Discover more from The Wild Pitch
Dean Chance, the 1967 Twins, and the truth about baseball
I'm not a good person, I'm barely a person at all
But someday I'll be perfect, and I'll make up for it all
“Against the Kitchen Floor”
The most important no-hitter in baseball history is most certainly Don Larsen’s perfect game, thrown in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. From a purely on-field perspective, it’s more or less impossible to debate this—the Yankees direly needed a win to take the series lead, and they only scored two runs, necessitating as brilliant a performance as Larsen could produce. Yes, there would eventually be another no-hitter in the October Classic, but it is undeniably lesser. Thrown by four Houston pitchers in a series they already led 2-1, allowing for three walks, and supporting a five-run showing that allowed more room for error, it’s a shadow of Larsen’s glory.
It makes sense that it would land squarely in second place, though. Which, naturally, raises the question of how else we might fill out the leaderboard. What about Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in September 1965—critical in a tight pennant race against the Cubs, the Dodgers’ opponent that day, and with the absolute minimum margin for error on a one-hit, one-unearned-run game by LA’s offense? Or Sal Maglie’s for the same team (then in Brooklyn) a decade prior, securing their 90th win in a back-and-forth battle against Milwaukee for the postseason bid? Let’s not forget the other playoff no-hitter, hurled by Roy Halladay in the 2010 NLDS opener—nor the no-no tossed by Bob Lemon in June of 1948, ultimately crucial as Cleveland secured the AL pennant by a single game over the Red Sox.
We could piece together a subjective list, but this is baseball, a sport which is nothing if not statistical. So, naturally, the ideal metric for this debate already exists: Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA), which calculates how much likelier a player’s actions make it that a team wins the World Series. It’s one of those calculations that sounds far more complicated than it actually is—all you really need is a reference guide for how valuable a shift in game state is (say, getting the first out with nobody on in the first inning of a 0-0 game), then you add up all a player’s contributions for a game and divide them by the importance of winning that game to a team’s championship odds. Normalize a bit for different eras having different postseason structures, and you get a remarkably clean way of saying, quite simply, what games mattered most.
This statistic confirms in no uncertain terms what we concluded above. Among the 318 no-hitters officially recognized by MLB, Larsen’s perfecto laps the field in terms of significance, with a whopping 26.77% cWPA. To contextualize that number, Ralph Terry started his major-league career with the Yankees in that 1956 season, going on to pitch nine postseason and 338 regular-season games for various teams. He was, by all accounts, an excellent pitcher, and in 1962 was named World Series MVP for a herculean 25 innings and a 1.80 ERA across three games (culminating in a Game 7 shutout for a 1-0 Yankees win). His career cWPA? 26.77%, the same value Larsen gained for one game.
Larsen breaks the scale in all sorts of ways, but the no-hitters that show up behind him are interesting as well. That four-player effort by the Astros comes in a clear second, posting a very respectable 11.30% cWPA (roughly one Robinson Canó or Giancarlo Stanton), but the rest of the field is much tighter down at the “low” end of the scale. Adding entire percentage points to a team’s championship odds, especially in the regular season, is still no mean feat, however. Koufax lands third here with a score of 3.76% from that September perfecto, closely trailed by Maglie with 3.50% for his vital no-no down the stretch. Maglie is the first of these pitchers whose team didn’t win the World Series, and Lon Warneke—fifth with 2.97% for a no-hitter in August 1941—is the first whose team missed the playoffs, as his Cardinals were outlasted by Brooklyn despite winning 97 games.
From here, we’ll limit our scope to the American League, as it’s here that our story will be told. Larsen and the Astros rank one-two here (allowing for their opponents being NL teams), and spots four, five, and six are filled by Allie Reynolds (1951), Dutch Leonard (1916), and Bob Lemon (1948), whose performances helped spark the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cleveland in championship seasons.
Spot seven is home to Jack Kralick, who in August 1962 tossed the very first no-hitter in the Minnesota Twins’ young history. He hadn’t even come up with the Twins, signing with the Washington Senators in 1959 before their relocation and rebrand, but he came into his own quickly. That lovely August day—78 degrees in Bloomington, Minnesota—he flirted with perfection into the ninth, setting down 25 straight before walking George Alusik and calmly completing an efficient no-hitter. It was just what the Twins needed, with the first-place Yankees on a six-game losing streak that let Minnesota pull within three games following Kralick’s outing. But New York recovered, and the hopes of a seventh-to-first turnaround were dashed in September.
You might be wondering about spot three—the only no-hitter in AL history by a team that missed the postseason which was more consequential than Kralick’s. In 1962, the man who would pitch it was living it up with the Los Angeles Angels, soaring to a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting while leading the team in innings, alongside knavish roommate Bo Belinsky. Two years later, his ascension would reach its peak, an MLB-leading 1.65 ERA and AL-leading 278.1 innings earning him a well-deserved Cy Young trophy.
Two years after that, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins.
Dean Chance was a big man, in every definition of the phrase. He stood 6-foot-3 in his prime, which doesn’t sound like much today, but was much more of an outlier in the 1960s. Chance towered nearly half a foot over the average American, and in his Cy Young season he was in the tallest third of pitchers to toss over 200 innings. He was no Don Drysdale, certainly, but he was an intimidating presence. There’s no doubt that he backed up that first impression, on and off the field.
