This article was written by John McMurray
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
The Sporting News neatly summarized the April 15, 1968, game played at the Astrodome between the New York Mets and the Houston Astros in a classic headline: “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run.”[fn]Vito Stellino, “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run,” The Sporting News, April 27, 1968.[/fn] Surely fans who attended this Monday night game could not have anticipated that they were going to witness a total of 158 at-bats but only 22 hits, 23 1?2 consecutive scoreless innings, and 39 participating players, three of whom had at least nine at-bats without a hit.
The Mets, managed by Gil Hodges, entered the early-season game with a record of 2–2, while Grady Hatton’s Houston team was 4–1. Sophomore Don Wilson of the Astros was tasked with facing Tom Seaver, who was coming off a strong and often dominant rookie season for New York. Given the quality pitching matchup, the 14,219 fans in attendance may have anticipated a low-scoring affair.
The first inning was uneventful: Wilson, with Hal King as his catcher, set down Al Weis, Ken Boswell, and Tommie Agee in order.[fn]Play-by-play of this game may be found via Baseball-Reference.com at http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/HOU/HOU196804150.shtml.[/fn] Seaver then did the same, retiring Ron Davis, Norm Miller, and Jim Wynn. The second inning, however, was pivotal. Had things gone differently, the two teams might have avoided becoming the first teams to play at least 21 innings without scoring a run.[fn]“Astros Beat Mets, 1–0, in 24 Innings!: Longest Scoreless Game Ends on Error by Weis,” Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1968.[/fn] Though the top half of the inning was scoreless, it included the first hit, a two-out single from Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool before Wilson could retire the side.
In the bottom half of the second inning, Seaver ran into the only real trouble that he would experience in the ten innings that he pitched. After Rusty Staub had flied out to right field, King doubled to left. A wild pitch moved King to third. A New York Times account described the play that followed: “Bob Aspromonte hit a sharp grounder to second. Boswell fielded it cleanly, took his time, and threw accurately to the plate. King, however, slammed into [Jerry] Grote, and although the Mets’ catcher fell, he made the tag and held the ball.”[fn]“Mets Lose in 24th, Longest Night Game,” New York Times, April 16, 1968.[/fn] Julio Gotay then popped out to end the inning.
The missed opportunity for Houston would be the last time the team would get a runner to third base until the 22nd inning. The Mets also would get a runner to third three times without scoring (in the 12th, 17th, and 19th innings).
In the top of the third inning, the Mets got a runner into scoring position in an unconventional way. With two outs, Weis—playing at shortstop in place of Bud Harrelson, who was out with a sore arm—walked, and Boswell was then able to reach base on a wild pitch with two strikes.[fn]Stellino, “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run.”[/fn] With runners on first and second, Agee was unable to deliver, flying out to right field to end the inning. After going 0-for-10 in this game, Agee’s batting average would fall from .313 to .192.[fn]“After 24-Inning Encounter, Astros, Mets Glad for Rest,” Washington Post, April 17, 1968.[/fn]
Beginning with the bottom of the third inning, the two pitchers settled into a rhythm of retiring the side with relative ease or, as Vito Stellino described it, “matched scores for what seemed like forever.”[fn]Stellino, “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run.”[/fn] Seaver retired the Houston batters in order in every inning from the third through the ninth. Wilson was less efficient, allowing a single to Art Shamsky in the fourth (and allowing him to reach second base on Wilson’s own errant pickoff throw) before retiring the side.
Oddly, in a game remembered for its lack of offense, Wilson gave up a single to Seaver in the fifth before retiring the side. Kranepool hit a leadoff single in the seventh and was sacrificed to second base before failing to advance further, even as Wilson walked Seaver in the meantime.
In spite of these blips, the Mets were never again close to scoring against Wilson, except perhaps in the ninth inning, when Kranepool reached second base with two outs, though that rally too was snuffed out by Houston. Once Lee Thomas pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the ninth inning, Wilson was out of the game, having faced 36 batters, given up five hits, and made two wild pitches. He obviously did not give up a run.
Seaver continued into the 10th inning, retiring Miller and Wynn before giving up a two-out single to Staub. Hodges left Seaver in the game with a runner on first and two outs, and the manager’s confidence was rewarded, as Seaver got King to hit a grounder which forced Staub at second to end the inning. As Joseph Durso noted in the New York Times, “Seaver…pitched ten innings this time, allowed no runs and only two hits—and still was 14 innings short of a decision.”[fn]Joseph Durso, “Mets Will Oppose Giants in Home Opener at Shea Stadium Today,” New York Times, April 17, 1968.[/fn]
In the meantime, John Buzhardt was quietly efficient in relief of Wilson, retiring the side in order in both the 10th and 11th innings, departing only when Doug Rader pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the 11th. (Rader, alas, flied to right.) Ron Taylor came in to pitch the 11th, replacing Seaver, and allowed only a single in his one inning of work.
