Here’s Johnny: How a rookie threw two consecutive no-hitters

About a month ago I wrote about the forgotten legacy of former Reds hurler Bucky Walters. In the process of writing a book about he and his grandson’s attempts at Cooperstown enshrinement I have been researching seasons from the past and working directly with the Reds Hall of Fame to properly tell his whole story. Well, in conducting research on the wild 1938 season, a supporting character in this story emerged: Johnny Vander Meer, of the two consecutive no-hitters fame. Ironically, Bucky’s trade from the Phillies in June 1938 landed him as a Red just in time for the second of these hitless games. The 70th anniversary of Vander Meer’s accomplishment past last month, and while I discuss this remarkable feat in the actual book, his efforts truly merited their own in-depth exploration.

Everything began on June 5, 1938, when Vander Meer and his fourth-place Reds defeated the New York Giants. The loss dropped the Giants from first place and, while not a no-hitter, Vander Meer exhibited signs that he had the “stuff” capable of keeping a team without hits for an extended period of time. After Joe Moore reached base on an infield single and slugger Mel Ott doubled him in for a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Vander Meer would keep the Terrymen hitless until the ninth inning. With two outs in the final frame, and the Giants trailing 4-1, Hank Leiber stroked a single off Vander Meer to end their offensive woes. A few batters later, after Dick Bartell had also reached base, pinch-hitter Wally Berger—who would join the Reds the very next day in exchange for Alex Kampouris—failed to produce, thereby ending the threat and the game.

The victory improved Vander Meer to 5-2 on the season and served as a bit of foreshadowing with regards to what lurked around the corner for the rookie southpaw from Midland Park, New Jersey. The Dutch Master, as he was called, would face the Boston Bees on June 11. Johnny had actually been employed by the Boston franchise, hurling for their Scranton farmhand; he would later be discarded to Nashville as part of their payment for Tiny Chaplin. In actuality, Vander Meer had thrice gone unwanted in the minor leagues. His farm odyssey began in 1933 for the Dylon farmhand of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Erratic and wild, he found himself shipped to Scranton and then, as mentioned, to Nashville. As Larry MacPhail, Dodgers VP in 1938 but previous Reds’ business manager recalled, “The Nashville manager didn’t want Vander Meer, but I liked him and obtained his release for Durham. He was a sensation there, striking out 295 and I got him for the Reds…”

Suffice it to say, Vander Meer had something to prove to the team so quick to get rid of him. His lack of control had been absent during the season to date thanks in large part to some adjusted mechanics from skipper Bill McKechnie. Additionally, Johnny had gotten over his meltdowns with a runner on first thanks to Durham manager Johnny Gooch. With a runner on first one day, Gooch called for a pitch-out but purposely let the ball go by. After the runner advanced to third he walked out to the mound and told Vander Meer, “Now Johnny you don’t have to worry about that runner on first. Stick to your pitching.”

Johnny set the Bees down in the first inning on June 11 but received a significant scare in the second. With two outs, third baseman Gil English met the ball with the fat part of his bat, driving it to deep center field in the process. Harry Craft quickly turned and engaged the ball in a race up the center field embankment. With his back to the rest of the field and glove over his shoulder he somehow managed to catch the ball, keeping the Bees hitless through two frames. The third inning would be no different as the Bees sent three more hitters to the dish, all of whom were turned away without breaking a sweat.

Unfortunately, the Reds’ offense had failed to produce anything as well, having trouble with Danny Macfayden. Through three innings the game remained scoreless. In the top of the fourth, Vander Meer started by walking Gene Moore. His time on base would be short-lived, however, as Johnny Cooney hit a foul ball caught by catcher Ernie Lombardi, who promptly fired to first for the double play. Four innings and nary a hit. In the bottom of the fourth, newly acquired Wally Berger—who had actually been the star slugger for Bill McKechnie’s Boston teams of the early 1930’s—came through with a triple. Ival Goodman then singled him home to give Johnny a 1-0 lead.

Tony Cucinelli drew a walk to start the fifth inning, but an expert pickoff throw from Lombardi no more than a moment later kept the batters faced at the minimum. Vince DiMaggio was the next Vander-victim before Gil English drew a walk. English was stranded, however, and five innings had passed without a Bees hit. In fact, English’s walk would mark the last time this game a Bees hitter would reach base.

