Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Johnny Vander Meer's Back-to-Back No-Nos and the Art of Almost Losing It

This week in 1938, Johnny Vander Meer did something no other pitcher has ever done: he just barely kept it together in his consecutive no-hitters. But so are we all, in a way.

by Steven Goldman
Jun 9 2016, 8:08pm

Image via YouTube

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

This week in 1938, Cincinnati Reds left-hander Johnny Vander Meer was 23 years old and on one hell of a roll. On June 11, he took the mound at Crosley Field against a strongly mediocre Boston Bees team and pitched a no-hitter. His next start, on June 15 at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, was the first night game in Dodgers history. Vander Meer, confronted by another weak ball club, walked eight but again allowed no hits. He was a rookie, although by today's service-time standards he'd be a sophomore. No pitcher had ever thrown consecutive no-hitters before, and no pitcher has done it since.

Even Vander Meer didn't recall the first no-hitter as having much drama; it was the Dodgers game that was memorable, both because it was unprecedented and because he nearly blew it. An overflow crowd showed up to see the first game played under the lights in Brooklyn. They were also treated to two fife and drum corps, a band, and a pregame 100-yard race with Jessie Owens; Dodgers outfielder Ernie "Chief" Koy (if you had any Native American heritage at that time, you were sure to have a nickname like that hung on you) was given a ten-yard handicap, and won. Vander Meer's parents, immigrants from Holland, had come over from his hometown of Midland Park, New Jersey. Aware of the no-hitter in the ninth, Vander Meer told himself, "I've got 30 good pumps left in me. I still have my good stuff, and boy, they're going to have to hit the very best I've got." Suitably fired up, he promptly began overthrowing. With one out, he walked the bases loaded on 18 pitches.

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His manager, Bill McKechnie, came out to calm him down. "Listen," McKechnie said. "Those hitters are more scared than you are. Just pour that ball in there." Vander Meer listened, and went back to pitching instead of throwing. The speedy Koy hit the ball to third baseman Lew Riggs, but Riggs didn't think he could turn the double play and threw home for the force. Catcher Ernie Lombardi considered throwing to first for the 5-2-3 double play, but he couldn't get an angle as Koy was running inside the line. There was still one more out to get.

The next batter up was Leo Durocher. He was not much of a hitter—his former teammate Babe Ruth called him "The All-American Out"—but he was tenacious and mean. "Just imagine [a guy like] Durocher ruining a performance like that," John Kieran, of the New York Times, later wrote, "which was just what everybody in the park was imagining."

Vander Meer got two strikes on him and then hit the outside corner. Umpire Bill Stewart called it a ball. Stewart missed it, and admitted as much after the game. Durocher got one more swing but wasted it, popping out to center field on the next pitch.

"It's fortunate that Vander Meer proved he can pitch no-hitters in the daytime," Dodgers president Larry MacPhail said, "or everybody would be blaming it on the lights."

Obviously, a great deal of attention was focused on Vander Meer's next start. He drew the Bees again on June 19, this time at their home stadium, the Beehive. Feel free to groan at the forcible adherence to pollinated imagery; the Bees were and are the Braves, but the brand had been poisoned by a stretch of mostly miserable teams going back almost to their 1914 "miracle" World Series winners, and particularly by a 38-115 (.248) finish in 1935. Renaming the team "Bees" was new ownership's way of saying, "New and improved!" They weren't.

Vander Meer faced a lineup full of players who, while far from Hall of Famers, carved out distinctive oddball lives in the game. Each an unduplicated original, they're more than a footnote to Vander Meer's record. Bees first baseman and leadoff hitter Elbie Fletcher, 22, reached the majors at 18, and though he didn't have a lot of pop for a first baseman, he had one of the best batting eyes of his day and would later lead the National League in on-base percentage three times. His stats look a bit like Joe Mauer's do now, but at his best (.288/.421/.457 in 1941) Fletcher was better.

Right fielder Johnny Cooney, 37, had come up as a pitcher and wasn't bad at it, but ended up going back to the minors and becoming a position player. As a hitter, he could bat out singles all day long and rarely struck out, but he also had no power and no patience. In September 1939, he homered in back-to-back games against the then New York Giants. They were the only home runs he hit in a nearly 1,200-game career that kept him in the majors until he was 43.

Third baseman Debs Garms will probably remain the greatest player in history named after a famous socialist until Mike Trout's son Bernie wins the 2037 MVP award (get busy, Mike). Anticipating later Red Sox utility great Billy Goodman, as well as players like Tony Phillips and Ben Zobrist, Garms could play all over the field while still providing offense. In 1940, he won a controversial batting title, leading the NL at .355 but without the then requisite 400 at-bats.

Between playing and coaching, second baseman Tony Cuccinello had a career that spanned most of the years from 1930 through 1969. As a player, he was a good glove and gave teams a little bit of everything on offense—some batting average, some walks, some pop, though not always in the same year. One of Cuccinello's biggest moments as a player was also his last. Due to the World War II manpower shortage, Cuccinello was pressed into an everyday role as the Chicago White Sox third baseman in 1945. He got off to a hot start, hung on to hit .308 on the season, and lost the batting title on the final day when a questionable decision by an official scorer gave the Yankees' Snuffy Stirnweiss the edge by .000087.

Then there was the center fielder, Vince—though he was the least talented of the DiMaggio brothers, there has never been a better Vince. He possessed Joe and Dom's ball-hawking talents but couldn't hit like them. He had power, but with six strikeout titles in only eight seasons as a regular at a time when whiffing carried a huge stigma, he was looked upon as highly flawed. It bothered his contemporaries that it didn't seem to bother Vince DiMaggio when he struck out. "Vince is the only player I ever saw who could strike out three times in one game and not be embarrassed," said Bees manager Casey Stengel. "He'd walk into the clubhouse whistling. Everybody would be feeling sorry for him, but Vince always thought he was doing good."

