The Best Performance in Baseball History — That No One Recalls
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not every day you make a group of grown men look like Little Leaguers, especially when it includes Pete Rose and Johnny Bench.
By Sean Braswell
It was the kind of performance that belonged on a Little League field: A single player blows through the opposing team on the pitcher’s mound while smashing a couple of home runs at the plate — more or less beating the other team by himself. Thousands of 12-year-olds have enjoyed that kind of game. Some may even manage to pull it off in high school. But on June 23, 1971, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Rick Wise did it in the big leagues against one of the best teams in baseball.
That’s the night Wise threw a complete game no-hitter on the mound and homered twice at the plate, accounting for three of the Phillies’ runs in a 4-0 victory over Cincinnati’s vaunted “Big Red Machine.” It was arguably the single greatest all-around performance that the game has ever produced, yet if baseball fans know the name Rick Wise, it is for completely different reasons.
The lineup that Wise faced that day in Cincinnati included three future Hall of Famers and a future league MVP.
With so many pitchers taking the mound today looking like lumberjacks fresh off the sawmill, it’s nice to remember one with a clean-cut, bespectacled look that only fellow pitcher Kent Tekulve, and perhaps off-day Orel Hershiser, have managed to equal in the annals of pitching geekdom. Even in uniform, Rick Wise, the pride of Portland, Oregon, looked like he could be your accountant. But once the lanky 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-hander, who won 188 big league ballgames and barely missed three other no-hitters, stepped on that mound, the only thing he had in common with an accountant was an uncanny knack for punching up zeros.
But on that scorching June day in 1971, Wise, who’d been fighting the flu for a week, probably felt more like a punching bag. When he walked out of the cool clubhouse onto the blistering AstroTurf of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, “the heat of the field sucked the breath out of me,” Wise later reflected to MLB.com. “My warm-up pitches seemed to stop halfway to home plate. I felt very weak and thought to myself, ‘You’d better locate your pitches very well or you won’t be around long.’ ”
Compounding the heat and the flu were the defending National League champions. The Reds’ Big Red Machine dynasty was just revving up in 1971. They had yet to win a World Series, but the lineup Wise faced that day included Pete Rose, two future Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench and Tony Perez), a future league MVP (George Foster) and frequent All-Stars Hal McRae, Dave Concepcion and Lee May.
By the time he had made it through the Reds order once, Wise said he had “sweated out the remnants of the flu” and was slowly getting stronger. Through five innings, he was perfect: 15 up and 15 down. In the top of the fifth, he smacked a hanging slider for a home run to left, giving the Phillies a 3-0 lead. A walk to Concepcion in the sixth inning would be his only mistake of the day. After that, Wise would set down another 11 batters in a row, and lead off the eighth inning with another home run, a solo blast to left center field.
In the ninth inning, Wise retired the first two batters, when “low and behold, Pete Rose came to the plate” as he puts it. “He was the last hitter you wanted to see with one out remaining in a no-no.” Baseball’s all-time hit leader took the count to 3 and 2, then lined a fastball away to Philadelphia third baseman John Vukovich, who gloved it to end the game, sealing Wise’s place in baseball history. And the whole thing took just one hour and 53 minutes.
Wise would go on to win 17 games that season for the last-place Phillies, and hit two home runs in yet another game that August. But it would not be his unprecedented no-hitter that many fans would remember him for; instead, Wise became known for being the answer to two of the game’s favorite trivia questions. First, who did the Phillies send to St. Louis in 1972 to get future Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history? And who was the winning pitcher for the Red Sox in the epic Game Six of the 1975 World Series in which Carlton Fisk homered to win it in the bottom of the 12th inning? Wise, and Wise again.
Rick Wise hit 15 home runs in his big league career — despite spending six seasons in the American League after it adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973, which took the bat out of the hands of even good-hitting pitchers like Wise. “I missed the hitting,” he later said of his AL stint. “I always figured I had an advantage over my opponent because I could swing the bat pretty well.”