The greatest college baseball game ever: ‘The heartache is what made it more memorable’

An afternoon in mid-May and we are waiting on a game to start.

It was 40 years ago today, May 21, 1981, when those opening words were conjured up by Roger Angell, the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. The New Yorker magazine scribe was sitting with 2,500 fellow baseball fans in the mostly empty grandstands of Yale Field, home of the Bulldogs, on that sunny Thursday afternoon.

The game we are waiting for — Yale vs. St. John’s University — is a considerable event, for it is part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s northeast regional tournament, the winner of which will qualify for a berth at the national collegiate championships in Omaha in June, the World Series of college baseball.

The “considerable event” is now widely considered to be the greatest college baseball game ever played. It was a pitching duel for the ages between two future big-league all-stars, both of whom ground their way into extra innings like earthmovers, saturating the box score with zeros for three hours, until a final score of 1-0 was finally hung on the scoreboard as darkness fell over the old gray and green ballpark. The two pitchers left the field that night to a standing ovation. On this date every year since, that applause starts again. Angell’s essay from that day, “The Web of the Game,” considered perhaps the greatest baseball essay ever penned, is retweeted again. And people stare at those stat lines in disbelief again.

Ron Darling, Yale: 12 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 5 BB, 16 K, 190 pitches thrown, no-hitter through 11
Frank Viola, St. John’s: 11 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 8 K, 160+ pitches thrown

“I’m a little surprised how the story of that game continues to be told,” Darling recalled when asked about the game last fall. He was a 20-year-old junior that day in ’81. “Because I think the last person who can enjoy an athletic event is the person who’s in the middle of it. Especially when that person is pitching the game of his life but can never get comfortable because the other guy is doing the same.”

“I am 61 years old, I have been in baseball since I was a teenager, and it is the greatest game I have ever seen pitched,” Viola remembered on Wednesday, sitting in a dugout in High Point, North Carolina, where he is the pitching coach for the independent minor league High Point Rockers. “I witnessed David Cone striking out 20 Phillies; I saw Chris Bosio throw a no-hitter against the Red Sox in Seattle; Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden, you name it. None were better than what I saw that day. And it wasn’t me. It was Ronnie.”

Bulldogs ace Darling was a two-time All-American with a 1981 record of 9-3 with 89 strikeouts in 93 innings. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Hawaiian-born, Massachusetts-raised righty was being projected by many as the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, which was less than a month away. Viola was a just-turned-21-year-old, New York-raised St. John’s lefty who was 9-0 with an ERA of 1.00 and himself the generator of plenty of MLB prospect buzz.

That’s why there were an estimated 50 big league scouts scattered among the 2,500 in attendance and why the New York and Boston newspapers had an abnormally large number of credentials in hand to cover college baseball, a sport those publications largely ignored, a casualty of the pro-sports-packed spring months.

“I think it was more like about 400 people that were there,” Viola said with a chuckle. “But in the 40 years since, about 150,000 have told me that they were there.”

Roger Angell was definitely there, sitting in the crowd with Smoky Joe Wood, a Baseball Hall of Famer who had earned three World Series rings with the Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodgers, and then became head baseball coach at Yale for 20 years. On May 21, 1981, Smoky Joe was 91 years old, and Angell had leveraged Yale’s success and this pitching matchup to lure Wood out to the ballpark for an interview. Wood tracked the game time on a pocket watch given to him to commemorate his four-appearance, three-win heroics in the 1912 World Series for the Red Sox against the New York Giants, when he outdueled Christy Mathewson to clinch the title in Fenway Park to close out the ballpark’s inaugural season. That same year, he won a much-hyped showdown against Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Wood was riding a 13-game winning streak, and earlier that year Johnson had won a record 16 in a row. The hype of that matchup was very much on the mind of Angell and Wood during this one.

“We won it 1-0,” Wood said to Angell. “But it wasn’t his fault that I beat him that day.”

Wood threw one no-hitter during his legendary career, a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Browns on July 29, 1911. By the time this game had entered its middle innings 70 years later, he and Angell began to realize that Darling had a chance to do the same. By the fifth, Darling had retired every Johnnie batter without a single “H” recorded.

“We were a really cocky bunch of guys, a bunch of New York kids who always spent every game running our mouths at the other guys, talking just the worst trash, because we knew we were that good, the badasses of the Northeast,” Viola recalled of the ’81 St. John’s team that included future big league closer John Franco. “But in the very first inning, our 3-hole hitter came back to the dugout, just as I was walking out to the mound for my warm-ups, and he said to us, ‘We’re screwed. We’re not going to hit him. It’s the most unbelievable stuff.’ And the rest of that game, that’s the quietest that team ever was.”

