The crowd was buzzing, the atmosphere electrifying. Many of the 38,748 who had piled into Ebbets Field for this regular season match-up between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers were here to be a part of history.
On this fateful June 15th night during the 1938 season, the first game under lights was to be played at this historic ball park.
Yet a 23-old-southpaw ended up overshadowing it all. With a performance so rare, the likes of it happening again are damn near impossible.
Of all the unique paths taken by each individual player to reach the big leagues, Johnny Vander Meer’s stands out. At the age of 17 and not having thrown a professional pitch, he was selected to appear in a documentary film commissioned by the National League about a typical American boy getting his first tryout with a major league squad.
It was a perfect opportunity for Vander Meer. Not only would he be at the Dodger’s spring training camp to film the picture, but he would have an opportunity to impress the Dodgers as a prospect.
Vander Meer was erratic with his command and was sent home when the film was completed. Veteran left-handed pitcher Joe Shaute liked what he saw however, and convinced manger Max Carey to send him to a farm team in Dayton, Ohio. After posting a respectable 11-10 record, his improvement was obvious. Yet Dayton manager Ducky Holmes thought the kid was too wild to ever be successful and he was soon released.
Returning home to New Jersey with his confidence shaken, Vander Meer learned he had purchased by Scranton. At first this appeared to be very bizarre, because Scranton was in a higher minor league classification than Dayton. Yet on the club was his old friend Joe Shaute, who had urged management to take a chance with the kid.
Working with Shaute nearly every day, Vander Meer improved so much he was bought by Cincinnati’s general manger Larry McPhail for $4,000. Yet after posting a mediocre year in Scranton, he was sold to Boston.
In 1936, Vander Meer finally began scratching the tip of his massive potential. Not only did he strike out 295 batters for his Durham affiliate squad, he was named minor league player of the year. McPhail got him back to Cincinnati alright, but this time it took $10,000.
Vander Meer began the 1937 season in Syracuse and pitched well enough to earn a late season call-up where he posted a 3-5 record in 19 appearances for the Reds. Even with his poor record, manager Bill McKechnie thought high enough of the kid however to give him a shot as a starter the following season.
Vander Meer got off to a hot start, shutting out the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds a month into the season. Only three weeks later, he would put together possibly the best two game stretch ever for a starting pitcher.
On June 11th, 1938 Vander Meer took the mound at home against the Boston Braces. Even without his best stuff, he managed to pitch a no-hitter leading his squad to a 3-0 victory behind a home run from his Hall of Fame battery mate, Ernie Lombardi. Although the Bee’s were a pretty pitiful squad, it was quite the accomplishment, especially for a rookie pitcher.
On June 15th, Vander Meer was scheduled to take the ball for his next start against the Dodgers. Even with the possibility of potentially pitching another no hitter, which was deemed unfeasible, that was overshadowed by the fact it was to be the first game under the lights ever at Ebbets Field.
Night games were the design of Brooklyn and former Red’s executive McPhail, the same chap who had either purchased or sold Vander Meer on three separate occasions. Although nothing is said on record about this, it’s blatantly obvious Vander Meer had some extra motivation coming into this game.
At 8:35 P.M., the lights were turned on and the game finally began. The Red’s struck quickly, scoring four runs in the 3rd inning off Dodger’s starter Max Butcher. By the 4th inning fans had adjusted to the lighting, and were now focusing on Vander Meer, who had yet to allow a hit.
Unlike the previous game where Vander Meer had exhibited great command only walking three, tonight was a different story. Through 8 innings, he had already given out five free passes and was working deep counts on nearly everyone. Yet the Dodgers could not get good wood on the ball and behind solid defense, the no-no was still intact.
By the bottom of the 9th with the final outcome inevitable, everyone in the stands was at the edge of their seats waiting to see if Johnny Vander Meer could hurl his second consecutive no-hitter.
The first batter up for the Dodger’s was veteran first baseman Buddy Hasset who wasted no time swinging at the first pitch. As the ball trickled up the first base side of the pitcher’s mound, Vander Meer proceeded to snatch up the ball with his glove and in one motion, tag out Hasset who was racing by.
Two outs away from a second no-hitter, Vander Meer was showing signs of fatigue. To the disapproval of partisan Brooklyn fans and Vander Meer’s many relatives and friends from nearby New Jersey in attendance, he walked Babe Phelps, Cookie Lavagetto and Dolph Camilli consecutively loading up the bases.
Out trotted McKechnie, who the Dodger’s faithful greeted with a shower of boo’s, angry at the possibility that Vander Meer might be lifted. However, when he went out there all he said was, “Just relax, and throw naturally, John.” That was all Vander Meer needed.
Up next was Ernie Koy who took in a called strike one and hit a grounder to third baseman Lou Rigs. Rigs took his time and got the force out at home. Vander Meer was one out away from achieving the impossible.
Up next was Leo “the lip” Durocher. Durocher later became a Hall of Fame manager and was known in his playing days as a fiery competitor and clutch hitter. Leo took a first pitch ball as the groan moaned. Yet Vander Meer kept battling, throwing two straight strikes. With the crowd at its feet, Durocher ripped a liner down the right field line appearing to end the no-no. With a little luck, the ball hooked foul and the dream was still alive.
With nothing to lose, Vander Meer let loose on his next pitch firing with everything he had. Durocher hit a lazy fly to centerfielder Harry Craft who caught the ball easily. He had completed baseball’s first back-to-back no hitter, and if that wasn't enough, it was against McPhail on his historic night. Life was good for Johnny Vander Meer.
Yet it all became too much for Vander Meer, a small town kid from New Jersey. “All the publicity, the attention, the interviews, the photographs, were too much for me” Vander Meer told the A.P. during his injury plagued 1939 season. After hitting rock bottom in 1940, as he was banished to the minors for the majority of the season, Vander Meer retuned to Cincinnati and he recovered to win 49 games from 1941-1943. Vander Meer managed to win 17 games in 1948, his last good season before being run out of the big leagues for good in 1951.
As you look at Johnny Vander Meer’s complete body of work, he really did have a fine career contrary to popular belief. Yes, he lost more than he won, but he was a four- time all star and had a highly respectable 3.44 career ERA.
Yet when people look back and remember Vander Meer, it’s not for his overall solid career. Instead, we remember one two game stretch, a feat so magnificent and rare, it's doubtful any of us will be around to see it happen again.