His pitching wasn’t really the focus in his time with the Angels, but it was exceptional. In 1964, he hurled 11 shutouts in his 35 starts, a number which is exceptional for many reasons. No American Leaguer since has matched it, and Chance—as avid a student of the game as any pitcher—noted that the last to do it before him was Walter Johnson, back in 1913 for the Washington Senators. There have been 27 other seasons with double-digit shutouts in major-league history, but for two decades, Chance stood alone with the fewest complete games in such a season by five. In other words, despite leading the league in innings en route to the Cy Young, he didn’t rely on empty counting stats to set that mark. When he stayed out there, he did so for good reason.
Only two players in major-league history have put together 50 consecutive innings without giving up a run, but Chance arguably did something more impressive in that season. He started five games against the Yankees, in which a total of 51 innings were pitched by Angels players. Chance was on the mound for 50 of those, and he gave up one run (an improbable solo homer by Mickey Mantle, who had told the catcher he had “no chance” earlier in the plate appearance). In a deadlocked extra-inning game in June, he was pulled after 14 untouchable innings. His replacements, Willie Smith and Dan Osinski, surrendered two runs—more in the only inning of a Chance-vs-Yankees start that he didn’t pitch than he allowed in the 50 he did pitch. New York won 99 games, the pennant, and very nearly the World Series, but they simply could not figure out the AL’s best player.
Such a year set Chance up to be a defining pitcher in an era defined by pitchers—Drysdale, Koufax, Gibson, and the oft-forgot Juan Marichal stand as monumental figures in the 1960s, their names etched in baseball lore. But even at the time, it was hard to focus on his sensational play because of his attention-grabbing antics off the field. It was difficult to believe he hadn’t always lived on the doorstep of Hollywood, having actually been raised in sleepy Wooster, Ohio. He took to fast-paced city life like a duck to water, quickly linking up with Manhattanite Bo Belinsky, a fellow pitcher on those Angels teams.
Belinsky was a bad influence straight out of central casting. Like Chance, he’d experienced a meteoric rise into the majors, putting together four straight wins to start his career that culminated in the Angels’ first-ever no-hitter. It took him no time at all to parlay his success into a womanizing, fast-and-loose lifestyle. Nobody, least of all Belinsky himself, doubted in retrospect that his larger-than-life personality drove his pitching career into the ground. Just under a decade after that no-no, two years after the muted end of Belinsky’s career in Cincinnati, he remarked as much in a classic Sports Illustrated story, aptly titled “Once He Was an Angel.”
“Oh, I might have had a career if they could have tied me to the mast. You know, like Ulysses? When he heard the Sirens’ song, he was bewitched.” He raises the glass of vodka and ice to his car (sic) and shakes it gently until the cubes tinkle. “You know, Babe, I always seemed headed for the rocks.” He smiles self-mockingly. It is the smile of a man who has such slight regard for himself that he can smile, not at his pun, which is almost cruelly close to the mark, but at the man who can make such a pun.
To paint Belinsky as a simple, unsophisticated bon vivant would, as with Chance, be a gross oversimplification. (Such people do not often pull out references to the Odyssey during interviews with Sports Illustrated, do they?) The way these two playboys were discussed and decried speaks as much to the purity culture that underscored American values of the 1960s, and in particular baseball media, as it does to their behavior.
This isn’t to say there was nothing wrong with Belinsky’s actions. He was in every way the grandiose, free-talking, overdrinking socialite that good Christian mothers tell their sons to avoid, for reasons good and bad. Sportswriters enabled his debauchery when it was a fun highlight of his rapid ascent, then weaponized it against him when his career went off the rails in the following years. But the wrong choices—the multiple counts of sexual assault, the constant marital misadventures, and above all the stubborn refusal to change his attitude—were his to bear as well.
What Belinsky became after his career—through alcoholism, then recovery, to “finding Jesus Christ in Las Vegas”—is a story all its own, but neither he nor anybody else would deny that keeping his company was an ill-advised decision in those reckless early years of his adulthood. And, of course, it was young, impressionable Chance who fell in with him, despite his insistence that Belinsky was just a friend. “He’s never tried to influence me,” he said in another Sports Illustrated story.
There was probably some truth to that. Folks back in Ohio and in Wisconsin, where Chance owned a farm, liked to paint Belinsky as the source of all his woes, but the truth is never so simple. There was something wild in Chance, too; perhaps it was something that his teammate brought out, but it was always there. He didn’t indulge in all of Belinsky’s vices, never drinking or smoking, but it seemed sometimes that he loved being a pitcher more than actually pitching. The glamor of being a star on the national stage, an imposing household name playing for an exciting new ball club, was what drove him. Being on the mound, dealing with a defense and offense about which he spared no complaint to the press…that was just what he did for a living.
Where Belinsky seemed more unsure how to become something other than his hedonistic image, Chance never really seemed to believe he needed to change. His habit in everything was deflection—blaming Angels fielders, Angels batters, the Angels’ owners, players on other teams. If only the rest of baseball (which had just named him the best pitcher in the American League) would recognize his talent, he lamented, then he would be a bit fairer.