“I think I knew after the first maybe four innings that I had a chance for a special day, like any pitcher knows when his stuff is good and he can see what the other team can or can’t do with you that day,” Darling said. “The one thing I knew for sure is that I was going the distance. I went into that game having finished 27 complete games in 27 starts. I had never been pulled from a game at Yale, so I wanted it to be 28.”

These were the days of the 34-team NCAA baseball tournament format, half the size of today’s field. There were no super regionals but instead a tidy eight regionals (seven with four teams, one with six) producing eight teams that would earn a trip to Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium for the 35th edition of the College World Series.

The other seven sites were packed with college baseball powerhouse programs, from a Texas vs. Stanford showdown in Austin to an Arizona State vs. Cal State Fullerton grappling in Tempe. But all those headliner games featuring juggernaut teams wound up overshadowed then and now by a pair of old school cold-weather programs facing off in a largely empty ballpark in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale was making its first NCAA postseason appearance since 1947-48, when the Elis participated in the first two editions of the College World Series, held in Kalamazoo, Michigan (it moved to Omaha in 1950). They were the runners-up in both of those two-team series, a heartbreak that first baseman George “Poppy” Bush often recalled, even during his days in the White House. Meanwhile, St. John’s had been a more consistent Series visitor, making its first appearance in ’49 when the Wichita-based CWS expanded to four teams and visiting Omaha five times after that.

The most recent of those CWS berths had been earned just one year earlier, when St. John’s had upset Maine in Orono and then stunned top-seeded Arizona in the Series opener 6-1. Viola and his curveball started the game with four walks in the first inning, but then he held the eventual CWS champs to six hits and one run.

“We saw him and thought, ‘Oh yeah, we can totally hit this guy,'” recalls Terry Francona, Arizona’s All-America outfielder and now Cleveland Indians manager. “But I got no hits that day. After I watched him in the big leagues, I didn’t feel so bad about that.”

“My only goal was to keep zeros on the board however we could do it,” Viola said on Wednesday. “Every inning as I walked back to the dugout, I would check the scoreboard to make sure it still had no score on it. It seemed like every time I came off the field we were losing. That’s how dominant Ronnie was in his performance that day.”

As the ninth inning came and went, all that scoreboard showed were those zeros. Darling had yet to surrender a hit and had registered double-digit strikeouts. Viola had scattered a half-dozen hits and walked two, but Yale hadn’t gotten a runner past second base.

Suddenly, the mood of the day was being pushed through a funnel. With each pitch the pressure grew on the players and even began creeping into the stands, described by Angell as “ceaseless, nervous sounds of conversation and speculation.”

Viola and Darling both recall the tension that built, but both remember it as an intensely beautiful competitive pressure. The athletes on the field didn’t wither from it. They relished it. In the seventh inning, Viola cut loose a fastball that got away from him and drilled the thigh of Yale’s No. 3 hitter, Rich Diana. That fall, Diana would finish 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting as a running back; he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins.

“I will never forget Rich Diana dropping his bat and looking me right in the eye,” Viola recalled. “He took his hand and flicked his thigh like he was swatting away a fly, like, ‘Is that all you’ve got?'”

Shortly before his death in 2018, longtime Associated Press writer Jim O’Connell recalled a steady stream of fans, writers and scouts jumping up from their seats between innings, running to a bank of pay phones beneath the stands and calling friends and colleagues to update them on what was happening at Yale Field. They did so with a sense of disbelief, a feeling they shared with the two young men sharing the mound.

With two out in the top of the 11th, Darling saved his own no-hitter. A squib hit down the first-base line bounced off the glove of the onrushing first baseman, but the second baseman plucked it from the grass and tossed it to Darling, just as the former Yale football player was diving into the bag, to beat the runner by an eyelash. Yale responded by filling the bases in the bottom of the inning via a hit and two walks.

“I was getting tired and missing the corners,” Viola remembers. “But we closed them out again.”

Angell, Wood, and their companions agreed they had likely seen Yale’s last chance. They were right.

The 12th inning began with the first St. John’s hit of the day, a flare at best off the end of the bat of leadoff hitter and speedster Steve Scafa. For a moment, the game was paused as the Yale Field public-address announcer informed the crowd that Darling had just set an NCAA record for no-hit innings pitched at 11. They roared.

