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The story behind the longest baseball game ever

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today we're bringing you a story from ESPN's "30 For 30" and Radio Diaries. Baseball is sometimes called the timeless game. Unlike football, basketball or soccer, there's no clock. The teams keep playing until there's a winner. Theoretically, the game could go on and on forever. Four decades ago, one game came close. On April 18, 1981, two teams played the longest baseball game in history.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Red Wings play-by-play baseball.

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DAN BARRY: This began as a game of absolutely no consequence.

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BOB DREW: I'm Bob Drew, along with Pete Torres here at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I.

BARRY: Pawtucket, R.I., is a city of about 70,000 - working-class, blue-collar. My name is Dan Barry. I'm a longtime journalist with the New York Times, and I wrote a book about this game. Pawtucket was quite proud of its distinction as the triple-A base for the Boston Red Sox. And they had this stadium called McCoy Stadium.

BILL GEORGE: It was kind of run down in those days and kind of beat up. But they ran a clean shop. They watched the drinking. They watched the swearing. Families took their kids there, and it was fun. Bill George - I was the official scorekeeper.

MIKE TAMBURRO: It was an early season Saturday night. There wasn't much we were playing for. It was just baseball as usual. My name is Mike Tamburro. I was the general manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox.

SHAPIRO: This was minor league baseball, triple-A, where every player is hoping to get noticed and get called up to the majors. On the field that night were two future Hall of Famers.

CAL RIPKEN: This is Cal Ripken. I played third base for the Rochester Red Wings. All of us were in the same boat. We were all young, and we all had the same fears, the same anxieties. We wanted to make it, and we wanted to make it bad.

WADE BOGGS: This is Wade Boggs. I was the starting third baseman for the Pawtucket Red Sox on that infamous night of 1981.

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DREW: Cool and windy night here in Pawtucket, R.I., the wind blowing right in center field.

SHAPIRO: The first pitch was thrown a little after 8 o'clock. The wind made it hard to score. And by the end of nine innings, the two teams were tied 1-1. It stayed that way for several more hours. Normally, an extra inning game would be halted by a curfew at 12:50 a.m., but that year, a paragraph about the curfew had been left out of the umpire's manual by mistake. So on this night, the umpires ruled that the game should go on with no end in sight. By the 22nd inning, the two teams were still deadlocked, tied 2-2. It was close to 2:30 in the morning. The few fans left in the stands were cold, tired and hungry, and the concession stands started giving away free food and coffee.

ANNIE KOZA: Everybody by that time was just punchy, silly.

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DREW: I forgot what I was going to say, Pete.

(LAUGHTER)

DREW: Yeah. Anyway, here we go. Now we have somebody coming out of the Red Wing dugout all covered up with a towel or a blanket or something to keep warm. And everybody is bundled up so tight, it's hard to tell who the players are. That'll bring up...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Cal Ripken.

DREW: Make that Cal Ripken.

RIPKEN: As we were getting colder, we found a metal trashcan. And we started building a fire so that we could warm our hands. Our broken bats became firewood. We were breaking off ends of the wood bench to burn. You know, we threw that in there.

A KOZA: We got invited to come down to Ben's box, the owner's box. And that's when the Chivas Regal scotch came out. And (laughter) we were sitting there. I think it was me, Debbie Boggs. We were all just huddled under all these blankets, just taking swigs out of the bottle.

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DREW: Well, I'd like to thank all of you people staying with us tonight. I hope you're having a big party back there in Rochester, and we're going to try to win it for you.

A KOZA: There were people calling the ballpark because their husband or son or whoever was not coming home.

TONY MANERS: Dennis Craig, the plate umpire, had brought his nephew to the ballgame. At 1 o'clock, his mother is so concerned. This was before the cellphones, before the internet. She called the city, who called the county, who called the state. They were looking over every bridge, looking for tail lights. Finally, they traced them back to the ballpark. The officer calls the mother and says, ma'am, we have found your son. He is safe. They're in the 27th inning.

BOGGS: It's 2:30, quarter of 3, 3 o'clock, 3:10, 3:15.

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DREW: Twenty-one, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27. There are 28 fans left in McCoy Stadium.

PETE TORRES: Twenty-eight loyal fans, Bob.

DREW: Started out with 1,700. We're down to 28, with two people down there...

A KOZA: Not for one second did I ever think, OK, I'm going to go home and sleep now. There was no way. I was there till the bitter end (laughter).

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DREW: That's strike call, I believe.

TORRES: And, Bob, for the fans that are still awake back in Rochester, I would like for you to listen to the postgame show right after the conclusion of this ballgame, if it ever does end.