Fate didn’t need to go out of its way to break down and build up Belinsky; he did that himself, neglecting his career and rising from the ashes in the later years of his life. But Chance, who indulged himself off the field and played with a single-minded intensity on it, was different. He was riding for a fall, but he wouldn’t find it in Anaheim.
In 1966, the Angels’ desperate need to bolster their lineup gave them just the opportunity to fulfill Chance’s dreams—by trading him away to Minnesota, which sent two batters and a reliever in return. Even decades after the fact, he still said he was happy to be traded. Really, he pointed out, all he wanted was to play for a team that could hit, a team that could win. He wanted to be part of a pennant chase. Who wouldn’t?
In 1966, while Chance’s Angels were meandering lazily towards an 80-82 record, the Baltimore Orioles surged to a dominant American League pennant behind offseason acquisition Frank Robinson, who won the Triple Crown with a .316 average, 49 home runs, and 122 RBIs. The next year, the reigning champs looked almost exactly the same—another vintage season from Robinson, solid performances up and down the lineup (aside from light hitter Luis Aparicio), and a decent-to-forgettable pitching staff. Their collective WAR declined from 45.6 to 36.8, hardly a catastrophic drop, but they plunged some 21 wins from 97-63 and first to 76-85 and sixth. Baseball is a funny game.
That cleared the way for Chance and the Twins—as well as literally half the league. The NLCS and ALCS would be created starting with the 1969 season, and 1968 saw two teams win pennants by nine or more games, making the 1967 scramble for the AL championship baseball’s last great pennant chase. There would be others for less glorious honors—division titles, wild-card spots—but none with the magic and chaos of these five teams, all falling over each other in a desperate battle royale for the World Series bid, the losers all sent home.
The Angels were one of those teams, though they’re often forgotten in retellings of the season. A late slide in August took every one of their nine games above .500 in 16 days, and they finished a comfortable distance behind the lead quartet, but they were solidly in the fight for over a month out of the All-Star Break. Don Mincher, who they’d received in the trade with the Twins, was the cornerstone of their success, slashing .273/.367/.487 and earning the only MVP votes of his career. The rotation was surprisingly solid even with a departed ace; Minnie Rojas led the league in saves after debuting as a 32-year-old rookie the previous season; and in August they swept the Red Sox to reach their greatest height, just a game and a half out of first before that long skid to irrelevancy. They nearly climbed the mountain, but it all fell apart down the stretch.
That left the four teams you’ve heard about if you’ve ever heard anything about the 1967 pennant chase. The early favorites were the White Sox and Tigers, who took sole possession of the top two spots on May 3 and didn’t let another team back into the fray until July 1.
Chicago evoked fond memories of 1906’s “Hitless Wonders”—star hitter Pete Ward batted .233 and led the team with 18 home runs, yet they still stood 47-33 entering the break. The pitching staff was a who’s who of famed hurlers in their primes, leveraging all-time offensive lows to produce truly dominant numbers. Years before undergoing and recovering from the surgery that made him famous, Tommy John was a vital piece of the Sox’ staff, and would go on to pitch his way to a 1.98 ERA the following season. Gary Peters, a former rookie of the year coming off a 1.98 ERA of his own, was a star as well, placing top-ten in MVP votes and holding opposing batters to a miniscule .197 average—lower than his own .212 mark at the plate. And somehow, at age 44, reliever Hoyt Wilhelm pitched to his fourth straight sub-2.00 ERA in 89 innings of work, earning a career-best 230 ERA+.
But even Wilhelm wasn’t the crown jewel of the rotation; that was Joe Horlen, who led the AL in ERA and all of baseball in WHIP while tossing an MLB-best six shutouts. The AL MVP winner was spoken for, as we’ll see, but Horlen placed a very respectable fourth. Far more bewildering was his placement well behind Boston’s Jim Lonborg for the Cy Young, despite a far superior ERA (2.06 to 3.16) and WHIP (0.953 to 1.138), nearly as many games and innings, and thrice as many shutouts. Writers were swayed by Lonborg’s AL-leading 246 strikeouts and “advantage” in record (22-9 to 19-7), and he received 18 of 20 votes. Again, baseball is a funny game.
The White Sox seized control of the lead from Detroit in early June, using a five-game losing streak to jump past them and hold outright first all the way through mid-August. But unlike the Angels, the Tigers recovered and stayed in the race, joining a gaggle of other contenders in catching Chicago going into the final month of the season. Their lineup was solid—Al Kaline slugged .541!—if lacking in depth, but what kept Detroit in the chase was a spectacular bullpen. Fred Gladding and Mike Marshall both closed over 20 games with ERAs under 2.00, with Dave Wickersham, Hank Aguirre, Pat Dobson, and John Hiller filling out a great supporting cast.
As spring turned to summer, the Twins were the first to catch up and stake their claim in the tightening pennant race. Chance was in the middle of it all, winning 20 games for the second time in his career and leading the league in starts, complete games, and innings. Jim Merritt—who may well have been a better pitcher that season—as well as Jim Kaat and Dave Boswell rounded out a star-studded class of towering twirlers, each 6-foot-3 or higher, all of whom threw over 220 innings for the Twins. The most interesting man on the staff not named Dean Chance was one Al Worthington, who had retired from the White Sox seven years ago to avoid getting involved in a sign-stealing operation, then returned in 1963 at age 34 and pitched well all the way through his late 30s. He finished 44 games for Minnesota that year, nearly beating out fifth starter Mudcat Grant in innings with 92.
