Historic Yale Field is Marking the 35th Anniversary of “The Greatest College Baseball Game Ever Played”

Two future New York Mets teammates (Ron Darling, left, and Frank Viola, right) left fans and even players in awe during "the greatest college baseball game ever played." (Photo courtesy: Yale and St. John's Athletics)

There won’t be any ceremonies. There won’t be any baseball. In fact, the place probably won’t even be open. But baseball purists of at least a few generations ago, may take note that May 21, 2016, marks the 35th anniversary of what has been dubbed “The Greatest College Baseball Game Ever Played.”

It took place in 1981 at Yale Field in West Haven, Conn., just across the city line from New Haven, where the famous Ivy League university is located.

A plaque on an entrance wall welcomes fans to "Historic Yale Field," where on May. 21, 1981, the "greatest college baseball game ever played" took place
A plaque on an entrance wall welcomes fans to “Historic Yale Field,” where on May. 21, 1981, the “greatest college baseball game ever played” took place.

The field is the same one where, in 1948, a terminally ill Babe Ruth presented the original manuscript of his autobiography to the Bulldogs captain, future U.S. President George H. W. Bush, to be preserved within Sterling Memorial Library at Yale.

That ceremony, immortalized in a famous photo, and the story we are about to relate, are two of the reasons why this landmark is informally but properly referred to as Historic Yale Field.

On May 21, 1981, the legacy of the Yale Field was reinforced when Ron Darling (Yale) and Frank Viola (St. John’s), both juniors in college, and headed to major league stardom, pitched opposed each other on the mound. When it ended, the general feeling was that it was (and still is) the greatest college baseball game ever played.

The cover of a program from the 1981 game.
The cover of a program from the game (Click to enlarge).

Later, Darling and Viola, during their MLB careers, pitched in World Series, were chosen for all star games, in one of which Viola was the winning pitcher. He also received a Cy Young Award and was a World Series MVP.

Their meeting at Yale Field in 1981 was in an NCAA Northeast Region tournament game, part of the competition leading to the College World Series. It was the second part of a double header, that started with Maine against Central Michigan on a humid Thursday afternoon. Official attendance figures were not released, but about 2,500 to 3,000 were estimated to be on hand. The circumstances were not the best to attract a crowd, but the turnout was still better than average for a midweek college game in this part of the country.

Who was there

The roster of the St. John's baseball team in 1981, as pictured in an official program from the game.
The roster of the St. John’s baseball team in 1981, as pictured in an official program from the game. (Click to enlarge).

Those watching included a large contingent of hard boiled major league scouts; Yale and St. John’s rooters; a full press box full with media people; and just plain local baseball fans, many of whom took the afternoon off from work after not having been in the legendary ballpark on Derby Avenue in years, if at all.

In addition, count the following:

1) Smokey Joe Wood, one of the game’s immortals, who won 34 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1912, then beat Walter Johnson in the deciding game of the World Series. Wood was later a Yale baseball coach and one of the players was his son. Smokey Joe was then 92 and lived on Marvel Road in the Westville section of New Haven.

2) Roger Angell, baseball writer par excellence. Soon after the game was played, Angell wrote an eloquent account of it, incorporating Smokey Joe’s comments. It was published in the magazine, The New Yorker, on July 20, 1981, entitled “The Web of the Game.” It is also contained in one of Angell’s books, “The Summer Game.” It should be read by those who find this article of interest. The magazine and the book are available in many libraries.

3) Richard C. Lee, mayor of New Haven (six terms). He was responsible for Joe Wood going to Yale Field that day and he sat with Wood and Angell.

4) Carm Cozza, Yale’s football coach and a former minor league baseball player. He would have been Darling’s football coach if Ron had not decided to concentrate on baseball after his freshman year.

Yale roster 1
The Yale roster as seen in the official game program at Yale Field.

5) Lou Carnesecca, St. John’s great basketball coach and big supporter of its athletic programs. What was formerly known on its campus as Alumni Hall is now Carnesecca Arena.

6) Bill Wallace, the prolific writer for the New York Times. He was in the press box covering the tournament for the paper. Although Wallace went to the neighboring Yale Bowl countless times as a writer, a fan, and as a Yale student, this was probably the first time he was at Yale Field in his professional capacity to cover baseball.

