Not only did he have the best fastball in Northern California, but the teenager’s heater was among the best in all of baseball, including the major leagues. He would move on and lead the Reds to back-to-back World Series championships.
Several storybook pitching duels have taken place throughout the history of nonprofessional and exhibition baseball. In 1935, the great Satchel Paige and his Bismarck, North Dakota Churchills squared off against Chet Brewer and the fabled Kansas City Monarchs in a nine-inning exhibition game played in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The pair of right-handers combined to strike out thirty batters with Paige whiffing seventeen. Also, there was Paige’s infamous 1-0, thirteen-inning victory over Dizzy Dean in an after-season showcase staged in Hollywood, California. Dean had just led his Gas House Gang and the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship. Paige again struck out seventeen batters while Dean chipped in with fifteen for a total of thirty-two. These games may have been labeled as exhibition contests, but all of these pitchers were getting paid for their services.
On May 21, 1981, during the opening round of the NCAA regional baseball playoffs, a game was played in New Haven, Connecticut at run-down Yale Field that pitted the heavily favored 31-2 Redmen of St. John’s University against the home team Yale Bulldogs, a club with twelve losses. Articles about this game have been written days, years, even decades later including Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game” which appeared July 20, 1981, in The New Yorker. The game matched Yale’s two-time All-American pitcher Ron Darling against St. John’s unbeaten lefty, Frank Viola. Supposedly, among the two to three thousand fans in attendance were fifty major-league scouts. A classic pitcher’s duel took place with neither team getting a man to third base through the first nine innings. The Eli’s couldn’t manage to score after stranding six runners in the first five innings against the crafty Viola while the Redmen didn’t even threaten as Darling was tossing a no-hitter. St. John’s number two pitcher and future major-league star John Franco summed up the game: It was like one of the big boxing matches like whoever was gonna land a big blow -- and we landed a big blow with an infield hit.
The ice was finally broken in the twelfth inning when St. John’s speedy leadoff man, Steve Scafa, drubbed an infield single, stole second, stole third, and then stole home on a double-steal to win the game. Viola pitched 11 innings, gave up seven hits, two walks, and struck out seven. Darling took the tough loss while giving up just the one bloop single. He walked five and struck out 16. Just a few days later, Darling was selected in the first round of Major League Baseball’s Annual June Draft -- the ninth pick overall by the Texas Rangers. Frank Viola was picked thirty-seventh overall, early in the second round by the Minnesota Twins. Both went on to have stellar major-league careers with Viola named World Series MVP in 1987 and winning a Cy Young Award in 1988. Also, Yale outfielder Rich Diana went on to play football for the Miami Dolphins and shortstop Bob Brooke skated for pro hockey’s Minnesota North Stars. Future articles written about this game have been headlined: “The Greatest College Baseball Game of All-time” or “The Greatest Amateur Baseball Game Ever Played.” Not so fast, Quickdraw. Two articles published by the Appeal Democrat in Marysville, California during the spring of 1966 would prove otherwise.
Late spring, 1966 -- Oroville, California.
It was the first game of the 1966 American Legion baseball season, played under the lights at Oroville’s Mitchell Field and the stands were jam-packed ... standing room only. Any news about the trepidation and excitement that preceded this game, or the one that followed a week later, would have been an understatement. Northern California had witnessed her fair share of thrilling, nail-biting baseball games in the past -- pitcher’s duels, slugfests, walk-off homers, bat-wielding bench-clearing brawls, championship games ... you name it. The anticipation of these particular Northern California Legion games could only be matched by a 1927 contest that featured legendaries Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a touring, barnstorming exhibition game played at Marysville’s old Third Street Ball Park. That game was sold-out days in advance at fifty cents a ticket and had an air to it more like a Big-Top Circus that was coming to town rather than an exhibition baseball game; although, Dunnigan pitcher Clyde "Tub" Perry from Sutter, California was out to make a name for himself. Ruth and Gehrig were playing-managers on opposing teams made up of star players from the semi-pro Sacramento Valley League. The two idols both hit a pair of mammoth homers, but the game was mostly played in good-natured josh.
Stats and surrounding circumstances are what make these two Northern California American Legion games special. Oroville Post 95 was the three-time defending champion and their star pitcher had just led his Oroville Union High School Tigers to their third straight Sierra Foothill League title. His combined Legion and High School record was 48-3. One of those losses was a 5-3 setback to the Marysville High School Indians when the Oroville pitcher was a sophomore while another was to Sacramento’s powerful Bishop Armstrong High School (Christian Brothers High School) in a last inning relief appearance while pitching with a cast on his left wrist. A suicide bunt that landed in left field delivered the winning run. The Oroville ace not only had the best fastball in Northern California but possessed one of the best heaters in all of baseball, including the major leagues. Hall of Famer and L.A. Angel baseball scout Joe "Flash" Gordon had scouted the Oroville star in a high school game and told minor-league manager Harry Dunlop: That kid could pitch in the majors right now.