The late arrivals to the race were the Red Sox (about whom we will learn more later), who were 42-40 at the All-Star Break but rattled off ten straight wins to soar into second immediately thereafter. Though they drew within half a game of the first-place White Sox, nobody would dethrone Chicago until mid-August, when the Twins took the lead with a week-long winning streak that also set California’s collapse into motion. Chance, of course, capped the seven-game run by beating his old team 5-1, putting Minnesota into first by a game and a half and adding nearly a full point to the Twins’ championship win probability with a complete-game shutout.
One can only imagine how blissfully happy Chance must have been. He was finally on a contender again, a team that could back up his sensational performance with strong hitting, and he’d just delivered a loss that put the Angels’ pennant hopes in jeopardy. Just ten days prior, he had put the finishing touches on another key sweep by making the Red Sox look absolutely silly, throwing five perfect innings before rain forced an early end to what could’ve been a historic outing. In a rare moment of humility, Chance acknowledged that some of the contact against him could’ve easily reached outfield grass, saying he doubted he could’ve pitched a no-hitter if the game had continued. In particular, he remarked that he “didn’t know [Lonborg] was that good a hitter,” having been surprised when the opposing pitcher barrelled a fastball to the warning track. Quipped a Boston writer: “He isn’t.”
Less than three weeks later, Chance got another chance at glory. The Twins had relinquished first, but stood half a game back of the White Sox and Red Sox on the morning of August 25th, 37 days from the end of the season. With a doubleheader against Cleveland, bound for a 75-87 season, picking up both wins would be key. The day game had all the tension appropriate to such a tight spot in the pennant race, with the Twins and their opponent holding a 4-4 tie through the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. After Grant was charged with four runs, Ron Kline stepped in and pitched brilliantly for Minnesota, limiting Cleveland to two hits in those three innings. Thanks to a run-scoring Harmon Killebrew triple in the tenth, then a sacrifice fly by Sandy Valdespino, he had just enough room to surrender a home run to Joe Azcue, then calmly induce a flyout and strike out Larry Brown for the win.
Chicago and Boston now had company in first; it was up to Chance to ensure the Twins stayed there and took the pennant lead, with his parents in attendance from his hometown nearby. Right out of the gate, there was trouble: back-to-back walks, a strikeout, a bases-loading error, and a wild pitch put Cleveland up 1-0. Aided by a mound visit from pitching coach Early Wynn, Chance collected himself, got two outs to close the inning, and settled in. A fielding error in the top of the second allowed the Twins to even the score on a Killebrew single, and he was off to the races.
From the second inning on, Chance pitched like a man possessed. Cleveland’s whole lineup came up and was sent down in order without mustering anything. Vern Fuller walked in the fifth, but he was quickly erased as the next three batters could only get him to second before the inning was over. César Tovar made it over to third in the top of the sixth for the Twins, then scored when Sonny Siebert balked him home. With the winning run in place, Chance faced the minimum through the final four innings, allowing just one walk (erased by a double play) and completing his masterpiece with three easy groundouts to close the ninth. The metrics to measure it didn’t exist at the time, but it was—and remains—the most consequential no-hitter in American League regular-season history, as measured by cWPA.
The squabbling Sox split a doubleheader of their own in Chicago that day, putting Minnesota back into the outright lead. The distance from here to the pennant was long, requiring 36 games in 37 days for the Twins, but they had the lead thanks to a momentous performance by Chance. His dreams had come true; he was the lynchpin of a team that, if imperfect in the field, could still ably support his pitching by putting up the runs California had never been able to provide.
There is a quiet irony and beauty in Dean Chance’s surname. Chance, fate, luck—this was what he had to rely on with the Angels. Perhaps, on some level, he chose to live a carefree life because baseball taught him again and again that it was all that was reasonable. We are, after all, familiar with the struggles of pitchers who could not reconcile their lack of control with their competitive nature. Chance could have been a Dave Stieb.
But here, in Minnesota, the fates were smiling upon him. No longer was he dependent on his lineup having an unpredictable breakout; only once did he go longer than six innings without allowing multiple runs and lose. The sport was his and his alone to dominate—if not every day, at least every time he took the mound. Three years removed from his historic Cy Young season, he felt like his old self again. The Twins had won six of his last seven starts, and he’d gone the distance in five of them (including his abbreviated perfecto). Now, coming off one of the biggest no-hitters ever pitched, he was at his absolute peak.
Which meant there was nowhere to go but down.
With many modern pitchers, the wear of going the distance to throw a no-hitter is a concern for managers. Often, when a player is returning from injury or hasn’t been pitching long for other reasons, they’ll even be pulled during a no-no if their pitch count climbs too high. The odds of this are, of course, higher when the performance is imperfect—can you imagine throwing a no-hitter while stranding nine?—but there was never any doubt that Chance would complete his. In an age of iron men, he was prepared to keep pitching even when it would cost him in the future, when his arm wore down before his time.
