In 1932, French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline published his landmark novel Journey to the End of the Night. In the Year of the Pitcher, 36 years later, two major league baseball teams authored a non-fiction version.
I refer to New York Mets and the Houston Astros, who played a 24-inning 1-0 contest at the Astrodome on April 15, 1968. The game foreshadowed the glaring lack of offense in major league baseball for the remainder of the season.
Actually, the famed Year of the Pitcher got off to a late start. The Martin Luther King Jr. assassination postponed Opening Day. The Astros, scheduled to begin the season with a three-game series against the Pirates in the Astrodome, played just one, on April 10; the other two games were re-scheduled. The Astros won that opener and swept a three-game set with the visiting Phillies. Then the New York Mets came to town.
Like the Astros, the Mets had to adjust their season opener. They opened on April 10 in San Francisco, then went south for a couple of games against the Dodgers. They arrived in Houston on April 14 with a 1-2 record and handed the Astros their first loss of the season.
Appropriately, Monday, April 15 was Tax Day; the Mets-Astros contest that evening would prove taxing for both sides. The pitching match-up featured two high-profile sophomores: Tom Seaver for the Mets and Don Wilson for the Astros.
Seaver was coming off a Rookie of the Year season, in which he fashioned a 16-13 record in 251 innings. Wilson didn’t get any Rookie of the Year votes, but his first year wasn’t too shabby. In 1967, he had gone 10-9 in 184 innings. His 2.79 ERA was just a tad behind Seaver’s 2.76.
The duel between Seaver and Wilson went the distance — the regulation distance, that is. At the end of nine innings, neither pitcher had blinked. Seaver had given up just one hit and had pitched to just one batter above the minimum. Wilson was not quite as dominant, having given up five hits and three walks, but neither team had scored.
The closest thing to a run came in the bottom of the second when catcher Hal King, who had doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch, was thrown out at the plate attempting to score on a fielder’s choice. Had King arrived ahead of the throw, or had Mets catcher Jerry Grote missed the tag or dropped the ball, they both could have saved a lot of wear and tear on their bodies, as both ended up catching the entire game. Over the ensuing 22 innings, players on both sides likely flashed back to that second inning putout at the plate.
In the bottom of the ninth, Lee Thomas pinch-hit for Wilson, who finished the night with a no-decision, but a lower ERA. Seaver remained in the game through the 10th inning, gave up his second hit, and left the game. Like Wilson, he got a no-decision and a lower ERA. From then on, the game was in the hands of the bullpens. It was a pitcher’s duel by committee.
Wilson was succeeded by John Buzhardt, who pitched two scoreless innings; next was Danny Coombs, who did likewise. Jim Ray and Wade Blasingame finished out the game. Blasingame garnered the win, a fitting reward for four scoreless innings. Special kudos to Ray, who took the mound in the 14th inning and pitched seven innings of shutout ball, striking out 11 and giving up just two hits.
For the Mets, Seaver was succeeded by Ron Taylor (one inning), Cal Koonce (.1 inning), Bill Short (one inning), Dick Selma (.2 inning), Al Jackson (three innings), Danny Frisella (five innings), and Les Rohr (2.1 innings). Someone had to be the losing pitcher, and it was Rohr’s fate to be on the mound when the Astros scored the only run of the game.
Rohr did not help himself by giving a leadoff single to Norm Miller in the 24th (ending an 0-for-14 slump and an 0-for-9 evening) and then balking him to second. Jimmy Wynn was intentionally walked to set up the double play. When Staub grounded to second, the runners advanced to second and third. Pinch-hitter John Bateman was intentionally walked to load the bases and again set up a double play. The strategy was sound, but shortstop Al Weis, perhaps torn between whether to go home for the force or to go for the inning-ending double play, booted a grounder hit by Bob Aspromonte. Norm Miller scored and the marathon was over. The winning run was the only flaw in the symmetry of the line score, as both teams had 11 hits, one error, and 16 left onbase.
So Les Rohr went down in baseball history as the losing pitcher in the longest shutout in major league history. Actually, though, Rohr had made Mets history before he ever donned a uniform.
The first amateur draft was held on June 7, 1965. The lowly (worst in the AL, 57-105 in 1964) Kansas City A’s got first pick. They chose Rick Monday of Arizona State. Next came the Mets (worst in the NL at 53-109). They chose Leslie Norvin Rohr of West High School (23-0 with a 0.64 ERA in his senior year) in Billings, Mont. For better or worse, he was the first-ever draft pick in Mets history.
Rohr debuted with the Mets in late September, 1967. He started three games and won two (one was a shutout over Don Drysdale and the Dodgers) with a 2.12 ERA. It was a promising start, but the results were different in 1968. Aside from his historic appearance in the 24-inning game, he started one other game and didn’t get out of the fourth inning. He also lost that one. So it was back to the minors where the results were not encouraging. He resurfaced with the Mets for 1.1 innings in 1969. Arm and back problems did him in. His major league career total of 24.1 innings pitched was just one out longer than the 24-inning game itself.
The Mets-Astros game tied the record for the longest game played to conclusion, a Sept. 1, 1906 contest between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Americans at the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds. The game resulted in a 4-1 victory by the visiting A’s.
