Tom Walker threw one of the most incredible no-hitters in baseball history 50 years ago Wednesday at Albuquerque Sports Stadium.
Even more incredible, he nearly lost it because of an untied shoelace.
The Dallas-Fort Worth right-hander felt his heart sink when the Albuquerque Dodgers’ Bob Cummings led off the 14th inning with a line drive to Spurs left fielder Mike Reinbach on what should have been a routine play. Except that Reinbach was down on one knee, fiddling with his laces.
According to the Journal’s account, written by Jerry McDaniel, Reinbach “jumped to his feet, raced frantically for the ball, saw he’d never be able to run that fast and dived – his back to the ground – and somehow made the catch.”
Walker would retire Dodgers’ second baseman Lee Lacy on a grounder to wrap up a 1-0 victory, a 15-inning masterpiece that participants still marvel at half a century later.
“That may be the greatest game I ever played in,” Enos Cabell, a veteran of 15 big league seasons whose RBI double made a winner of Walker, said in a recent interview.
“I played with Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard, so, hey, I played with some pretty good pitchers. I played in no-hitters in the major leagues. But I’ve never seen a game pitched that well.”
Lacy, a veteran of 16 big league seasons, felt as helpless in the batter’s box that night as did the rest of the Dodgers.
“(O)ne of the best-pitched games I’ve ever a part of was Walker there in Albuquerque in 1971,” he said. “It was a great night for him.”
And to think that Walker nearly slept through it.
Time to get up
A heavy downpour struck Albuquerque before game time, delaying the start. Walker stretched out, half-dressed, on a trainer’s table in the visiting clubhouse to relax and fell asleep.
“The next thing I know, my teammate, Wayne Garland, came in and said, ‘Walker, aren’t you gonna pitch?’ There were like two outs in the top of the first inning,” Walker recalled, “so I threw my pants on, buttoned my shirt and went out to the bullpen. Honest to God, I only threw about five or six pitches before I took the hill.”
What should have been a recipe for disaster unaccountably yielded an epic performance from the 22-year-old Orioles farmhand.
That night, before an announced 1,017 fans, Walker was the embodiment of an unhittable hurler, mowing down a potent Dodgers lineup. He struck out 11 and allowed only four base runners.
“He had a really great breaking ball, and they couldn’t touch it. They had no chance,” Cabell recalled. “They only hit probably one ball hard all night. He was just amazing.”
Walker, who posted an 18-23 record with the Expos, Tigers, Cardinals and Angels from 1972-1977, first realized he was flirting with a no-hitter in the seventh inning.
“That ballpark had a great big scoreboard,” said Walker, the father of former big league second baseman Neil Walker. “I looked out there and all I could see were zeroes. The seventh came along and I thought, holy cow, we have a chance here.”
He couldn’t have imagined then that his evening’s work wasn’t even half finished.
Walker set down the first 18 batters before Larry Eckenrode and Lacy drew back-to-back walks in the seventh. Royle Stillman and Gary Moore reached on bases on balls in the eighth, but Walker did not permit another base runner the rest of the way, despite the suffocating pressure.
“It was like sitting on a volcano,” he said. “I guess everybody felt the tension. When the game went into extra innings, you could cut it with a knife.”
Walker retired Lacy to finish the ninth, but he had nothing to show for his efforts because Albuquerque starter Jim Haller was nearly as dominant. Haller shut out the Spurs for 14 innings, scattering nine hits, before manager Monty Basgall decided he’d had enough.
“Haller pitched a fantastic game,” Lacy said. “It’s a shame we couldn’t win it for him. He pitched really well.”
But Walker was even better – maybe a little luckier, too. Cummings’ sinking line drive to left in the 14th nearly fell in because Reinbach was preoccupied with his laces. He recovered in time to spear the ball before it went whizzing past.
“That,” Walker said, “was the biggest play of the game.” Indeed, it saved his no-hitter.
15 and finished
Spurs manager Cal Ripken Sr. approached Walker in the top of the 15th and told him he could pitch only one more inning. Ripken was reluctant to jeopardize the career of a major league prospect over one game, extraordinary though it was.
“He said, ‘Tom, I can’t let you go anymore. This is it.’ I didn’t want to hear that,” Walker said, “but I kind of understood what he was saying.”
Just then Reinbach drew a two-out walk. Cabell followed with a double, his fourth hit of the game, off the wall in left center on a 3-2 pitch by reliever Dave Allen.
“I knew I hit it good, into the gap,” recalled Cabell, the Texas League batting champ (.341) that season. “I didn’t think it was gonna get out, but I didn’t think they were gonna catch it, either. I was just hoping Mike could score.”
Reinbach did, easily. Walker, given a lead at last, retired the Dodgers 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the inning. With his 176th pitch of the night, he induced Lacy to bounce out to second baseman Rich Emard, wrapping up the second-longest no-hitter in professional baseball history. Fred Toney threw a 17-inning gem for Winchester (Kentucky) in the Blue Grass League in 1909.
“I was just trying to get on base and get him in the stretch,” Lacy recalled. “I thought if I could come through and get on, who knows, we could get a rally going. All we needed was one run to tie it.”
But like everyone else in the Albuquerque lineup that night, Lacy came up empty. The Spurs immediately mobbed Walker, and several hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him triumphantly off the field.
“Somebody once asked me, ‘How did you celebrate, other than the guys jumping up and down?'” Walker said. “I guess our celebration was on the bus with some beers while traveling back to Dallas-Fort Worth.”
He resumed his nap on the trip east, but not once did Tom Walker dream of pitching the game of a lifetime. There was no reason to. He’d already thrown it.