Perhaps he was even prepared to keep pitching when it cost his team, too. In his very next outing, he erased nearly half of his 2.64% from the no-hitter by staying in for ten innings against the Orioles, giving up a two-run homer to Frank Robinson in extras that led to a loss. On September 3 he was up again, now with Minnesota clinging to a half-game lead over the Red Sox and trying to deliver a back-breaking sweep to Detroit, two and a half games back in fourth. The Twins provided no run support as Earl Wilson and Fred Lasher combined to toss a five-hit gem, but they would’ve needed a lot to overcome Chance’s second inning: single, double, triple, groundout, double, (pitcher) groundout, strikeout. Four hits, three runs, to which the Tigers added two more as they pulled away and cut a game out of their deficit.
Vintage Chance reemerged in a rematch with Baltimore, spinning a nine-hit, two-run win as Minnesota chased Jim Hardin in the eighth and won 4-2. Working with a short rotation, he pitched again four days later and had a horrifying first inning: runners reached the corners on two errors, then the Senators struck with three singles and a third ground-ball error to pile up five runs, all unearned. Minnesota overcame the deficit with eleven runs in the fourth and fifth, winning 13-5, but Chance’s day was over after three innings. Chance did get his own back two days later, earning a save and a series win after Jim Kaat allowed the tying run to the plate in the ninth. After that early-August half–perfect game, it was his only unblemished outing in the final two months of the season.
Far more common were days like the one that came three games later, with the Twins in a three-way tie with Boston and Detroit for first. Chance dueled with Chicago’s Tommy John for six innings, with his lineup providing ample winning cushion by posting four runs in the fifth and sixth. The strain of his fifth pitching appearance in two weeks showed as the White Sox pushed one across on a seventh-inning sacrifice fly; then, in the ninth, he cracked. Chance surrendered three straight singles to bring the winning run up to bat, then let Chicago load the bases with a poorly-fielded bunt. This time, it was Kaat who came in to clean up his fellow starter’s mess, but neither he nor Al Worthington could hold the lead, and the Sox knocked Minnesota out of first with a walkoff win.
His last great outing of 1967—one of the last great outings of his career—came against the awful Athletics, who reached last place in mid-April and stayed there for the entire remainder of the season. Once again pitching all nine innings, he held Kansas City to a two-run homer in the second and, thanks as usual to Killebrew, secured his nineteenth win with thirteen strikeouts. He didn’t have quite his best stuff when he faced the Yankees on September 24, his Twins clinging to a half-game lead in the pennant chase, as he surrendered four runs in a 139-pitch outing. For once, though, the Twins helped him out: Bob Allison knocked a three-run homer in the first and the lineup nearly batted around in the second, providing enough room for Chance to reach the hallowed twenty-win mark with a 9-4 victory. Afterwards, even the unflappable Chance had to admit the strain was showing; he’d expected manager Cal Ermer to relieve him earlier. Meanwhile, Ermer told the press he hoped to pitch Chance twice more in the final five games of the season, having lost confidence in fourth starter Dave Boswell.
There was more bad than good in these 25 days—yes, with a 2.73 ERA, but one that would stand at 4.18 with unearned runs, which are the kind that count in a pennant chase. After giving the Twins a 2.64% boost in championship win probability, he (and the fielders behind him) had lost 1.75% in the eight games that followed. But it would be hard to blame him for everything that went wrong, and Minnesota ultimately came out of that run exactly where they started it: half a game up with everything to play for the rest of the way. It was here, in the final five games of the year, that their season unraveled. It was here that Chance was laid low.
First, a three-game series with the Angels. The Twins split the first two and went into the September 27 rubber match with a game in hand over both Sox, needing Chance at his finest. Boston was bewilderingly shut out by Cleveland that day; Chicago was stunningly swept in a doubleheader by those dead-last A’s. If ever there was a golden opportunity to take a firm hold of the pennant, it was now. Chance held his old team to a walk and a hit through three innings, and then…
Don Mincher, California’s star slugger, the key piece in that trade, opened the scoring with a home run to deep right field. Chance, not usually one to be rattled, gave up three straight singles (including one to Jimmie Hall, the other batter he’d been traded for), issued an intentional walk, and allowed another single before he was finally pulled from the game. The Angels took a 4-0 lead, won 5-1, and kept Minnesota’s lead as flimsy as ever.
Admittedly, the frequency with which Chance pitched down the stretch would be managerial malpractice nowadays, but it can’t be the only excuse for his struggles. He was hardly a man to shy away from the mound, after all. Following his loss to the Angels, he did not blame the fielding or the tepid offense, which had scored just one run. “I blew it—nobody but me,” he said bluntly. “There’s no excuse.” Despondent, he remarked that he only hoped Sunday’s game mattered to the pennant race. It would.
The Twins had a two-day break as they departed the Twin Cities for the final two games of the season, the games that would decide the pennant race. The White Sox would be swept out of contention by the Senators, and the Tigers split a pair of doubleheaders with California. We did not know this in 1967, but we know it now, looking back: Minnesota needed one win in two games for the pennant.
