Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis
The only thing hotter than the temperature in St. Louis was the battle for the 1967 National League pennant, which had suddenly become a three team race. The visiting Cincinnati Reds had led the league for most of the season, but the Cardinals kept pace, never falling more than 4 1/2 games behind. It had been a two team race until the Cubs went on a tear, winning 16 of their last 19 games, including a 3 game sweep of the Reds. That knocked the Reds out of first place and put the Cubs into contention for the first time in a couple of years. At the start of this series, the Cardinals and Cubs were tied for first place and Cincinnati was starting to fade, now 5 games behind. The Cubs would give back nearly all of the ground they gained over the next two weeks, but it is this Independence Day series between the Cardinals and Reds that will set the tone for the remainder of the 1967 season.
The Cardinals seemed to be in good shape entering the series. Orlando Cepeda (.348) and Tim McCarver (.346) were chasing Roberto Clemente for the batting title, and were second and third in the league, respectively. Curt Flood was also in the mix, batting .306 at the time. Lou Brock, Roger Maris and and Julian Javier were also flirting with .300, each hitting .294.
If that wasn’t enough for the Reds to deal with, the Cardinals starter on the night was Bob Gibson (9-6). But it wasn’t just any Bob Gibson. This was Gibson at his absolute meanest, and that meant trouble for the Reds. Gibson was coming off the worst outing of his career, giving up 9 runs in just 2/3 of an inning against the San Francisco Giants. When he took the mound, it looked like he had something to prove – we just didn’t quite know what it was.
Facing the Cardinals was veteran right hander, Milt Pappas. Pappas had recently come over to the National League after an impressive record with the Baltimore Orioles. This was his 9th consecutive season with more wins than losses, and 10th if you are willing to include his rookie season where he went 10-10 as a 19 year old. In spite of all of his success, he seemed to have trouble with the Cardinals.
Gibson made quick work out of the Reds in the top of the first, as he would do for most of the game. A strikeout, an infield ground out and another strikeout and it was the Cardinals turn to hit.
And did they hit. And hit. And hit.
Lou Brock would lead off with a double, followed by singles by Curt Flood, Roger Maris and Orlando Cepeda. Before Pappas could even work up a sweat, the Cardinals had a 2-0 lead and were threating for more. Tim McCarver would hit a sacrifice fly, scoring Maris for the 3rd Cardinals run. Infield singles by Mike Shannon and Julian Javier would load the bases and end the day for the Reds starter. Don Nottebart, a former starter turned long reliever, would take over and he would be greeted rudely by light hitting Dal Maxvill who would clear the bases with a loud double in the right field gap. An errant throw allows Maxvill to score and the Cardinals now had a commanding 7-0 lead, with still only one out. Bob Gibson would extend the inning with a single.
What happens next united a team that was lacking a bit of identity, and they would need that over the coming months as they faced enough adversity to demolish a lesser team.
Lou Brock would make the second out of the first inning with a fielders choice, forcing Gibson at second base. There was no chance of doubling up the speedy Brock, fortunately for the Cardinals. With a 7 run lead, Brock attempts to steal second base and is thrown out, ending the inning. And upsetting the Reds in the process. Apparently the Reds did not appreciate Brock running in that situation, and would soon retaliate. Not once, but twice – and that was one too many.
Gibson would shut down the Reds quickly in the second and third innings, striking out seven of the first nine batters he faced. The Cardinals would go quietly in the second, but started another rally against Nottebart in the third. Tim McCarver and Mike Shannon would start the inning with singles, putting runners at the corner. Deciding this was the time to make a statement, Nottebart brushes back Julian Javier, inviting the ire of Cardinals fans that remember Javier paying a similar price in 1965. Javier would ground into a fielders choice with McCarver being thrown out at home. The inning would end without a further incident, but tempers were clearly heating up.
In the fourth inning, Gibson would strike out two more Reds, bringing his total to 9. He was also throwing a perfect game, retiring the first 12 Reds rather quietly.
Nottebart would again voice his displeasure of Brock’s running in the first inning by hitting the Cardinals left fielder to start the home half of the 4th inning. If he had not dusted Javier in the previous inning, that might have passed without a response. One was OK, but two batters could not be tolerated.
A message was clearly delivered in the top of the 5th. Gibson would throw one of his best fastballs behind the head of Tony Perez, one of the leaders of the young Reds team. Just because he didn’t hit Perez didn’t mean he wasn’t sending a loud and unambiguous message: this ends here and now. But it didn’t. Far from it.
Tony Perez would fly out, but while heading back to the dugout he yelled something at Gibson. There are two things you can’t do to Bob Gibson: cheat on the inside of the plate and bark at him. Perez and Gibson would share several verbal exchanges, both men getting more animated as they went on. Orlando Cepeda comes over from first base to try to intervene, according to Cepeda’s version of the story. This move is misinterpreted by the Reds reliever, Bob Lee who comes running in from the Cincinnati bullpen. Lee is a mountain of a man, listed at 6ft 3in and 225 pounds, but he looked much bigger at that particular moment. Both teams ran out on the field and punches were thrown, hard and repeatedly. The scrum moved quickly into the Reds dugout and players started jumping in just as quickly as others were being thrown back onto the field of play. Even some fans got in on the conflict, helping out the home team. St. Louis police officers were soon dispatched to break up the fight, and they were eventually able to restore order. Unfortunately, not before several players were hurt, as was one of the officers. The Reds manager had to be treated for lacerations from being spiked. The Reds reliever, Don Nottebart, received several facial cuts, but would stay in the game and pitch the bottom of the inning. Bob Gibson would jam the thumb on his pitching hand and it would bother him later in the game, prompting a call to the bullpen in the 8th inning. The most humorous of the injuries was to Tommy Helms, who broke a tooth – presumably the result of a Gibson punch. Helms would end the night 0-4 causing a sports writer to note that Gibson got more hits on Helms than Helms did on Gibby.
When play resumed, only one player was ejected: Bob Lee. While his actions had led to the escalation, the reason for his ejection was that he had entered the field of play illegally.
The game would continue, but it was clear that the fight had taken a toll on both teams. The Reds went quietly until the top of the 8th. Gibson was starting to struggle with his control, and the Reds started hitting him hard. After giving up 3 runs, manager Red Schoendeinst would go to his bullpen and Nelson Briles would quickly shut things down. Perhaps this was an omen as Briles would be called on to fill the spot in the rotation when Gibson lost two months to a broken leg.
The Cardinals would end up splitting the 4 game series, winning the first and last games while dropping the middle two. More important than this series, something had awakened in the Cardinals clubhouse. In a few weeks, Orlando Cepeda would stand up on a trunk and proclaim “Viva el Birdos”, and the Cardinals would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Red Sox in the fall classic. Looking back at the season, that bird might have taken flight in the 5th inning of this game. July 3, 1967.