The Mets made things interesting in the 12th against Danny Coombs, who had replaced Rader. The left-handed reliever began the inning by striking out Ed Charles, but Jerry Grote and Al Weis each singled around a Phil Linz popup, putting runners on first and second with two out. Ken Boswell then singled to load the bases, but Agee grounded out to second, thwarting the rally. Wrote Durso after the game: “One of the haunting memories of the night for the Mets was the hitting of their ‘big men,’ Agee and Swoboda, who hit third and fourth. Between them they went 0 for 20, with nine strikeouts.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Cal Koonce came in to pitch the bottom of the 12th inning for the Mets, but he had the shortest stint of the game (1?3 of an inning), giving up a single to Davis and retiring Miller on a sacrifice. Bill Short came in to put out that fire, yielding an intentional walk and then retiring both Staub and King. Coombs, having settled down after his bumpy entrance in the 12th, retired New York in order in the top of the 13th.
The bottom of the 13th inning offered more ups and downs. When Short gave up a single to Gotay and then walked Hector Torres, Hatton called on Dick Selma, who retired the only two batters he faced. Jim Ray took care of the Mets in order in the top of the 14th, while Al Jackson retired Miller, Wynn, and Staub on three groundouts to end the inning. Then both Ray and Jackson each retired the side again in order in the 15th.
After Ray retired the Mets in order (again) in the top of the 16th, Jackson received the benefit of good defense in the bottom of the inning. Torres reached base on a leadoff bunt single, and Ray attempted to sacrifice Torres to second. As Durso described it: “The Mets came up with the play of the night in the 16th. Hector Torres was on first base with Ray at bat in a bunting situation. So Hodges pulled the old Brooklyn shift. He called in Ron Swoboda from right field, gave him a first-baseman’s mitt and stationed him on first. Ed Kranepool moved way in toward the plate to field the bunt. The outfield was left to Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones. After that, Ray struck out.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Though Hatton may be faulted for not pinch-hitting for Ray with a runner on first in the 16th, Ray was likely the unsung hero of the game for Houston, pitching seven shutout innings and striking out 11 while allowing only two hits. The Mets touched him only for a double in the 17th inning, and, with a runner on third, Ray managed to get Harrelson to strike out on a squeeze attempt and then Weis to ground out.
After those struggles, Ray went on to strike out the side in the top of the 18th inning. The Astros, however, were unable to gain any traction against New York’s Danny Frisella, who retired the Astros in order in the 17th inning and gave up only a two-out single to New York in the 18th.
Another critical juncture occurred in the top of the 19th inning. Against Ray, who had been sailing along, Cleon Jones began the inning with a single and advanced to second on Kranepool’s sacrifice. Ray then walked Charles intentionally. According to the account in the Chicago Tribune, “Grote struck out. But Jones and Charles were running on the pitch and stole second and third. Since he was now running out of players, Hodges let pitcher Danny Frisella bat for himself and he struck out.”[fn]“Astros Beat Mets, 1–0, in 24 Innings!: Longest Scoreless Game Ends on Error by Weis,” Chicago Tribune.[/fn] The Astros were out of the inning, and Ray stayed on to pitch one last scoreless inning before lefty Wade Blasingame replaced him to start the 21st.
Frisella stayed in the game for the Mets and pitched effectively. In the 19th, he got out of a jam with runners on first and second with two out; in the 20th, he got out of the inning when Gotay was caught stealing as Torres stuck out; and in the 21st, Miller was caught stealing to end the inning. Frisella remained in the game until Don Cardwell pinch-hit for him in the top of the 22nd inning, after which Les Rohr came in to pitch for the Mets.
With the exception of some struggles in the 22nd inning, Blasingame pitched well—and well enough to earn the victory. He faced the minimum in the 21st, 23rd, and 24th innings, running into trouble only in the 22nd, when he retired Weis with Grote on second base and two out. For the Mets, Rohr had an uneven time, walking two (one intentionally) in the 22nd before striking out Gotay with Staub, the potential winning run, on third base with two out.