They were up against perhaps the best team in the American League. The Red Sox had finished 72-90 a year ago, but had overcome all expectations and stood 90-70 entering the decisive series against the Twins. One year after Frank Robinson’s Triple Crown for Baltimore, Carl Yastrzemski was fighting tooth-and-nail to attain the rare feat himself. Already booked for MVP honors, the future Hall of Famer was sitting on a .391 batting average, 43 home runs, and 115 runs batted in entering the final weekend. Only Killebrew, who also had 43 homers, could deny him if he went deep more times in the season-ending series.
But Boston was more than just Yastrzemski, who at 27 years of age hardly looked the grizzled veteran he was on an extremely green lineup. Highly-touted youngster Tony Conigliaro was exceptional when he played, putting up an .860 OPS and earning an All-Star nod. Boston suffered a devastating blow when a beanball damaged his cheek and eye, leaving him unavailable from midsummer on. He would go on to the AL Comeback Player of the Year award in 1969, but in the meantime, the Sox were left scrambling for outfield reinforcements. The lineup was strong almost across the board—first baseman George Scott, who earned top-ten MVP votes while batting in 82 runs, was a particular highlight—but depth was near-nonexistent down the stretch.
Pitching stepped in when the offense faltered, with our old friend Jim Lonborg leading the way. He may not have been a deserving Cy Young winner or even the best pitcher on his own staff (Lee Stange topped him in ERA and WHIP), but he was still excellent, and those 246 strikeouts did look awful pretty. Gary Bell chipped in 165.1 great innings, while 20-save closer John Wyatt and stopgap relievers Sparky Lyle and Dan Osinski provided a shutdown bullpen. It was hard to find anything Boston couldn’t do, and at 49-39 since the All-Star break, they looked every bit the part of an impossible pennant winner.
They still had to sweep the Twins, though, and that was no easy feat. Minnesota scored first in the final game of September, getting to the Sox’ José Santiago in just four plate appearances. For four innings, Kaat (who was pulled with torn ligaments in his elbow) and Jim Perry held the line, only once allowing a runner to reach scoring position. But Boston turned the tide with back-to-back two-out singles in the fifth, the second delivered by Yastrzemski to put his team ahead. The Twins and Sox traded runs, but Yaz sealed the win in the seventh, hammering a homer to deep right field to pull Boston within a game—and, in the process, nearly secure his Triple Crown. Killebrew matched him in the top of the ninth, but Minnesota couldn’t pull any closer, and the Red Sox won 6-4.
October 1st dawned a crisp, clear morning in Boston, but a low, overcast sky rolled in as the time of the game approached. For the Sox, who had never expected anything from this season, who had bludgeoned their way into the chase after playing like an also-ran for most of the first half, it was an opportunity, a moment of pure excitement. For the Twins, and for Dean Chance, the clouds fit their mood better. It was dread.
The Twins were in awful shape. If the pennant race was wearing on Chance, who had blown several opportunities to give Minnesota critical wins, there was no doubt it was wrecking his teammates even more. He and Kaat were the only players to work out at the clubhouse on their final day at home; everybody else was desperate to get just one day off after the grueling marathon that had been September. Cal Ermer, who had taken over the team in July following Sam Mele’s shocking ouster, had already developed dark circles under his eyes; third base coach Billy Martin supposedly spent a whole night staring at his TV, even after programming ended for the day and the feed cut to a test pattern.
Things came to a head in a team meeting before the trip over to Boston, called to discuss how World Series shares would be split among the roster. Last season, the Braves had voted not to award fired manager Bobby Bragan a share, and Kaat started a movement to do the same with Mele’s money. Very few of the players stood by their former manager, who had won 524 games at the helm, and after a protracted debate, they retracted his share. Twelve players later paid him out of their own winnings, but the damage to team morale was done.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of Mele’s most vocal defenders was none other than Dean Chance, who—in typical fashion—roared “I’m ashamed of you!” at his teammates after the decision. If one were inclined to a poetic reading of this tale, it’s possible to glimpse hints of a change in his attitude, though he was still as over-the-top as ever. The Chance of old would’ve happily thrown his teammates under the bus, would’ve had no qualms complaining about the numerous errors that cost Minnesota games in the pennant race (and wins on his record).
Say what you will about why he had changed. Maybe he just got older, matured a bit; maybe he was simply that happy to get out of Anaheim; or maybe, just maybe, he finally felt like part of something. The way he spoke about Mele—or, quite simply about how he “never wanted to win a game more”—really did sound like somebody who cared about the people around him. He never was somebody to dwell on the past, to stay the same person he’d always been because of his image, as somebody like Belinsky might. Chance was, in every way, his own man, and in 1967 he decided that man was one dead-set on winning the pennant, not a Cy Young Award or an ERA title or twenty games.
He spoke simply, but as one would expect, that Saturday night before the game. “This has to be the biggest game I have ever pitched,” he told reporters. “I hope I can meet the challenge.” Everyone was on edge—not just the Twins, but the Red Sox too. Staying at a nearby hotel to get away from a throng of guests at his house, Yastrzemski woke early that morning and wandered the nearby golf course, picking apart Chance’s famously elusive sinking fastball in his mind as he paced. Jim Lonborg, too, checked into a hotel—he couldn’t seem to buy a win at home, so he went through his whole road-trip routine in the hopes that it would make the difference to his pitching.
