Homeplate umpire Bruce Froemming called the pitch a ball. Starting pitcher Milt Pappas leaped into the air in anger. Pinch-hitter Larry Stahl took his base.
Pappas, a right-hander for the Chicago Cubs, nearly pitched the eighth perfect game of the 20th century on Sept. 2, 1972. He hurled one for 8 2/3 innings that Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
The son of Greek immigrants yelled at Froemming in two languages following the call of “ball four, take your base.” As late at 2009, he told a reporter, “To this day, I just don’t understand it (Froemming’s call).”
Pappas settled for a no-hitter, an outcome disappointing only if you’re one pitch away from perfection. The Detroit native struck out six and raised his record to 12-7 while lowering his ERA to an even 3.00. Fewer than 12,000 fans watched the game, played on a day when it was 62 degrees at Wrigley with a 17 mph wind. One more raw day in the city.
That near perfecto may be the most famous game of Pappas’ career. He enjoyed many other good ones. Pappas, born on May 11, 1939, compiled a 209-164 won-loss record in his 17 seasons (1957-73) with the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and the Cubs.
He never won 20 games, but he did win at least 15 games in seven different seasons. Not a flamethrower, Pappas relied on fine control. In 1967 and 1972, he finished first among National League pitchers in walks per nine innings.
The graduate of Detroit’s Cooley High made his debut with the Orioles at the age of 18. He pitched in four games in 1957, giving up just one run in nine innings. Pappas went 110-74 in his nine seasons with the Orioles.
Baltimore shipped Pappas to the Reds in a famous trade following the 1965 campaign. The Reds brass famously sent Frank Robinson to the Orioles. Robinson, Cincinnati executives declared, was “an ol 30.”
All Robinson did in his first year as a Red was win the Triple Crown and N.L. MVP. Pappas went 12-11 with a 4.29 ERA. He improved to 16-13 with a 3.35 ERA in 1967. The Reds, though, sent him to Atlanta midway through the 1968 season.
Pappas enjoyed some of his best seasons while a Cub. He posted a 2.68 ERA in 1970, the second lowest of his career (2.60 in ’65). He won a season-high 17 games in ’71 and ’72. Pappas retired after going 7-12 with a 4.28 ERA in 1973.
A two-time All-Star, Pappas died April 16 at the age of 76. Newspaper reports following Pappas’ death invariably mentioned the near-perfect game near the top of the story.
Reporter Mike Bauman wrote about the game for a recent article on mlb.com. Pappas, according to Bauman, said afterward that “I thought the umpire could have given me one of those sliders to Stahl.”
Froemming didn’t buy into that. An umpire isn’t a fan, Froemming said. He disagreed that the pitches to Stahl were “close.”
Froemming said, “To me, this is my perception about umpiring. It’s a ball or a strike; it’s not “close.”
It wasn’t personal, Froemming insisted. The umpire expressed his condolences to Pappas’ family following the pitcher’s death.
Cubs Executive Chairman Tom Rickets also expressed his sorrow on the passing of Milt Pappas. He said, “We will always consider (Milt) a part of the Cubs family.”
Pappas trivia: The pitcher faced Roger Maris in game No. 154 in 1961. This, of course, was the year Maris made his epic run at baseball’s single-season home run record. Commissioner Ford Frick announced earlier in the campaign that Maris would have to hit home run No. 60th home run in 154 games (the length of the schedule when Ruth hit his season-record 60 homers), not 162. Pappas gave up home run No. 59 that day.
More Pappas trivia: Pappas hurled a perfect inning on Sept. 24, 1971. He struck out three Philadelphia Phillies batters on nine pitches.