7) Frank Ryan, Yale Athletic Director (See below) and former NFL star with the Cleveland Browns.

Who was NOT there

Among the missing, however, was:

The box score from the game
The box score from the game shows just how brilliant Darling and Viola were on that Thursday afternoon. (Click to enlarge).

1) A. Bartlett Giamatti, perhaps the No. 1 baseball fan at Yale. Giamatti was the University’s President, future head of the National League and eventually the Commissioner of Baseball. Although he most certainly would have been at the game, he later pointed out that it took place only three days before Yale’s commencement activities, and his time had to be devoted to preparations and meetings. Instead of being at the game, he was in his office, but stayed in touch. (Athletic Director) Ryan kept him updated by telephone.

2) Another who was not present for the “Greatest Game in College Baseball” and who would have most definitely been expected to be on hand, was the coach of St. John’s, Joe Russo. He was sick with pneumonia and never made it to New Haven.

3) Another person who would surely have been there but was prevented by illness was Viola’s mother, Helen. “People said how tense and exciting it was to be there and I’m sure it was,” she told Jim O’Connell in a 1989 AP story. ”But when I didn’t get a phone call after a couple of hours, I started thinking the worst. I was a wreck at home waiting for anybody to call. I didn’t know how long the game was going on. I cried when they finally called me and told me what had happened.”

The mythical crowd

If you could believe all those who later claimed to have been in the Derby Avenue ball park across from Yale Bowl that day in May, the number would be much more than the 5,000 seats the grandstand contained (and still does). It always happens that for games with this much fame, people come out of the woodwork and fabricate stories of having been there. Telling those white lies are human nature. The truth is there was only a modest but privileged turnout.

Darling’s effort was appreciated by all

Ron Darling (photo from Yale Sports Publicity archives)
Ron Darling (photo from Yale Sports Publicity archives)

It was a game for the ages, as well as for the fifty or so Major League scouts who were seated behind home plate, pointing their radar guns and taking notes to evaluate the young pitching phenoms. Many of those veteran sleuths, and contrary to custom, were seen to be joining in the applause given by the fans for Darling after he gave up his only hit in the 12th inning. Even more impressive was that the St. John’s players moved to the top step of their dugout to join in the standing ovation, a tribute not lost on Darling who still speaks of it.

Darling, who pitched the entire 12 innings, went the first eleven on a no hitter, still the longest such game in NCAA history. He registered 16 strikeouts. He was touched for a bloop single and the game’s only run (unearned) in the top of the 12th, but, after going nine innings, it still went into the NCAA record book as a no hit pitching performance. Note: Major League baseball no longer considers it as a no-hitter if there is a hit in extra innings.

Viola hurled the first 11 frames, giving up seven hits (one to Hamden’s Rich Diana). So dominant was Darling that Viola often says it was the one scoreless game he pitched in which it felt like he was losing.

Yale-St. John’s started about 3:15 pm after a long and drawn out Maine-Central Michigan contest that, by itself, attracted very few fans. Yale Field did not have lighting until 1994 when the New Haven Ravens of the Eastern League began playing there. So if this game had gone a few more innings, as it appeared to be heading, it would certainly have been suspended for darkness.

How the hitless spell was broken

Viola pitched 11 scoreless innings in what some say was the greatest college baseball game ever played. (Photo courtesy: St. John's Athletics)
Viola pitched 11 scoreless innings in what some say was the greatest college baseball game ever played. (Photo courtesy: St. John’s Athletics)

In the top of the 12th Steve Scafa, the Redmen’s second baseman, led off with a little liner that fell a few feet over the head of shortstop Bobby Brooke and rolled into left field in front of Joe Dufek.

After breaking up the no-hitter, Scafa, who went on to play minor league ball in the New York Yankees organization, stole second and third, and then another batter reached on an error by Brooke.

With first and third occupied, and two outs, the pinch runner on first broke for second and got caught in a rundown, permitting Scafa to complete a delayed double steal and score the game’s only run.

Darling, incidentally, still takes responsibility for that play, saying he was supposed to cut off the throw and go home with it. But he slipped on the mound while delivering the pitch and the catcher’s throw went by him.

It took a soft hit, an error, and three stolen bases for Darling to be scored on.

