The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #89 Milt Pappas

I chose this 1972 Pappas card to illustrate today's profile for several reasons: first, to show the goofy hairstyles that were popular in those days (I wore one like this myself); it also depicts another one of those fake pitching poses, and finally, shows off some really bad early '70s graphic design -- all told, a triumph of ugliness.

It was September 2, 1972, just a few days before I was to start my junior year of high school. Summer was over, and my family was hosting a cousin of mine, visiting from England. He had never seen a baseball game before, and my dad and I thought that Saturday would be a good time to take him.

But it was a rainy, gloomy morning, and in those days, the Cubs usually didn't wait too long before postponing games (a few years later, in 1978, I was to bring a couple of graduating college buddies of mine to Wrigley Field on May 23, only to find out the game had been postponed on account of fog). And we figured they wouldn't play, so we didn't go.

And that is how I missed seeing Milt Pappas throw the last no-hitter the Cubs were involved in, an 8-0 victory that absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a Bruce Froemming doubt, should have been a perfect game.

Froemming, who was in his second year as a major league umpire then, swears to this day that the 3-2 pitch on pinch-hitter Larry Stahl was outside. But think about it. The game was long before decided (the Cubs had a 4-0 lead after three and padded it to 8-0 in the bottom of the 8th), and you've got a chance to make baseball history, and the pitch is borderline (which all replays showed it was)? Of course you ring up the pinch-hitter.

But Froemming didn't, and Pappas had to retire the next hitter -- ironically, an ex-Cub, Garry Jestadt -- on a ground ball, to preserve his no-hitter. Little did any of us suspect that thirty-four years later, the Cubs would not have had another no-hitter thrown since then. It was an era in which no-hitters seemed easy to come by -- from 1955 through 1972, Cub pitchers threw six of them (Sam Jones, 1955; Don Cardwell, 1960; Kenny Holtzman, 1969 and 1971; Burt Hooton, earlier in 1972 and Pappas) -- but none since.

1972 was Pappas' best year in a long and distinguished career that, despite signing with and playing for the Baltimore Orioles for a decade, found him making only one postseason appearance -- a garbage-time relief appearance in game two of the 1969 NLCS for the Atlanta Braves.

I'm ahead of myself a bit here. Milton Steven Pappas (actually born with the very Greek name Miltiades Sergios Pappastediodis) was born May 11, 1939 in Detroit, and was one of the 1950's "bonus babies", signed right out of high school by Baltimore (on the suggestion of former Tigers star Hal Newhouser, who had seen him pitch and recommended him to the Orioles) and placed on the major league roster -- where he mostly rotted in his first season, appearing in only four games. But in 1958, at the age of 19, he became one of the "Baby Birds" who eventually led the Orioles into contention in the early 1960's -- he was 10-10 with a respectable 4.09 ERA that year, and became a consistent winner into the early 1960's, winning 16 games in 1963 and 1964, and in '64 leading the Orioles agonizingly close to the AL pennant (they finished third, winning 97 games, only two games behind the Yankees and one behind the second-place White Sox, and being in first place as late as September 18).

The 26-year-old Pappas, already a nine-year veteran, had another good year in 1965, winning 13 games and finishing tied for fifth in the AL with a 2.60 ERA (yes, FIFTH with an ERA that low!). But once again, the Orioles fell short of the pennant -- that was Minnesota's year.

So on December 9, 1965, the Orioles decided to shake things up -- they traded Pappas, along with reliever Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson, to the Reds for Frank Robinson.

We all know how that one worked out for Baltimore -- Robinson, who had been thought washed up at 30, was the AL MVP and the Orioles swept through the league and the Dodgers to be World Champions. The trade seemed lopsided in Baltimore's favor, but it must be remembered that at the time, the press thought the Reds had fleeced the Orioles out of a solid young starting pitcher. But Pappas was anything but, for the Reds -- his ERA jumped a run and a half, and by the middle of 1968 he was involved in a six-player deal sending him to Atlanta, in which none of the players was of All-Star caliber. Some of the reasons for the deal, according to the Baseball Page article linked below, were due to clashes Pappas had with the Reds' popular pitcher and broadcaster Joe Nuxhall.

And from there, it got worse. In 1970, off to a 2-2, 6.06 ERA start and relegated to the bullpen, Pappas was sold outright to the Cubs on June 23.

That change of scenery rejuvenated his career. He went 10-8 in 20 starts in a little more than half a season, his ERA back to the mid-twos (2.68 as a Cub), and he followed it up with back-to-back 17-victory seasons in 1971 and 1972; as he was still only 33 years old, the Cubs could have been forgiven if they thought they could get perhaps three or four more seasons out of Milt.