“It’s funny, how that game is remembered above all the others. If I had won 1-0, it might not be as memorable, but the heartache is what made it more memorable.”

Ron Darling

Darling always gets choked up when he talks about what happened next. “What I remember most about that was looking over at the St. John’s dugout, and they had all come out, making sure they were part of the standing ovation, including Frank. Yeah, they were a tough bunch of New Yorkers, but that shows you how classy they were.”

They were also there to win the game. Mere moments later, they did just that. Scafa, one of the nation’s leading base stealers, had a spirited back-and-forth exchange with Darling before jetting to second. Then he stole third, too. After a second Johnnie reached base on an error, Darling recorded his 15th strikeout of the game. On the next pitch, St. John’s pulled the trigger on a double steal. Darling should have cut off the throw from home to second to freeze Scafa at third, but he had stumbled off the mound after the pitch. The second baseman did manage to put Scafa on pause for a beat, but as soon as he turned his eyes toward the runner between first and second and threw over to first, Scafa lurched for home. The throw from first was too late. The first run of the game had been scored.

St. John’s reliever Eric Stampfl entered the game for Viola and promptly mowed down the Elis to clinch the victory.

“It’s funny, how that game is remembered above all the others,” said Darling, the winner of 136 major league games. “If I had won 1-0, it might not be as memorable, but the heartache is what made it more memorable.”

“The next day Yale was in the early game in the losers bracket, and we got to the ballpark when they were in like the fifth inning of that game,” Viola remembered. “We were talking down the right-field line to get ready for our game, and there was Ronnie, playing right field. A guy from Central Michigan hit one out to the warning track, so 320 feet out there, and Ron scooped it up and threw a one-hopper to the plate! He’d thrown nearly 200 pitches the day before, and a one-hopper? Me, my arm was so weak I couldn’t scratch my butt. That’s how great of an athlete Ronnie is.”

Neither team made it to Omaha (damn those Maine Bears), but a few weeks later, Darling was drafted ninth overall by the Texas Rangers. Viola was the 37th pick, going to the Minnesota Twins. Thanks to his showing at Yale, he had jumped from being a projected fifth-round pick all the way up to the second round. The two pitchers had shaken hands in New Haven, but it was the following summer when they really met, when Viola was a Toledo Mud Hen and Darling was a Tidewater Tide. After their Triple-A game, they went out for beer and spent the entire night talking about their NCAA tourney showdown.

In 1986, Darling, like Smoky Joe Wood, made four appearances in the World Series and, like Wood, earned a win at Fenway Park as the New York Mets defeated the Red Sox in seven games. The following fall, Viola was awarded World Series MVP as the Minnesota Twins came from behind to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1989, they became Mets teammates.

Joe Wood died on July 25, 1985. He was 95. Roger Angell is still very much alive at the age of 100. Every day, he goes to work at The New Yorker. Every night, he tunes in to the local New York Mets TV broadcast, where he listens to the former player he has described as his favorite baseball analyst, Ron Darling.

“For a New York kid, to open up The New Yorker and see that Roger Angell was there that day, and had written about our game, that was a dream come true,” says Viola, who keeps a signed copy of Angell’s essay on the bookshelf of his home in Mooresville, North Carolina. “And to think, this was all over a college baseball game.”

Not a college baseball game. The college baseball game. Was it really the greatest ever played? Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no question that its perfect confluence of stakes, attendees and timeless pitching performances created if not the greatest game, certainly one of the greatest days ever seen in baseball, a sport that above all others prides itself on its unparalleled history and storytelling.

While Darling broadcasts the young MLB stars of today from New York, Viola coaches kids trying to make it to the bigs from a minor league diamond in the North Carolina Piedmont. The past, present and future, intertwined four decades ago on a sunny Thursday afternoon at Yale Field and still connected today.

You know, “The Web of the Game.”

As Angell put it in his story:

I think I will remember it all my life. So will Joe Wood. Somebody will probably tell Ron Darling that Smoky Joe Wood was at the game that afternoon and saw him pitch eleven scoreless no-hit innings against St. John’s, and someday — perhaps years from now, when he, too, may possibly be a celebrated major-league strikeout artist — it may occur to him that his heartbreaking 0-1 loss in May 1981 and Walter Johnson’s loss at Fenway Park in September 1912 are now woven together into the fabric of baseball. Pitch by pitch, inning by inning, Ron Darling made that happen. He stitched us together.