The second place Cardinals (66-54, 5.5 games back) were visiting the first place Pirates (71-48) in an important four game series. The Cardinals would battle the Pirates all summer long. Unfortunately for Cards fans, the Buc-o’s would play just a bit better than the Redbirds and this would be the closest the two teams would get. Perhaps that’s getting ahead of ourselves just a bit – there was a lot of baseball to be played on this night.
The Cardinals had already taken the first two games with a dominating 10 strikeout performance by lefty Steve Carlton and a similar effort from young St. Louis native Jerry Reuss. Tonight’s game would feature one of the best pitchers in the game with Bob Gibson (10-10) facing the big right hander Bob Johnson (7-7). Statistically this was a down year for the 35 year old Gibson, but a closer look shows that this may have had more to do with Cardinal run production than any letdown by Gibson. Gibson’s numbers were still eye-popping and he would lead the league in shutouts when all was said and done. Would tonight be one of those ? Since this was a Gibson pitched game, we would know the answer in about 2 hours.
The game started off with a bang. Literally. With somewhat of a makeshift lineup, the Cardinals led off with first baseman, Matty Alou. This was nearly comical – if Alou stood on top of four phone books, he might be the 5’9″ that was listed in the press guide. Fortunately for the Cardinals, we had Dal Maxvill at short and he had one of the best arms in the game. He would need it – Alou was a tiny target. It would not be so easy for Johnson as Alou would lead off with a walk. Next up, Ted Sizemore would fly out harmlessly to right field. Young Jose Cruz would single which brought Joe Torre to the plate. And Torre delivers with a single, driving in Alou. The 1971 MVP had been doing this all season long. He would eventually lead the league in hits, RBIs and batting average – an amazing .363 – all this from a guy that ran about the speed of flowing lava. Ted Simmons would follow with an RBI single and then Cardinal favorite Joe Hague would launch a 3 run homer. The lead would be 5-0 and that would be all for Bob Johnson. Bob Moose was called in to try to stop the Cardinals, which he would do until the 5th inning.
Meanwhile Bob Gibson was cutting down Pirates at an alarming rate. The Pirates got some wood on Gibson in their first inning, but as we had come to expect, Gibby settled in and started retiring batters on his own. The Pirates had three base runners through four innings, two on walks and one on a dropped third strike.
In the Cardinals half of the fifth, Joe Torre would get a one out single, his third of the game. Simmons would follow that with a double, putting both runners in scoring position. Feeling a lot like the first inning, Moose intentionally walks Hague, setting up what they hoped would be an inning ending double play. With Torre and Simmons running the bases, that was not hard to imagine. Teddy Kubiak would deliver though, hitting a double driving in Torre and Simmons. The Pirates would try again, intentionally walking light hitting Dal Maxvill to get to Gibson. Gibby comes through with a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Hague from third. For the third time in the inning, Moose intentionally walks the bases loaded. The third time was indeed a charm as Ted Sizemore flies out to end the inning. But not before the Cardinals increased the lead to 8-0.
Meanwhile the Pirates would go very quietly in the fifth, as they had all game so far. Two strikeouts and a comebacker to the pitcher – a typical Gibson inning. We saw a lot of those in his 17 seasons in St. Louis.
The gargantuan lefty Bob Veale would relieve Bob Moose. A part of us were hoping we would eventually see John Lamb to complete the “Meatloaf on the Mound”. That would not happen this evening as Veale would try to finish things for the Pirates. Not without incident, but he would try to finish. He would not succeed though.
With an 8-0 lead, things progresses rather quickly. The Cardinals would get to Veale in the sixth and seventh, but would fail to score. Gibson was bearing down on the Pirates with strikeouts, infield flies and the occasional fly ball to an outfielder. The only base runner surrendered would be a walk to Bob Robertson, their light hitting first baseman.
The Cardinals would again do damage in the 8th. A tiring Veale got into the type of trouble that Pirates fans had come to expect, walks. Veale would lead the league in walks several times in his career. Torre would lead off the inning with a pop foul to the catcher. Simmons and Joe Hague would both single. Then came the wildness with Veale walking Ted Kubiak to load the bases. And then the unthinkable, Veale would walk the light hitting Maxvill to make the score 9-0. That brings Bob Gibson to the plate and he pulls a hard single to left driving in both Hague and Kubiak for a 11-0 lead. At this point, Bob Gibson was outhitting the entire Pirate batting order: 1-3 with 3 RBIs. The inning would end without further damage, but the Cardinals had a huge lead. And a ferocious Gibson was on the brink of a no hitter – a place he had been several times in his pitching career, but as of yet failed to accomplish.
Tonight would be different. In the last two innings, no ball would get out of the infield. Four of the six remaining Pirate hitters would ground out, one to each of the Cardinal infielders with Gibson striking out the other two – the last one being Pirate great Willie Stargell. Stargell was as fierce a competitor as Gibson, but this one time he came to the plate and surrendered to the future Hall of Famer. He took three weak swings to end the game and give Gibson what he was lacking in his resume, a no hitter.
The only sad part of the game was that the Cardinals had to face their former super-sub Nelson Briles in the ninth inning. He reminded us of why we enjoyed his time in St. Louis. But Gibson was the story with his no hitter, striking out 10 and walking 3. What an amazing game.
The Cardinals would complete the sweep on Sunday afternoon with a great come from behind victory, scoring 5 runs in the 8th inning to make a winner out of Frank Linzy. But that was secondary – Gibby had his no hitter and that’s what we all remember about the 1971 season.
As a closing note on this game, my dad was taking us all out to dinner as the game started. We had the game on in the car. As we drove to the restaurant, my dad sensed something special going on. We drove around and drove around, not quite knowing what he was thinking. He finally took us home and we ate dinner there – while listening to the game. He didn’t want to miss it any more than we did. My mother, the greatest baseball fan that I knew, didn’t object. I still remember listening to the last two innings in the back yard, throwing a baseball into a pitchback, wondering what it would feel like to throw a no hitter.