Over the course of MLB history, there have been many great individual performances by pitchers. There have been 311 official no-hitters, 103 immaculate innings, and 23 official perfect games. Everyone loves home runs and high scoring affairs, but once in a while, it’s great to see pitchers work their magic and dominate another team’s hitters.
If you enjoy the occasional pitching duel, a fierce contest between starting pitchers to see who will crack first and allow the other team to tee off on them, then let me take you back to not only the greatest pitching duel in MLB history, but arguably one of the greatest feats of endurance in baseball history.
On the morning of Saturday, May 1, 1920, it was drizzling rain in Boston. When scheduled Boston Braves pitcher Joe Oeschger sat down for breakfast, he thought he would have a day off, believing that his manager only liked pitching him on Sundays. However, once he got to the field, his manager told him to be ready to pitch once weather conditions lightened up.
So, by 3:00 P.M., the rain let up, leaving the sky still overcast, the field damp, and the temperature a hair above 50 degrees. Nonetheless, the Boston Braves were able to take the field against the Brooklyn Dodgers, with Joe Oeschger throwing the first pitch of the game.
The Dodgers scored in the fifth inning after Oeschger walked the leadoff batter and bobbled a double-play ground ball. With a runner on second, Dodgers second baseman Ivy Olson poked a two-strike, broken-bat flare over the shortstop to give Brooklyn a 1-0 lead.
The Braves tied it in the sixth inning against Brooklyn starter Leon Cadore. Right fielder Walt Cruise tripled to the scoreboard in left and crossed the plate on third baseman Tony Boeckel’s single up the middle. Shortstop Rabbit Maranville followed with a double, but Boeckel was thrown out at home.
Those runs, one by each team, would be the only runs of the game. When Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore took the mound that day, neither of them knew that this would be the longest game in MLB history, lasting 26 innings. Not only did the game last that many innings, Oeschger’s performance lasted that long and so did Cadore’s outing.
Over the course of the game, each pitcher got into a few jams, but excellent defense from both teams prolonged the game. Cadore found his groove by relying on his curveball, retiring 15 straight Braves batters, giving up a lone single in the 20th inning, then mowing down 19 more batters. For the final nine innings of the game, Oeschger didn’t allow a single hit, and he only allowed one batter to get on base, via a two-out walk in the 22nd inning.
In the 20th inning, Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson offered to relieve Cadore from the game, but the pitcher told him, “If that other fellow can go one more inning, I can too.” Braves manager George Stallings trusted Oeschger to pitch the duration of the game, with Oeschger later explaining his own mindset that, “If a pitcher couldn’t go the distance, he soon found himself some other form of occupation.”
Both were 28-year-old, right-handed pitchers, neither Oeschger nor Cadore were star pitchers, but on that May afternoon, their endurance rivaled that of Greek mythical figures. Like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill just to watch it roll back down and start over again, both pitchers completed their tasks and trudged out to the mound to start another inning. Like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, the pitchers carried their respective teams on their shoulders the entire game.
Luckily for spectators of this game that really enjoyed pitching duels, since May 1 was the first day of Daylight Saving Time, sunset came an hour later than if the game was played the day before. The 26th inning ended at 6:50 P.M. EDT, about an hour before official sundown, but the sun had already vanished from sight. Since there weren’t stadium lights back then, the dark overcast clouds and mist from the morning rain made it hard to see during the late stages of the afternoon. The umpire crew chief for the game, Barry McCormick, talked to both managers and called the game because of darkness.
The teams played 26 innings, an inning shy of the equivalent of three regulation nine inning games, in only three hours and fifty minutes. For comparison, in 1974, the Cardinals and Mets played 25 innings in seven hours and four minutes. This outstandingly short game time by today’s standards was achieved by each team completing a half-inning at a pace of about five minutes. How’s that for pace of play?
Nobody knew how many pitches each pitcher threw during that marathon game, but decades later, Oeschger guessed he threw about 250 and Cadore thought he was close to throwing 300 pitches.
“I don’t say I wasn’t a little tired after those 26 innings,” Oeschger said, “but I have been more fatigued in some nine-inning games when I got into a lot of jams. They are what wear a pitcher out. There weren’t too many tight situations in this long game.”
Luckily for the Braves, they had an off day after enduring their 26-inning affair with the Dodgers. Unfortunately for the Brooklyn ballclub, they took a train home and the next day lost a 13-inning game against the Phillies, 4-3. Then, on Monday they went back to Boston to finish off their series with the Braves, losing a 19-inning contest, 2-1. The unfortunate Dodgers played 58 innings of baseball in three days and didn’t have a single win to show for their stamina.
Stressful work hours aside, what does this game mean today in a sport where the starting pitchers rarely complete nine-inning games now nor throw more than 100 pitches regularly? Why should a fan of baseball in 2021 care about a marathon of a game more than 100 years that didn’t showcase any home runs or a bunch of runs?
Well, this game was a testament to the power of the starting pitcher. On any given day, a major league pitcher can be talented enough to shoulder the responsibility of trying to successfully prevent the other team from scoring many runs for the majority of a game. While we likely won’t ever see a starting pitcher throw 26 innings in an outing again, the ability for a starting pitcher to successfully work the bulk of a game’s innings is crucial to a winning team’s success. Oeschger and Cadore’s performances live on as the ultimate example of starting pitchers living up to their job description, even though they had to stay clocked in for a little bit of overtime that day.
For the information in this article, the author consulted baseball-reference.com and sabr.org