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The Year Army Almost Beat the New York Yankees

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The Year Army Almost Beat the New York Yankees
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Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton

NEW YORK - The outcome won't likely be in doubt when the New York Yankees visit the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on March 30 for the 22nd time - and the first time since 1976 - for an exhibition game against Army's baseball team. New York has won all prior meetings.

The on-again, off-again series began before the Yankees 1927 season. New York's "Murderers' Row" won the first meeting 2-0 in a one and a half-inning, rain-shortened exhibition that turned out to be the closest the cadets would come to beating the Yankees.

Except, of course, for one afternoon in 1966.

After decades of being routed by Yankees teams that regularly played their stars, Army came closest to beating the Bombers on April 29th of that year behind the pitching of third-team All-American Barry DeBolt. The senior cadet tossed a four-hitter against New York in a seven-inning game but lost 1-0 when Army couldn't score against Jim Bouton. Mickey Mantle batted in the game's only run.

Forty-seven years later, DeBolt - who plans to attend the 2013 Yankees-Army game - and his teammates vividly recall the day the cadets nearly beat a Yankees team that included Mantle, Roger Maris, Bobby Richardson, Roy White, Bobby Murcer, Elston Howard, and Tom Tresh.

"It was a surreal day. I can remember warming up in the outfield next to Bouton," DeBolt said. "It was one of those days where the next day, you wake up and ask yourself, 'Did that just happen?'"

After DeBolt gave up back-to-back singles to Richardson and White to start the game, Mantle drove in the game's only run with a groundball to Army second baseman Bob Fazen.

"I tossed it to [shortstop] Kenny Smith to start the double play, but Mantle beat the relay throw to first base," Fazen said. "I must say that I made a bad decision by not throwing home to get Richardson, but who knew that would be their only run?"

Mantle went on to steal the base - a play that Fazen still protests.

"[Catcher] Rich Scaglione threw a perfect strike to me covering second base and Mantle was out, but the umpire … called him safe," Fazen said. "I made a fool of myself yelling at the ump, stating 'He was out,' but the umpire calmly looked at me and said, 'He makes a lot more money than you son.'"

DeBolt went on to retire the next eight hitters before giving up a fourth-inning single to Mantle. He retired the next 11 batters after that and finished the game with only one more blemish - a Clete Boyer single in the seventh inning. In all, he struck out eight Yankees, including Maris.

Describing his curve ball and control that afternoon, DeBolt said, "It was one of those days that the ball kept darting."

The Pennsylvania native who grew up an Indians fan "stole the show from his Yankee counterpart, Jim Bouton," according to The New York Times account of the game.

"We definitely gave them a scare," recalled James Hayes.

Although he didn't appear in the game, Hayes almost had an impact on the outcome.

According to both DeBolt and Hayes, Bouton asked the Army pitchers and catchers how the practice mound at the West Point field compared with the one of the field.

"We told him we thought the one on the field was higher but not significantly," said Hayes. "He persisted several times and I know I told him it was probably only a couple of inches. Truthfully I don't think I had ever thought about it until that day. He said thanks and continued his warmups."

After a tough first inning that included a game-saving catch by Maris off the bat of Army rightfielder Gene Atkinson, Bouton didn't go straight to the dugout, according to Hayes. "He ran out to the left-field bullpen and chewed us all out for telling him it was a high mound, implying the bad info was the reason he had a tough time."

"If we had a fence, it'd have been a home run. I hit it over Maris' head, but he caught up to it and made an over-the-shoulder catch," said Atkinson.

Army's team captain that season, Atkinson said he had been struggling at the plate before the Yankees' visit. After hitting .397 the season before, he said he was trying too hard and often swinging too early at pitches.

"When Bouton came in, he was throwing so hard, I caught up to it," Atkinson said.

Besides his drive to rightfield that would have been a home run in Yankee Stadium, according to the Times, Atkinson also singled off Bouton.

The Army outfielder, who also plans to attend the March 30th game, described the game as routine, except for the number of spectators.

"Instead of 500 people, we had thousands," he said. (According to newspaper accounts, 4,500 fans attended the game.) "The Yankees were in the mess hall; they were in the locker room. We were all just being baseball players."

Ultimately, the game turned out to be the start of one of Army's most successful seasons.

With DeBolt as the team's ace, Army went on to win the first 12 games of the season and finished 16-4. De Bolt finished with a 9-1 record and a 1.26 ERA. In 86 innings, he struck out 102 batters, not including the eight Yankees he mowed down in April.

Despite winning the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League, which comprised the Ivy League, Army and Navy, the team was not invited to the College World Series. Notably, a team that Army beat 10-0 in the regular season (St. John's) went on to finish third in the CWS that year. (The previous year, according to team members, Army was invited to play in the CWS, but the invite was turned down by West Point superintendent General William Westmoreland because the dates conflicted with the Army-Navy baseball game and West Point's graduation schedule.)

New York, meanwhile, ended the 1966 season in last place. Going into the Army game, the Yankees were 2-9; they finished the season 70-89. A few weeks after almost losing to a team of non-scholarship college amateurs, Johnny Keane was axed as manager.

Two years later, the Yankees returned to Doubleday Field - named after Abner Doubleday, an 1843 West Point graduate - on a mission.

On the bus ride to West Point, Yankees manager Ralph Houk told pitcher Al Downing, "I'm tired of hearing these guys talk about what they did two years ago. Show them that it's going to be a different game this year," Downing told Yankees Magazine earlier this year.

Downing followed Houk's orders by hurling six innings of two-hit ball. Pitching coach Whitey Ford, who, according to Downing, didn't like how the 1966 game ended, tossed the seventh (and final) inning in the Yankee's 9-0 win.

By then, a majority of Army's starters from the 1966 team, including DeBolt and Fazen, had begun their military service commitment.

In 1969, before serving one year in Vietnam, a 25-year-old DeBolt was invited to work out in the Yankees minor league camp. However, the team did not sign him.

By then, DeBolt had focused on his military service and was only able to spend about a month every year to play baseball, including a stint with the American gold medal-winning team at the 1967 Pam American Games. That team's bottom-of-the-ninth victory over Cuba in the final game remains DeBolt's greatest experiences as an athlete, he says, even topping the 1966 game against the Yankees or beating Navy three times.

Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.

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