Eight innings into a no-hitter, there was no way Jim Palmer was going to let Reggie Jackson spoil the fun.
“I walked Reggie,” Palmer says over the phone, recalling the gem he pitched against the Oakland A’s at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium 50 years ago this week, on Aug. 13, 1969. “I wasn’t going to let him ruin my no-hitter.”
The strategy worked, although just barely. After Jackson’s lead-off walk in the ninth, Sal Bando lined out to centerfielder Paul Blair, and first baseman Danny Cater hit what appeared to be a double-play grounder to shortstop Bobby Floyd (subbing for the injured, and reliably sure-handed, Mark Belanger). Floyd bobbled the ball and got only the force out at second. Palmer then walked the next two batters to load the bases with two out. Catcher Larry Haney, Palmer’s teammate on the 1966 and 1967 Orioles, stepped up to the plate.
“I knew Larry, he was a pull hitter,” Palmer recalls. “He hit a grounder to Bobby Floyd, and the game ended."
“Nail-Biting Ninth Drains Fans As Palmer Pitches No-Hitter,” the headline in the next day’s Evening Sun shouted. As the game ended, with the Orioles winning 8-0, the crowd of 16,826 “leaped to its feet with the wildest of cheering,” reporter Jim Elliot wrote in The Sun, published earlier that same day.
Not bad for a pitcher who had spent much of the past two years injured, and had come back from a back injury only a few days before Oakland came to town. Then again, in his first game back, against Minnesota, Palmer had pitched six shutout innings. And his record going into the Oakland game was 10-2. So maybe the no-hitter wasn’t all that much of a surprise. “Jim Palmer’s amazing comeback reached historic proportions last night,” Elliot wrote.
“For me, it was kind of an important year,” says Palmer, who had won 33 games as an Oriole before the no-hitter and would go on to win 234 after it in a Hall-of-Fame career during which he played for no other team. “It was the first year I pitched for Earl, Frank was healthy, McNally was on a run, we had traded for Mike Cuellar. We had a pretty good ball club, and I was just happy to be a part of it.”
(A little annotation for those not versed in O’s lore: Earl=Earl Weaver, who was in his first year as manager — like Palmer, he was an Oriole his entire career, and would end up in the Hall of Fame; Frank=Frank Robinson, who had won the triple crown in 1966 and, despite an injury in 1967 that left him with lingering double vision, was again one of the league’s best players; McNally=pitcher Dave McNally, who began the 1969 season going 15-0; pitcher Mike Cuellar had come over from Houston after the 1968 season and would co-win the American League Cy Young award in 1969, with Detroit’s Denny McLain, going 23-11. Wow, did the O’s have a team that year!)
Palmer, who was 23 when he pitched his no-hitter, is famous for remembering the details of his pitching performances, and the no-hitter is no exception. The mid-August day was not especially hot, he recalls. He had two hits himself in the game (the designated hitter rule was still four years away, meaning pitchers had to bat). He walked six batters, including those three in the ninth inning.
And Belanger wasn’t the only gold-glover missing from the O’s infield that day; regular second-baseman Dave Johnson also was injured, with left-fielder Don Buford filling in. Fortunately, Palmer recalls, “there weren’t any really significant plays in the game, no diving plays or that kind of stuff.” (Elliot’s story noted that Frank Robinson made a “suspenseful” catch for an out to end the sixth.)
Holding to baseball tradition, neither Palmer nor his teammates, according to a story by The Sun’s Lou Hatter, made any mention of a possible no-hitter during the game. But while the Orioles were at bat in the eighth inning, Palmer put his hand to his throat and feigned choking — perhaps to ward off any evil vibes. “I knew I had a no-hitter, of course,” Palmer told Hatter. “You can always see the scoreboard.”
But when the game was over, his delighted teammates let him have it — not for pitching a no-hitter, but for some inglorious base-running, a fourth-inning slide into home plate that ended in a collision with Oakland catcher Dave Duncan and pitcher Chuck Dobson. Palmer was called out, and for his exploits, a kangaroo court held after the game (with presiding judge Frank Robinson) awarded him the John Mason base-running award, named for an Orioles’ minor-leaguer “whose base running was not among his most distinguishing talents,” according to Hatter.
For the game, Palmer threw 142 pitches — all but 19 were fastballs. Afterward, he said his tender back had given him no problem. “If I can keep pitching like this, it won’t bother me,” Palmer said.
Palmer wasn’t the only Oriole to shine that night; Brooks Robinson hit his 193rd career home run as a third baseman, setting a new major-league mark. But that accomplishment was overshadowed by Palmer’s rare feat. There had been only three O’s no-hitters prior to Palmer’s: Hoyt Wilhelm in 1958, Steve Barber and Stu Miller combining for one in 1967, and Tom Phoebus in 1968. And there’s been only one since, with Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson combining for one in 1991.
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And it wasn’t just O’s fans who appreciated Palmer’s effort. Some time after the game, Haney, the former teammate who had made the final out, said his wife and mother were in the Memorial Stadium stands. “My wife Connie and mother were routing for you, not me,” he told Palmer.