July 6, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Jerry Green

There's nothing quite like a classic pitching duel

Lefthander Warren Spahn was involved in one of the great pitching duels in baseball history, when he faced Juan Marichal in 1963. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The craggy lefthander was 42 when he pitched in the classic of all pitching classics. He had reached the majors at 21, and then he went to war as did most American men of his age. He would take some bullets in battle with the troops in Belgium and Holland, was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.

Then in 1946, he returned to pitching baseballs.

“No one is shooting at me,” he said back then when asked about his return to the ballfield, according to a piece in Sports Illustrated.

By the numbers, Warren Spahn was the greatest lefthanded pitcher in Major League Baseball’s history. He won 363 games. He was a pitcher with a high kick and and a baflfling delivery and a tricky move to first base — plus a tantalizing screwball. He was a pleasure to watch pitch. I was a young eyewitness — I have no need to check out Sports Illustrated to say that.

The night Warren Spahn pitched in the classic of all pitching classics, his rival was 27.

A righthander, the opponent, too, had a high leg kick and twisting delivery — and was a pleasure, most of the time, to watch pitch.

By the numbers, Juan Marichal was not the greatest righthander in Major League Baseball’s history. He won 243 games, a creditable but not amazing total.

On this evening in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Spahn and Marichal engaged in a pitching confrontation for the ages. Pitch against pitch, inning by inning, through the night past midnight and into the next day.

The line score through 15 innings was a batch of zeros. The game was not scoreless — a common language flub by we the media. There was a score. The score was 0-0

Then the ballgame was won — and lost — by a solitary run in the 16th.

Dominating duels

Classic pitching duels are hallmarks in the precious 137-year history of Major League Baseball. Such games are prized by grizzled wise men, such as this purist.

The best of the classic duels do not include only no-hitters. And they do not necessarily include perfect games, a feat that has become quite prevalent in recent years.

The 1917 pitching duel pitting Fred Toney vs. Hippo Vaughn, staged in what is now Wrigley Field, certainly is an historical classic. Neither pitcher allowed the opposing team a basehit through the first nine innings, potentially a double no-hitter. But then Hippo gave up a hit in the top of the 10th. Larry Kopf, a .255 hitter at the time, scratched a single. Kopf would reach third. Then Jim Thorpe — the same Jim Thorpe who played football for the Carliisle Indians and won gold for the U.S. Olympic team — bunted. Kopf scored, Thorpe reached on a single.

That was it. Toney allowed no hits in the bottom of the 10th and pitched a legitimate no-hitter — Reds over Cubs, 1-0.

For sure, Jack Morris’ battle with then young John Smoltz in the Game 7 of the 1991 World Series must be considered a classic. Smoltz departed after 7.1 innings for relief in an unforgetable performance for the Braves. Morris toiled on through the eighth and through the ninth for the Twins. The score was 0-0 —and Morris now embellished the story.

Tom Kelly, the Twins’ scholarly manager, informed Morris that he was being yanked. Jack — being Jack — refused to yield.

“My ball,” he said, or words with that meaning, and went out and pitched the the 10th. The Braves again did not score a run, and in the bottom of the 10th, the Twins scored the necessary run to win Game 7 — and the World Series — 1-0.

The pitching duel was an imperishable classic.

Outside the numbers, Sandy Koufax might be considered the most-talented lefthanded pitcher in history — more talented even than Spahn. But Koufax left the sport and his Dodgers voluntarily at age 30 with 165 victories — and nonetheless was voted, deservedly, into the Hall of Fame.

On Sept. 9, 1965, Koufax was involved in one of baseball’s rare classics. His opponent that night for the Cubs was Bob Hendley. Hendley matched Koufax for seven innings, allowing the Dodgers no hits. Hendley give up one hit and one run and allow only two runners to reach base.

Hendley’s magnificent performance was insufficient.

Koufax pitched a perfect game — his fourth no-hitter. The Dodgers had scored their one run on Lou Johnson’s walk, a sacrifice bunt, a second sacrifice bunt and a wild throw.