Of course, the Oroville pitcher was the great Gary Nolan, arguably and statistically the greatest pitcher ever to come out of Northern California. Nolan, who stood 6'1" and weighed 193 pounds, was a big, strong country boy that was ready for the majors well before collecting his high school diploma. The “Great One” threw gas, was a flame-thrower, was fastest in all the land, and ... threw strikes. While still a teenager, Nolan would lead the National League in strikeouts per nine innings (8.18) and finish runners-up to Tom Seaver for NL Rookie of the Year honors.
Opening night in Oroville was electric. The jam-packed stands at Oroville’s historic Mitchell Field included more than twenty major-league scouts, all there to see if Nolan was worthy of a first-round draft pick in the upcoming MLB June Draft. The visitors, Yuba-Sutter Post 42, had a hard-throwing right-hander of there own in William Daniel Wright who had just finished his first season at Yuba College. He would go on and set several pitching records at Yuba, and would be an Atlanta Braves’ 38th-round pick in the 1967 June Draft. He had faced Nolan several times before but without success. Post 42 also had Yuba City High's Bobby Thompson and East Nicolaus standout John Stam available, both on their way to setting school records by tossing shutouts and no-hitters for the Honkers and Spartans. Why waste your best pitching against Nolan who was virtually unbeatable? Instead, throw somebody else to the wolves and save Wright for the next game. Is that what Yuba-Sutter coach Fred Heringer had in mind or did the ex-pitcher and team captain from Stanford know differently? He was Stanford University’s ace pitcher in 1935, and that summer, led Amalgamated Sugar to a semi-pro Rural League championship. Heringer, a Yuba-Sutter peach farmer from Clarksburg, California, was also the starting pitcher for a team called the U.S Olympics when baseball was first introduced as a possible Olympic sport in 1936. That exhibition game took place in front of 90,000 spectators at Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
The sacrificial lamb would be Davie Van Roth -- Olivehurst-Linda’s 145-pound, rookie, sixteen-year-old Marysville JV pitcher coached by Tom Crowhurst. Van Roth was no slouch. He had struck out 131 batters in sixty-seven frames, averaging nearly two strikeouts per inning with an 8-1 record. His 1-0, no-hit, eighteen-strikeout masterpiece on May the twenty-first where he tripled and scored the game’s only run is the greatest performance ever displayed in a Marysville Indian uniform. Two days later, he got called up to the varsity and promptly registered a 3-2 win over the Thunderbirds of Las Plumas.
Nolan was pitching one of his typical games, on his way to nineteen strikeouts, while Van Roth needed a nifty double play by shortstop Salvador “Sally” Balderrama in the first inning to get out of a jam. He was in trouble again in the second when Oroville’s Don Anderson led off with a double, but Van Roth countered by striking out the side to end the inning. Three errors in the third inning again put the lanky Yuba-Sutter right-hander in a hole, but he climbed his way out with another strikeout and got cleanup hitter Don Blake to pop up for the third out. Van Roth was tough when need be while Nolan was cruising along with a no-hitter. Then ... in the fourth, Nolan made two mistakes. He walked number two hitter Keith Shaw and when Wright’s high fly ball to deep right field sailed into the darkness above the stadium lights, Shaw scored as the ball dropped for a double. The hometown crowd went silent. There would be no more Oroville threats as Van Roth toughened and got better as the game went on. The final rock was slung and the mighty behemoth fell. Van Roth stood there in triumph like a Verrocchio statue with a mysterious glaze clouding his vision. He had no idea what this childhood glory would lead to next.
All toll, there was one run scored and 33 strikeouts recorded. The “Great One” barely knew the meaning of losing and he didn’t like it, especially in front of his hometown fans and several professional scouts. It was supposed to be his signature game before turning pro. Instead, he had to accept defeat, and worse yet, it came by way of some skinny little sixteen-year-old beanpole. The 1-0 victory set the stage for a rematch, a grudge match exactly one week later; again under the lights in front of a full house, only this time it would be played at Marysville’s own historic arena -- Bryant Park.
Post 42’s Danny Wright and lefty John Stam would later feast on lowly Red Bluff, but it would be Olivehurst-Linda’s Davie Van Roth that once again got thrown into the lion’s den to face an angry Nolan. Another duel immediately ensued with Nolan pitching with even more intensity; with more motive; with more furor. His blazing heater was faster than during the previous matchup as he struck out batter after batter at a record pace. Vapor trails appeared in the cool night air behind his lightning-quick fastballs. While “Gary the Great” was putting up zero after zero, so too was Van Roth with his pinpoint control and sharp-breaking overhand curveball. Neither team threatened till the sixth when Oroville finally put a man in scoring position, but as in the battle before, Van Roth tightened, and a strikeout ended the threat.
