Tale of Mets legend Tom Seaver's 10 straight strikeouts: 'That was a piece of art'

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Anthony McCarron
·8 min read
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313314962 0402120 Tom Seaver Treated Art
313314962 0402120 Tom Seaver Treated Art

This article was originally published on April 22, 2020.

Shadows flecked Shea Stadium in the ninth inning, a pitcher's dream, but Al Ferrara was "going for the pump, taking my best shot," as he puts it.

There were two outs in a 2-1 game and Tom Seaver already had fanned nine consecutive hitters for the Mets and 18 overall that Wednesday afternoon. One more to go in a tight game, facing the San Diego Padres outfielder who'd homered off him back in the second inning.

"I stepped out of the box and said, 'He's saying the same thing. He's going for it, too,'" Ferrara recalls. "I went for it.

"The guy was throwing aspirin tablets. When people ask me who was the toughest pitcher, it was always him. He was cocky, a college guy. Those days, we didn't care too much for the college guy. But you have to have that ego -- when he went to the mound, he was going to win, a great, great pitcher.

"To be honest, I had no chance. But you couldn't tell me that."

Ferrara, a Brooklyn native who played a piano recital at Carnegie Hall at 16 before convincing his grandmother to let him pursue baseball, was right. Seaver struck him out on a 1-2 pitch, tying one MLB strikeout record and setting another that still stands.

On April 22, 1970, Seaver matched Steve Carlton's since-broken record of 19 strikeouts in a game and, in whiffing the final 10 batters, established a mark for consecutive strikeouts that has lasted more than half a century.

It's a remarkable accomplishment in a career full of them, on a day, like so many others, when Seaver was dominant.

"You had the sense that Seaver was in that nether-zone that he could get into," says Mets teammate Ron Swoboda. "This is as good as anybody needs to pitch, just going into the seventh inning, and then he dialed it up.

"Holy crap. That was a piece of art."

* * *

The Mets were defending World Champions in 1970, a pitching-rich club that had shocked baseball, beating the powerful Orioles in the World Series to complete a storybook 1969 season.

But they couldn't sneak up on anyone anymore and, early in 1970, were learning that repeating wouldn't be easy. They finished third at 83-79.

"That was the hardest year I remember playing baseball, 1970," Swoboda says. "Everything felt forced. You were trying to reproduce that wonderful sense you had. We were flopping around .500. It didn't feel as good doing that in 1970 because we were the defending champions.

"It was a lot harder to make it happen than to let it happen. In '69, we just let it happen."

Seaver, just 25 years old, was the club's premier player, a star ascendant. Coming off a 25-win season, he was 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA in his first three starts. He started the MLB All-Star Game and won his first National League strikeout crown and first ERA title, going 18-12, and was seventh in the NL Cy Young voting.

Before facing the Padres, Seaver received his 1969 Cy Young Award. After his big game, Seaver joked, "I would have had 20 strikeouts, but I had to carry the Cy Young plaque to the dugout before the game," according to the Associated Press.

There were 14,197 at Shea that spring afternoon, according to the box score on Baseball Reference. The Padres, hardly a juggernaut, were in just their second season after joining the NL as an expansion club in 1969 and on their way to 99 losses.

New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver(41) poses for a portrait at Crosley Field
New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver(41) poses for a portrait at Crosley Field

Several Mets suggested that Seaver's record would have gotten more fanfare over the years had it come facing a powerful team. "Against a contender, it would've been mentioned more," Jerry Koosman says. "But at that time, you wished you were pitching against the Padres when they got to town."

Still, slugger Nate Colbert, who went on to hit 38 homers, was in the lineup. So was Cito Gaston, who played for 13 years in the majors and had a .907 OPS that year. Ferrara, who batted cleanup, had a couple of solid seasons on the back of his baseball card, too.

But other than Ferrara's solo shot in the second, the Padres got one other hit -- a fourth-inning single by Dave Campbell. Seaver walked only two batters. He retired the final 16 hitters.