It was not to be. In 1973, his fastball nearly gone (though he was never a big strikeout pitcher, his totals of only 48 strikeouts while walking 40 in 162 innings were alarming), Pappas fell to 7-12 with a 4.28 ERA. He came to spring training in 1974 hoping to make the ballclub for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he needed only one more victory to become only the third pitcher in major league history to win 100 games in each league. At that time the only other two were thought to be Cy Young and Jim Bunning. Later research showed that turn-of-the-century pitcher Al Orth also had accomplished that feat, and since then Fergie Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Dennis Martinez, Kevin Brown and Gaylord Perry have won 100 games in each league.

He never got that chance. On April 1, 1974, the Cubs, who had "backed up the truck" in the offseason and traded many of the late 60's regulars, gave Milt his unconditional release.

This prompted Washington Post columnist David Broder (an unabashed Cubs fan, incidentally) to write a column six days later, (link opens .pdf file) saying that "the ballgame is over for Richard Nixon". (Note: this is NOT political commentary -- as you'll see.) Why was this? Because, Broder said:

The strange and intimate relationship between the careers of Milton Steven (Gimpy) Pappas, pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, and Richard Milhous (The Chief) Nixon, President of the United States, has been the subject of comment here once before.

On the off chance that you may not have that column of Sept. 19, 1972 etched in your memory, let me briefly review the facts that caused me then to declare, as the Insight of the Day, that Richard Nixon is the Milt Pappas of American politics.

Broder went on to discuss Pappas' no-hitter, which came only a few weeks before Nixon's landslide re-election, and wrote at the time:

This year, Milt Pappas, after 15 years in the majors, pitched his first no-hitter and almost had a perfect game. With that for inspiration, Nixon, the 25-year man, should have no trouble carrying 45 states.

That turned out to be an underestimate, as Nixon won 49 of the 50 states. Broder goes on, tongue firmly in cheek:

In 1973, Pappas' curve began to hang, his fastball to sputter. His arm and his luck gave out and he finished with a 7-12 record, not inspiring even by the standards of the Cubs.

For teammate Nixon, too, as is all too well known, the 1973 season was a nightmare of missed signals, leaky defenses, and oh so many wild pitches and passed balls.

And Broder finishes by noting that Pappas had looked good in spring training 1974, and:

Each had one more dream to achieve before time ended his career. Nixon wanted to bring peace to the world. Pappas wanted to become the third pitcher in baseball history to win 100 games in each league.

It wasn't to be, as noted. Pappas was released, and Broder finished with a flourish:

Unconditional release. So flat, so final. And so clear in its implications for teammate Nixon.

Broder was tongue-in-cheek, but turned out to be right, as Nixon resigned the presidency four months later.

After Pappas' playing career, he dabbled in sports broadcasting for a short time, working for the station I now work for, ABC-7 in Chicago -- though long before I ever set foot in the door.

And in 1982, Pappas and his family wound up ON the news broadcasts for this bizarre incident:

Pappas's wife went to run errands near their home in Wheaton, Illinois, and disappeared. After a few hours, Pappas, who had been retired from playing for nearly a decade, became worried. After a few days passed, authorities became involved in a search for Mrs. Pappas. At first, there was speculation that she may have been kidnapped, and even Pappas himself was a suspect briefly, until he voluntarily passed a lie detector test. As the days turned to weeks and then months and years, little hope was left. Strangely, there were no signs of her car, clothes, identification or her body. For the first eight months after his wife's disappearance, Milt left everything in their bedroom just as it was when she left. He consulted psychics, searched sanitariums and shelters, and turned to the media for help. Then, in 1987, almost exactly five years after her disappearance, the car Mrs. Pappas was driving was found in a shallow pond in Wheaton, just four blocks from their home. The pond was hidden from view, about 30 yards from the road, behind the Wheaton Fire Department building. The car was located when workers drained the pond to work on the shoreline.

That aside, Milt Pappas was a productive pitcher for sixteen full major league seasons, winning 209 games (two more than the man who signed him, Hal Newhouser, and, sadly, only 99 in the NL to go with his 110 AL wins. He really did want that 100th NL win, but never got the chance). He went 51-41 in three and a half Cub seasons with a 3.33 ERA (slightly lower than his 3.40 career ERA), and had that one magical day in 1972 when he put his name into the baseball record books forever. Pappas, now 67 years old, still lives in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Milt Pappas' career stats from baseball-reference.com

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