Previously, the longest night game in history had been 22 innings. That record had been set less than a year before. On June 12, 1967, the Senators defeated the White Sox by a 6-5 score. Curiously, Mets skipper Gil Hodges had managed the Senators in that game. One wonders if Yogi Berra, coaching for the Mets during that April 15 marathon, nudged Hodges and uttered, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Obviously, the 24-inning game made for a long night (time of game: six hours and six minutes) at the Astrodome; for some batters, it was a very long night. The Mets’ Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda took the collar. Going 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 now and then is hardly unusual. It happens to the best hitters. But Agee and Swoboda each went 0-for-10; Agee struck out four times, Swoboda five.
Since it was the Mets’ fifth game of the season, the effect on their batting averages was dramatic. Agee came into the game at .313 (5 for 16) and came out at .192. Swoboda started at .385 (5 for 13) and finished at .217. It’s hard to say a batter is in a slump based on the results of just one game, but in this case, it could be true.
Swoboda was not traumatized by the experience. By season’s end, he was hitting .242, a match for his career average. Agee, however, did not fare so well.
After the marathon, Agee went 0 for the rest of April (23 at-bats), dropping his batting average to .102. The Mendoza Line never looked so good! Agee did not get his next hit till May 1 in a 7-2 loss to the Phillies at Shea Stadium.
The 1968 season was Agee’s first with the Mets (he was Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove center fielder with the White Sox in 1966, but suffered a sophomore slump in 1967) and it turned out to be the most forgettable season of his career. If he was hoping for a fresh start with the Mets, he was sorely disappointed. Agee finished the 1968 season at .217 (80 for 368) with just five homers and 17 RBIs, but he would rebound in 1969 with 26 homers, 76 RBIs, and a .271 average, plus a couple of oft-replayed circus catches in the World Series. In 1970 he was the first Met to win a Gold Glove.
As for the Astros’ offense, Bob Aspromonte was credited with the game-winning RBI in the 24th. It was a double-play situation, and if Weis had fielded his grounder cleanly, that might have been the result, and the game would have proceeded to the 25th inning. But a double play cannot be assumed, so Aspromonte was credited with an RBI after Weis’ error. It was a pretty decent consolation prize, as Aspromonte finished the night at 0-for-9. Aside from shortstop Hector Torres, who went 3-for-8, nobody on the Astros helped his batting average that night.
Actually, the Astros’ averages were less than robust before the game, as they had been shut out the day before. In fact, they had gone 35 scoreless innings before winning the 24-inning game.
The historic contest wrapped at 1:37 a.m. local time (2:37 a.m. for Mets fans who were still tuned in) on April 16. Attendance was listed at 14,219. Those who remained (estimated at anywhere from 1,000-3,000 fans) had witnessed the longest shutout in major league history.
For the losing Mets, participation in the record-breaking game was cold comfort. At least the marathon had taken place early in the season, before fatigue was a factor. Of the 25 men on the Mets’ roster, only three did not join the fray: one was Nolan Ryan, who had started the previous game, another was Jerry Koosman, who was scheduled to start the next game. Ironically, the only bench player who did not march in the parade of goose eggs was Greg Goosen. Luckily, both teams were off on April 16.
If the Mets had any lingering effects from the 24-inning shutout, they were not apparent on April 17, as Koosman shut out the Giants at the home opener before 52,079 at Shea Stadium.
The Astros were not so fortunate. On April 17, they began a nine-game road trip with a six-game losing streak, starting with a 13-4 loss to the Pirates on Opening Day at Forbes Field.
As for the two starting pitchers of the marathon, on April 20, Seaver continued his scoreless inning streak, pitching eight innings of scoreless ball against the Dodgers before faltering in the ninth and handing the ball over to Danny Frisella for the last out of the game. He did get the victory (3-2), however.
Don Wilson was less fortunate. In his next start he was charged with six earned runs and taken out in the fourth inning. Given the fact that the Phillies’ Woody Fryman had pitched a two-hit shutout against the Astros, Wilson’s performance was a negligible factor in the outcome.
The long-term fates of Seaver and Wilson could hardly be more different. After a 20-year career and 311 victories, Seaver was named on the Hall of Fame ballot by 98.8 percent of the voters, the highest percentage ever till Ken Griffey Jr. reached 99.3 in 2016.
Through 1974, Wilson remained a mainstay of the Houston rotation and won 104 games. We’ll never know how many more games he might have won; he died at age 29 on Jan. 5, 1975. His death was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, apparently as a result of heavy alcohol consumption and falling asleep in his car while the engine was still running with the garage door shut. The circumstances were suspicious, but that is a story for another article.
The Mets and Astros were pitching-rich, not just in 1968 but in subsequent years. Ironically, in the Year of the Pitcher (also the last year before divisional play), all that pitching prowess didn’t pay off in the standings. The Astros finished in last (10th) place at 72-90. The Mets were a notch better at 73-89.
The Journey to the End of the Night on April 15, 1968 has remained the longest shutout in history. The long string of goose eggs calls to mind the titles of two works by another French author: No Exit and Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Seriously, the game might have inspired a 1986 literary work, namely The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella, the renowned author of Shoeless Joe (the basis for the movie Field of Dreams). In that novel the 1908 Chicago Cubs take on a minor league team in a game that lasts more than 2,000 innings and goes on for weeks.
I’d love to see the box score for that one!