If the San Francisco Giants contrive to lose the National League pennant by one game this year, they will blame it all on Harry Wendelstedt. Not Henry Aaron or Pete Rose, not Orlando Cepeda or Jerry Koosman, not even the team that survives this season's pennant adventure. They will simply point to an umpire named Harry Wendelstedt and say, "Harry, you did it."
Last Friday night in Los Angeles, Wendelstedt was umpiring a game between the Giants and the Dodgers when he made what may be the most controversial call of the 1968 season. The Giants were in first place but struggling, leading the 10th place Pirates by only five games in the tightest early-season race in expansion-league history. The Dodgers were pitching Don Drysdale, who was hot after a record fifth successive shutout.
When Drysdale stepped out of the dugout for the top half of the ninth, leading 3-0, the 46,067 in Dodger Stadium rose and cheered and floated paper airplanes onto the field. His pants legs drooping almost to his ankles, Drysdale tipped his blue cap as he crossed the third-base line, and he repeated the gesture as he reached the mound and bent over to pick up the resin bag.
Then he ran into trouble. Willie McCovey walked on a 3-and-2 pitch. Jim Ray Hart hit Drysdale's next pitch into right center for a single, and Dave Marshall, a rookie outfielder, walked. Now suddenly the bases were loaded, nobody was out and Catcher Dick Dietz was at the plate. Just three nights earlier in St. Louis, Dietz had hit a long sixth-inning home run off Bob Gibson after the Cardinal pitcher had methodically set down the first 15 San Francisco batters.
In any other circumstance the advantage would have been all Drysdale's—his right-handed sidearm coming in from somewhere around third base to a right-handed hitter. But in this tense situation the count went quickly to 2 and 2—and then the "thing" happened.
"Now I was looking for something on the outside part of the plate—like a spitter," said Dietz. He set himself firmly in the batter's box and leaned toward the plate. Drysdale fired. The pitch—Drysdale said it was a fast ball—seemed to mesmerize Dietz, who never moved and clearly was hit on the left elbow. Instantly Wendelstedt yelled, "Ball three!"
Drysdale, wisely, turned away. Dietz, who looks as though he should be a blocking guard for the Green Bay Packers, bounced around Wendelstedt like a man with murder in his heart. Wendelstedt reasoned that Dietz never tried to avoid the pitch. Therefore, he said, he was invoking a seldom-remembered rule and calling the pitch a ball, since it was not in the strike zone. Giant Manager Herman Franks, who was ejected, shouted unprintables all the way to the clubhouse.
The decision possibly saved the game for Drysdale. It preserved his string of scoreless innings at 45 and enabled him to tie the record of five consecutive shutouts set by Guy White of the Chicago White Sox in 1904. Instead of one run in and the tying run at second, the Giants had a sore-armed catcher at bat who was able to produce only a gentle fly too shallow to score the run from third.
Drysdale got his next out on a force at the plate, then went to his cap with his right hand, tugged at his belt, rubbed his thigh, tugged at his belt, brushed the letters on his uniform shirt, pulled at his right shoulder, went to the cap again and finally was ready for Pinch Hitter Jack Hiatt. And one Giant said, "Somewhere in that routine he gets it—the Vaseline or whatever it is he puts on the ball to make it jump around." Hiatt went out on a harmless pop-up and Dodger Stadium was instant bedlam—the golden days of Sandy Koufax revisited. The only people not saluting Drysdale's achievement were the Giants, particularly the befuddled Dietz. "Wendelstedt said I stuck my arm out on purpose," he said. "What am I? Crazy? I'm not going to let him hit me—not Drysdale. He'll cut you in two out there. I just couldn't move."
Wendelstedt's odd call amazed even the Dodgers. "I have enough trouble trying to get the ball to hit the bat" said Zoilo Versalles, the shortstop. Hank Aguirre, the left-handed relief pitcher who came over to the Dodgers from the American League earlier this year said, "Listen, if anybody wants to get hit, there are plenty of guys around who will hit him. And not on the elbow."