The early history of baseball was marked by the pitching dominance of Cy Young — whose name is honored by the annual awards presented to the best pitchers. Young, with the seemingly inviolate record of 511 victories, was a classic pitcher who pitched the first perfect game in modern baseball, post 1900, for the Boston Americans in 1904, against Rube Waddell. But old Cy never was involved in one of these truly rare classics. Neither was Walter Johnson, who won 417 games.

But Addie Joss from that era a century ago pitched in one of the early great duels against Ed Walsh. It was October 8, 1908. Pitching for the then-named Cleveland Naps (after Napoleon Lajoie), outdueled Walsh, of the still-named Chicago White Sox, 1-0. Joss pitched a perfect game.

Joss had a strange occupation during his offseasons with the Cleveland team.

He was employed by a newspaper as a sportswriter.

His career victory total was limited to 160 due to his premature death in Toledo at age 31. He reached the Hall of Fame nevertheless.

No matter, Joss remains the winningest sportswriter in the histories of both baseball and journalsm.

In 1959, baseball was treated to a game in which Harvey Haddix through 12 perfect innings in a 0-0 game. This one is sharp in my memory. It occurred between the Haddix’ Pitates and the then-named Milwaukee Braves. The perfect game became imperfect when the Braves’ Felix Mantilla reached on an errant throw by the Pirates’ third baseman, Don Hoak. Then Haddix lost the no-hitter and the game when Joe Adock hit a wind-assisted home run.

And unltimately a few years before his death in 1994, Haddix would lose his listing among the perfect game pitchers. The nine-inning scoring rule for such records was changed and extra innings would matter to the stats people. Vaughn posthumously lost his listing among the no-hitter pitchers via the same rule change, initiated by then Commissoner Fay Vincent.

Through it all, a panel of one concludes that Spahn vs. Marichal remains supreme among all pitching classics.

They were matched 50 years ago this past week — on July 2-3, 1963.

Both pitchers were dominant in the era along with Koufax, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Don Drysdale. All would land in Cooperstown in the Baseball Hall of Fame. For sure they were all classic pitchers in this period of baseball when pitchers were not coddled and wrapped in ice and started in four-man rotations — and were anrgy if they failed to pitch complete games.

The list of zeroes on the San Francisco scoreboard went to 31 when Marichal kept the Braves from scoring a run in the top of the 16th that night a half-century ago. Pitch counts were then ignored. Spahn had thrown 200 pitches through his 15 innings without issuance of a run.

His first pitch in the bottom of the 16th was a weak screwball. Willie Mays hit it over the fence at Candlestick.

Marichal had defeated Spahn, 1-0. The Giants had outlasted the Braves, 1-0, in 16 innings — a game that was settled at 12:30 of the morning the day after the game had started. Two pitchers had pitched the entire game, two complete games, Spahn 201 pitches in defeat, Marichal 227 in victory — again thanks to SI.

New era, new rules

Among those amazed by Marichal’s confrontation with Warren Spahn over 16 innings was John Farrell, manager of the Red Sox, an ex-pitcher, a pitching coach on a World Series champion in 2007 — and a pitching guru. Farrell believes no major league pitcher will ever again work 16 innings.

“Two things main things come to mind,” Farrell told WBZ Boston’s Jonny Miller, who relayed the information to me and alerted me to the anniversary of the classic of all classics.

“The cost of pitching — the cost of acquiring and the cost of development, and it’s a protected asset. I think in the last 50 years a lot of information has been gained — after a certain limit you’re susceptible to injury.”

Thus, all 30 major league managers judge their starting pitchers’ performance on pitch counts. The max for most pitchers, with rare exceptions, is 100 — sometimes a bit over. Jim Leyland occasionally gives Justin Verlander some leeway for the Tigers. Then, perhaps Verlander’s doggedness has created an inconsistency problem.

Max Scherzer has become — let’s be truthful — the certified ace of the Tigers’ staff dating back to last August. His August pitching in 2012 kept the Tigers viable in their ultimate slip-slide to the pennant — despite the flutter of white flags from non-combatants.

Scherzer’s certification comes with his 13-0 so far this 2013 season.

In six seasons with the Diamondbacks and now the Tigers, Scherzer has started 150 games in regular seasons plus seven games in playoffs and World Series.

He has never finished what he had started — another of baseball’s statistical zeroes, 0 complete games.

And finishing here, it’s all just as Addie Joss might have written it.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.