Can’t Touch This

This essay is for lovers of baseball and history.  Or rather: lovers of Major League Baseball history. We’re going to look at some of the most unlikely of baseball games in history: the No Hitter.

In baseball a Hit is when a batter strikes the ball such that he makes it safely to at least first base without benefit of a defensive player making a mistake (an error) or a play where he could have retired the batter, but chose not to (a Fielders Choice).  The definition of a No Hitter has always been a bit in flux, even though it sounds simple enough. What if the game is shortened to 5 innings because of rain?  What if the home team wins with only 8 At Bats, so the losing pitcher only has to pitch 8 innings (yes, a pitcher can throw a No Hitter and lose; I recall Andy Hawkins doing so).  What if the game goes into extra innings?

Here I’ll briefly present 3 of the most famous No Hitters in professional baseball history

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1. The Double No Hitter, May 2, 1917.

It was in the early days of Wrigley Field, which then was known as Weegham Park, an edifice that stands as a monument to the history of the game, complete with brick walls and ivy covering much of them. A horrifically bloody war raged in Europe with apparently no end; the US had just joined the fray.  Baseball provided an excellent distraction.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Fred Toney was up against the Chicago Cubs’ Jim “Hippo” Vaughn.  Toney had started his career with the Cubbies.  Playing first base for the Cubs that day was the famous (or infamous) Fred Merkel, the man who — as a 19-year old rookie with the Giants — made a baserunning mistake so pivotal it is still known as “Merkel’s Boner” and led to the Cubs’ appearance in the 1908 World Series … which the Cubs won (their last world series win for 108 years, until 2016).  Playing Right Field for the Reds was none other than Jim Thorpe, the 4-sport superman (fifteen if you count an NCAA Championship in Ball Room Dancing and the Gold Medal in the Olympic Decathlon)

Through nine innings both Toney and Hippo Vaughn had pitched No Hitters. The score was 0-0. Vaughn had allowed only one baserunner, on an error.  Toney had walked two, but allowed no hits.

In the top of the 10th inning, with one out, the Reds’ Larry Knopf stroked a clean single to right field, breaking up Hippo’s No Hitter.  He advanced to third base on the second Cub error of the game, by center fielder Cy Williams.  With two outs the Greatest Athlete of the 20th century came to the plate: Jim Thorpe.  Thorpe hit a dribbler half-way to third, in no-man’s land (to use a WWI term). Catlike, Vaughn got to the ball; but he determined that the super speedy Thorpe would beat his throw to first. Vaughn made a snap throw to home plate, where he had a chance to catch Knopf running home.  Unfortunately, Cubs catcher Art Wilson was anticipating a throw to first.  Vaughn’s throw bounced off his chest protector.

Thorpe was credited with a hit and the game winning RBI.

In the bottom of the 10th, Toney completed his No Hitter.  Toney only had 3 strikeouts the entire game (reminiscent of Cubs’ Ken Holtzman’s No Hitter in their love/pain season of 1969, when he completed one of only two No Hitters in MLB history with exactly zero strikeouts).

Finial Score: Reds 1.  Cubs 0.  [The single run was unearned, because of the error that put Knopf at third]

The official attendance for that game is listed at a mere 350.

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2. More than Perfect is not enough: May 26, 1959

The most remarkable of No Hitters is the Perfect Game. In a Perfect Game the pitcher goes through a game without allowing a single baserunner. No one gets on base by hit. Not by error. Not by walk. Not by Hit Batsman.  Not by Catcher Interference.  27 consecutive batters retired without reaching first base. There have only been 23 perfect games in all of baseball history; out of nearly a quarter-million total games (and two teams per game), that means that a Perfect Game is a very rare accomplishment, indeed. Very rare.

Or is it?

The year was 1959.  The Eisenhower-Nixon administration was in office.  The Civil Rights movement was just beginning to bud, from Branch Rickey’s brave move to get Jackie Robinson into the Major Leagues in 1947, to the seeds sown by Truman’s integration of the military in 1948. Brown v Topeka Board of Education was 1954; Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955. In 1957 a showdown in Arkansas between governor Orval Faubus and President Eisenhower led to the integration of Little Rock Central High.

The times they were a-changin’. The French had given up in Indochina … leading to a concern about communism there that would lead to cataclysmic cultural clashes in the US just a few years later.

Communism.  The great red scare.  Eisenhower had significantly shrunk the headcount of the US military, hoping to save money and lives by investing in the deterrence of nuclear weapons.  Nuke tipped missiles. The Soviet Union built them bigger and faster. “Duck and cover” was standard domestic training.

Baseball again provided the drama for a great distraction.

