The 1972 baseball season began in an unprecedented way. A players’ strike cancelled the first 86 games of the season and so it began about a week late. Instead of having an Opening Day celebration — because no one knew when the season would begin until a day or two before — the Cubs opened the year on a Saturday at Wrigley Field, April 15, and posted an ugly 4-2 loss to a terrible Phillies team in front of just 17,401 on a 47-degree day.
The next day, Sunday, April 16, was even colder, 40 degrees, with drizzle falling most of the morning. You wouldn’t have blamed Cubs management if they had postponed the game that afternoon.
But the Phillies and Cubs took the field with the No. 1 pick of the previous June’s draft, Burt Hooton, on the mound for the Cubs. Hooton had made three starts the previous year after being selected and in one of them, September 15, 1971 against the Mets, he had tied the then-franchise record by striking out 15.
Thus, hopes were high for Hooton as he made his first 1972 start. Opposing him was former Cub Dick Selma.
Befitting the weather, the pitching wasn’t great for the first three and a half innings, in which no one scored. Hooton’s control was off; he issued a walk in each of the first four innings to Phillies hitters. One of the runners was erased on a double play.
The Cubs broke through in the bottom of the fourth, scoring a run on a squeeze bunt executed by Don Kessinger.
Hooton issued another walk in the fifth, but got out of the inning with a double play. Yet another walk — his sixth in six innings — didn’t result in any scoring, and neither did walk number seven in the top of the seventh. The Cubs loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the seventh and Randy Hundley poked a two-run single to left to make it 3-0.
Hooton finally recorded a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth, and in the bottom of the inning the Cubs plated another run on a Jose Cardenal triple and RBI single by Kessinger to make it 4-0.
The Phillies had had a lot of baserunners on the seven walks, but no hits, and now the game went to the ninth. Willie Montanez grounded out and Deron Johnson struck out. With one out to go, Greg Luzinski stood at the plate, the last obstacle between Hooton and the history books.
As I have noted here previously, Cubs pitchers threw six no-hitters between 1955 and 1972, including Milt Pappas’ later in that ‘72 season. They seemed almost commonplace. It took 36 more years for a Cubs pitcher to throw another one: Carlos Zambrano’s in 2008.
As for Hooton, he had a fine year in 1972 (2.80 ERA, 1.292 WHIP, 3.2 bWAR) and was also good, though a bit less so, in 1973 (2.2 bWAR). His 1974 season was mediocre (and the team was terrible) and he got off to a poor start in 1975. As was standard practice during John Holland’s tenure as general manager, the Cubs then panicked and traded Hooton May 2, 1975 in one of the worst deals in modern team history: To the Dodgers for Eddie Solomon and Geoff Zahn. Hooton went on to pitch in three World Series for the Dodgers, finished second in Cy Young voting in 1978 and was NLCS MVP in 1981. The trade might have worked out all right if the Cubs had kept Zahn, who wound up as a pretty good rotation starter for nearly a decade for the Twins and Angels, but before the 1977 season they released him and got absolutely nothing in return.
Anyway, Burt Hooton’s no-hitter, a 4-0 win in front of just 9,583, was a major highlight of the 1972 season. It happened Sunday, April 16, 1972 — 50 years ago today.