Milt Pappas is remembered primarily for two things: He was traded for Frank Robinson, and he became the only pitcher to lose a perfect game by walking the 27th batter he faced. (Max Scherzer lost one last season by hitting the 27th batter.)
Both episodes obscure the legacy of a pitcher who had a tremendous career, winning 209 games, making two All-Star teams and starting the 1965 game and serving as a rotation anchor for 16 major league seasons. Pappas died Tuesday at age 76.
In September 1972, while pitching for the Chicago Cubs, Pappas retired the first 26 Padres he faced. He got ahead 1-2 on pinch-hitter Larry Stahl, who then worked it to a full count. The 3-2 pitch was a fastball on the outside corner. Or on the black. Or just outside. Stahl checked his swing. Umpire Bruce Froemming called it ball four and in the video you can see Pappas barking at Froemming, with some of the obscenities in Greek. Pappas completed the no-hitter but always maintained that Froemming blew the call. "I really don't know what Bruce was thinking," Pappas said in a 1989 interview. "I think he was very stupid in what he did. ... All he had to do was raise his right hand and I'm sure nobody would have squawked."
Pappas described the entire sequence to WGN.tv on the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field:
"I'm one pitch from the greatest thing a pitcher can do. Next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, ball two. Next pitch, another slider on the corner, ball three. All these pitches were right there and I'm saying 'C'mon, Froemming, they're all right there.' Now comes the 3-2 pitch, again on the outside corner, ball four. I went crazy. I called Bruce Froemming every name you can think of. I knew he didn't have the guts to throw me out, because I still had the no-hitter. The next guy, Garry Jestadt popped up to Carmen Fanzone and I got the no-hitter, which was great. But those balls should have been called strikes."
Born and raised in Detroit, Pappas signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957 and was in the majors at age 18 after just 11 innings in the minors. Still a teenager, he went 10-10 with a 4.06 ERA in 1958 and then won 15 games in 1959. This was the start of an era when the Orioles' farm system under general managers Paul Richards and then Lee MacPhail and farm director Harry Dalton was churning out prospect after prospect. Dave McNally signed in 1960 and would win 184 games in the majors. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, winner of 268 games, signed in 1963. All three reached the majors while still teenagers. A fourth teenager, Wally Bunker, won 19 games in 1964 at age 19, although he battled arm injuries and would finish with 60 wins. Steve Barber and Jack Fisher, also signed in 1957, would combine for more than 200 major league wins. It was an amazing pipeline of talent and that list doesn't even include the position players, such as Brooks Robinson.
The young Pappas threw hard. Harry Brecheen, his pitching coach in the early 1960s, was quoted in the "1965 Official Baseball Almanac" as saying a young "Milt has more hard stuff than anyone in the league. He can use his fastball more than most pitchers because he has one that sinks and one that rises."
He made his first All-Star team in 1962 and then started the game in 1965 after going 9-3 with a 1.74 ERA in the first half. Then that offseason came one of the most memorable trades in major league history. The Orioles traded Pappas and two other players (Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson) for Frank Robinson. Pappas was 27; Robinson was 30, coming off a season in which he hit .296 with 33 home runs and 113 RBIs. Reds owner/GM Bill DeWitt would make a famous quote that spring, saying he traded Robinson because "Robinson is not a young 30. If he'd been 26, we might not have traded him." In mythology, the quote became "Robinson was an old 30." Either way, DeWitt was following the lead of Branch Rickey, that it's better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.
Well, he was wrong. Robinson went out and won the Triple Crown, the Orioles won the World Series and Pappas had the worst season of his career. After a better season in 1967, the Reds traded Pappas to the Braves early in 1968. Robinson helped the Orioles to three more AL pennants from 1969 to 1971.
Still, there have been many more lopsided trades than this one. Pappas accumulated 24.9 WAR after the trade, Robinson 43.4. The Reds just made things worse by trading away Pappas, who went on to have several solid seasons with the Cubs after they acquired him from the Braves. In fact, by FanGraphs WAR, the 1970 Cubs rotation of Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, Bill Hands and Pappas ranks as the best of the divisional era, tied with the 2011 Phillies at 26.0 WAR. But the bullpen and offense weren't as good and the Cubs finished 84-78.