July 31st, 2013

Johnny Vander Meer Remembers

Johnny Vander Meer

Johnny Vander Meer

A young sportswriter and traveling secretary for the Reds, Gabe Paul would go on to make his name as a general manger with the Indians, Yankees, and Astros. In 1943 he interviewed Johnny Vander Meer for John Carmichael’s book, My Greatest Day in Baseball. At 23 Vander Meer accomplished a feat never before accomplished and not since repeated in big league baseball–he pitched two successive no-hit no-run games for Cincinnati in 1938. This year marks the 75th anniversary of that remarkable feat. 

It would seem natural for me to name the second successive no-hitter I pitched in 1938 as my biggest day in baseball, and I’ll have to explain why it isn’t.

Those games were as much a surprise to me as to the baseball world. I wasn’t keyed up to their meaning then. Before the no-hitter against Boston on June 11 that year I was just a rookie that nobody but Bill McKechnie knew, and after the June 15 repeat of the performance against Brooklyn I was still just a novelty, a kid who had done a freakish thing.

Bill McKechnie, Hall of Fame

Bill McKechnie, Hall of Fame

To understand my feelings at the time you’ve got to understand that I came up to the Reds that year after an unsuccessful season at Syracuse in the International League. I had won only five and lost eleven for the Chiefs. Nobody thought I was good but Bill McKechnie, manager of the Reds, who told me, when I arrived at spring training in Florida, that he was counting on me to be a regular. He said he believed I could make it.

He gave me hope, and then on the way north that spring in an exhibition series with the Boston Red Sox Lefty Grove gave me some tips on what I was doing wrong. I’ll never be able to thank Lefty for his friendliness and smartness in putting his finger on my errors. McKechnie kept giving me great advice, too, all spring.

I’ll never forget the day that spring we were at Lynchburg, Va. I was pitching batting practice and after a little while McKechnie, on the bench, began to yell: “He’s got it! He’s got it! That boy is going to make it!”

That helped more than I can say, and I got off to a pretty good start in the season, pitching a shutout against the Giants at the Polo Grounds on May 20. I had my confidence. I felt I could do it. Then, all at once, came those consecutive no-hitters.

But they came too fast. I was more confused than thrilled. All the publicity, the attention, the interviews, the photographs, were too much for me. They swept me off my feet too far to let me have time to think about the games themselves. There were too many people around me.

As I look back at it now those days are the haziest period of my life–sort of like a dream.

Vander Meer's Second No-Hitter, at Brooklyn, June 15, 1938

Vander Meer’s Second No-Hitter, at Brooklyn, June 15, 1938

I might have been dreaming then, but I awoke the next season, 1939, when I won five and lost nine. I was sick that spring and never did seem to regain my stride. My confidence went, too. I wasn’t much better in the spring of 1940. Bill McKechnie and Warren Giles talked to me about going to Indianapolis of the American Association to regain my confidence. I thought it was a swell idea. I knew that was what I needed. At the same time it made me realize just how quickly a fellow can fall from the pedestal.

My going to Indianapolis was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got off on the right foot there, won six and lost four, had an earned-run average of 2.40 and struck out 109 in 105 innings. That satisfied Giles and McKechnie, for they brought me back for the last stages of the 1940 pennant race.

The Reds were in first place. They were on their way to the pennant, but they hadn’t clinched it. I was given an opportunity to start a game and won it. Then we went to Philadelphia September 17, needing only two victories to clinch the pennant. We won on the 17th, then McKechnie gave me another chance to work, on September 18–the day that is my biggest.

I was up against Hugh Mulcahy, one of the smartest and most determined of pitchers and awfully tough when he was in form. We saw right off that he was in form when the game started. Joe Marty, whom the Phils had got from the Cubs, was on a rampage that day, too, getting three hits. And Mulcahy was leveling off with his bat, as well as with his arm. We could get hits, but we couldn’t get runs. Mulcahy would turn us back.

The Phils got me for two runs in the second inning, and it was the fifth before we got one run. I began to wonder if I was going to let the team down o  the one game it needed to clinch the flag. It was life-and-death in my mind. I had to hang on to my “comeback.” I had to win.

We finally tied it in the seventh 2-2, but in the 10th we got one to give us what we thought was the game, but the Phils in their half got one off me to even it up again. It was true I had blanked them the seven innings between the second and the 10th, and the team was all the time telling me how good I was going, but there it was, we’d been ahead and I’d let the Phils tie us.

Was I really a comeback or not? could I clinch the flag or couldn’t I? I gave everything I had straight through the 11th and 12th innings and blanked them. But we didn’t score either and the scoreboard still showed 3-3.

I was up in the 13th at bat and I figured now was the time. All of Mulcahy’s pitches were good, but I kept swinging and somehow all at once whistled one into left center and I ran faster than I ever had before, I suppose. I got to second. They sacrificed me to third. Then Mike McCormick hit an infield ball and I was held at third, too risky to chance a run in. Mike beat it out.

Ival Goodman was up. Twice he cracked the ball and I tore for home, only to be called back because the drive went foul. Then he got one fair, a short fly to the outfield and I tagged up and when McKechnie on the coaching line said, “Run, Johnny, run!” to give me the exact moment the ball settled into the fielder’s glove, I sure ran. I took off in the hardest slide I ever made and looked up through the dust. The umpire was motioning “safe.”

We were ahead.

McKechnie, cool always, looked at me and figured how much running I’d done that inning, and told me to sit it out, he’d send in Joe Beggs to pitch the last half. Joe got them 1-2-3 and the flag was ours.