The 1981 Rochester Red Wings’ Media Guide has my name listed third, right behind team radio broadcasters Don Fisher and John Harmon. To this day I consider working for a community minor league baseball club affiliated then with the Orioles for a total of four seasons to be a career highlight.
For each home game at Rochester’s Silver Stadium I would provide color commentary in support of either Fisher or Harmon. Being third usually meant I would perform my broadcast duties on WPXN radio even on the weekends when the team was on the road. That was the case on Saturday night, April 18, 1981 when one of the most talked about games in professional baseball history would begin. Some of the memorabilia from an otherwise ordinary game on the International League schedule would wind up in the Hall of Fame. So would a couple of the players.
The Red Wings were playing in Pawtucket, Rhode Island against the AAA affiliate of the Red Sox. To save a few bucks when the Red Wings were on the road, general manager Bob Drew would handle the play-by-play duties and enlist one of the injured players or one of the pitchers to fill-in with color commentary. On this night it was injured Red Wings relief pitcher Pete Torrez sitting next to Bob at chilly McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket while I was back in Rochester, New York in a nice warm studio. My job for the Wings was to do the pre-game show including the line-ups and the scoreboard show during the inning breaks.
On this Saturday night Don Fisher was involved in Shabbat with his family at their home in Brighton, New York.
In 1981 John Harmon was among a dying breed of sports broadcasters who would work baseball during the summer then try to find a job with one of the other sports in the fall. He had no real home other than the Red Wings clubhouse at Silver Stadium where he would sleep on the trainer’s table next to his one and only suitcase. He never sought sympathy for his lifestyle for two reasons: one, there were plenty of other broadcasters around that would have done anything to have his job and secondly, he was doing what he always wanted in life. His eyesight was beginning to fail so he knew his broadcasting would soon only be a memory. I once invited him to my mother’s for dinner and only then did he tell us about his eating disorder. He had to eat very slowly and yet never felt full. Four hours later I took him back to the ballpark where he told me several restaurants called smorgasbords in Rochester had told him to never darken their doors again.
The darkness was also a problem in Pawtucket on April 18, 1981 when the outfield lights failed several times at McCoy Stadium, delaying the start of a game by 30 minutes. As Danny Parks for Pawtucket and Larry Jones for Rochester threw their first warm-up pitches, no one imagined that little wait would be nothing compared to the history that would be made eight hours and 25 minutes later on Easter Sunday morning at McCoy Stadium.
Both pitchers threw six shutout innings before Rochester scored in the 7th when Chris Bourjos hit a single that scored Mark Corey. The score remained at 1-0 as Luis Aponte took the mound for Pawtucket shutting out the Wings from the 7th to 10th inning. Pawtucket skipperJoe Morgan then allowed Aponte to go home where the poor pitcher was met with a less than understanding wife when he claimed he was on the mound until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Pawtucket was not allowed to slip away in the night as Chico Walker hit a double then moved to third on a wild pitch. D-H Russ Laribee hit a sacrifice fly that sent the game into extra innings. That’s where it stayed until many of the good citizens of Pawtucket were rolling out of bed to attend sunrise services on Easter morning.
Through the 19th, 20th and 21st innings and still no winner. It was like a fundraising marathon but in this case, there was no charity. Just two AAA baseball teams who couldn’t score a run.
A number of players on the field that morning went on to the major leagues including Hall of Famers Wade Boggs of the Pawsox Cal Ripken Jr. for Rochester, both playing thrid base for their respective teams.
Pawtucket manager Joe Morgan was ejected in the 22nd inning by umpire Dennis Cregg who would also enter the record books as the man behind the plate overseeing 882 pitches.
By this time I turned over my duties to the overnight board operator and rushed home to try to stay awake to record the rest of the game on my cassette tape recorder I had a sense that this could be one for the record books. Those cassettes of mine became part of all the memorabilia that we later donated to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
I have saved the letter I received from the Hall thanking me for the items I donated including the cassette tapes of the broadcast. Those tapes have now been transferred on to modern day technologies that are made available for study, scholarship and research.
In the letter, Erik Strohl, VP of exhibitions and Collections told us how grateful they were to receive the tapes.
“We thank you for sending them along to us at the time and it will be saved for all prosperity even another 40-years and forever at the hall so we’re most appreciative,” he wrote. “Right now this game gets the most attention of any minor league game that’s ever been played when you walk into the Hall of Fame.”
I also have saved a copy of my check from the Red Wings for the pay period during which I worked the game. ($30 per game for 10 games).
But back to April 1981.
Finally, with the game in the 32nd inning and the clock ticking past 3 AM, the Pawtucket front office staff got hold of League President Harold Cooper who was shocked they were still playing and ordered the game halted at the bottom of the next inning.
While the two teams would return to the ballpark for their regularly scheduled Sunday game, the decision was made to resume the Saturday contest on June 23 when Rochester was slated to return to Pawtucket. There was a lot of national and international interest in the game to be completed in June because the major league players were out on strike.
Why did they keep playing so long at a time when even major league teams observed a curfew? Strohl tells us, “By the rule book no inning was to start after 12:50 in the morning but for some reason the umpiring crew had an older copy of the International League rule book it was up to local laws.”
As the years went by I worked with Texas Rangers Double-A affiliate Frisco RoughRiders where Steve Luebber, then a coach would tell everyone he pitched “short relief” in the 1981 game– going eight innings.
In addition to my tapes, Strohl told us the Hall has a number of items on display from the game including the official score books, bats, baseballs and one unusual item. “We have the hat worn by Steve Grilli the losing pitcher in the game.” Strangely enough, Grilli was with Syracuse in April but was acquired by the Orioles and was on the mound for Rochester in the 33rd inning, giving up a hit to Dave Koza as Pawtucket finally put the game to bed once and for all.
Memorabilia from the game is popular in the marketplace. Two full tickets to the game, authenticated and graded, sold for $657 in 2016.
Both teams had their own baseball card sets In 1981, with pre-rookie cards of Boggs and Ripken among the highlights.
Even after all these years I still have some other memories. One is how proud I am with the broadcasting career of Josh Lewin who would practice in a vacant auxiliary press box when the Red Wings were at home at Silver Stadium. This Rochester-born broadcaster was a radio commentator for the Red Wings at the age of 16. He soon went on to the Orioles, the Cubs, Tigers, Texas Rangers, Mets, the NFL, and the NHL.
My other unresolved issue that may never be answered was a question for the late Rochester manager “Doc” Edwards regarding why future MLB manager Kevin Kennedy was the only player from either team not to play in the game. “Doc” passed away in 2018.
As I reflect on this game I often think to myself that I’m in the Hall of Fame…not as for anything I did on a baseball field, of course, but my own little place nonetheless. It’s something not many people can say. Seeing those items on display in Cooperstown and, sometimes others that were saved from the longest game in professional baseball history, makes it all come alive again.