And he was, which we would realize today because we are aware of a few things that baseball didn't know then. The Beehive, by any name, was a pitcher's park, with distant fences and a constant cold wind coming in off the Charles. It was knowingly designed to produce triples, not home runs, and homers were the one thing DiMaggio could hit at an above-average rate. The other park where he spent most of his time, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, had a left-field line of 365 feet and drifted out to over 400 feet in the left-field power alley. Instead of blaming DiMaggio for failing to make contact, we would understand he was operating under a handicap. We would also know enough to see that a player who fielded like a DiMaggio and hit like the Milwaukee Brewers' Chris Carter is quite valuable.

Vince DiMaggio, at left, working at the ship-building yard where he worked during World War II. Seriously. Photo by Ann Rosener, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead, Joe DiMaggio had a couple of hit songs written about him, married Marilyn Monroe, became Mr. Coffee, and went into the Hall of Fame in 1955. Dom DiMaggio became a millionaire businessman and was a founding partner of the New England Patriots; though he never made the Hall of Fame, there have always been some who said he should have gone. Vince DiMaggio became a door-to-door brush salesman. No wonder he whistled after striking out: he had to drown out the reality of having been deselected by fate, and the struggle of being a low-contact Cain in a family with two Abels.

"I remember taking Joe over to meet the owner of the San Francisco Seals. I had been playing for them, and I told them about my kid brother," Vince told Edward Kiersh in the where-are-they-now book that would bear his name, Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio? "They needed a shortstop, so I got Joe the tryout the last day of the season.... It's funny how all this began. Maybe if I had kept my mouth shut, I'd be remembered as the greatest DiMaggio."

As it happened, the third-greatest DiMaggio could not touch Vander Meer on June 19, and neither could any of his teammates. Vander Meer was always free with the walks, so a couple batters, including the selective Fletcher and a Bees reliever—the Reds knocked out Boston's starter with two outs in the first—reached that way. After three, the kid lefty was one-third of the way to his third consecutive no-hit game.

As the sides changed after the top of the fourth and Vander Meer loosened up, Stengel detoured to the mound on his way to the third-base coaching box. "John, we're not trying to beat you," he said quietly. "We're just trying to get a base hit."

Cooney grounded out to short to open the inning, but the next batter, Garms, hit a single to center. Score one for socialism, in which the hits are shared out equally. After 21.2 innings, Vander Meer's no-hit streak was over. Maybe Stengel had psyched him out, but Vander Meer didn't care. He was grateful.

"The pressure had become too much and I was glad to get out from under it," he said. "I think if I'd have had a $10 bill in my baseball pants I'd have gone over to first base and handed it to Garms." The Reds went on to win 14-1. "I only wish the first man up could have hit and ended the strain," Vander Meer said.

There isn't much to say about a no-hitter, really. For some pitchers, like Nolan Ryan, a no-hitter is evidence of his unhittable stuff. For many others, it's God playing dice with the universe; two no-hitters in a row is the big guy making 54 straight passes in a celestial craps championship. That's not to say that Vander Meer wasn't a very good pitcher. He was, at times, though in 1939, the year after the no-hitters, he regressed enough that the Reds sent him back to the minors, à la early-career Roy Halladay. "To regain my confidence," Vander Meer said. It was never easy. Vander Meer had injured his shoulder, been ill, and had had a small tumor removed from his ear even before the 1938 season had ended.

Whatever the cause, the demotion worked, and Vander Meer led the NL in strikeouts for three straight seasons after his return in September 1940. Still, you could staff a starting rotation entirely with pitchers who have thrown no-hitters, surround them with an average offense, and lose over 100 games. Try it: Philip Humber, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Jonathan Sanchez, Bud Smith. Or better: Bobo Holloman, Ernie Koob, Bob Groom, and Earl Hamilton. Those were all Browns, and they don't even remember them in St. Louis.

Vander Meer appears to have known this—that as much luck as skill made him "The Dutch Master" instead of a Vince. Asked about his greatest games, he pointed not to the no-hitters but to two more anonymous performances: September 18, 1940, after his return from the minors, when Bill McKechnie trusted him to clinch the pennant—which he did, pitching 12 innings and scoring the winning run— and September 11, 1946, once again at Brooklyn. Vander Meer got a no-decision in that one, but he had reason to be proud: 15 scoreless innings, seven hits, two walks, 14 strikeouts.

Perhaps he remembered that when he struggled in the year after the no-hitters—after Babe Ruth put his arm around his shoulders and said, "Nice going, kid"; after he won nine straight games and became the first rookie in NL history to start an All-Star Game; after the Reds front office started charging orphanages for his autograph and made newspapers pay to interview him—an Associated Press poll of sportswriters named him "The Biggest Flop of 1939." Vander Meer was "little more than a fifth wheel on the Reds' 1939 mound staff," they said.

That's why the best part of the story isn't the twin no-hitters. Those are, relatively speaking, easy. The part of the story that matters is the rest of it: the presence of Vince, unrecognized except for his surname; Jesse Owens having to make a living losing races to reserve outfielders (and sometimes horses); Stengel saying don't let us win, just let us survive professionally. As Vander Meer well knew, baseball is often less about winning than it is about just holding onto your dignity as tight as you can, because you're always this close to losing it.

Sources include: The Cincinnati Reds, Lee Allen; My Greatest Day in Baseball, John P. Carmichael; Forging Genius, Steven Goldman; Baseball Between the Lines, Donald Honig; Diamond Greats, Rich Westcott; For the Love of the Game, Cynthia J. Wilber, the wonderful SABR Bio Project, and a great many musty old newspapers.

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