The Milwaukee Braves were a very good team in 1959. In 1957 they had won the World Series over the mighty Yankees, 4 games to 3.  In 1958, a World Series redux led to the Yanks winning 4-3.  When 1959 ended, the Braves tied for the NL pennant with the Dodgers, only to lose a mini-playoff series for a possible third straight WS appearance. The Braves were good. Very good.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were a budding powerhouse.  1959 would prove to be their first winning season since 1948; and springboard them to their surprising World Series appearance in 1960, where they would shock the sporting world — and the Yankees — with a 4 games to 3 victory, with Bill Mazoroski’s historic walk-off home run. [The only time a World Series game 7 has ended with a walk off home run]. But that was in the future.

This May night Harvey Haddix was perfect for the Pirates. Through 9 innings it was 27 up and 27 down. No Baserunners.

Unfortunately for Haddix and the Pirates, the Pirates scored no runs…. although they did eke out 10 singles against the Braves’ pitcher, Lew Burdette.

After nine innings the score stood 0-0.

Haddix pitched the 10th inning. Perfect. He pitched the 11th and 12 innings.  Perfect again. No Baserunners. All outs.

Unfortunately, the Pirates scored zero runs also, while Burdette continued pitching for the Braves.

Harvey Haddix came out to pitch the bottom of the 13th inning, the score still tied 0-0. He and Burdette had each already thrown well over 150 pitches, unheard of in the modern era.

The Braves’ slight second baseman, Felix Mantilla (man-TEE-ya), led off, hitting a groundball to third. The throw beat Mantilla, but it short-hopped first baseman Rocky Nelson (what a great sports name) in the dirt, and he couldn’t “pick it.” The Braves had their first baserunner, benefit of a Pirates’ throwing error.

The next batter was lefty Eddie Matthews, one of the greatest home run hitters of all time (512 total).  But Haddix was also lefty, and — as such — had a huge advantage over Matthews with his devastating assortment of breaking balls.  Matthews bunted Mantilla over to second.  [Championship teams do these sorts of things].

One out and Mantilla was on second.  At least the No Hitter was intact.

The next batter was also a great home run hitter: Hank Aaron.  Discounting Barry Bonds steroid-assisted numbers, “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron stands as the greatest home run hitter of all time.

The Pirates chose to walk Aaron. One out, runners on first and second.

This brought up Braves 1st baseman Joe Adcock. At the time, Adcock was one of the most feared hitters in the league.  Adcock once hit four home runs in a single game, in 1954; a record that has never been broken, although tied some 15 times. Also, back in 1954 Adcock, had hit a line drive off Haddix that struck him in the kneecap so severely that it forced poor Harvey to permanently alter his pitching delivery.

With Mantilla on 2nd and Aaron on first Adcock hit a blast to deep right center field.  As there was only one out, Mantilla waited near second base to tag up.  Aaron took off for second. Adcock cruised to first, watching to see where his mighty blow would end up. Pirates Right Fielder Joe Christopher, a late inning replacement, went to the wall and leapt.  Mantilla tagged up and Aaron, thinking that Christopher might have caught the ball, paused.

As it turned out, the ball cleared the fence for an apparent game ending walk off Home Run.  Aaron, now apparently aware of what happened, leapt for joy — and celebrated as Braves players left the dugout to swarm the infield.  But the game was not technically over.  Adcock kept running, and passed Aaron somewhere just past second base.  At this point Mantilla was heading home.

The very alert second base umpire Frank Dascoli called Adcock OUT; it is not permitted to pass a preceding baserunner, regardless of where the ball is. But as a dead ball award, Mantilla and Aaron were permitted — once made aware of what was going on — to continue on to home plate. The final score was 2-0; Haddix had lost.

Later the scoring was altered.  Since Adcock could not be awarded a home run, Aaron’s run was nullified.

The official MLB final score was Braves 1, Pirates 0.  Adcock was awarded only a double for hitting the ball over the fence.

One can only imagine the chaos that would have ensued had there been two outs when Adcock passed Aaron.  Or if Adcock had passed Aaron, then Aaron passed Mantilla on the bases. That would have been the 3rd out, and — as Mantilla might not have touched Home Plate yet — could have kept the score at 0-0.

Considering that the Braves were a powerhouse team, playing at home … Harvey Haddix had probably pitched the most fantastic, amazing, unbelievable game of all time: Twelve innings of perfection. Sports writers and historians usually agree.  And, yet, he lost.

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3. Perfect beats really, really good: September 9, 1965.

This is a game that I might have listened to.  At least part of the game.  The loveable losing Cubs were in their losing hey day.  I had been a fan since my dad took me to Wrigley Field one hot August afternoon in 1961; I saw Billy Williams hit a home run (1961 Rookie of the Year) and I was fan of him and his sweet swing ever since.