The reported crowd that cloudy October day was 35,780. Those at the scene reported thousands more in the ballpark and countless onlookers trying to get a peek into Fenway Park from nearby buildings, billboards, the binoculars-equipped observation deck of distant Prudential Tower, and even at one point the foul pole atop the left-field wall. The crowd roared mightily when Lonborg emerged from the bullpen, going on so long that the national anthem had to be delayed.
And then, after all of the drama, the fights, the speeches, the quotes, one hundred and sixty-one games of no-hitters and errors and unlikely wins, the only game in the world that now mattered began.
Four batters in, Chance had his lead. Lonborg started strong, but mighty Killebrew drew a walk, then galloped around the bases to score on a Tony Oliva double, frantically waved home by Martin to the astonishment of Red Sox fielders. Where the Sox could not hold Minnesota’s superstar at first, the Twins could; Yastrzemski, like Killebrew, reached with two out but was sent back to the dugout on an easy ground ball. Chance worked efficiently, allowing but one hit in each of the following four innings—including a single by Lonborg, bewilderingly, but one soon erased in a double play. Another error in the field (by Yastrzemski) got another Twin home from first, this time César Tovar on a Killebrew single. Minnesota was cruising, with Chance working a particularly beautiful fifth inning, one he finished still yet to throw his fortieth pitch.
We often delude ourselves into believing baseball is a sport in which personality and success are essentially related, a sport in which results tell a story that we aren’t just making up as we see it unfold. Drag yourself to the dregs of what Twitter has become and scroll through the replies to any tweet that mentions a poor hitter, even in a moment of success. You will find humanity at its worst—decrying people who are very often admirable human beings, because they’ve lost a few milliseconds in their swing and have slipped from the 99.999th percentile of athletes to the 99.998th. Sometimes there are reasons, fairytales we tell ourselves about a moment of anger on the field defining a person’s life, but nobody’s ever one moment. People make mistakes, and they change, and they act rashly, nobody more so than baseball players who have rarely been told no in their lives.
Dean Chance did not pitch in the days of Twitter, but baseball fans were not much less virulent in the days of yore. He must have heard the jeers after that day, trying to escape Boston unscathed, and later, when he returned to Minnesota to face the consequences of his failings as a pitcher, no different in their minds from his failings as a person. He had criticized teammates in the past; he had shown his emotion on the field. Do you think they cared that he was trying to be better? That he was learning, imperfectly as we all do, how to be kind?
Or do you think they cared that, in the bottom of the sixth inning, he gave up five runs and lost the pennant?
It wasn’t all his fault, but that probably didn’t make him feel any better about it. He let Boston load the bases with back-to-back-to-back hits, the first a bunt single by Lonborg, even if it was caused by Tovar playing a mile behind third base. The Twins’ infield nervously closed up on home plate after that; Jerry Adair took advantage and lofted a liner into shallow center field. Expecting a bunt after Dalton Jones showed it early in his at-bat, Tovar sprinted down the third-base line, and Jones knocked one past him into left field. Each hit, in part, was the fielders’ fault, overcorrections in position leaving them unable to reach weakly-hit balls that made it through the infield. A few years ago, even a year ago, Chance would’ve blown up at them, in the press if not then and there on the field. He took a breath, and pitched to Carl Yastrzemski.
It ended predictably. Even Chance, the Yankee-killer, the Cy Young–winner, couldn’t keep a great hitter down forever. Yaz saw the sinking fastball he wanted and pounced, hammering yet another single into center field—where, again, the Twins were out of position, fearing extra bases from the slugger. The game was tied. Ken Harrelson followed with a Baltimore chop that former MVP Zoilo Versalles tried in vain to get an out at home on, and Chance was chased with the lead gone.
There is a rest of the story, but it’s been told before. Amid a constant roar from the crowd that one Minneapolis writer compared to “test day at an anvil factory,” veteran reliever Al Worthington offered a prayer to the heavens, stepped up, and promptly threw two wild pitches. A subsequent error by Killebrew accounted for the other runner Chance had left on base, and though Worthington eventually escaped the jam, the Red Sox had all the runs they would need to ease away for a 5-3 win. The Twins’ only real chance at a rally, when Killebrew and Oliva reached the corners in the eighth, was stifled after Yaz rifled a brilliant throw to get the batter out at second. The man stretching the single, which everybody in the ballpark not named Yastrzemski believed was a double, was Bob Allison, Chance’s most vocal opponent in the debate over Mele’s World Series share. Once in a great while, baseball does like to tell a story.
Lonborg closed out the win, his fifteenth complete game of the season, perhaps the game that won him the Cy Young Award. He was imperfect—seven hits, three runs, four walks—but he was good enough, and probably would’ve been better if not for errors by the fielders behind him. He was, in short, Chance-like.
The fans mobbed Lonborg, quite literally. A rising swell of the crowd lifted him off his feet, never minding his protests that he might suffer an injury in the process. Bases, infield dirt, even letters and numbers from the Green Monster were torn away by the ecstatic fans. Carillon bells rang “The Impossible Dream” deep into the night, the streets thronged with crowds who hadn’t seen an AL champion in a generation. As if in a final insult to Chance, it was the Angels who denied them even the small mercy of Boston not winning the pennant, upending Detroit in the nightcap of their doubleheader.
