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The Night the Game Wouldn’t End

It was baseball's longest game ever, and not because it took more than two months to be completed.

By 6.24.11

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Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game
By Dan Barry
(Harper, 259 pages, $26.99)

Part of the lore of baseball, our most poetic game, is that unlike most of our sports, baseball is not on the clock. So any baseball game could conceivably last forever. On a cold Holy Saturday night and Easter Morning in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, one baseball game very nearly did.

In Bottom of the 33rd, NYT columnist Dan Barry, by turns reporter, researcher, historian, gossiper, and lyric poet, tells the story of the longest game in baseball history and of the many whose lives intersected with it and were affected by it. He also, with imperfect results as is always the case when writers try this, attempts to plumb the essence of baseball, the sport and the dream, and how it has come to have such a grip on so many Americans.

Hardcore hardball fans will enjoy the book, as will the less addicted who appreciate well-rendered Americana and thoughtful takes on such matters as ambition, pride, loyalty, hope, success, failure, second chances, and the uses of sheer doggedness.

Officially, 1,740 fans turned out April 18, 1981 to beguile a few hours of a Saturday night watching the AAA Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox have a go at each other at blue-collar Pawtucket's tired and down-at-heels McCoy Stadium. By the time umpires and International League officials were lucid enough to call a halt at 0409 Sunday to the shambling, eight-hour, 32-inning monster, only 19 fans (remember, fan is short for fanatic) remained in the windy, 40-degree night. These more than hardy souls were still awaiting resolution to a 2-2 baseball game which, save for its length, would have been forgotten by all before the night's hot dog wrappers had blown away.

Except for the players and umpires who were obliged to, who stayed for the duration and why? Impossible to answer -- Barry doesn't -- but fun to contemplate. I speculate the 19 had to be one or more of the following: (1) baseball fanatics, (2) homeless, and so as content to be at McCoy as anyplace else, (3) dead, only to be so discovered later, or (4) tough as sheet metal screws and a little nuts.

The endless and still tied game was resumed June 23, the next time the Red Wings were in town, when it took only minutes for the Pawtuckets to put a 3-2 end to the game in the bottom of the 33rd. (By the way, when you're in town that's pronounced "P'tucket." The locals will spot you for a hick right away if you say "Paw-tucket.") This quick denouement came a couple of weeks after the Major Leagues had gone on strike, and 6,000 turned out, standing room only, for the conclusion of a game that had gotten a lot of publicity in a baseball-starved nation.

Where only two local reporters had been on hand for the frigid first 32 innings, the summer finale came with hordes of press, including such unlikely outlets as Rolling Stone, and the BBC, along with heavy hitters from New York, Chicago, and Japan. Good Morning America even asked for a player from each team for morning-after interviews. Even in the early eighties media, nothing succeeded like excess.

Those who -- Faulkner-like -- endured the eight-plus hours and 800-plus pitches that endless April night, saw things that don't normally come with a box-seat ticket: Rochester pitchers, chilling in the open-air visitor's bullpen, used broken bats to start a fire in the 55-gallon drum provided for garbage. They traded local boys scuffed baseballs for scavenged wood to keep the source of warmth going (a trade that worked for both sides -- as we say in the game). As the late night faded into the wee hours, there was an argument at the owner's box. The mother of the Broadbent boys, Billy and Kevin, batboys to the two teams, is demanding to take the boys home. The boys want to stay, and the owner needs them. Mom loses. During a break in the action in the 32nd, Pawtucket third-baseman Wade Boggs takes the opportunity to stretch out on the infield using third base as a pillow. Is this any way to run a baseball game?

The cast on the field this unlikely night included some of baseball's winners, and others who were shortly obliged to abandon their dreams of Major League glory and seek real jobs. Ticket holders had no way then of knowing they were watching two future hall-of-famers. The Red Wings third baseman was future Iron Man Cal Ripken, Jr., and holding down third for the Pawtucket Sawks was Boggs, then considered to be a Punch and Judy hitter and not much of a prospect, though he would shortly turn this estimation around. 

Also in the game were Bob Ojeda, who later pitched well for the Red Sox and the Mets, and Bruce Hurst, who starred for the Sawks and the Padres. Both men pitched in the 1986 World Series, Hurst winning two games for the Sawks, Ojeda one for the Mets. Rich Gedman, one of the Pawtucket catchers, went on to catch for Boston for a decade.

As interesting as the future stars are the journeymen who either only had "a cup of coffee" in the majors -- i.e., called up to the big club only for a short look -- or never made the final step from AAA to the big time at all. There's a fine profile in the book of Dave Koza, the pride of Torrington, Wyoming. Koza put an end to the marathon in the bottom of the 33rd with an RBI single. But, though he put up decent numbers in Pawtucket for several seasons, Koza never spent a day in the bigs. His athletic dreams were defeated by curveballs, which he could never learn to hit.

An occupational hazard of those who both love and write about the Grand Old Game is to get a bit too sentimental and to intellectualize the whole business too much. Barry falls prey to this a bit. No matter how long and weird, I really doubt the experience that night "…forced those watching the game to contemplate cosmic issues that transcend the successive crises of balls and strikes. The interdependence we all share. The inadequacy of statistics to measure one's worth. The existence of God." More like, they just tried to figure out how to stay warm and wondered what they were still doing there.

But readers will cut Barry some slack for these flights because of the fine and very readable portraits he has painted, and the insights he offers into that treasured bit of American cultural connective tissue that is baseball.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.