Editor's note: This story was posted Sept. 20, 2007.
"I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business."
--Michael J. Fox
For spans of 34, 24 and 14 years, it never happened.
No one achieved it in the 1970s, 1940s, 1930s, 1910s, 1890s or 1870s.
A perfect game has occurred only 17 times in major league history. Thirty-five Septembers ago, Cubs right-hander Milt Pappas entered the ninth inning against the San Diego Padres needing three straight outs to become just the 10th pitcher to set down all 27 batters in a game.
Pappas, in his 16th and penultimate season, had appeared in three All-Star Games and would retire with 209 wins. But he was best known as the man Baltimore gave up for Cincinnati's Frank Robinson in 1965 to pull off one of the best and most significant trades ever.
On this afternoon, the baseball gods seemed to be with Pappas. Especially in the ninth. Billy Williams' lunging catch in left saved center fielder Bill North, who'd fallen down pursuing what would have been his ball. And when Fred Kendall's wicked shot went foul and the Padres' catcher then grounded to short, Pappas was one out away.
How good did things look for Pappas to complete the perfect game? Only three times had a pitcher failed to seal the deal when he needed but one more out.
Larry Stahl, a .232 career hitter, stepped to the plate as the only Padre between Pappas and perfection.
The left-handed batter swung and missed at the first pitch.
Legendary Chicago broadcaster Jack Brickhouse set the tense scene for his WGN-TV audience:
"Wrigley Field, Chicago, Sept. 2, 1972. Milt Pappas, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, heading for a perfect game. Cubs ahead eight-to-nothing; Larry Stahl pinch-hitting for the pitcher; strike one the count."
Stahl didn't swing at the next pitch, and umpire Bruce Froemming called it a ball, outside, to even the count.
There was no stalling by Pappas between deliveries.
"Pappas fires away. Swing and a miss! Ball one, strike two."
Pappas was just one strike away from immortality.
"Here it comes. Outside! Ball two, strike two."
Pappas and Froemming were both born in 1939; both midwesterners with roots in Europe. The home-plate ump was a Milwaukee native of German origin. The pitcher had entered the world in Detroit, with the unmistakenly Greek surname of "Pappastediodis."
After 13 years of toiling in the minors and nearly two seasons in the majors, Froemming was now one of 14 men on the diamond -- four umpires, nine players, one batter -- who could determine whether Pappas and "perfect" would become synonymous that day, before 12,979 fans at Wrigley Field.
"Here it comes. It's a ball! Ball three, strike two. Low and away that time."
In the most famous of perfect games, Don Larsen's 1956 World Series gem for the Yankees, veteran umpire Babe Pinelli called the 2-2 pitch to the 27th batter in Larsen's favor. Pinelli raised his right hand to ring up Brooklyn's Dale Mitchell, though many saw the climactic pitch as high and outside. Catcher Yogi Berra leaped into the arms of the newly lionized Larsen.
In this case, Froemming's call on 2-2 was a ball.
Catcher Randy Hundley recalls that 2-2 pitch as "a strike, not 'right down Broadway,' but on the outside corner ... a pitcher's pitch." But Hundley didn't dare argue, he says. Earlier in the game, he'd raised Froemming's ire by inadvertently brushing dirt on him when Hundley was really upset at himself for having popped out on an at-bat.
With the count full -- just the second time all game that Pappas got to three balls on a hitter -- Hundley gave the sign for a third straight slider.
"Now here comes one of the most fateful pitches of the year. Ball three, strike two, two outs, perfect game on the line, no-hitter on the line. Watch it. It's a ball. And Pappas is enraged. Ball four. There goes the perfect game. The no-hitter is still intact. Milt Pappas doing a burn."
Focused on what he'd lost, not what he could still achieve -- namely, a no-hitter -- Pappas unleashed a tirade toward Froemming.
After all, Pappas went from the verge of being the only Cub to throw a perfect game to the only pitcher in history to walk a game's 27th batter after retiring the first 26.
Far from subsiding, Pappas' bitterness has been brewing for 35 years.
"I still to this day don't understand what Bruce Froemming was going through in his mind at that time," Pappas says. "Why didn't he throw up that right hand like the umpire did in the perfect game with Don Larsen?"
Pappas says his last three pitches to Stahl, judged by Froemming to be off the outside corner, were all much better than Larsen's historic pitch.
"They were strikes or 'that close' to being strikes that he should've raised his right hand. I had the opportunity to have a perfect game and unfortunately, Bruce Froemming did not help me at all."