The Dodgers were a powerhouse then, mostly on the strength of a phenomenal pitching staff, which was led by the incomparable Sandy Koufax.

On this September evening, in Chavez Ravine’s Dodger stadium, probably the most unlikely and memorable pitching duels of all time took place.

Koufax was up against the Cubs’  Bob Hendley, a mediocre pitcher of the era, who compiled a lifetime record of 48-52.

Lyndon Johnson was in the White House — this  time on his own, not as the guy who was VP when Kennedy was assassinated — having won the 1964 election in a landslide … mainly by portraying Barry Goldwater as an unstable warmonger.  Yet Johnson was now fighting two very expensive — and doomed to fail — wars. His War on Poverty eventually cost the country trillions of dollars, and left the country divided, with a higher poverty rate, lower literacy rate and lower marriage rate than before.

More devastating was Indochina.  After the Gulf of Tonkin incident (or non-incident, depending on your reading of history), Johnson convinced the Congress to begin expanding the US engagement in, what we would come to call, the Viet Nam War.

Civil Rights continued moving forward in fits and spurts.  In 1964 the Civil Rights Act became law … and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Civil Rights Act was challenged, and upheld, in the Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Hotel v United States: hotels everywhere would now be required to provide lodging to non-Whites.

Dr Timothy Leary was experimenting with, and publishing papers, on the uses and benefits of psychedelic drugs such as LSD.  By the next year he was an icon of America’s tidal wave of counter-culture, preaching us to “turn on, tune in and drop out”, and “question authority.”

Not all Americans agreed with Johnson, the wars, the Civil Rights movement or Dr Leary.

Yet baseball, the ancient game of pastoral settings with no time line and no time limit, unites us.

Back to the game. By the bottom of the 5th inning, both pitchers — Koufax and Hendley — had perfect games: no base runners.

The speedy Lou Johnson was playing outfield for the Dodgers and was in the run of a few good years in his career.  He had come up with the Cubs, and would play some his career’s twilight seasons a few year later in right field with the Cubs. [Johnson was subbing for the injured Tommy Davis, one of the most feared power-and-average hitters of the day. He had won the batting title two of the previous three years, but he had suffered a season-ending injury that spring].

Johnson, batting 4th, led off the bottom of the 5th inning with a walk on a borderline 3-2 pitch. When Cubs’ catcher Chris Krug caught it, he framed it a moment, and then pegged the ball to third — standard routine for a strike out with no one on base. But Krug was wrong; it was ball four.

Hendley’s perfect game was over.

That brought up Ron Fairly, a good batsman, known for handling the bat well (not striking out often).  Fairly bunted a ball that Hendley was able to get to quickly.  Thinking he had a play on Johnson at second base, Hendley rushed a bit and bobbled the ball. He recovered though, and threw Fairly out at first.

Johnson was now on second base with one out. Sensing that Hendley might be a bit shaken, he took off and attempted to steal third base on the very next pitch — the first pitch to rookie Jim Lefebvre. Cubs’ catcher — Krug — apparently also a bit startled, threw the ball over the third baseman’s head, up the Left Field line. Johnson popped up and trotted home. [Cubs third baseman was eventual Hall of Famer, Ron Santo].

Dodgers 1 — Cubs 0.

And that’s the way the game’s score would eventually end. The Dodgers scored the game’s only run without benefit of a single hit.

Hendley still had his No Hitter until the bottom of the 7th.  Lou Johnson — that guy, again — hit a blooper into short Right Field near the foul line.  No one could get there, although second baseman Glenn Beckert nearly did, and Johnson ended up on second base — a clean double, although not pretty.

Hendley ended up pitching a one-hitter.  And losing. On an unearned run.

The one hit he gave up was poorly hit … and did not figure in the scoring. Baseball can be so cruel —- a metaphor for life in many ways.

Although there have been 23 Perfect Games in MLB history — including this one by Koufax — this one stands out as the best performance by far by the opposing pitcher.

Oddly, Koufax and Hendley had a rematch five days later, this time in Wrigley. The Cubbies won, 2-1.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2017

 

 

 

 

[1] Box score and game description, Vaughn v Toney, 1917.  http://www.baseball-almanac.com/box-scores/boxscore.php?boxid=191705020CHN

[2] Box score, Haddix’s “Perfect Game.”  http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MLN/MLN195905260.shtml

–> Harvey Haddix, the greatest game ever pitched; http://www.baseball-almanac.com/boxscore/05261959.shtml

–> in a rare and desperate 9th inning relief appearance, Haddix was the wiining pitcher in that famous 1960 game 7 Pirates World Series victory.

[3] Box Score.  Koufax perfect, Hendley nearly so.  http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/LAN/LAN196509090.shtml

 

 

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