Didn’t you hear Nolan screaming at you from second base? asked Yuba-Sutter second baseman Keith Shaw between innings. Didn't you hear him cussing you out? Tryin’ to rattle ya? I don’t hear a sound while I’m pitching, replied a stoic Van Roth. The duel raged on and after nine innings, the score was still knotted at nil. Nolan was on the verge of breaking his own record of twenty-three strikeouts in a single game set a year earlier against Red Bluff. These are the kind of games when a young pitcher’s arm could hyper-extend. A muscle or tendon could tear, snap, or stretch beyond repair with one pitch and a promising career could come to a sudden halt. There would be no relief pitchers in the tenth, nor would there be any runs. Then ... in the eleventh, it looked like the young Van Roth was about to fall. With one out, Oroville loaded the bases on an error, a single, and a walk. Their number three and four hitters were waiting at the on-deck circle when Post 42 manager Fred Heringer called a timeout and took the long walk to the pitcher’s mound.
Tired? Asked the Yuba-Sutter skipper. The middle-aged coach was met by radiating eyes of lethal determination. Van Roth stood there statuesque as if seventeen-foot tall and made of Tuscan Carrera while posing in the classic contrapposto style and anticipating a second killing of the leviathan. Nolan had appeared as an unconquerable giant but the closer Van Roth neared him, the more his size had diminished. Let me finish, said Van Roth. It’s my game to win or lose. Oroville shortstop J. Stafford struck out before cleanup-hitter Don Blake ended the eleventh by grounding to Balderrama. Again, Van Roth upped his game and pulled one final rabbit out from under his cap. Nolan and Van Roth fought it out to an eleven-inning stalemate as league rules stated that a pitcher could only pitch eleven innings on any given day.
When it was all over, Van Roth had pitched an eleven-inning two-hitter, walked one, and struck out twelve. Nolan gave up five hits, walked four, and struck out a record-breaking twenty-five batters. In the two games between Nolan and Van Roth, after twenty innings, there was one run scored and seventy batters had struck out; thirty-seven in game two with Nolan striking out twenty-five -- all Northern California records that still stand today. Never, has 37 strikeouts been recorded in a baseball game of eleven innings or less. In 1971, there were 43 K’s in an MLB game between the Angels and A’s, but that was during a twenty-inning marathon with 2.15 K’s per inning and included several relief pitchers. Van Roth and Nolan combined to average 3.36 strikeouts per inning. A week later, Cincinnati selected Gary Nolan as their number one pick in professional baseball’s Annual June Draft. In 1971, Nolan led the National League in winning percentage with his 15-5 record and his 1.99 ERA would be second only to Steve Carlton’s 1.97. Just a few years later, “Gary the Great” would lead Cincinnati and their Big Red Machine to back-to-back World Series Championships.
The next morning, Van Roth couldn’t lift his right arm. He received a cortisone shot the following Monday and wore his arm in a sling for a week before his next and final pitching assignment of the season -- a complete game, 4-2 win against Chico and Baltimore Oriole draftee Mike Welker who would go on to pitch four years in the minor leagues. Van Roth had pitched three games against two future professionals, one of which would become Northern California’s greatest pitcher of all-time. He allowed but one earned run for a minuscule 0.31 earned run average and for the year, including high school, compiled a combined 10-1-1 record with a 0.66 ERA while striking out 166 batters in 96 innings pitched or 15.6 K’s per nine innings.
Gary Nolan moved on to become the greatest pitcher ever to don a baseball uniform from Northern California, perhaps well beyond the boundaries of the northern part of the State. Twenty-five miles to the north of Marysville, along highway 70, a road sign once stated: Welcome to Oroville -- Home of Gary Nolan. Nolan was born in the tiny northeastern California town of Herlong before moving to Oroville at an early age where he won more than thirty games as a high school pitcher. He also led his Oroville Post-95 American Legion team to three straight championships, winning eighteen consecutive games during his dynasty before Van Roth ended the streak. Nolan was selected in the first round of Major League baseball's 1966 Annual June Draft -- the thirteenth pick overall by the Cincinnati Reds and reportedly signed a $65,000 contract. That summer, the hard-throwing Nolan was sent to the Sioux Falls Packers of the lower class-A Northern League where he compiled a 7-3 record, striking out 163 batters in just 103 innings and posting a 1.82 earned run average while issuing only 30 free passes. He led the Packers in winning percentage (.700), innings pitched (104), complete games (9), and strikeouts (163). His 1.82 ERA was the team's second-best while his 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings were second-best in the league.