Scafa, on his web page, proudly points out that his opposite field single in the 12th was the only hit off Darling, that he stole second and third and was on the back-end of a double steal leading to the one run in the game.

That summer he played 54 games for the Oneonta Yankees of the Class A short-season New York-Penn League, where he proved that his trio of stolen bases against Yale was no fluke. He succeeded on 28 out of 29 attempts as a pro.

St. John’s was known as the Redmen at that time. It was in 1994 when the nickname was changed to the present day Red Storm, to be less offensive to Native Americans. (Are you listening Washington Redskins?)

Another future MLB star, not on the field

Those two pitchers were not the only future MLB stars to be in uniform at Yale Field that day. John Franco, the relief pitcher who spent most of his career with Cincinnati and the New York Mets, was on the St. John’s squad, but never got into this game.

FootballObscure fact: Darling also played football at Yale

Darling was supposed to play football for Carm Cozza and was on the Yale freshman team in 1978 as a defensive back. After that season he decided to concentrate on baseball. “If there were five or six regrets in my life, one is that I didn’t continue to play football at Yale,” he told Steve Lewis of the New Haven Register last year. “I would have loved to play for Carm.”

His freshman football coach, Vito DeVito, said “I guess he made the right decision.” (“A Bowl Full of Memories” by Rich Marazzi)

Here’s a strange coincidence: Darling switched positions in two sports as Yale. In football, Darling he was recruited as a quarterback, but became a defensive back because the freshman team had an abundance of quarterbacks. And in baseball he was also switched from his original position (shortstop) to pitcher, when Coach Joe Benanto saw the talent in his right arm.

Starting out as a shortstop accounts for the number 7 on his Yale uniform, not usually associated with pitchers. Near the end of his first season, when the New Haven City Series was played in the spring, Benanto, of Shelton High School fame, then in his first year as Yale’s baseball coach, gave Darling a start against the University of New Haven. Frank (Porky) Vieira, its famed coach, was impressed. He saw in Ron what he referred to as a major league heart and correctly predicted big things for him.

Back to Yale

It is not documented if Darling or Viola has ever been back to Yale Field since the 1981 classic. But Darling has definitely been to the Yale Bowl. In the Marazzi book there is a photo of Darling, Gerry Harrington, who played second base, and Rich Diana, taken at a tailgate party out side the Bowl before the Yale-Harvard football game in 2013. Harrington and Diana had two of the seven hits off Viola.

John Franco, who never got into the 1981 game, returned twice to Yale Field. According to the late Dave Solomon in the New Haven Register, he was sent there by the Mets for a rehab assignment against New Haven’s team in the Eastern League in 1999. Long after his playing days, Franco again showed up at Yale Field to see his son, J J, play for Brown against the Bulldogs.

A team of exceptional athletes

While St. John’s had two coming major league baseball stars (Viola and Franco), Yale trotted out future pros in baseball, hockey and football. Here’s the lineup.

1) Ron Darling, pitcher, outfielder, and shortstop.

Photo...L-R Ron Darling, Gerald Harrington and Rich Diana From a Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Years of Football at the Yale Bowl Skyhorse Publishing Photo credit: Rich Marazzi
Ron Darling, Gerald Harrington and Rich Diana are seen L-R at the Yale Bowl. (From “A Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Years of Football at the Yale Bowl” Skyhorse Publishing. Photo credit: Rich Marazzi)

2) Rich Diana, center field. He went to the NFL (5th round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins) and Super Bowl XVII, in which Miami lost to Washington 27-17. Coach Don Shula was in disbelief, when the former Hamden High School football and baseball star decided one year was enough and, turning down the good money of his NFL contract, decided to enroll in the Yale Medical School, where he had already been accepted. Was it the right choice? Be the judge. Today he is Dr. Richard Diana, a highly respected orthopedic surgeon in the New Haven area.

Diana and Darling have been lifelong friends. Coincidentally, they have the same initials (RD).

3) Joe Dufek, left field. He was also an outstanding football quarterback at Yale. After college he had a brief fling with the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers of the NFL.

4) Bob Brooke, shortstop. He not only played baseball and hockey at Yale, he was on the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team (before pros were allowed in compete). He was in the National Hockey League from 1984 to 1990, mostly with the New York Rangers.

Never before (or since) has one Yale sports team sent four of its student-athletes to the highest level of professional sports. As it is today, Yale was an Ivy League college, with no athletic scholarships, and where the focus was/is always on academics.

After the greatest game

Since the NCAA Northeast Regionals were double elimination, all the teams were back in action the next day. The demoralized Bulldogs lost to Central Michigan, 7-2, and St. John’s fell to the eventual winner, Maine, 10-5.

One of the things that impressed Viola about Darling, as he told it years later, happened in that losers’ bracket game between Yale and Central Michigan. A day after hurling 12 innings, Ron was in right field and threw a runner out on the fly, trying to score on a fly ball. Viola was watching and expressed amazement, as a fellow pitcher, at how, after about 170 pitches the day before, Darling was able to lift up his arm, let alone make the throw from the outfield to home.

Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola and his wife Kathy share an embrace in the Metrodome, Sunday, Oct. 26, 1987 in Minneapolis after the Twins won the World Series. Viola was named MVP.(AP Photo)
Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola and his wife Kathy share an embrace in the Metrodome, Sunday, Oct. 26, 1987 in Minneapolis after the Twins won the World Series. Viola was named MVP.(AP Photo)

Careers in the Major Leagues

Following the regionals, Darling was the seventh pick in the first round of the major league draft by the Texas Rangers, and Viola went in the second round to Minnesota. Both were juniors and then left college a year before they would have graduated to enter professional baseball.

There is an interesting sideline about Darling’s first game in MLB, when he was a September call up of the New York Mets. It’s something that may have gone over the heads of many and Ron himself may not even recall it. As a television viewer of that game with the Philadelphia Phillies, it was noticed.

On his second at-bat Darling stroked a single, almost scoring a runner who was thrown out at the plate. Pete Rose, at age 40, was playing first base for the Phillies. He retrieved the ball, and, following baseball etiquette, offered it to Ron as a memento of his first hit.

But Darling waved Rose off. Perhaps his reasoning was that he wasn’t brought up by the Mets as a hitter but as a pitcher. Last year, when he was asked about it by James Badas, now the sports editor of the Yale Daily News, and who at the time was an intern with the Mets, Darling admitted that he now regrets he had not accepted the ball from Rose so it could now be displayed in his trophy case.

A previous anniversary

Five years ago, in a 25th anniversary special on SNY about the no-hitter, Viola revealed “That day Ron Darling pitched the best game I’ve seen – major leagues, minors, college, high school. I remember going to the mound, inning after inning, throwing a shutout and feeling like I was losing. I’ve never seen a pitcher as unbeatable as Ron Darling was that day. . . To this day, all the baseball I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, that was the single most dominating game I have ever seen in person.”

That special contained some movie footage from the game, there being no video tape in those days. This clip is the only film known to exist. It was taken by WTNH which made it available to SNY five years ago.

Today

The two men are now in their mid-50s. Ron Darling is the articulate analyst on the SNY Network for the New York Mets and TBS, and also does major league post season games on cable TV. Viola, who had open heart surgery the past year, has been a pitching coach in the Mets organization, and is back with the International League Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, formerly called the Las Vegas Stars. One of his coaching successes is the current New York Mets’ pitcher, Noah Syndergaard.

This cover of Baseball America references the game the two played in long before they would become teammates and friends. (Photo: Yale University Athletics)
This cover of Baseball America references the game the two played in long before they would become teammates and friends. (Photo: Yale University Athletics)

Darling’s nickname at Yale was simply Ronnie. Viola has two that we know of. He is “Frankie V” and “Sweet Music.” The latter he acquired when he was pitching for the Minnesota Twins. It’s a play on words with the musical string instrument spelled the same as his name, the viola.

Teammates and opposing pitchers again

For a short time, the two were teammates on the New York Mets. Late in their careers, when they were both in the American League, the 1-0 gem at Yale Field came back to life. Darling was pitching for the Oakland A’s and Viola for the Boston Red Sox. It was the first and only time since the 1981 Yale-St. John’s game that they opposed each other.

But that’s not all. There wasn’t a no hitter that night in Oakland, but check the final score:

Red Sox 1, A’s 0.

And Darling, again pitching for the home team, was still on the losing side.

History has a way of repeating itself, especially baseball history. Yogi Berra knew what he was saying.

Déjà vu all over again.

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