The book: ” Double No-Hit: Johnny Vander Meer’s History Night Under the Lights”
The author: James W. Johnson
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 196 pages, $19.95
The pitch: You assume you know all there really is to know about Johnny Vander Meer — his name is mentioned every time someone throws a no-hitter, with the question focused on: Can he do it again? But the feat that the 23-year-old rookie accomplished for the Cincinnati Reds in June of 1938, when he no-hit the Boston Bees and Brooklyn Dodgers in consecutive starts, is just a starting point really for Johnson, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Arizona who examines Vander Meer’s 14-year career before and after his claim to fame. Vander Meer, as we find out, was actually Dodgers’ property until a minor-league manager/owner advised the team not to move him along in their system. Consider him Sandy Koufax 20 years earlier — a hard-throwing left-hander who had control issues, but would long be remembered for no-hitters.
Johnson even devotes space to vet out whether Vander Meer deserved Hall of Fame consideration, despite having a 119-121 career mark. In some ways, his baseball life mirrors Fernando Valenzuela’s, with the spectacular first-year splash (Vander Meer actually made his debut in ’37) that captured the imagination of the baseball world, leading to him as the starting pitcher in the All-Star game and ending up with a Rookie of the Year honor (by Baseball America) and N.L. Pitcher of the Year (by The Sporting News) before those official honors were even given out by the BBWAA.
Along the way, Johnson lays out, through his avid research, a far more detailed portrait of a man who should be known for more than just that brilliant season. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, for example, says a game that Vander Meer pitched against the Dodgers in September, 1945, was “the best pitching performance i have ever seen” — going 15 scoreless innings, the longest in major league history, striking out 14 and walking only two — before it was decided in the 19th. Injuries, wildness, time in the Navy during World War II and a stint back in the minor leagues prevented him from perhaps super-star greatness, but so much of the buzz he created that year mirrors things that happen again with a rookie phenom knocks the baseball world on its ear without warning.
An excerpt: From page 88, a recap of Vander Meer’s 6-0 no-hitter against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field during the first night game in New York: “At this point (Dodgers president Lee) MacPhail was only halfway watching the game as he yelled into the phone … All MacPhail could think about was Ducky Holmes, that idiot in the Dodgers farm system who had released Vander Meer because he was too wild with his pitches. ‘Fouryears ago that dumb son-of-a-bitch released Vander Meer outright when he was managing one of our farm teams,’ MacPhail yelled to no one in particular. ‘Without permission, too. Except for that fathead, Vandy would still be a Dodger, and the whole show wuold have been ours tonight.’ MacPhail never reached Holmes. Probably just as well, for as MacPhail stormed out of the pressroom, he was handed a telegram. He read the telegram, crumpled it into a ball and threw it toward the bartender, Hymie (who) picked it it up and read it. It said, ‘Congratulations on your big night game success. Hope you win. Ducky Holmes.’”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A big yes.
Details come to life here, and thankfully, we find out much more about “The Dutch Master” than a box score can show. For example: Even with his 6-0 lead, he almost came out of the game in the bottom of the ninth against the Dodgers, having walked Babe Phelps, Cookie Lavagetto and Dolph Camilli to load the bases with one out. He got the next batter to ground into a force at home, and the final Dodger batter, Leo Durocher, to loft a fly ball to center to end it.
After that, as endorsement deals came in, Reds GM Warren Giles (before becoming the NL president) charge out-of-town writers 50 percent of the story income to interview Vander Meer. It also resulted in Reds play-by-play man Red Barber to unlist his phone number. He wasn’t there that night to call the game, despite what many think they remember. And fans kept calling him that night wanting to relive the performance.
How close did Vander Meer, by the way, come to pitching a third no-hitter in a row? In his next start, he went 3 1/3 innings of no-hit ball in Boston, a team managed by Casey Stengel and with Cy Young in attendance. Were the odds against him? Just 172,800,000-to-1.
Read more about how he became a minor-league manager, including one of the first Pete Rose came into contact with during his Reds’ career.