Tom Seaver’s biggest disappointment was the defining moment of Jimmy Qualls’ brief career in the big leagues.
Just the mention of Qualls, a 72-year-old grain inspector from Sutter, Illinois, still brings shudders to Mets fans 50 years after the Cubs’ rookie outfielder broke up Seaver’s bid for a perfect game with one out in the ninth inning.
Qualls had 31 hits in a 63-game career, mostly with the Cubs. His 12th big-league hit on July 9, 1969 is the one branded into Mets’ history as the liner to left-center that transformed Tom Seaver’s bid for perfection into what will forever be known as “The Imperfect Game.”
Losing that perfect game during the heat of the pennant race left a void that Seaver, now 74 and suffering from dementia, has said he never got over despite a glorious Hall of Fame career.
And it turned the little-known Qualls into a cult hero among Cub fans.
“I still get cards and letters in the mail,” Qualls said in April. “ It makes me feel good. I don’t feel good about the deal that we lost the season.’’
SETTING THE STAGE
The NL East-leading Cubs had a 3 ½ game lead over the second-place Mets after Seaver’s one-hitter, but would build a 10-game lead in mid-August before finishing second to the Mets, who went on to win their first World Series that October.
The Cubs had a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo (and were managed by future Hall of Famer Leo Durocher). The three players were a collective 0-for-9 as Seaver went to the ninth without having allowed a baserunner. “We hadn’t done a thing,’’ Williams, 81, said from Chicago.
All eyes were transfixed on Seaver, including those of his teammates, as the hitless innings mounted. When he struck out the side in the second inning, pitching coach Rube Walker, Newsday reported later, said to manager Gil Hodges, “He’s got enough stuff to pitch a no-hitter tonight.’’
Leading 1-0, the Mets scored two times in an error-filled second. One of the runs scored on Seaver’s single off starter Ken Holtzman, who was relieved by Ted Abernathy.
“The first few Innings you were accustomed to pitchers of that caliber going through the lineup once, maybe even twice,’’ said Nolan Ryan, 72, who was in the Mets’ dugout that night. “You have to have that mindset and realize the odds are not in your favor of throwing a no-hitter,”
Ryan, now living in Georgetown, Texas, is the embodiment of no-hit games, having pitched a major-league record seven of them. And he had brushes with many more.
“I had 12 one-hitters, and five or six of them I lost in the ninth inning,” Ryan recalled. “But Tom was something special that night.’’
By the sixth inning, Ed Kranepool broke the unwritten code of silence by saying, according to a Newsday story, “He’s got a perfect game.’’
In the seventh, Chicago leadoff batter Don Kessinger hit a high curveball down the leftfield line. “‘That’s it,’’ Seaver was quoted. But Cleon Jones raced to the ball and gloved it.
Glenn Beckett hit a soft fly to right, an easy play, but Ron Swoboda took nothing for granted. “You knows it's a perfect game,’’ he said afterward. “And you don’t want to be the schlep that fouls it up.’’
Third baseman Ed Charles made a nice play on a grounder by Williams to end the inning. Jones homered off Abernathy in the bottom of the inning for the final run.
After Seaver retired the side in the eighth, broadcaster Bob Murphy said: ``Ladies and gentlemen, after eight innings, Tom Seaver is walking into the dugout with a perfect ballgame.’’ A Chrysler commercial aired with the line “dream the impossible dream.’’
In the ninth, Randy Hundley tried to bunt his way on, and the overwhelming majority of the 50,709 fans at Shea Stadium let him hear it with a loud chorus of boos. But the ball was hit right at Seaver and he easily threw the runner out.
At 10:07 p.m, Qualls, a switch hitter batting lefthanded, came to the plate. Centerfielder Tommie Agee considered moving a bit toward leftfield, according to Newsday reports. “If anyone’s going to break it up,’’ Agee was quoted, “It was this guy.’’
Qualls swung at Seaver’s first pitch — Qualls said it was a waist-high fastball — and lined a ball to deep left-center between Agee and Jones. Seaver slumped, his head down.
Because Seaver had not faced Qualls before this game, he was not certain how to pitch him, catcher Jerry Grote, 76, said from Belton, Texas. “ I said something to Tom in the dugout ‘how do you want to throw it to him?’
“He said I want to make a good pitch on him but I want to go down and away.’ He ended [with the pitch] up and Qualls just reached out and slapped it. That was his first game against us. We didn’t know much about him but he hit the ball all three times on the money off Tom.’’
Seaver was crushed. “It was within my grasp,’’ he said afterward. “I could have had it. You just don’t get another chance. I can’t measure the disappointment.’’
Seaver remained disheartened years later, telling author Peter Golenbock in “Amazin’,’’ “Never, in any aspect of my life, in baseball or outside, had I experienced such a disappointment. At 25, I was too old to cry.’’
Seaver’s disappointment that night was observed from the Mets dugout. “He’s human, like everyone else you could see it in the shoulders, in the body language,’’ fellow pitcher Jim McAndrew, 75, said from Fountain Hills, Arizona. “The thing about Tom that was so unique, he didn’t let something that happened five minutes ago carry over or distract him from what he had to do moving forward. It happened it was closed and ‘damn, let’s move on.’ ‘’
Grote said he saw no need to go to the mound. “I knew Tom was very disappointed,’’ he said. ‘’He made a mistake, had he got the ball down instead of up it would have been a ground ball back to him or at short.’’ Seaver retired the next two batters, Willie Smith on a foul pop to first and Don Kessinger of a flyout to left, to end the game.
Qualls was not given the ball as a souvenir. “It was a base hit and I’m sure it went back to the pitcher,’’ he said. “I was standing on first base listening to everybody boo at me. I saw in the newspaper the next day a picture of Nancy [Seaver’s wife] crying.’’
Qualls encountered Seaver the following week in Wrigley Field. “We’re kind of running in the outfield and he said something about me costing him a million dollars,’’ Qualls said. “We just laughed.’’
Qualls was a career .223 hitter. “ I didn’t have a very long career,’’ he said, adding that Durocherwas not exactly a fan. “Leo didn’t like me because I wasn’t Willie Mays,” Qualls said. “That night, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.’’
Art Shamsky said Seaver’s imperfect game made the pitcher even more famous. “The near perfect game took on a life of its own for 50 years,’’ Shamsky wrote in “After the Miracle.” Shamksy said, “The perfect game would have been unbelievable but it’s one of the phenomena that everybody talks about from that season.’’
Seaver, who lives in the wine country of Calistoga, California, and is retired from public life due to his illiness, lost another early July no-hit bid with one out in the ninth three years later at Shea when Padres outfielder Leron Lee singled to center. “At the end I felt more disappointment,’’ Seaver was quoted. “I still had a game to win.’’
Seaver finally got his no-hitter on June 16, 1978, but in the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds.
“I think I had better stuff in the one-hitter than in the no-hitter,” Seaver said after that.
Good thing Qualls was out of baseball by then.
Sign up for Newsday’s Mets Messages for updates directly to your phone via text, free with a Newsday digital subscription. Learn more at newsday.com/metstext.