Let’s play…3?

Thirty years ago, Rochester and Pawtucket played 33 innings to set an all-time record

April 18, 2011
The Pawtucket-Rochester matchup on April 18, 1981 remains the longest game in professional baseball history. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – When Luis Aponte, pitcher for the Pawtucket Paw Sox, didn't come home until around 2 a.m. after a night game on April 19, 1981, his wife was suspicious.

"I told her I'd just finished pitching at the ballpark, but she didn't believe me," said Aponte.

His wife had no way of knowing that Aponte actually went home while the game was still being played. That night he was a part of the longest game in the history of professional baseball, lasting 32 innings, more than eight hours and wasn't over yet.

The ball game at McCoy Stadium between International League rivals Pawtucket and the visiting Rochester Red Wings began on April 18, 1981 – 30 years ago today – and was suspended in the early morning hours of April 19 – to be continued two months later.

Three decades later, it's the stuff of baseball legend.

The game started at 8 p.m. in Pawtucket, R.I., already about 30 minutes late because of an electrical problem. Two Hall of Famers were on the field, one for each team. Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs each started at third base: Ripken for Rochester and Boggs for Pawtucket.

Starting pitchers Larry Jones of Rochester and Danny Parks of Pawtucket threw six shutout innings on a cold and windy night before the Red Wings put a run on the board in the seventh when left fielder Chris Bourjos plated Mark Corey with a single to left.

It took until the bottom of the ninth for Pawtucket to respond. Chico Walker doubled off the center field wall and was moved to third on a wild pitch by Jones. Designated hitter Russ Laribee earned the RBI with a sacrifice fly, forcing the game into extra innings.

The score remained 1-1 until the top of the 21st. Rochester catcher Dave Huppert doubled in Mike Hart, putting the Red Wings up 2-1. With the game going into its sixth hour on what was now Easter Sunday, Pawtucket first baseman Dave Koza scored from second on a double by Boggs, tying the game back up.

"A lot of people were saying, 'Yeah, yeah, we tied it, we tied it!' And then they said, 'Oh, no, what did you do? We could have gone home!'," said Boggs.

The International League by-laws stated that an umpire should not begin an inning after 12:50 a.m. However, the 1981 International League Instructions for Umpires, Managers and Players had omitted this clause and only referenced a local curfew – which was absent at McCoy Stadium. It was not until the 30th inning that Paw Sox president Ben Mondor brought out the bylaws and the league curfew was discussed.

"All the umpires have to go by is their manual," said Mondor, who believed the umpires were not at fault for the game length.

By this time, the crowd had dwindled form 1,740 fans to about 20, who all received a free ticket to a future game. Only one concession stand was open, offering free coffee and hot chocolate, the stadium music had been turned off and the reporters had a pool in the press box to guess when the inning number and the temperature would be equal.

Finally the game was officially suspended at 4:07 a.m. on April 19 in the 32nd inning when International League President Harold Cooper was woken from sleep at his home and called for a halt to the game.

"When we walked off the field at 4 o'clock in the morning, it was like, 'You mean we're not done with the game yet?'," said Pawtucket catcher Rich Gedman.

Pawtuckett’s Dave Koza donated his bat from the game-winning RBI in the 33rd inning of the longest game in professional baseball history to the Hall of Fame after going 5-for-14 with a run scored. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Some astounding statistics had already occurred, though the game was not over. Dave Huppert caught 31 innings and center fielder Dallas Williams went 0-for-12 for the Red Wings. Eleven pitchers recorded 59 strikeouts. Both teams combined for 213 at-bats, 36 hits and stranded 49 baserunners.

The next day, instead of finishing the game, the teams played their regular nine-inning ballgame and rescheduled the suspended game for the next time Rochester traveled to Pawtucket for a series.

That happened on June 23. The resumption of the game lasted only 18 minutes, in stark contrast to the first 32 innings. In the bottom of the 33rd, Red Wings pitcher Steve Grilli hit Marty Barrett with a pitch, gave up a single to Chico Walker and walked Russ Laribee intentionally to load the bases. He was relieved by Cliff Speck, who gave up an RBI single to left field by Koza which knocked in the winning run.

"This is history," said Koza. "Ever since the end of the 32nd inning, I've been waiting for the 33rd. We're all in Cooperstown now, and for a lot of us it'll be the only way we get there."

Koza was right – a number of artifacts from the game were donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame's collection, including: the cap worn by Red Wings losing pitcher Grilli, a ball from the game, the bat used by Koza and the ball he hit for the game-winning RBI, tickets from the original start and the resumed game, lineup cards from both teams, and the official scorecard from the game.

Thirteen professional records were set during the game by both teams as well as each team and individuals, including: most innings, longest game by time, most total putouts, most total at-bats, most total strikeouts, most total assists and most total chances accepted.

By contrast, the longest Major League Baseball game was a 26-inning, 1-1- tie between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves on May 1, 1920. That game featured complete games by both starting pitchers: Leon Cadore for the Dodgers and Joe Oeschger for the Braves.

But on an April day 61 years later, the minors eclipsed the majors.

"It sank in the next day," said Williams. "Man, we just played 32 innings of baseball. We joked about it. We had smiles on our faces. I was thankful I was a baseball player and on the field that night. As time went by, I appreciated it more."

Samantha Carr is the manager of web and digital media for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum