His hands come together as the arms begin to rise over the head. As the arms elevate, the head bows, and the connection between the eyes and the catcher’s target breaks. The head continues its descent, anticipating the full bend at the waist, which spurs a break in the connection between the hands as they fly to either side of the pitcher’s torso. And then, the momentum of the arms swinging forward carries them up and over the head of the now straightened-up pitcher, and the eyes reconnect with the catcher’s glove. As the motion continues, the right leg, bent, is raised to the “Cincinnati” in blocked letters across the jersey. Gloved right hand and right shin almost touch, while the left hand (cradling the ball) remains hidden behind the lower portion of the pitcher’s torso. From the batter’s perspective, the pitcher’s midsection twists just enough so that the outer portions of the “57” on the back of the jersey become visible–just a flash of number before the motion enters its final stage. The delivery – almost overhand – reintroduces the ball to the equation. The pitcher uncoils, moving in direction from first base toward the plate, head on a perfect line with the target, and the right leg kicks out. The fastball, now free, explodes across the last part of its journey, and pops into the catcher’s glove.
Over the span of two starts through five June days in 1938, this motion (and its shorter, less complex, more contained version – the stretch) baffled hitters and led a pitcher previously known more for his bouts of wildness than for his artistry and accomplishments toward a unique, rapturous, and omnipresent niche inside the baseball hall of records. Before this magical run finished its breathtaking course, 63 consecutive batters* had failed to get a hit against this unique and artistic pitching motion. On June 11th in Cincinnati, and then on June 15th in Brooklyn, Johnny Vander Meer commanded the stage and played the leading role in what can only be described as the baseball equivalent of being twice struck by lightning. In back-to-back starts – in a day game at Crosley Field and then in the first night contest at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field – Johnny Vander Meer contested the definition of impossible, restructured the bounds of the believable, and twirled back-to-back no-hitters.
When Johnny Vander Meer strode to his home mound on June 11, he was 5-2 on the season, and his club – the third-place Cincinnati Reds – was 23-20, five-and-a-half games behind the front-running New York Giants. His opponent on that day was the team from Boston (called the Bees that year), just a half-game behind the Reds in the standings. The Bees would finish the season at the bottom of most offensive categories, and on this day, Vender Meer’s blazing fastball and controlled curve rendered the bats especially ineffectual. The Reds would score a run in the fourth, two more in the sixth, no Bee would make it to second, and before 10,311 fans, Johnny Vander Meer – nicknamed the Dutch Master – claimed a definitive spot in the baseball ledgers and concluded this one hour, 48-minute affair by inducing pinch-hitter Ray Mueller to bounce to third. It was the first no-hitter in the National League since 1934 and the first by a Reds pitcher since Hod Eller turned the trick on May 11, 1919 (Eller would go on to claim more fame later that season, when he – on his way toward a three-hit shutout – struck out six straight White Sox batters in Game Five of the 1919 World Series). Vander Meer’s no-hitter was the 48th in National League history, and like Eller’s, faced the very real possibility of fading into the dusty recesses of boxed-up memories and mythologies.
Johnny Vander Meer pitched in three All-Star games. He lost two seasons when he served in the Navy during World War II, and missed more time because of arm injuries. He threw three scoreless innings in relief in Game 5 of the 1940 World Series – a game which the Reds lost 8-0. Johnny Vander Meer fought wildness throughout his days in the Majors (leading the league in walks on two separate occasions), struck out a bevy of batters throughout his career (leading the league in three different seasons), and finished his 13 years in the Major Leagues with a 119-121 record. In the ninth edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, his career is delineated on page 2311.
The depth of Vander Meer’s story – a tale told with broad strokes in the encyclopedia and given additional texture by his no-hitter in Cincinnati on June 11, 1938 – becomes altogether unique and resonant because of the chapter written when he took the mound in Brooklyn, four days after his performance against the Bees. It was there that the lefty ensured that his performance at Crosley Field would always stay fresh and unboxed. Paradoxically, he began the night as a footnote to a different sort of historical precedent, just one of many players participating in the first wave of a new, wobbling, tentative milestone in the history of the game. On June 15, 1938, Vander Meer pitched in front of the second-largest crowd in Ebbets Field history. The majority of the crowd had not chosen to attend the game because of the starting pitcher for the Reds; most were not there to see a 6-2 pitcher for a third-place team take on the batters for their seventh-place hometown Brooklyn Dodgers. Johnny Vander Meer did not begin the game as the main focus for the fans, whose attention was directed somewhere above the pitching mound, trained on the lights illuminating the field, stands, and men ready to find their positions. This particular contest marked the first ever night game in Brooklyn baseball history, and 38, 784 men, women, and children had descended on the ballpark to both witness and impinge themselves on the proceedings.
And so on this night, Vander Meer added the shadows created by night baseball to his already impressive arsenal of blazing fastballs and sharp curves. But if the curves were breaking more, and if the fastballs were popping with greater intensity, the Dutch Master’s control was less. Eight Brooklyn Dodgers would earn a free trip to first base on this summer evening. But seven others would also trudge back to the dugout after failing to even make contact in their at-bat. And all failed to hit safely. Future Hall-of-Famer Kiki Cuyler would go hitless. As would a power-hitting first baseman named Dolph Camilli. And so too, Brooklyn’s weak-hitting shortstop named Leo Durocher. Durocher, whose name and presence litters and contextualizes so much of what was important in baseball between 1925 – 1973, found himself at the plate, facing Vander Meer with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on June 15, 1938: found himself, once again, in the middle of baseball history – a history at this moment defined and sculpted by a 23-year old left-hander named Johnny Vander Meer.
On this upcoming Sunday afternoon, sometime after four pm (Eastern Time), a 24-year-old lefthander named Jon Lester will stride to the mound in Oakland, California. Lester will be following his Red Sox teammates onto the field, and will be shadowed by the indiscernible, but very real shadow of Johnny Vander Meer. The walk will mimic one taken by every pitcher who has thrown a no-hitter since Vander Meer pitched his back-to-back gems, and will connect Lester with every mounds-man who had taken a shot at duplicating Vander Meer’s handshake with immortality. Unlike Lester’s previous outing, the expectancy and tension will live from the outset of the very first pitch. Each fan in the park, every television viewer and radio listener, all of the teammates and opponents, and perhaps even Lester himself, will be anticipating and wondering. And as Lester begins his windup for his ve
ry first survey into the possibility, the past and the present will collide and then dance together on the ballfield.
Over a span of five days that occurred sixty years ago, Johnny Vander Meer did his own dance with the impossible and emerged from the performance as an unlikely definition of the attainable. No pitcher has matched Vander Meer since, but this weekend we will all have the opportunity to watch the newest member of the no-hit club try to join him at a table reserved for one. And as we watch Lester’s dalliance unfold, we’ll also be treated with an opportunity to peer back toward the past, when there was a team in Boston nicknamed the Bees, when the Reds played at Crosley Field, when nighttime baseball was a controversial new concept, and when a young left-hander named Vander Meer rode a powerful, twisting, winding delivery on an ageless and unforgettable wave toward the impossible.
* A Note: After his back-to-back no-hitters, Vander Meer’s next start took place on June 19, and his dominance continued. He got through the first three-and-a-third innings without allowing a hit before Boston’s Deb Garms singled. Starting with the first batter on June 11, Vander Meer threw 21.1 hitless innings. The 63 batters figure referenced above includes just the hitters Vander Meer faced in the two no-hitters.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com, baseball-almanac.com, and No-Hitters, by Rich Westcott and Allen Lewis, for information that helped with this piece. The book by Westcott and Lewis is a fun read, filled with interesting facts and anecdotes (not to mention box scores and line-scores for all of the no-hitters thrown between 1893 – 1999), and comes highly recommended for any of you wanting to learn more about the history of no-hitters.