This day in baseball history: A starry afternoon

Major League baseball declared 1969 its centennial year. To commemorate the centennial, it held the annual All-Star game in Washington, D.C.

The game was supposed to be played on Tuesday night, July 22. However, one of those torrential Washington summer storms washed the game out. It was the first time an All-Star game had been postponed. The game was rescheduled for the following afternoon.

I didn’t have a ticket for Tuesday night, but a friend had to work on Wednesday, so he sold me his ticket. I had a job coaching debate that summer, but was able to take the day off.

As of 1969, I had only attended two National League games. Thus, I had never seen the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Bob Gibson play in person. What a thrill it was to walk into RFK Stadium and see Mays and Banks playing catch on the sidelines during warm-ups.

The starting pitchers were Steve Carlton and Mel Stottlemyre. The latter was known to me as Mel Throttlemyre because he always seemed to throttle my Washington Senators. In 1967, for example, I saw him shut us out on Opening Day.

I was disappointed that Carlton was starting for the NL. It wasn’t that Carlton didn’t deserve the assignment. He certainly did. At the all-star break, the lefty sported a 12-5 record and a League best 1.65 ERA. However, I had hoped to see a more storied pitcher, like Gibson or Juan Marichal, start.

Little did I know that Carlton’s career would surpass both of these giants and every other pitcher on either squad.

The Washington Senators were on their way to their first winning season in the team’s nine-year history. Unlike most previous years in the 1960s, in which we had only a token representative on the American League squad, the 1969 team featured two deserving Senators. Frank Howard was the starting left-fielder and relief ace Darold Knowles was in the bullpen.

The game began inauspiciously for Howard. In the very first inning, he muffed a soft fly ball off the bat of Hank Aaron, allowing Matty Alou to score an unearned run.

After Carlton set down the AL in order — Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and Frank Robinson — in the first, the NL added two runs in the second. Johnny Bench did the damage. In his first ever All-Star game at-bat, he belted a home run, driving in Cleon Jones who had singled to begin the inning.

Howard redeemed himself in the bottom of the second inning with a long home run off of Carlton. That made the score 3-1, National League.

After “Hondo’s” home run I could have left the Stadium a delighted man. But, boy, what I would have missed.

The biggest thing I would have missed was Willie McCovey’s home runs. He hit two of them, one off of John “Blue Moon” Odom in the third inning, the other off of reigning AL Cy Young award winner and MVP Denny McLain in the fourth.

The first home run was the most powerful blast I have ever seen in person. It’s listed in Wikipedia at at 400 feet. But that was the point at which it rocketed through the clock on the center field score board. Howard’s home run the previous inning is listed at 440 feet. McCovey’s was the more impressive of the two.

I would also have missed Darold Knowles’s brief appearance. He came on in the top of the third. The NL had already scored five runs off of Odom, and had a runner on second base (Carlton, who had doubled). Knowles retired Alou and Don Kessenger on ground balls to avoid further damage. But the NL was now up 8-1.

I would have missed Bob Gibson’s appearance. He took over from Carlton in the fourth inning. By then the score was 9-2, the result of that second home run by McCovey and one by Bill Freehan.

Gibson struck out the first batter he faced, Boog Powell. Howard was the next batter. Seeing our home town hero facing my number one pitching hero was a highlight of the afternoon.

Howard managed to coax a walk. Sal Bando followed with an infield hit. Then, after Rico Petrocelli was retired on a fly ball, Freehan singled home Reggie Smith, a pinch runner for Howard. Gibson struck out Don Mincher to end the inning.

Gibson set the AL down in order in his other inning of work (the fifth). Carew, Jackson, and Paul Blair all failed to hit the ball out of the infield, but at least none of them struck out.

Other than McCovey’s two home runs, the 1969 All-Star game is best remembered by non-Senators fans as Johnny Bench’s coming out party. I’ve already mentioned his home run. In his next plate appearance, he singled off of Odom during that five-run uprising in the third inning.

The next time up, facing McLain, Bench walked. On-base percentage, 1.000. Slugging average, 2.500.

In his final at-bat, Bench faced Dave McNally. He hit a shot that seemed certain to clear the bullpen fence in left field. But Carl Yastrzemski, using his right hand for leverage, leaped partially over the fence to pull the ball back in the park with his left.

The game was out of reach for the hapless AL by then. I couldn’t decide whether I was happy to have seen Yaz’s great catch or disappointed not to have seen a two home run performance by Bench, who clearly was destined to be a super star.

As usual in All-Star games, both managers, Mayo Smith and Red Schoendienst, mostly cleared their benches of position players. For the AL that meant seeing the likes of Mike Andrews, Carlos May, Roy White, and Johnny Roseboro, plus, to be fair, Brooks Robinson, playing in his 13th straight All-Star game at third base.

For the National League it meant seeing Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, and Pete Rose. I also enjoyed watching “Sudden” Sam McDowell fan four of the six NL batters he faced — Clemente, Alou, Denis Menke, and Lee May.

In all, the game featured (by my count) 17 future Hall of Famers. For the NL: Aaron, McCovey, Ron Santo, Bench, Carlton (all starters), Clemente, Mays, Gibson, Phil Niekro, Banks, and Tony Perez. Marichal and Tom Seaver were on the team but didn’t play. For the AL: Carew, Jackson, Frank Robinson (all starters), Harmon Killebrew, Yastrzemski, and Brooks Robinson.

What a feast!

Since 1969, I have attended another All-Star game and a number of playoff and World Series games, including a Game 7. For sheer enjoyment from start to finish, none of these games, nor any other I’ve seen, matches what I witnessed on this day in 1969.