- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

Quick now, what's baseball most unbreakable record?
Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games?
Pete Rose's 4,256 hits?
Cy Young's 511 victories?
Ty Cobb's .367 career batting average?
Forget it.
Baseball's most unbreakable record was set by Johnny Vander Meer, a wild 23-year-old left-hander for the Cincinnati Reds who pitched no-hitters against the Boston Bees and Brooklyn Dodgers on June 11 and 15, 1938.
In the 62 years before Vander Meer's feat and the 63 since, nobody has matched it. So the odds of anyone pitching three in a row to break his mark are about googol-to-1. (As fans of the "Peanuts" comic strip know, a "googol" is the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeroes.)
So it's not going to insult anyone if we call Vander Meer's back-to-back no-nos a freak happening. Especially when authored by a guy whose lack of control limited him to a 119-121 record over six seasons in the bigs.
You have to like Vandy's sense of timing, though: His second no-hitter came in the first night game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Certainly, lighting systems in the late '30s weren't what they are today, but that doesn't really detract from what Vander Meer did.
His first gem, a 3-0 victory against a fair Boston team, was about as routine as any no-hitter could be. In his first full major league season, Vander Meer had a 5-2 record when he first encountered temporary glory. He finished the season with a 15-10 record and a 3.12 ERA despite 103 walks (and 177 strikeouts) in 225* innings.
In those days, teams used four-man rotations and pitchers worked with three days' rest. That brought Vander Meer back to the mound June 15, when owner Larry MacPhail's Dodgers introduced night baseball to the East just three years after he had turned on the lights in Cincinnati.
Baseball always had been a daytime game, although lighted ballfields technically were possible in the early years of the century. But by the mid-'30s, with minor league teams shutting down and major league ones dying at the gate because of the Depression, the owners were willing to try anything. The Reds were given permission in 1935 to play only seven night games at Crosley Field one against each other National League team. But it soon became obvious that night games were the coming thing because of the increased attendance.
Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, a traditionalist to the core, was one of night baseball's staunchest opponents "baseball was meant to be played in the Lord's broad sunshine" until he saw the gate receipts. Lights were installed at Griffith Stadium in 1941, and the following year President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged more night games to give war workers a chance to attend more often. By 1948, 15 of the 16 clubs were playing night games at home. (The Chicago Cubs, of course, didn't give in until 1988.)
The Brooklyn team against which Vander Meer pitched under the Ebbets Field arcs was a pathetic 69-80 outfit that finished seventh under longtime spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes.
A year later, under fiery player-manager Leo Durocher, the Dodgers would become a perennial contender. In '38, however, they hadn't won a pennant since 1920, and the term "Bums" was one of censure rather than affection. In a desperate attempt to boost interest, MacPhail even hired Babe Ruth as a coach. All that did was produce a fistfight when Durocher, no respecter of persons, accused the misplaced Bambino of not knowing the team's signs.
Although Vander Meer walked five batters through the first eight innings, he came to the ninth without allowing a hit and leading 6-0. But after getting the first hitter, he walked the bases full as the crowd of 27,151 including 700 of his friends and family from New Jersey fidgeted. The next man grounded to third baseman Lew Riggs, who threw home for the forceout rather than trying for a 6-4-3 double play.
Two men were out, and Vander Meer was only one away. Up now came shortstop Durocher, whose .247 lifetime batting average had earned him the dubious nickname of "the All-American Out."
"I never tried harder," Durocher recalled in "The Dodgers and Me," his 1948 autobiography. "I got the ball I wanted to hit, but I belted a long foul into the left-field stands. Finally, I hit a drive which hung just long enough for Harry Craft to get under it in center field. I am not so sure that many other center fielders could have caught it."
Vander Meer remembered it a little differently, saying Durocher "popped up to short center field." Regardless, Vandy had his second straight no-hitter and a piece of baseball history.
Oddly, Vander Meer believed later that season that he had pitched ho hum a third no-hitter. Hits and errors were not immediately announced in those days, and while he was accepting congratulations for completely bamboozling Philadelphia when he learned that a bobbled ball in the fifth inning had been ruled a hit.
All too briefly, Vander Meer was baseball's most famous young pitcher, even eclipsing even teen-ager Bob "Rapid Robert" Feller of the Cleveland Indians. But the following two seasons, bedeviled by constant control problems, Vandy won a total of eight games for pennant-winning teams and even went back to the minors for a spell.
Vander Meer rebounded to win 49 games from 1941 to 1943, but when the regular ballplayers came back from World War II, he was finished as a star. He did go 17-14 in 1948, but three years later he was all done in the majors after brief stints with the Chicago Cubs and Indians. He died of an abdominal aneurysm at the age of 82 at his home in Tampa, Fla., in 1996.
Oh yes, Vander Meer did have one more great game in him after leaving the major leagues. Pitching for former Cincy teammate Craft at Class AA Tulsa on July 15, 1952, the grizzled 37-year-old went to the mound to face Beaumont, and suddenly he was just a kid again, doing what he did again.
Johnny Vander Meer pitched a no-hitter that night. What else?


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