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Monday, April 23, 2007
The legend of Double No-Hit

By Robert Weintraub
Special to Page 2

Monday night in Kansas City, Mark Buehrle will take the mound coming off a no-hitter against the Rangers. Once the Royals manage a knock off him, the announcer will intone, "Johnny Vander Meer's record is safe for a little while longer." And baseball will move on, without taking time to remember Vander Meer's extraordinary accomplishment, one of the most amazing in the long history of the game -- back-to-back no-hitters. Just shy of 70 years ago, a 23-year-old held the Boston Bees hitless, then did it again four days later against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And while most baseball fans know of The Dutch Master's record, the details are largely lost to history.

Johnny Vander Meer
Johnny Vander Meer's profile skyrocketed after the back-to-back no-hitters.
Vander Meer was born in New Jersey in 1914, as Europe exploded in war. He was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933, and stopped off in the Braves organization before the Reds got him in 1935. It was in Durham, then in the Piedmont League, that Vander Meer took off. The tall left-hander could always bring heat, but he added a sinkerball that became an out pitch. Nevertheless, it was as a strikeout pitcher that Vander Meer earned plaudits. In '36, he was named The Sporting News Minor Leaguer of the Year after posting a 19-6 record in Durham, with a dazzling 295 K's.

Naturally, the following season he was in a Reds uniform. He got into 19 games in 1937, but it wasn't until '38 that he became a part of the Reds' rotation. They were a decent team, destined to finish fourth that year behind the Cubs. Future Cooperstown inductee Ernie Lombardi caught Vander Meer, and Ival Goodman blasted 30 homers.

Vander Meer's first gem -- on June 11, 1938 -- wasn't particularly special in the larger context of the game, merely the 84th no-hitter in history to that point. On a Saturday afternoon at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Vander Meer walked only three, and no Bees (Boston switched from Braves to Bees to clear the stench after a dismal 1935 season -- only to switch back in 1940) batsmen progressed beyond first base. He faced only one over the minimum 27 batters. The Reds won 3-0, behind a home run by Lombardi.

Four days later, the Reds were in Brooklyn for the second of a three-game series. Vander Meer's first start after the no-hitter was of mild interest, but any thoughts of the young lefty were overshadowed by the momentousness of the occasion -- the game was to be the first night contest ever played at Ebbets Field.

Night games were the brainchild of Larry MacPhail, an automobile salesman turned baseball executive who didn't get into the game until the age of 40 (one of Larry's sons, Bill MacPhail, became a top executive at ESPN). An innovator and instigator with a volatile temper (often fueled by alcohol), MacPhail left a giant impression on the game -- with a legacy that includes televised games, season-ticket plans, stadium clubs, air travel between cities and Old Timers' Day. Saddled with a plodding franchise in Cincinnati, MacPhail pulled out all the stops to get butts in the seats -- including putting baseball under the lights for the first time, on May 24, 1935, gambling that the integrity of the game meant less than attracting paying customers who worked (and worked -- this was the heart of the Depression) during the day. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt touched a telegraph key in Washington, and poof -- the lights came on in Cincinnati. The Reds defeated the Phillies 2-1 before more than 20,000 fans, a superb crowd for Crosley Field.

Three years later, no other franchise had followed suit. And MacPhail had moved on to Brooklyn, having left Cincy soon after a brawl with a policeman in a hotel elevator. The Dodgers were relentlessly mediocre, finishing in the middle of the pack year after year. MacPhail figured he had to try anything to fill Ebbets Field.

June 15, 1938, was an over-the-top production orchestrated by a marketing master. A drum and bugle corps played for the crowd. Olympic star Jesse Owens, two years removed from winning four gold medals in Berlin and struggling in Jim Crow America for work and money, agreed to race several Dodgers around Ebbets Field before the game. Babe Ruth made an appearance to wave to the crowd and announced he was signing a contract with the Dodgers to become a coach the following day. Several hundred fans from Vandy's hometown of Midland Park, N.J., came into the city for the game.

At 8:35 p.m. the lights were turned on, and it took just over an hour for them to fully illuminate. The game finally began, and the Reds quickly took over. Dodgers starter Max Butcher didn't make it out of the third inning as the Reds took a quick 4-0 lead, with first baseman Frank McCormick's home run the big blow. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn batsmen were doing nothing against Vander Meer's tough fastball-sinker combo.

In the Brooklyn radio booth, Red Barber was in his third month of what would become a fabled career calling games from his "catbird seat." MacPhail had hired Barber to be the Reds' play-by-play man, and Red followed his benefactor to Brooklyn. Barber is still remembered for his strict journalistic style, offset by folksy phrases that prefigured the likes of Mel Allen and Keith Jackson. That integrity played out as Vander Meer tallied inning after inning without giving up a hit.

The no-hit jinx was already an established part of baseball lore, preventing the mention of the feat while it was in progress. Announcers knew about the jinx and generally participated, but not Red. He mentioned Bill Bevens and Don Larsen during their runs at no-hitters during the World Series. And, according to a profile in the Washington Star in 1981, Barber did it for the first time the night of June 15, 1938, as Vander Meer approached a second straight blanking.