TAMBURRO: As the innings mounted and we got to 25 innings, 27 innings, 30 innings, we figured we got to be close to a record here.

GEORGE: Baseball history puts a lot of emphasis on records - most hits in a game, most home runs hit in a season, most this, most that, all kinds of crazy records. I'm thinking, wow, we have a chance here tonight in little old Pawtucket, R.I., to get in the history books.

TAMBURRO: It became what you were playing for at some point, you know, because something good had to come out of this crazy night, or else we all froze our rear ends off for nothing.

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DAVE KOZA: Here it is at 4 o'clock in the morning, the 32nd inning.

BARRY: It's even absurd to say that in baseball, to say the 32nd inning.

TAMBURRO: Rochester gets a guy on second base.

BARRY: The batter hits a single to right field.

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DREW: There's a shot that might get through there. It does out in the right field for a base hit.

BARRY: Jon Hale is rounding third.

GEORGE: Hale was trying to score. It would have been the ballgame, you know, put Rochester ahead.

BARRY: The manager for the Rochester Red Wings is waving his arms like a windmill. Get your [expletive] home. Get home. The right fielder for the Pawtucket Red Sox is Sam Bowen. Now, Bowen has to try and throw this guy out, and the entire game rides on this play. So let's pause here. Imagine being Sam Bowen. You've been in right field for seven-plus hours on and off. I asked Bowen, did you ever think about not giving it your best throw, maybe throwing it over the backstop? And Bowen really got angry with me. He said, this is what I do. I am not going to do anything less than my best. Even though this guy is never going to make it back to the major leagues and he knows it, he is not going to let this guy score.

TAMBURRO: Sammy takes it on two hops and makes a throw, a tremendous throw, nails the runner at the plate.

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DREW: Here comes the lead running around the corner. And they're going to get in.

TORRES: No.

DREW: And he was thrown out from the right fielder to the catcher, and that ends the inning.

TORRES: That is unbelievable.

TAMBURRO: You make that play in the top of the ninth, it's a great play. You make that play in the top of the 32nd, it's a historic play. To me, it spoke to the true grit of a professional baseball player that, in the top of the 32nd inning at 4 o'clock in the morning - that he would throw out a guy at home plate in those circumstances.

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DREW: So at the end of 32, it's still all tied up with 2.

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #1: (Singing) They all switched to Star (ph).

DALLAS WILLIAMS: At 4 in the morning, mentally, I kind of lost it. I was saying, baseball can kiss my [expletive] tonight because this is not the way baseball is supposed to be played. When is this [expletive] going to end?

BARRY: So all through the night, ever since the 15th inning, Mike Tamburro of the Pawtucket Red Sox has been calling Columbus, Ohio. He's been calling the home of a guy named Harold Cooper, who is the president of the International League and who has authority to call the game.

TAMBURRO: We called at 2 o'clock, and he didn't pick up. And we called at 3 o'clock, and he didn't pick up. And we called at 3:30, and he didn't pick up. It wasn't until about quarter of 4 in the morning that he finally answered the phone. He was in a deep sleep, or he was out in some gin mill someplace, living it up. I said, Harold, it's quarter of 4 in the morning. We're still playing ball. He said, you're still playing baseball. There's absolutely a curfew. I got Jack Lietz, the third base umpire, brought him into the office.

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DREW: Now the third base umpire is out to the Pawtucket dugout. And so we don't know what the heck is going on.

BARRY: Cooper basically says, end it now. End the [expletive] game.

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DREW: And at 4:07 in the morning on Easter Sunday, the umpires have finally suspended this ballgame. And it will have to be played off at a later date.

TAMBURRO: We decided, let's conclude this game when Rochester will make their next appearance at McCoy Stadium and give these players at least some time off to get some rest.

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DREW: Pete, you got a final word?

TORRES: Bob, well, I'd just like to say that both teams played hard the whole 32 innings. And win or lose, the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox ought to be commended for a job well done today.

DREW: Once again, the final score from Pawtucket, R.I. - the Rochester Red Wings 2, the Pawtucket Red Sox 2 in a suspended game. For Pete Torres and Howie Burns, our engineer back at WPXN, this has been Bob Drew. So long, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #2: (Singing) Good morning, WPXN.

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GEORGE: I looked over right field fence. I saw a light in the sky. It was actually the beginning of dawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

GEORGE: It was a beautiful Easter Sunday morning.

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SHAPIRO: After eight hours and 32 innings, the game still wasn't over. The teams would have to wait two months before finishing. When they finally resumed play, instead of 19 fans in the stands, there were nearly 6,000, with reporters from around the world to watch the end of the longest game in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Richman