The bottom of the sixth saw Lombardi, he of the excellent defensive plays, club a two-run homer to give the Redlegs a 3-0 lead. As on as Vander Meer was, the 1-0 lead might have been plenty. After turning the Bees away in the seventh, opposing manager Casey Stengel approached Johnny, mentioning, “So you’ve got a no-hitter in your hands? Well, you won’t get it because we’re going to get you in the next inning.”

While this seemed like nothing more than a taunt or managerial tactic, according to Vander Meer, it actually informed him of the no-hitter! He had no idea to that point of what was at stake. The Bees ultimately failed to make a prophet of their skipper as Vander Meer certainly was not gotten to in the next inning… or the one after that. Johnny Vander Meer, the rookie lefthander so erratic he could not hold a roster spot in the Bees farm system, had turned in a spectacular no-hitter against the major league club. According to Lombardi, he didn’t even have his liveliest fastball either, though it had significant tail and kept the Bees off-balance. The performance would be the first since Bill Dietrich’s on June 1, 1937; it would also be the first from a lefthander since Paul Dean’s similar outing in 1934.

If only this story ended here.

Over the last two games, Vander Meer had gone 18 innings, allowing just three hits and one run. His next scheduled start did not exist, as manager Bill McKechnie had a habit of informing his starters of their duties an hour or two prior to the game, but the odds were it would take place on June 15 while playing the role of visitors against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larry MacPhail, Dodgers VP, had been brought into save the franchise, and one of his ploys involved night games. Well, June 15 would not only be Johnny’s next start, or the day newly acquired Bucky Walters joined the team, but the very first night game in the history of Ebbets Field.

Prior to the game’s start, MacPhail had arranged for two fife and drum corps, a band, and a special race around the bases between Ernie Koy of the Dodgers, Lee Gamble of the Reds, and four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens. For the record, Owens would lose the race though, in his defense, gave the others significant handicaps.
Vander Meer’s thought to be cured wildness had returned on this day. With a capacity crowd of 40,000—38,748 of which paid, according to Roscoe McGowen’s 1938 New York Times article—perhaps the pressure took hold. Two of those in attendance were Johnny’s mother and father, in town to take in their first ball game. Facing off against Max “Bad Boy” Butcher, who appeared in at least four previous meetings between these two teams that year, the game remained scoreless through two innings. In the top of the third, though, the Reds chased Butcher to the showers. With two men on, Wally Berger hit an RBI double, and two batters later, Frank McCormick conked a three-run longball.

As a couple more innings passed, Vander Meer admitted being nervous and jittery, but figured he would just go as long as he could. The Reds added a fifth run in the inning of the same digit, and led 5-0 against the still hitless Dodgers. The sellout crowd grew increasingly excited even though their team was currently being held hitless. It didn’t matter to them. On this day they were fans of baseball, blind to their allegiances. Johnny had issued three free passes through six innings, and after walking his fourth batter in the seventh inning, McKechnie turned to Bucky Walters. As Bucky recalled:
“…he turned and told me to ‘sneak down’ to the bullpen. So I sneaked down. Meanwhile, Vander Meer’s still got the no-hitter going. I started to warm up. I began to hear some booing. The harder I threw, the louder they booed. I realized it was me they were booing. There was no way they wanted to see Vander Meer come out as long as he had that no-hitter going.”

McKechnie never really had any intention of lifting his starter but needed to cover himself should the game, or his wildness, get out of hand. The seventh and eighth innings came and went and Johnny suddenly found himself three outs away from an unprecedented second straight no-hitter. This time, however, he was much more aware of the goings on. The Reds added another insurance run in the ninth and the crowd quickly grew tense. As Bucky noted, “you know how they get when they start to smell a no-hitter.”

The bottom of the ninth began, with all eyes focused on the no-hit kid, as Buddy Hassett knocked a ball back to the mound. A quick turn and toss later, Johnny stood two outs away from history. From there, things took a turn for the strange, as he proceeded to walk Babe Phelps, Cookie Lavagetto, and Dolph Camilli in succession to load the bases. Now facing a legitimate threat, McKechnie took a walk to the mound to calm his pitcher down. Vander Meer recalls his skipper straightening him out by instructing not to press. McKechnie claims he told Johnny, “Take it easy, Johnny, but get the no-hitter.”

Either way, Vander Meer’s nerves eased a bit as Ernie Koy stepped up to bat. He hit a grounder to third baseman Lou Riggs, who ever so carefully threw home for the force out. Despite securing the second out, the throw was so delicately placed that Lombardi had insufficient time to fire to first for a double play. One out away from immortality, Leo Durocher stepped into the batters box. Durocher had a knack for “hitting in the pinches” as they said back in the thirties.

