Vander Meer's unforgettable feat
Back-to-back no-hitters? Unthinkable! But 75 years ago, Johnny Vander Meer did it
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared on ESPN.com on June 12, 2003, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters. We would like to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his accomplishment with an updated version to reflect the passing of the last 10 years.
Long before pitch counts, closers and call-in shows, a hard-throwing Cincinnati Reds lefty, in his first full season, achieved what could be baseball's most enduring pitching feat. Seventy-five years ago, on June 11 and 15, Johnny Vander Meer became the only major league pitcher to throw back-to-back no-hit, no-run games.
First, the 23-year-old Vander Meer no-hit the Boston Bees 3-0 at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. Nobody reached second base, as Vander Meer struck out four and allowed three walks while facing just one batter over the minimum. Catcher Ernie Lombardi, a future Hall of Famer, doubled a man off first on a foul pop and hit a two-run homer to back Vander Meer's fifth consecutive victory in a winning streak that would reach nine games. It was the Reds' first no-hitter in 18 years, and their wait for another would be just four days.
The Bees once owned the rights to Vander Meer, as did the Dodgers, his next opponent. It would be a wild night, and not just because Vander Meer had trouble finding the plate.
More on Vander Meer
• Johnny Vander Meer had a hit himself in each of the two no-hitters he threw.
• Vander Meer pitched hitless ball into the fourth inning of his start after throwing his two no-hitters. In all, Vander Meer threw 21 2/3 straight innings without allowing a hit.
• In 1947, Cincinnati's Ewell Blackwell -- with his teammate Vander Meer watching -- came closest to duplicating the double no-hit feat. Blackwell threw 8 1/3 innings of no-hit ball after pitching a no-hitter in his previous start. Only four pitchers have gone as far as six no-hit innings in the next outing after throwing a no-hitter.
• Vander Meer was a four-time All-Star, but finished with a sub-.500 record (119-121) in a career hindered by arm trouble and military service in World War II.
• Along with Vander Meer, there are only three other pitchers in history who have thrown two no-hitters in the same season: Allie Reynolds in 1951, Virgil Trucks in 1952, Nolan Ryan in 1973. Vander Meer is the only pitcher to accomplish the feat in consecutive games.
• Bill Stewart, who was the home plate umpire in Vander Meer's second no-hitter, is enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame -- he was an NHL referee, coach of the Chicago Blackhawks and coach of the U.S. National team, in addition to being an MLB umpire. Click here for more information on Stewart.
-- William Weinbaum
The Reds were in Brooklyn for the first-ever night game on the East Coast. The Dodgers sold more tickets than the capacity of Ebbets Field, and fire department officials had to help clear the aisles and control the overflow crowd. The game was delayed, forcing Vander Meer to warm up three times.
Among the nearly 39,000 fans that night were more than 500 from Vander Meer's hometown of Midland Park, N.J. They came by the busload from the town of 5,000 and presented Vander Meer with a gold watch in a pregame ceremony. Vander Meer's parents, sister and girlfriend were also there. Years later, Vander Meer said of being feted by his hometown, "That is the jinx right there. You usually don't get by the third inning."
Before Vander Meer took the mound, he got to meet Babe Ruth, an invited guest for the first game under lights. Later that month, the Dodgers hired "The Babe" as a drawing card and coach in a short-lived experiment.
When Vander Meer finally got to pitch that night, he started racking up zeroes, just like in his previous start.
"I was busting the ball real good. I was probably throwing the ball 95, 96, 97 miles an hour," Vander Meer said in a 1988 interview. "When I started to lose a little bit off my fastball, I started throwing curves and everybody kept looking for fastballs, and so that really helped me."
Reds second baseman Lonny Frey and Dodgers outfielder Ernie Koy disputed the claim by some that poor stadium lighting aided Vander Meer.
"I didn't have any trouble with it, but I couldn't get the base hits ... I wasn't alone," said Koy.
As the game progressed, the cheering section from Vander Meer's hometown witnessed a transformation among the formerly hostile Dodgers fans nearby -- they, too, got behind Midland Park's favorite son.