"Fundamentally, I think it probably was the best game he ever pitched," says Ed Kranepool. "He was so consistent. It was (Jerry) Grote and him. Wherever Grote put his target up, Seaver hit it."

With one out in the sixth, Gaston hit the Padres' final fair ball of the day, a fly to right field. Art Shamsky caught it. "Just a lazy fly ball," Shamsky recalls.

No Mets fielder, aside from Grote, had anything to do the rest of the afternoon. "From a defensive standpoint, it was kind of a boring day, because there weren't any opportunities," Kranepool says. "After the sixth, I didn't cover first base. I stood in whatever position I was in. Totally unusual.

"We were all great fielders that day."

For the final out of the sixth, Seaver caught Ferrara looking at strike three. It was The Franchise's 10th strikeout. There were three innings left.

In the seventh, Seaver struck out Colbert, Campbell and Jerry Morales. In the eighth, Bob Barton was his 14th victim, tying his career-high, and then he fanned pinch-hitter Ramon Webster, matching the Mets' nine-inning record set by Nolan Ryan only four days earlier. Another pinch-hitter, Ivan Murrell, was No. 16 and on a copy of the radio broadcast easily searchable on YouTube, you can hear the crowd surging.

So was Seaver. "I think he bulled up and said, 'Let me let them have it,'" Swoboda says.

In the ninth, he struck out Van Kelly and Gaston to set up another tasty matchup with Ferrara.

"I told myself I'd never get this close again and I might as well go after it," Seaver said after the game, according to AP.

The afternoon shadows may have helped, though Ferrara insists, "That's not an excuse. We weren't going to hit him anyway. It's baseball. You play with what you got. You got shadows. He's throwing BBs. Let's see who wins."

Seaver did. He told reporters afterward it was a fastball that Ferrara swung at and missed, though Ferrara recalls it as a "slider on the black. I was dead as a door nail." Either way, it was brilliant, just like Seaver was on that day.

Eleven of Seaver's strikeouts were looking, which speaks to the exceptional quality of his stuff. Plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt was "a good umpire, not loosey-goosey," Swoboda says.

Seaver threw 81 fastballs, 34 sliders, 19 curves and two changeups, according to various media reports. Koosman kept the pitching chart.

Ferrara, now 81, may have been on the wrong end of history, but he's clearly delighted by his role. And he's right about Seaver being tough on him -- he was 4-for-28 (.143) lifetime against The Franchise, including 15 strikeouts.

When a reporter calls, Ferrara's homer comes up and he quips, "I hope you mention that in the article!"

He wants to keep his spot in baseball lore, too.

"I do speaking engagements, representing the Dodgers (he played for Los Angeles for five years in the 1960s) and, a lot of times, I'll be introduced with Hall-of-Famers," Ferrara says. "They're telling their stats, this guy hit 9,640 home runs, that guy did this. I get up there and tell the Seaver story or how I'm ninth on the list of games by guys with no stolen bases. It's light comedy. You have to keep your sense of humor.

"The Mets fans love Seaver," adds Ferrara, who went to Lafayette High, the same school that produced Sandy Koufax, John Franco and Fred Wilpon. "That's their boy. I'm a New Yorker. I can buy that. My friends back in Brooklyn talk about it, but they all add in the home run."

Seaver no longer shares the single-game strikeout record. Roger Clemens fanned 20 in a game in 1986 and 1996, and Kerry Wood (1998), and Max Scherzer (2016) have also accomplished the feat. In 2001, Randy Johnson pitched the first nine innings of an 11-inning game and struck out 20, too.

But Seaver is still the only single pitcher to get 10 in a row. That, among so many other reasons, is why Seaver's old teammates are still marveling at him, 51 years later.

Shamsky rhapsodizes about "the beauty of Seaver," how the pitcher was "capable of doing something like this every time."

Adds Swoboda: "I don't even know if Tom knew how good he was."