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Hard Day's Night : Angels Played Into the Wee Hours Before Conigliaro Lost It, and A's Won on a Bloop Single in 20th Inning 20 Years Ago


Billy Cowan, journeyman outfielder, would like to forget the night he whiffed his was way into baseball's record book. But history, not to mention a few friends, make that impossible.

Cowan, then with the Angels, struck out six times in a 20-inning game against the Oakland Athletics on July 9, 1971. It tied the major league record for most strikeouts in an extra-inning game.

"I was watching a game the other night that was taking a long time and one of the announcers mentioned my feat," said Cowan, now a real estate investor. "My phone rang three times within 30 minutes. I remember. . . . So do my pals ."

But even without all the strikeouts, Cowan would remember. He may never be able to lose the image of a frustrated Tony Conigliaro ranting and raving, then being ejected from the game in the 19th inning.

In fact, it was Cowan who restrained Conigliaro after he struck out out for the fifth time.

No, that won't be so easy to forget.

The Angels and A's went 19 innings of futility before Angel Mangual blooped a two-out single to give the A's a 1-0 victory. It was the longest 1-0 game in American League history.

Four other records were broken or tied that night, but the longest road game in Angel history might have slipped into oblivion had it not been for Conigliaro, who died last year.

In fact, most of the players cannot recall that game. What jogs their memory is . . .

" . . . oh yeah, that was the night Tony Conigliaro retired."

It was a thoroughly forgettable evening, galvanized by that one memorable moment.

"All I can remember is Tony throwing his equipment that night," said Ken Berry, who was an outfielder for the Angels. "I've tried to block that season out of my mind. It was horrible."

No other game could better sum up the 1971 season for the Angels. All the frustration, controversy and disappointment were there that night in Oakland.

The Angels were 16 1/2 games behind the first-place A's, who would go on to win the West Division title. It was a title that was suppose to go to the Angels and, in fact, was "guaranteed" by General Manager Dick Walsh.

The previous season, the Angels challenged for the division crown. They had the league's batting champion, Alex Johnson, and a 22-game winner, Clyde Wright.

When the Angels acquired Conigliaro from the Boston Red Sox during the off-season, they became the division favorites. Conigliaro, apparently recovered from a near fatal beaning in 1967, hit 36 home runs in 1970.

"I thought that was the last piece to the puzzle," Walsh said. "Now we had a guy who could consistently hit the ball out of the ballpark."

It was the first time the Angels gave their fans high expectations and the first time they disappointed them.

By July 9, Johnson had been suspended for lack of hustle. Shortstop Jim Fregosi, a six-time All-Star, was on the disabled list with a foot injury. And Conigliaro was hitting .222 with four home runs and 15 runs batted in.

"They were our 2-3-4 hitters," outfielder Roger Repoz said. "We were in trouble."

The A's, on the other hand, were on the verge of a mini-dynasty. A year later, they would win the first of three consecutive World Series championships.

They had their own controversies and squabbles. They fought in the clubhouse, sometimes physically, but they also had a common bond.

"We all disliked (owner) Charlie Finley," said pitcher Vida Blue, who started the game. "He kept us hungry. We wanted to prove we were worth the money he wasn't paying us."

They were two teams heading in opposite directions and they had a night not worth remembering.

"To tell you the truth, I can't recall a thing from that game," Oakland relief pitcher Darold Knowles said.

Knowles, perhaps fittingly, was the winning pitcher.

Rudy May, an inconsistent left-hander, started for the Angels just down the street from the neighborhood where he grew up in Oakland. He struck out 13 and gave up only three hits in 12 innings, none after the fifth.

"We couldn't get him even one run, that shows you how our season was going," second baseman Sandy Alomar said. "Rudy pitched great that night, better than even Vida."

And Blue was on his game.

At the time, Blue was 17-3 and well on his way to being the American League's most valuable player. He finished 24-8 with a 1.82 earned-run average and struck out 301.

Blue struck out 17 that night, tying a league record for left-handers that was broken by Ron Guidry in 1978.

"I remember Billy Cowan came back after his first at-bat saying, 'This guy has nothing,' " third baseman Ken McMullen said. "Of course, Billy had just struck out on three pitches. I knew it was going to be a bad night."

It was to be a long night as well, especially for Cowan. He struck out four consecutive times against Blue.

"The thing is, I felt great that night," Cowan said. "I felt like I was going to hit every pitch. I kept thinking I would get Vida next time. But after the fourth at-bat, I was glad to see him leave the game."

Cowan didn't fare much better against the A's bullpen.

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