Of what happened afterwards, precious little is ever considered. History remembers the winners, after all, and though those Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games, they won their first pennant since 1946 in the most thrilling fashion. Of the teams that lost it—Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles—we simply don’t know what happened next.
Perhaps it’s better that way. The 1967 season feels frozen in time, caught in the last instant where baseball was a sport of newspapers and pennant chases and larger-than-life players whose names still ring like Ruth and Gehrig’s. Perhaps in part because of the immense strain of that year, many of its iconic figures were never the same again. Yastrzemski made the All-Star game for over a decade straight afterwards, but that Triple Crown season would always stand as his best, of course. Killebrew won the MVP award two years later, but soon afterwards declined as his age caught up with him. Lonborg went quickly, painfully so—a skiing accident tore ligaments in his left knee, and he never even made an All-Star Game again. Don Mincher was out of baseball in half a decade; so was Joe Horlen, whose ERA had more than doubled by 1970. Even the venerable Al Kaline fell from the heights of glory, receiving just four MVP votes in his final seven seasons after receiving at least that many in thirteen of his first fifteen years.
And Chance? Well, he was never one to take baseball lightly, and he all but destroyed his arm in the relentless pursuit of one more win, one more game that would give the Twins the pennant. After being named the 1967 AL Comeback Player of the Year, he was, like Lonborg, never named to another All-Star team. After his swan song, a less-magical 1968 (a 2.53 ERA, but in the Year of the Pitcher), injuries sent his career into a rapid decline, ending it a few months after he turned 30.
Telling archival history about a player like Chance is a frustrating endeavor. At least with modern-day athletes, we have the benefit of the vast amount of data about the present, always at our fingertips. But there were thousands of stories, snippets, moments from 1967 that were never recorded, lost pieces of the people about whom we could know so much more. We can only tell the parts of the story we remember—it is through this loss that a human like Chance, a complicated person, a person who was never one moment, becomes iconic, archetypal. We remember that he partied, that he complained about his teammates, that he couldn’t hit, that he pitched a no-hitter when it mattered, that he lost a pennant when it mattered most. Everything else, the uncountable infinity of instants in time that defined his true character, is lost to us. We only see the shadow cast by a man at war with the world; we do not see the details that we know must exist, maddeningly just beyond our knowledge.
The best glimpse we have of how he changed comes in the interviews he gave late in life. As much as he lived it up with Belinsky, he was always playing at being a playboy to some extent, and it’s no surprise he ended up back home in Wooster, Ohio. He kept an interest in boxing, founding and running the International Boxing Association, but his 300-acre farm was his real passion. He spoke with the humility of a person who had tried being a lovable, hateable scoundrel, and found that it wasn’t really his nature.
“Maybe I got lucky,” he told The Plain Dealer’s Bill Lubinger in 2009, contemplating his seventeen high-school no-hitters. “I had a good defense behind me.” A few years later, speaking with the Wooster Daily Record, he hesitated only a moment when asked about regrets, then launched into a tale of how he ended up next to Frank Sinatra at a dinner party. He could’ve spun a yarn a mile long about the nightmare of that September, but why dwell on the little, meaningless mistakes—no matter whose? A pitch better executed, a fielder better positioned, and Minnesota might have won the pennant, but that’s baseball. We can only be thankful that the standards of life, of living a good one, are not quite so exacting.
Nobody’s ever one moment. That is the fundamental truth about Chance that makes all this mean anything; I think, too, it is what he learned, what changed him. The contradictions of baseball, the constant conflict with teammates he truly respected, wore him down until he could no longer reasonably believe the rest of the world hated him (at least, not without reason). He was as loud and unflappable as ever, in 1967 and for the rest of his life, but he learned to leave some things unsaid.
There’s no real ending to this story, unless you count Chance finally learning his lesson and then having the most miserable end to a season anybody’s ever had, which is a bit of a downer if you ask me. But baseball doesn’t give us easy, happy endings; we have to do the hard part ourselves. To improve as people—to be better, moment to moment, especially when it’s hard to see from a distance—is hard in a way that this sport, or any other, could never be.
That, I think, is the legacy of Dean Chance. He was one of the last great pitchers amid the dying days of baseball’s golden age, but he was much more than that. Off the field, he was bold, opinionated, and stubborn to a fault, yet in time he found the strength to accept the uncertainty of the ever-unpredictable sport he played. He gave himself up to chance, and if it did not reward him on the diamond, it rewarded him in the decades to come of a life well lived.
This story was partially adapted from The 1967 American League Pennant Race: Four Teams, Six Weeks, One Winner, a seminal summary of baseball’s last great regular-season chase by Cameron Bright. Various other sources, generally surviving news stories from the era, were also referenced.
Dean Chance passed away in the fall of 2015 at the age of 74. Earlier that year, he had made his last major public appearance upon his induction into the Angels Hall of Fame. In his speech, he thanked former California fielder Bobby Knoop for a play that secured his twenty-win season in 1964.
We remember Chance today as a passing moment, a brash young pitcher whose star burned brightly and briefly before flaming out in less than a decade. That is part of the story, but only part of it. On this, what would have been his 82nd birthday, we should remember him also as a man who changed, perhaps slowly and imperfectly, but, when all was said and done, for the better.
This and all other stats in this story are from Baseball-Reference.com, an invaluable resource for historical baseball data.