The game was decided in the bottom of the 24th inning. Norm Miller singled to start the inning (and, surprisingly, got the only hit of the inning). Rohr then balked by “breaking his hands” accidentally, which moved Miller to second.[fn]Durso, “Mets Will Oppose Giants in Home Opener at Shea Stadium Today.”[/fn] Jim Wynn was walked intentionally, putting runners on first and second. A groundout by Staub moved the two runners into scoring position. With one out, Rohr walked John Bateman intentionally to load the bases. Bob Aspromonte’s grounder then went through Weis’s legs at shortstop, allowing the winning run to score and ending the marathon game.
According to Durso: “It might have been a double play grounder ending the threat and putting everybody into the 25th inning. But the ball skidded off the chemical carpet known as the Astroturf and went right through Weis’ legs into left field while Miller scored the only run of the night.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] The Tribune account said, “When Norm Miller scored from third, he gleefully jumped on home plate and was mobbed by his teammates and Manager Grady Hatton.”[fn]“Astros Beat Mets 1–0 in 24 Innings!” Chicago Tribune.[/fn]
The Washington Post noted the next day that “Weis had played brilliantly for 23 innings, but he sank to his knees from sheer exhaustion as the ball went through his legs. ‘I just plain blew it,’ said Weis.”[fn]“After 24-Inning Encounter, Astros, Mets Glad for Rest,” Washington Post.[/fn]
Weis, as Stellino noted, was playing out of position when he made his critical error, as he was typically a second baseman who was forced to play shortstop due to Harrelson’s injury.[fn]Stellino, “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run.”[/fn] Still, there was no denying that Weis’s error was the game’s consequential play.
“Baseball’s longest night was filled with moments of humor, drama, dullness, and frustration—but, most of all, it was a nightmare for Al Weis,” commented Stellino.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Accounts vary regarding the number of fans there when the game ended at 1:37 a.m., six hours and six minutes after it began; estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 fans remained.[fn]See Stellino and also “After 24-Inning Encounter, Astros, Mets Glad for Rest,” Washington Post.[/fn]According to the Tribune, “The few fans who remained were noisy to the end despite a Texas state law which forbids the sale of liquors after midnight. Houston officials announced they were cooking breakfast for the press in the 23rd inning and said if the game lasted any longer, they would start preparing lunch.”[fn]“Astros Beat Mets 1–0 in 24 Innings!” Chicago Tribune.[/fn]
At its conclusion, the Astros-Mets game was the longest game with a winner. (The 26-inning game between the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves played on May 1, 1920, ended in a 1–1 tie.) Since then, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Mets in a 25-inning game on September 11, 1974, and the Chicago White Sox beat the Milwaukee Brewers in 25 innings on May 8, 1984. The Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics also played to a 1–1 tie in 24 innings on July 21, 1945.[fn]“The 10 Longest MLB Games of All Time,” Yahoo Sports. Available at http://sports.yahoo.com/news/10-longest-mlb-games-time-204400545–mlb.html[/fn]
Arthur Daley of the New York Times outlined the poor regard in which the Mets were held following this loss, saying: “Maybe they’re trying to tell us something. The message has to be that they can’t hit worth a damn.”[fn]Arthur Daley, “The Marathoners,” New York Times, April 17, 1968.[/fn]
At the same time, Daley emphasized the striking way that the game ended on an error, commenting: “Historians used to say that ‘everything happens to the Dodgers.’ It certainly appeared that way, too. Let there be one wayward happening or unlikely incident and it was a cinch that the Brooklyns were involved in it. Now it has to seem that the Mets have inherited that dubious distinction….The Mets fancy up everything in a reverse alchemy that turns gold to dross.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] On the other hand, the Astros were in first place following the game.
Stellino noted that the Mets caught a plane right after the game for New York—it had originally been scheduled to arrive in New York at four am, but the game ended only 83 minutes before that.”[fn]Stellino, “24 Innings, Six Hours, One Run,” The Sporting News.[/fn] Both teams, fortunately, had a day off on April 16.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Stunningly, both catchers—Grote for the Mets and King for the Astros—caught every inning for their respective teams.
As Gil Hodges said following the game: “These long games can really be murder.”[fn]“After 24-Inning Encounter, Astros, Mets Glad for Rest,” Washington Post.[/fn]
JOHN McMURRAY is Chair of the SABR Deadball Era Committee. He contributed to “Deadball Stars of the American League” and is a past chair of SABR’s Larry Ritter Award subcommittee. He has contributed many interview-based player profiles to “Baseball Digest” and also writes a monthly column for “Sports Collectors Digest.”
With thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame for providing clippings of vintage articles cited in this piece.