During the spring of 1967, Nolan, at age eighteen, made his major league debut by striking out the side in the first inning of a 7-3 victory over the Houston Astros. Later that season, against San Francisco with the bases loaded, Nolan consecutively struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Jimmie Ray Hart. He struck out Mays four times that game. That same year, as a rookie, Nolan set modern-day records for an eighteen-year-old major-leaguer with his 14-8 record, 2.58 ERA (fourth-best in the N.L.), five shutouts, and 206 strikeouts in 227 innings. He led the Reds pitching staff in complete games (8), innings pitched (226.2), strikeouts (206), K's/9 innings (8.2), and shutouts (5, second-best in the N.L.). His 2.58 ERA and .636 winning percentage were the team's second-best.
A year later, 1968, Nolan was named runners-up to Tom Seaver for the National League Rookie of the Year Award where his 8.179 K's per nine innings was best in the National League. Instead of coddling the young pitching sensation, manager Dave Bristol and the Cincinnati Reds pitted the eighteen-year-old Nolan head-to-head against some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history where he out-dueled future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, and Jim Bunning.
Arm problems cropped up early the next year and Nolan began the season at Tampa in the Class-A Florida State League before rejoining the Reds later that spring. Although his arm ailments persisted, he still managed to record a 9-4 season, 2.40 ERA, and 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, all second-best on the 1968 Reds pitching staff. During his second start of the 1969 season, Nolan pulled a muscle in his right forearm. The injury cost him three months and a demotion to Indianapolis of the AAA American Association for rehab. There, he went 2-0 with a 2.90 ERA while logging only 31 innings before returning to the Reds where he finished with an 8-8 record, 3.56 ERA, and averaged a team-best 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
In 1970, "The Big Red Machine" got rolling with new manager Sparky Anderson. Cincinnati won the National League pennant with their 102-60 record only to fall four games to one in the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. Nolan opened the series against Baltimore's twenty-game-winner Jim Palmer. The “Great One” finished the regular season at 18-7, third-best in the National League and second-best during his major leaguer career. He led the Reds in strikeouts with 181 and innings pitched with 250.2.
In 1971, Nolan slipped to 12-15 with a 3.16 ERA before rebounding a year later by leading the National League with his .750 winning percentage (15-5). Nolan garnered 13 wins before the All-Star break but was scratched from the National League team and placed on the disabled list due to neck and back injuries. He returned to post a stellar 1.99 ERA, just .02 of a point below Steve Carlton's National League-leading 1.97 ERA. The Reds again won the National League, however, fell to the Oakland A's in the World Series.
Although the injuries were adding up, Nolan was told by manager Sparky Anderson that he had to pitch with pain. Far too often, young players are overworked and abused for the sake of another. Nolan’s strikeouts per nine innings were down to 2.6, only appeared twice for the 1973 Reds, and missed the entire 1974 major league season after the removal of a calcium spur from his right shoulder. He no longer had the great fastball and had to rely on changing speeds and pitching savvy. After pitching only 45 innings in an Instructional League, Nolan returned to the majors in 1975 where he posted a 15-9 record and 3.16 ERA for the World Champion Reds. He led Cincinnati's pitching staff with 210.2 innings pitched and his 1.2 walks issued per nine innings was the best in the National League as the 108-54 Reds swept Pittsburgh in the NL Championship Series before topping Boston 4 games to 3 in the Fall Classic.
The following year was much the same. Nolan led the Reds with his 239.1 innings pitched while winning 15 of 24 games with a 3.46 ERA. He allowed only one walk per nine innings pitched, again leading the NL. He also led the NL by issuing 28 gopher balls. Cincinnati swept the Phillies in the NL Championship Series and then swept the New York Yankees in the World Series with Nolan getting the victory in the final. Arm problems returned in 1977 and all but ended his major league career. All toll, Nolan spent 10 years in the majors with a .611 winning percentage (110-70) while posting a career 3.08 earned run average. He struck out 1,030 batters in 1,674.2 innings pitched. In 1983, "Gary the Great" reluctantly accepted enshrinement into the Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Fame. Had it not been for the injuries due to being overworked, Nolan surely would be a member of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. He would have to settle, along with Hall of Fame pitcher "Lefty" Gomez of the nineteen-thirties, as Northern California's greatest and most successful pitcher of all-time.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA'S TOP PITCHERS
(CAREER in MLB)
PI TCHER ERA WIN % WHIP SO/9INN. YRS
GARY NOLAN 3.08* .611 1.145* 5.6 10
TUG MCGRAW 3.14 .511 1.254 6.6* 19
LEFTY GOMEZ 3.34 .649* 1.352 5.3 14
KEN FORSCH 3.37 .502 1.249 4.4 16
NELSON BRILES 3.44 .535 1.273 5.0 14
TOM CANDIOTTI 3.70 .479 1.301 5.7 16
BOB FORSCH 3.76 .553 1.291 3.6 16
DAVIE & GOLIATH