in mid-May in 1973: six teams, each under .500, all bunched within a game and a half one another.
The New York Yankees, at 15-17, were in third place, percentage points ahead of the Boston Red Sox and trailing the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers by a half-game as the Yankees prepared to host the Brewers on a drizzly Thursday night, May 17.
The Yankees were marking the 50th anniversary of their storied stadium, and Yankee Stadium was scheduled to undergo a massive facelift at the end of the year, one so immense that it would move the Bronx Bombers to Shea Stadium in Queens for the next two years.
Nostalgia was not luring people to Yankee Stadium. To date, half of their 16 gate openings that season had drawn fewer than 10,000 fans.
The crowd for the game against the Brewers this night was just as sparse; barely 7,000 fans attended, and those who came wore heavy clothes to combat the cold and off-and-on rain. Perhaps a number of these people bailed out before the end, drawn to warmer quarters or frustrated by the team’s lack of offense. Those who stayed were rewarded with a memorable ending.
Both starting pitchers had won-lost records of 3-1 and earned-run averages under 3.00: Jim Colborn for Milwaukee and rookie George “Doc” Medich for New York. Medich was in a jam from the first pitch of the game, which Tim Johnson bunted; Medich threw the ball away for a two-base error. Don Money tried to sacrifice but popped out. Johnson went to third on a groundout by Dave May but was stranded when George Scott grounded out to end the inning.
Medich survived a 27-pitch second that included a walk and wild pitch, but he was immediately in trouble in the third when Pedro Garcia led off with a triple. One out later May singled Garcia home, and the Brewers had a 1-0 lead that held up thanks to a strong outing by Colborn.
The Brewers’ right-hander scattered four hits through five innings and then retired the rest of the hitters through the eighth inning. Medich had also settled in, putting down eight Milwaukee batters in a row before Darrell Porter homered with one out in the top of the ninth.
Now down 2-0, the Yankees had the top part of the order starting the bottom of the ninth. However, when Roy White flied out and Matty Alou grounded out, even the most optimistic of those who remained were losing hope.
Bobby Murcer at least gave the fans a reason to cheer with a first-pitch home run deep into the bleachers in right-center field. Ron Blomberg drilled the next pitch down the line in right and, nursing a pulled muscle in his leg, hobbled into second. The Yankees argued that Thomas had thrown his glove at the ball and that Blomberg should have been awarded third, but first-base umpire Nestor Chylak didn’t agree.
Nevertheless, the Yankees were only a base hit away from tying the game as Felipe Alou came out to run for Blomberg.
Colborn also came out. Milwaukee manager Del Crandall brought in southpaw Chris Short to face left-handed-hitting Graig Nettles, who had come into the game with a .200 batting average and had made outs his first three times up.
The tension built during the pitching change but was quickly resolved when play resumed. Nettles slapped Short’s first pitch past Garcia at second and into right. Third-base coach Dick Howser waved Alou home as Gorman Thomas charged the ball. A play at the plate seemed possible, but Thomas fumbled the ball, and Alou scored easily.
In the course of three pitches, the Yankees had tied the game. As the game went into extra innings, Lindy McDaniel took the mound for New York while Short stayed in for Milwaukee.
The Brewers loaded the bases with two out in the top of the 11th, but McDaniel got Garcia to foul out to end the threat. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Felipe Alou lined a single to left. John Briggs let the ball get past him, and Alou made it to third on the error.
Crandall came to the mound, possibly contemplating an intentional walk to Nettles combined with a pitching change to have a right-hander face Jim Ray Hart. However, Crandall stuck with Short and decided against the walk.
Nettles lined Short’s first pitch to right, beyond the pulled-in outfield and easily enough for a hit to score Alou. It turned into more as the ball carried over the fence for a game-ending two-run homer.
The 4-2 win moved New York past Milwaukee into second place and left the Yankees only a half-game behind Detroit.
Nettles, the man with the two big hits in the game, had come to the Bronx in an offseason trade with Cleveland. Outstanding with the glove at third base, Nettles also had power and finished the 1973 season with 22 home runs.
After a disastrous latter half of the 1960s, the Yankees were contending again in the 1970s. In 1973 they held first place in the East Division as late as the end of July. Although the team tailed off, New York made it back to the World Series in 1976, a year in which Nettles led the American League with 32 home runs.
Nettles played 11 seasons in New York and was a key member of the Yankees championship teams in 1977 and 1978.
His performance in this game against the Brewers exemplified his career, perhaps underrated because of a low batting average, but he was a dangerous hitter who ended up with 390 career home runs.
The author used his scorebook and memories of the game as sources for this account, along with Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. He also referred to Leonard Koppett’s game story, “Yankees Down Brewers, 4-2: Nettles Ties It in 9th and Hits Homer in 11th,” from the May 18, 1973, New York Times.