Ball one. A called strike to even the count. A swing and a miss! The crowd, already elevated from their seats, really amped up. Ball two, again evening the count. On the 2-2 offering, Durocher crushed a heart-stopper into the upper decks. Fortunately, the ball sailed foul prior to landing. As everyone’s heart regained normal functioning, Vander Meer went into his windup, delivered the ball to the plate, and Lombardi swung. He got just underneath the ball, lofting a short fly to center field. Harry Craft perfectly aligned himself, closed his glove, and with that, the second consecutive no-hitter of rookie Johnny Vander Meer.
Bedlam ensued as fans horded the field. While his Reds teammates formed a protective shield around him, the parents Vander Meer would be swarmed by well-wishers and autograph-seekers for nearly an hour. All Johnny wanted from his no-hit bids were two baseballs, one from each, commemorating his achievements. He got more than that, though, even receiving congratulations from Franklin Roosevelt. For Vander Meer, however, the pinnacle of his achievements came in the form of three little words from his idol.

“Nice going, kid,” said Babe Ruth as he shook Johnny’s hand following the game. The Bambino had been hired as a coach by MacPhail in an attempt to boost the financial success of the Dodgers. For Johnny, shaking his hand was almost more exciting than his two no-hitters. Still, in the span of ten days, Johnny had put together 18.1 straight hitless innings. The modest Vander Meer, who would enjoy fishing with his father the next day, was certainly not the kind to embrace the massive publicity pointing itself in his direction. In fact, it seemingly annoyed him. The publicity would only grow as his next start approached. Could he do it again? Could he get three straight no-hitters?

He would again face the Boston Bees, on June 19, on the Boston turf. To the surprise of both nobody and everybody, Vander Meer held the Bees hitless for the first three innings. His streak had now run to 21.1 straight hitless innings, well ahead of Dazzy Vance’s 17.1 but still behind Cy Young’s oft-debated streak; depending on the source, Cy’s streak sat at anywhere from 23 to 25.1 hitless innings. In fact, Young sat in the Boston crowd on June 19, watching the rookie challenge one of his numerous records.
In the fourth inning, Deb Garms, who had been benched the week before against Johnny in favor of a righthanded hitter, sliced a one-out offering to center field. The ball bounced on the ground and rolled into Harry Craft’s glove. With that, the hitless innings streak had ended at 21.2. Vander Meer actually wished the first batter of the game would have gotten a hit, adding, “I could have gone over there and given Garmes a 10-dollar bill, because at some point this foolishness has to stop!”

Well, it did, but the Reds would win 14-1 behind their new “ace.” Johnny scattered four hits over nine innings of stellar work, meaning his four most recent starts looked like this: {exp:list_maker}June 5: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R
June 11: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R
June 15: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R
June 19: 9 IP, 4 H, 1 R {/exp:list_maker}Even with the 21 walks issued in this span, his WHIP was well under 1.00, and he had surrendered just seven hits and two runs in 36 innings pitched. A span remarkable for anyone made even moreso when remembering this was his rookie season. The June 19 victory would be his seventh in a row, improving his season mark to 8-2. By the time his personal win streak ended at ten, he had gotten his rookie season off to a 11-2 start with two consecutive no-hitters no less. The rest of the season lacked similar kindness as he went just 4-8 from that point on.

By some accounts the rest of his career failed to live up to expectations; however, perhaps these expectations were unfairly developed after a tremendous ten-game stretch in his rookie campaign. The southpaw would make four all-star teams in his career while finishing in the MVP voting’s top 25 four times as well. He also served as a key cog on the NL pennant winning 1939 Reds team, and the 1940 World Series champion Reds team. His career mark of 119-121 is nothing to write home about, nor is his 107 ERA+, but one of the many reasons the game of baseball is so wondrous is that a player with seemingly pedestrian career statistics can attain immortality through one magical stretch.

After pitching for the Reds from 1937-49, he joined the Cubs for the 1950 season before retiring after a 1951 campaign in Cleveland. From there, Johnny went on to manage and occasionally play at every level of the minor leagues. In fact, while pitching and managing for Tulsa of the minor leagues, he tossed another no-hitter. As only a story like this could produce, the opposing manager that day would be none other than Harry Craft, who had made the key plays to preserve both 1938 no-hitters.

Johnny died at the age of 82 due to an abdominal aneurysm but, until that death, heard about his no-hitters every single day. On behalf of everyone recognizing that this feat is very likely to remain in Vander Meer’s name for a long, long while, “nice going, kid.”

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