Froemming says his lone concern on the last three pitches was, as always, location, location, location.
"They were off the plate and I don't care if he gets a perfect game or not. I'm an umpire and I have to call a pitch where it is."
But Pappas says the circumstances should have come into play for Froemming, and would have for any other ump.
"It's a home game in Wrigley Field. I'm pitching for the Chicago Cubs. The score is 8-0 in favor of the Cubs. What does he have to lose by not calling the last pitch a strike to call a perfect game?"
"If it's a blatant pitch that anybody can see it's a ball, then he should've called it a ball. But it wasn't."
Froemming says he knew that Pappas had a no-hitter, but didn't realize at the time that a perfect game was on the line. "I didn't know if anyone was on base or not. You don't pay any attention to that."
"How can you not realize," Pappas asks rhetorically, "when no one's gone to your right to touch first base? So I don't buy that."
Pappas goes around telling everybody he took it in the shorts and that's not what was the case.
Froemming, now in the final month of a 37-year major league career, remains adamant that the gravity of the moment should never be a factor.
"As an umpire, you're not thinking on the pitch, 'geez, this is a perfect game,'" says Froemming. "You're not into that; you're an official, not a fan. I can't give him something that he doesn't have coming, either. It's either a ball or a strike, and that's the way I've umpired all my life."
Hundley says the 3-2 pitch was a "hair low," but the couple before were "excellent."
"I don't think anybody would've squawked," says Hundley, if Froemming had called any of the three a strike.
In Stahl's recollection, the 3-2 pitch was "about four to six inches outside." He adds that all four balls were accurate calls and that Froemming appropriately called them as he saw them, rather than helping Pappas. "You can't do that. It'd be throwing a game," says Stahl.
Television coverage of the pitches in question is inconclusive. The videotape from the high-angle camera fuels, rather than settles, the debate.
Time often heals old wounds, but not this one. Pappas says he only recently came across footage that is new cause for consternation. The video shows Froemming, after Stahl's base on balls, looking toward Pappas and then walking away, following an earful of invective from the pitcher.
On WGN, Brickhouse said the following: "Froemming, the umpire, walks out, he knows what's on the line here, he knows how important this is, he has his job to do, he called it as he saw it."
The Brickhouse description didn't capture what Pappas sees now, more than three decades later. From Pappas' perspective, the umpire appears to be enjoying the moment.
"When he (Froemming) turns around and walks back to home plate, he has a smirk on his face, which I never noticed before," says Pappas. "Right then, again, I wanted to kill Bruce Froemming. I said, 'This man cost me a perfect game. Not only that, now he's smirking as he's walking back toward home plate, like ''Ha ha, I gotcha." '"
"That's so inaccurate, it's unbelievable," Froemming says. "It's stuff that he's made up in his mind. I don't derive any pleasure if he got a perfect game or a one-hitter. It doesn't mean anything to me."
On that day in 1972, Pappas did get a no-hitter. After jawing at Froemming, he got Gary Jestadt on a pop-up, setting off a celebration. Pappas is the only man to miss out on a perfect game with one out to go and then complete a no-hitter by retiring the next hitter.
In his postgame interviews, Pappas didn't call out the man who called ball four.
The next day's Chicago Tribune, under a headline "Pappas Pitches No-hitter" and sub-headline "Perfection Bid Ends on Walk," quoted a diplomatic Pappas: "I wanted that perfect game so badly. But I guess I shouldn't be greedy. The pitches were balls. They were borderline but balls. Froemming called a real good game."
In Pappas' 2000 autobiography, "Out at Home," he explained the postgame remarks as "a lot of things meant strictly for public consumption at the time and to keep me from being fined."
To this day, Pappas and Froemming disagree on just about everything. Pappas says they talked the day after the no-hitter; Froemming says they never spoke until meeting at a banquet several years later. Froemming says Pappas had an autographed ball delivered to him the next day; Pappas says Froemming personally asked him for the autographed ball.
Pappas tempers his take only slightly in tribute to Froemming, for the longest tenure in umpiring history.
"I have to admire the guy for lasting as long as he did, but I still feel in my own heart that he robbed me of a perfect game. ... I wish him nothing but the best. I just wish he had retired 37 years ago."
On what is arguably the most controversial on-field episode of his career, and the one he's always asked about, Froemming offers a succinct summary judgment.
"Pappas goes around telling everybody he took it in the shorts and that's not what was the case."
William Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines." ESPN correspondent Mark Schwarz contributed to this report.