Bottom of the 33rd
Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game
Harper: 257 pp., $26.99
In 1981, Major League players went on strike in a dispute over compensation for free agency. For nearly two months, parks around the country sat empty. The “work stoppage” changed the standard formula for playoff participation in ways that hadn’t been seen for nearly 100 years. For fans of the grand old game the whole season felt, well, weird.
But on a scale of weirdness the strike was nothing in the baseball cosmos compared to a game scheduled on Holy Saturday in run-down old McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. The date was April 18 and the Rochester Red Wings, then a Baltimore Orioles farm team, were in town to play the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
Easter is generally considered a spring holiday, but not in New England — at least not that year. The night was bitter cold with the wind blowing in from the outfield. Hard-hit fly balls died and became easy outs. This was a bad night to be a hitter, an umpire or an outfielder standing around waiting for the ball. Pitchers had a better night of it, but they were still cold. One veteran Rochester hurler started a little enterprise trading old baseballs for firewood, or anything that would burn, in the large garbage can he installed in the visiting team’s bullpen.
Balky stadium lights forced a late start, but once the game began it wouldn’t stop. Scoring opportunities came and went, and inning after inning passed with zeroes going up on the scoreboard. There was no “work stoppage” in Pawtucket on that night, nothing in the umpire’s league handbook that suggested a curfew. Going into the 27th inning, it became the longest game in modern baseball history. Eight hours later, on Easter morning, some common sense prevailed and the game — tied, 2-2 — was suspended on the urging of the league’s president, who finally weighed in at 4 a.m. The game was completed two months later, drawing a far larger crowd as well as national media attention as the major-league baseball strike continued.
Dan Barry’s “Bottom of the 33rd” is a fascinating, beautifully told story of a ballgame and those in its sphere of influence. The lineups that night included players such as Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. — who would have Hall of Fame careers for the Red Sox and Orioles, respectively — and some other players who would go on to be asked that haunting question “Why didn’t you make it?” as if getting a call to the Show is as guaranteed as moving from third to fourth grade.
In the hands of Barry, a national correspondent for the New York Times, this marathon of duty, loyalty, misery and folly becomes a riveting narrative. He deftly weaves what little action there was on the field into a history of the fading stadium in a blue-collar city, the lives of the players, managers, broadcasters, the team officials and some of the 20 or so spectators who stayed on that night because of the tradition that fans don’t leave until the last out. The book feels like “Our Town” on the diamond.
Barry’s conversational tone is nearly perfect. His book is one of the best things written about the weird baseball season that was 1981 when a minor-league game that started in April ended in June at the bottom of the 33rd inning.
Thurber is The Times’ book editor.