This Aug. 17 marks the 40th anniversary of the most incredible pitching performance in baseball history. At least it would be the most remarkable performance ever -- if it happened – something even the alleged record holder says probably never happened.
So are we.
What’s not in dispute is that on that date in 1979, St. Louis Cardinals righthander John Fulgham pitched one of the best games of his career against the San Francisco Giants, improving to 5-4 on the season after firing a complete game two-hitter – walking none and striking out five in the process.
What is in dispute is how that game unfolded.
For years, Baseball-Reference.com, considered the bible of baseball record keeping, showed that Fulgham retired the first three batters in the game on just three pitches. In fact, it said that Fulgham had five different innings where he retired the side on just three pitches. That record book says he never fell behind in a count all night and threw just 39 pitches in the complete game victory that was played in a brisk two hours and 11 minutes.
At least that’s what the record book said.
Most box scores on Baseball Reference from that time period did not include pitch counts, but it is odd that roughly half the Giants batters that night had pitch counts recorded in their at-bats.
So did Fulgham throw a 39-pitch complete game or not?
Hal Lanier, a former Cardinals coach, major league manager, player and current Osceola County resident, says he has his doubts.
“Can’t really see that happening in a Little League game let alone a Major League game,” Lanier said. “You would think if a guy got three outs on three pitches in the first inning they are going start taking pitches in the very next inning. So if you’re telling me 15 major league players over nine innings swung at the first pitch and put all 15 of those pitches in play and all 15 were hit in play for an out, I just have an impossible time believing it. I don’t care if it was a meaningless game in the dog days of August or not, Major League hitters are not going to do that.”
For his part, Fulgham also says he doesn’t remember much about the game but also has his doubts.
“I have a hard enough time believing I had a two-hit shutout,” Fulgham told Derrick Goold of Birdland, a website devoted to St. Louis Cardinals baseball, when asked about it on the 30th anniversary of the game in 2009. “It had to have been more than 39 pitches, I think I would have remembered that.”
Fulgham, a former first round pick promising prospect of the Cardinals, saw injuries limit his Major League career to just two seasons, where he made 33 career starts and won 10 games. Interestingly, all 10 his wins were complete games. “It was before the Bruce Sutter era,” Fulgham noted. “Starters were expected to pitch nine innings.”
As for the “39” game, he says he remembers a minor league start where he threw just 72 or 73 pitches in a complete game but flat out says the box score showing a 39-pitch complete game has to be faulty. “No walks and just two hits?,” Fulgham said. “I’m betting it was more like 80 pitches.”
Shortly after Goold’s article appeared, Baseball-Reference.com removed the pitch play-by-play reference from the game’s official record.
Still Fulgham says he “doesn’t remember much about that game,” and now that the official record has been altered to not show the pitch count, who knows how many pitches he actually threw in that game 40 years ago.
One thing is for certain, although it most likely never happened , Fulgham’s 39-pitch gem sure makes for some fun fiction.