One of my fondest baseball memories came just a few years ago when I got a chance to sit with Dodger royalty next to the third base dugout before a night game at Dodger Stadium.
It was Tommy Lasorda’s 88th birthday, and as usual he was telling stories and cracking jokes. Orel Hershiser was sitting in front of him, listening to his former skipper while trying to figure out just how much of the truth Lasorda was stretching on this night.
And, with a little prodding from Lasorda, Don Newcombe was talking about the time he started not one — but two — games in one day.
I had to go look it up later, but this was one implausible baseball story that was true. It was Sept. 6, 1950, and the Dodgers were in Philadelphia to play a twilight doubleheader against the Phillies at Shibe Park.
Newcombe took the ball and pitched a complete game three-hit shutout in the opener, which the Dodgers won 2-0 in an efficient 2 hours and 15 minutes. As the teams prepared for the second game, there was a buzz as those in the crowd of 32,379 realized Newcombe was warming up in the bullpen to start Game 2.
He would go seven innings in the nightcap, allowing only two runs before watching the Dodgers rally in the ninth to win 3-2. His pitching line for the day: 16 IP, H 11, ER 2, BB 2, SO 3.
No one, of course, is going to do that again. Even in Newcombe’s era, where pitchers routinely finished the games they started, they didn’t start a second in the same day.
Not even with seven inning doubleheaders, something Newcombe didn’t live long enough to see.
They’re the rage all around baseball now, of course, in a season that seems to feature them almost every day. The Cardinals will play 11 of them after being hit hard by COVID-19, including six in a 14-day stretch beginning Saturday, something that would have been foolhardy — and maybe still is — had they been regulation length games.
And they’ve already boosted the stock of one pitcher, Trevor Bauer, who now has two seven-inning complete game wins on his record — though they didn’t happen on the same day.
More than halfway through the strangest season ever, there’s enough evidence now to evaluate how the abbreviated games are going. And the indications are that players for the most part seem to like them, while fans have grudgingly accepted them.
Really, though, about the best that can be said is this: They’re not terrible.
Players get a shorter day than if they played two nine-inning games, and fans get two games without the time commitment they might have made before. There also seems to be an extra intensity in the early innings because players realize they can’t count on waiting on something happening deep into a regular game.
It goes without saying that the pitching is different. With just seven innings to play, relievers become starters, and starters start thinking like relievers.
“Sounds obvious, but everything happens faster. It’s almost like one good way to look at it is the first inning becomes the third inning,” Reds manager David Bell said.
The problem is that this season means so little the bar is low to begin with. With 16 teams making the playoffs and coronavirus still making a mess of everything, the season is basically a meaningless exercise that has only one purpose — getting baseball to the playoffs, where the real money can be made.
Still, fans are so happy to see some baseball they can overlook the fact doubleheader box scores look like they came from a softball game. And if there are any baseball purists around any longer they pretty much stopped complaining about things when the decision was made to put runners on second base to start extra innings.
Both rule changes are supposed to be an experiment to allow a condensed season, but my guess is both labor and management will at least want the seven-inning doubleheaders to stay. The only catch will be figuring out a way to make fans pay for them, something that could be solved with a shorter schedule that includes Sunday doubleheaders with one admission to both games.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to seven-inning doubleheaders every single Sunday and (having) every single Monday off going forward,’’ Yankees outfielder Mike Tauchman said earlier this season. “I’m just saying.”
No one is going to pitch both ends of them like Newk but, then again, he was a one of a kind pitcher. What he did on that day in 1950 was remarkable, but so was the fact he was just the third Black pitcher in the major leagues and one of four Blacks who integrated the All-Star Game in 1949.
Alcoholism that he would later beat would lead to the end of his career in 1960 and he never won a game for the Dodgers after they moved to Los Angeles. Newcombe died last year at the age of 92, leaving a big void at Dodger Stadium and in the hearts of longtime Dodgers fans.
It was Ernie Banks who loved playing baseball so much that he is remembered for famously saying “Let’s play two!’’
But in a season where doubleheaders are king, it’s a good time to remember when Newcombe went out and actually pitched two.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg