Sports

Baseball’s Longest Game, 100 Years Ago Today

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Cody Bellinger (35) hits a three-run home run as Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann (16) is shown on the play at SunTrust Park, Atlanta, Ga., August 18, 2019. (Jason Getz/USA Today Sports)
For one rainy Boston day in May, the old game took its last bow.

Saturday, May 1, 1920 began like any other day in baseball in its era, with a modest crowd of 4,500 people gathered at Braves Field in Boston to watch the hometown Braves face off against the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers. It would end with a game that still stands in the record books, a hundred years later, as the longest game ever played in the major leagues. And that was not the most remarkable part of the game. It would be the first landmark in a season that forever changed the face of the game.

For baseball, the spring of 1920 was a cautiously hopeful time. The 1918 season had been forced to end on September 1, a month early, owing to the “work or fight” order issued in the closing months of the First World War. In the aftermath of the war and the Spanish-flu pandemic, the owners limited the 1919 season to 140 games; the season started late to allow more players to return from military service. The 1919 World Series was dogged by rumors about the influence of gamblers; some whispered that the favored White Sox had taken a dive. The White Sox victory over the Giants in 1917 had spawned the same rumors, but nothing came of it at the time. The 1920 season was to be the first fully scheduled season in three years. With Woodrow Wilson in his final year in the White House and the nation still in the throes of a postwar, post-pandemic economic funk, it remained to be seen if the game’s economic future would be sound. The Braves drew 38,000 people for Opening Day on April 14, but crowds had been mostly a few thousand since.

The Braves and the Dodgers both had losing records in 1919, and the 4–5 Braves were looking like the same team, while the crosstown Red Sox were off to a roaring 10–2 start despite selling their star, Babe Ruth, in the offseason. The Dodgers, by contrast, were 8–4, just a half game back of the defending champion Reds, with star Zack Wheat hitting .419 in the early going. The Braves won the previous day, 3–0, behind a four-hit shutout by Hugh McQuillian.

Low scores were the order of the day in baseball’s “dead ball” era, from 1902 to 1919, and, despite the introduction of new rules that required putting clean baseballs in play more frequently, few people yet expected the sea change that was about to arrive. Only two players, Wheat and Braves second baseman Charlie Pick, entered the game batting above .300. Ruth had made history with a record-breaking 29 home runs in 1919, but through April 30, 1920, he was batting .226 with the Yankees and had hit only a double and no home runs.

On the mound on May 1 were a pair of strapping six-foot right-handers in their late twenties, Leon Cadore for the Dodgers and Joe Oeschger for the Braves. Cadore, an expert at cutting the baseball to get an edge, was a mischievous native Brooklynite and close friend of Casey Stengel, whom the Dodgers had dealt for ace pitcher Burleigh Grimes before the 1918 season. Despite missing most of the 1918 season in the Army, Cadore posted a 2.35 ERA from 1917 through 1919 and entered the game with a 1.38 ERA through his first three starts. That included an eleven-inning shutout of Oeschger and the Braves on April 20 at Ebbets Field. Now, Oeschger would have a rematch on his own turf.

Oeschger (pronounced “Eshker”) was a less promising figure, who led the league in losses in a 6-18 season with the Phillies in 1918 and played for three teams in 1919. 1920 looked up, though: he had an 0.63 ERA through his first three starts. Unlike Cadore, Oeschger relied almost entirely on his fastball. Oeschger’s signature was his insistence on never coming out of the game, even to an extent unusual in that day. He had completed 47 of his 50 starts to that point in his career. Against the Dodgers in April 1919, he and Grimes had both gone the distance in a 20-inning game. As he said years later, “If a pitcher couldn’t go the distance, he soon found some other form of occupation.” He stands today as the only man to go 20 innings in a game twice.

The weather was dreary, an all-day drizzle. The 3 p.m. start time was expected to leave plenty of time for a game, especially given that May 1 was the first day of Daylight Savings Time. This time, the game would not be a shutout; the Dodgers scraped a run in the top of the fifth on a walk, a bobbled grounder, and a bloop, and the Braves answered with a triple, a single, and a double in the bottom of the sixth. Much to the Braves’ regret, third baseman Tony Boeckel was thrown out at home on the double by Rabbit Maranville. Maranville was, with Wheat, one of two men on the field that day who would end up in Cooperstown, as would Grimes and Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson.

For 20 more innings, the two pitchers let nothing else in, aided by some stellar defense by Wheat and his Dodgers teammates. Cadore, who allowed 15 hits on the day, got stronger as he went and retired 19 men in a row into the 26th inning. Pick, who had entered the day batting .324, went 0-for-11 and was hitting .236 by the end of the three-game set. Oeschger let just 13 men on base in 26 innings of work. Both teams switched out their catchers midway through the game.

Despite exhaustion, which limited their ability to warm up before innings, neither man would relent; Cadore told Robinson, “If that fellow can go another inning, I can too.” Finally, at 6:50 p.m. — fewer than four hours, an astoundingly quick pace for 26 innings, by today’s standards — the umpires called it a tie for darkness. Cadore’s biography at the Society for American Baseball Research illustrates the stubbornness of Oeschger and Cadore and the toll the game took on their arms:

“It was the hitters who were squawking to end it,” Oeschger recalled. “I certainly didn’t want it to stop and I don’t think Cadore did.” Cadore said, “The chief thing that was bothering me was the fact that after working all those hours we still failed to win the game.” . . . When the Braves and Dodgers resumed their series in Boston on Monday, Cadore asked Oeschger how he was feeling. “Me?” Oeschger replied. “I’ve been waiting to see how you feel. I’ve been waiting for you to make a move about quitting. We’ve ruined ourselves, you know.” Cadore said he couldn’t lift his arm to comb his hair for three days. Years afterward he estimated that he had thrown close to 300 pitches; Oeschger thought his total was around 250. Oeschger said his arm didn’t hurt any worse than after a normal start, but his body felt the strain. A few days later he pulled a leg muscle while running in the outfield and couldn’t pitch again for 11 days.

Cadore didn’t pitch again for eight days himself but was strong enough to go ten innings against McQuillan and the Braves by the end of the month. Cadore faded a bit as the season went on and was ineffective in the World Series, which the Dodgers lost to the Indians. He was never the same pitcher after 1920 and was effectively finished by 1923. Then again, Cadore’s decline may be attributable as well to the ban on the spitball that went into effect in 1921; unlike Grimes, he was not on the list of veteran pitchers grandfathered from the ban’s application. Oeschger also tailed off in the second half, though he bounced back to a 20-win career year in 1921, before fading in 1922. Stubborn to the end, he would live to be 94.

The brand of baseball played that day was on the path to extinction. Scoring soared, especially in the American League, which batted .283 leaguewide on the season. Babe Ruth homered that day and the next against the flagging Red Sox; Ruth would have 15 home runs by June 2. He broke his own single-season record on July 19 and finished the year with 54 home runs. Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch from the Yankees ace Carl Mays in August, an incident that contributed to support for banning spitballs. The Black Sox scandal broke a week before the season’s end, leading to eight players being banned and to the revelation of a broader gambling scandal across the game. By the mid-1920s, baseball would be high-scoring and economically booming. For one rainy Boston day in May, however, the old game took its last bow.

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