By Randy Richardson
“…bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?” - from the opening “Church of Baseball” monologue in the movie, Bull Durham
Milt Pappas pitched just under a quarter of his major league baseball career – the last four of his 17 years in the big leagues – for the Chicago Cubs.
It doesn’t seem possible that Pappas, who died of natural causes Tuesday at the age of 76, had been anything other than Cub. But look him up on BaseballReference.com, and it’s there in black and white. Before he wore the Cubbie blue, Pappas had already collected 158 of his impressive 209 career wins.
A durable pitcher, he threw over 3,000 innings in more than 500 games. But the nickname “Gimpy” that he got after knee surgery at the age of 17 stuck and followed him throughout his career. Born to Greek parents in Detroit, Michigan, Pappas’ birth name was Miltiades Stergios Papastergios. One can see why he went by Milt Pappas.
Known in his late-career Cub years for his mutton-chop sideburns, Pappas was clean-shaven with buck teeth when his baseball career began. He spent over half of his major league career playing for the Baltimore Orioles, who had recruited and signed him out of high school at the suggestion of Hal Newhouser, a former star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who lived in the Detroit area. Pappas signed for $4,000 and pitched only three games in the minor leagues before being called up in August 1957. He made his Major League debut on August 10 in relief against the New York Yankees. In 1958 he made the Orioles’ starting rotation and began a streak of 11 consecutive double-digit win seasons with a 10–10 record. He was a three-time All-Star with the Orioles (twice in 1962 and in his final season in Baltimore in 1965).
After nine years as an Oriole, Pappas and another pitcher, Jack Baldschun, and outfielder Dick Simpson were traded in 1966 to the Cincinnati Reds for future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson – a trade later immortalized in the classic “Church of Baseball” opening monologue to the 1988 movie, Bull Durham. The film’s narrator, baseball groupie Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, talks of her relationships with baseball players:
“Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?”
The lopsided trade became to Reds’ fans the equivalent of the Cubs’ infamous trade two years earlier of future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to the Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio. Pappas didn’t pitch particularly poorly for the Reds but never returned to the All-Star level he attained in Baltimore. That made it all the more difficult for Reds’ fans to digest when Robinson, in his first year as an Oriole, won the American League Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player Award, and led the Orioles to winning the World Series, in which he was named MVP.
Two years later, the Reds traded Pappas to the Atlanta Braves, for whom Pappas made the only postseason appearance of his career, surrendering three runs in three innings in relief during the 1969 NLCS against the New York Mets.
After getting roughed up in his first three starts in 1970, the Braves, on June 23, unceremoniously sold Pappas to the Cubs. The fresh start proved just what the doctor ordered for then 31-year-old Pappas as he returned to the form of his earlier years. After compiling a 6.06 ERA in his three starts with the Braves, Pappas posted a 10-8 record with a 2.68 ERA for the Cubs. Wrigley Field became his Fountain of Youth, as he posted a 7–2 record with a 2.36 ERA at home.
His success carried over to the next season. In 1971, Pappas collected a career-high 17 wins against 14 losses with a 3.51 ERA.
Arguably Pappas’ best season came in 1972, his 16th year in the majors, when he matched the previous year’s 17 wins against only 7 losses and posted a 2.77 ERA.
It was near the end of that 1972 season, on September 2, that Pappas pitched the greatest game of his long career. Pitching at home against the San Diego Padres, Pappas retired the first 26 batters and was one strike away from a perfect game with a 2-2 count on pinch-hitter Larry Stahl, but home-plate umpire Bruce Froemming called the next two pitches – both of which were close – balls, ending his bid for a perfect game. Pappas ended the game by retiring the next batter, ex-Cub Garry Jestadt, giving him an 8-0 no-hitter. It would be 36 years before another Cubs pitcher would toss a no-hitter. That was when Carlos Zambrano no-hit the Houston Astros on September 14, 2008. It was also the last no-hitter pitched at Wrigley Field until the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cole Hamels no-hit the Cubs on July 25, 2015. Eleven days after his no-hitter, Pappas recorded his 200th career victory, also at Wrigley Field, defeating the Montreal Expos 6–2.
Pappas never let go of coming so close to perfection. Even decades later, he continued to begrudge Froemming. “I really don’t know what Bruce (Froemming) was thinking,” Pappas said during a 2010 MLB Network Remembers broadcast. “I think he was very stupid in what he did, looking back on it, because all he had to do was raise his right hand. I’m sure nobody would have squawked. How many chances to you get? That was my one chance.”
Froemming, for his part, never wavered on the disputed calls. “I’m not a fan,” he said in that same MLB Network show. “I’m an umpire.”
Commented baseball broadcaster Bob Costas: “This might be the only time when a no-hitter would count as a disappointment, because Pappas also became the only pitcher ever to have a perfect game broken up on a walk to the twenty-seventh batter he faced.”
The next season would be Pappas’ last. In 1973, he won only 7 games with 12 losses and a 4.28 ERA.
Prior to the start of the 1974 season he was released by the Cubs. He retired with 209 victories, becoming the first-ever 200-game winner who did not win 20 games in any one season. A handful of pitchers have since joined him in this category.
Though he didn’t merit induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Pappas was a solid workhorse who finished in the top 10 in ERA eight seasons, in wins six seasons, fewest walks per nine innings nine seasons, complete games seven seasons, shutouts eight seasons, and he was tied for the league lead with a perfect fielding percentage (1.000) four seasons. Pappas also hit 20 home runs as a pitcher. Not too shabby.
Yet Pappas’ 17-year baseball career will forever be remembered largely for that one game when he nearly touched perfection.
“When I’m introduced to people, it’s amazing that I won 209 games and the only game they remember is that one, you know?” Pappas said in a 2012 Chicago Baseball Museum interview, marking the 40-year anniversary of his feat. “You know, people can view things differently, but that’s all right. I got the no-hitter, and the controversy still lives.”