Barber could hardly do otherwise -- everyone was aware of history in the making. Vander Meer continued to struggle with his control, walking five and going deep in the count with just about everyone. His fielders may not have been thrilled with the slow pace, but they made no mistakes behind him.

By the ninth, the game was out of reach, 6-0 Reds. But the 38,748 in attendance were riveted to their seats, having been drawn by illumination but now rooting for history. Vander Meer, true to the drama of the moment and his own wildness, walked the bases loaded with one out. That prompted a visit to the mound by Reds manager Bill McKechnie. The big crowd booed, fearing Vander Meer would be pulled. Today, with the tyranny of the pitch count hovering over managers, McKechnie might just have defied everyone and pulled his young ace.

Johnny Vander Meer
Here's a shot of Vander Meer under the lights at Ebbets Field during his second no-no.
But to everyone's relief, Vander Meer stayed in for the defining moment. Ernie Koy, who with the aid of a 10-yard head start had defeated Owens in one of the pregame foot races, tapped a grounder to Lew Riggs at third, who came home to get a force-out at the plate. Two down. Into the batter's box stepped Leo Durocher. "The Lip" had a rocky relationship with MacPhail, spurred by the hiring of Babe Ruth as a coach and (in Leo's mind, at least) heir apparent to manager Burleigh Grimes. Durocher and Ruth despised one another from their days together with the Yankees, when the Babe had tagged Durocher with the nickname "The All-American Out." Now he was all that stood between Vander Meer and another no-no.

For once, the Dutchman got ahead of the hitter, working a 1-2 count against Durocher. His next pitch was a fastball that everyone thought caught the outside part of the plate -- and the crowd roared, thinking the game had ended on a called third strike. But home plate umpire Bill Stewart called ball two. Vander Meer took a deep breath and retook the mound. He pumped in another fastball, and Durocher skied an easy fly to center field. Harry Craft squeezed the ball for the final out, and history was made. Even before Lombardi could reach Vander Meer to celebrate, Stewart came up to congratulate the pitcher and apologized for missing the 1-2 pitch. As Vander Meer later recalled, "Stewart said, 'If Leo got a hit, I was to blame as I missed the pitch and the batter should have been struck out on the previous pitch.'"

Vander Meer's achievement caused a sensation. Overnight he was no longer "The Dutch Master" -- now he was "Double No-Hit." The notoriety also put night baseball in the headlines and gave it a degree of legitimacy, especially when no Dodgers complained that the unnatural light gave pitchers an advantage.

After the furor died down, Reds management approached Vander Meer with an offer MacPhail would have appreciated -- they asked him to change his number to 00, in honor of the twin no-hitters. He politely refused. For the first three innings of his next start, against Boston once more, it looked like Vander Meer might require a triple-zero uniform number. But then Debs Garms singled with two outs in the fourth, ending Vandy's hitless innings streak at 21 2/3 -- a record that still stands today. "I could've kissed him, the tension was eating me up," said Vander Meer afterward. He finished with a three-hitter, as Cy Young himself watched from the stands.

The no-hitters were part of a nine-game winning streak for Vander Meer, who wound up 15-10. He also got a victory in the All-Star Game at home in Cincinnati. The Sporting News named him Major League Player of the Year for 1938, mainly on the strength of the no-hittters. But he finished only 18th in the MVP balloting. Vander Meer was a private, introspective personality, and the clamor over the record may have worn him out. The following season he told the AP, "All the publicity, the attention, the interviews, the photographs, were too much for me."

The future seemed limitless, but greatness evaded Vander Meer following that amazing start. He struggled so much with wildness that he was sent down to the minors in 1940, and he only made seven major league starts that season -- though he did earn a championship ring after the Reds won the World Series.

Whatever he learned in the minors worked, for he was outstanding from 1941 to '43. Vander Meer led the league in strikeouts for three straight seasons (he led the NL in walks in '43 as well). The 1943 All-Star Game, the fourth and final midsummer classic he appeared in, provided one more high point when he whiffed six of the AL's finest in 2 2/3 innings, matching the record set by Carl Hubbell five years earlier. After that Nuke LaLoosh-like campaign, Vander Meer was drafted by the Navy, and missed the next two seasons.

After the war, Vander Meer hung on for five seasons and a single appearance in a sixth, 1951, before injury issues ended his big league career. He wound up with a 119-121 career record, with an ERA of 3.44.

But if Vander Meer's career was a downhill ride after the double no-hit stretch, the magic returned for one extraordinary night in an unlikely place -- Beaumont, Texas. In 1952, having washed out of the majors, Vander Meer was still hanging on to the game, pitching in the Texas League for Tulsa. Fourteen years after he made history in the majors, Vandy no-hit Beaumont 12-0.

And managing the losing club was a man who could testify to the greatness of the hurler -- Harry Craft, the man who caught the final out to set a record that may never be broken.

Robert Weintraub is a freelance writer and television producer in Atlanta. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and Play, the New York Times Sports Magazine. He can be reached at robwein@comcast.net.