Ten years ago, Vander Meer's friend Dick Jeffer said, "They knew we were from Midland Park, and they were [yelling] 'you're gonna get beat,' and they were all hopped up because of the first night game, but the tune changed about the sixth inning when they started to root for Vander Meer because they realized what they were seeing would be part of history."
Nolan Ryan's Near-Miss
In the last 50 years, no one has come closer to a second straight no-hitter than Nolan Ryan did in 1973. As the 75th anniversary of Johnny Vander Meer's feat approached, ESPN The Magazine's Tim Kurkjian spoke with Ryan about the difficulty of doing it twice in a row. Read Tim's story here.
Vander Meer, however, suffered a lack of precision that was common in his earlier outings. Frey, who was 92 back in 2003 and, at the time, Vander Meer's last living teammate from either no-hitter, told ESPN, "Johnny Vander Meer was a little wild at times, and I'd say plenty wild at times."
Entering the the ninth inning, Vander Meer had walked five men but had a 6-0 lead and needed just three outs to accomplish the previously unimaginable.
Vander Meer created a one-out jam by walking three batters. Reds manager Bill McKechnie visited the mound to calm Vander Meer. Frey said of that moment, "You wonder when in the world is he going to get the ball over the plate?"
The tension was palpable. Vander Meer's sister, Garberdina Nywening, was 15 at the time. "That was scary," she said. "That really brought everybody real quiet, and I thought maybe he would lose it then."
Vander Meer got Koy to ground into a force at the plate for the second out. Reds third baseman Lew Riggs eschewed a risky double-play attempt against Brooklyn's fastest player, and preserved the shutout by throwing home.
That brought up the Dodgers' No. 8 hitter, fiery Leo Durocher.
"Durocher was a loud guy; he had a big mouth," Frey said. "We didn't want him to get a hit, of all the players on the team, that's for sure."
Taking On Jesse Owens
Before a pitch was thrown in Johnny Vander Meer's second no-hitter, 1936 Olympics hero Jesse Owens ran an exhibition race against outfielders Lee Gamble of the Reds and Ernie Koy of the Dodgers. Both ballplayers were given a head start, which newspaper accounts say was 10 yards.
In 2003, Koy, then 93, told ESPN that he was given a five-step head start and that Gamble had two more yards of an advantage. Koy says he capitalized on a different type of edge to beat Owens and Gamble.
"I got the jump on the gun. That helped me a whole lot. The guy didn't whistle me down, so I just kept going."
Koy still possessed a letter from the Dodgers that accompanied a $50 bonus for beating Owens.
-- William Weinbaum
Home-plate umpire Bill Stewart called a ball on what appeared to be a third strike to Durocher. Stewart would later be the first to reach Vander Meer after the game to apologize and admit he had blown the call.
Durocher then lofted a lazy fly ball to center field. "Boy did Harry Craft squeeze that ball," Frey said. "That ballpark was bedlam after that last out."
Vander Meer's father's tie was cut off by an unruly fan as he tried to reach his son, according to Nywening. "They threw John up on their shoulders because they knew they would start tearing things off his uniform."
Vander Meer escaped unscathed, and Midland Park celebrated.
"It was just like a holiday spirit, even better than the Fourth of July," Jeffer said.
Just a few hours after his second straight no-hitter, Vander Meer kept an appointment with a friend to go fishing, avoiding a gathering throng of newspaper men at his family's house.
"I think my dad had two bushels of flashbulbs to pick up in the yard," Nywening said.
The front page of the Cincinnati Post on June 16, 1938, proclaimed Vander Meer's double no-hitter the "greatest feat in [the] game's history." To break the record, you'd have to throw three straight no-hitters. Merely to tie it, you'd have to throw two straight.
"I cannot imagine anybody doing that again," Frey said.
In an era when even a complete game is unusual, the record seems more untouchable than ever.
"They only pitch six innings now," he said. "How are they gonna pitch two no-hitters in a row?"
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