Sunday, December 12, 2010

60. Johnny Vander Meer: Pride Of The Garden State

I'm not one who goes bananas over baseball records. Cal Ripken breaking Gehrig's record for consecutive games really didn't do that much for me because as a resident of Charm City back in the 80's and 90's I saw first-hand how this selfish pursuit of a lousy record hurt the Orioles rather than helped them. Sure the Birds probably made a ton of cash selling "Working Class Hero" garbage at the souvenir stands, but for a period of years the O's stagnated in part because of Ripken's run at Gehrig's meaningless record. And who really holds the single season and lifetime home run records as sacred anymore, now that McGwire and Bonds and Sosa dragged their hormone and steroid-bloated stats into the record books? I'm sorry, Bonds and his arm-armor contraption coupled with his steroid use cheated his way into baseball history. As did McGwire with his hormone treatments and Sammy Sosa, not only hopped up on steroids, but additionally aided by his corked bat. In my view, they soiled a beautiful game and records and Hank Aaron and the other elders of baseball should have been screaming about that from day one.

That said, there is one record I can think of that will most likely never be broken. No amount of steroid shots a shady clubhouse attendant can give you in the keister will aid you in surpassing it. I'm talking about the 2 consecutive no-hitters hurled by a Cincinnati Reds pitcher in 1938. Since I am headed back to New Jersey for Christmas, I thought I'd throw out a card and story of one of The Garden State's most cherished sons...
Johnny Vander Meer.

The small town of Midland Park is one of the reasons license plates in New Jersey bear the slogan "The Garden State." The quaint, picturesque rural community nestled in what is now Bergen County was settled by the Dutch in the 1600's and even though it is only a few miles from Manhattan, when Johnny Vander Meer was born in 1914 it was still rather remote. The son of a Dutch-born stone mason, by his teens Johnny was the ace of the Midland Park Rangers, a six-foot tall lefty with tremendous speed.

Like every boy in the country, the Yankees' Babe Ruth was his hero and he was a New York Giants fan because their ace, Carl Hubbell, was a lefty just like him. But it was New York's other team who showed interest in him. Vander Meer was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933 and sent to their Dayton Ducks farm team in Ohio. Vander Meer had speed but no control and he finished the year 11-10. He pitched for the Scranton Miners the following year improving his record to 11-8 while bringing his ERA down some from the previous season. But the Brooklyn organization didn't know what to do with him after his control showed no signs of improvement the next year. His contract was bought by the Boston Bees and he reported to Nashville for the 1936 season. Pitching for the Vols, Vander Meer had a tendency to get rattled when a runner was on first base. Opposing teams jumped all over this weakness and as runners danced off the bag, his control went down the toilet. Nashville had enough after 10 games released the tall southpaw. Cincinnati's general manager, Larry MacPhail, thought there was something special about the kid from Jersey and claimed him for the Reds. MacPhail sent him to the Durham Bulls where manager Johnny Gooch took him under his wing and taught him how to pitch effectively with runners on the bases. Refreshed and armed with a new sinkerball, Vander Meer went 19-6 for the Bulls striking out a remarkable 295 batters in 219 innings.

The Red took him back with them to Cincinnati after spring training and on April 22, 1937 Johnny Vander Meer made his debut in the major leagues. He got into 19 games, half of them in relief and had a 3-5 record for a miserable Cincinnati team. Still haunted by control problems the Reds sent him to their highest minor league team, the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League for further seasoning.

He made the big club again after spring training in 1938 and became the youngest of their starting rotation that included veterans Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer and Peaches Davis. The jury was still out on the rookie when he tossed a 3 hitter against the National League Champion New York Giants on June 5th. His record now stood at a respectable 5-2.

Not one for set pitching rotations, 2 hours before game time on June 11th, manager Bill McKechnie tossed Johnny the ball and told him he was starting that afternoons game against Boston. The first inning went 1-2-3 but with 2 outs in the second, Gil English smashed a ball to deep center. Harry Craft, with his back to the plate raced to the wall and made a sensational over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning. He put them down again in the third and the next inning walked a batter who was promptly taken care of in a double play initiated by veteran catcher Ernie Lombardi when he caught a pop foul and fired to first, catching the runner off the bag. In the bottom of the inning Cincinnati's bats finally came alive and they scored a run.

In the fifth Vander Meer again walked a batter but Lombardi picked him off to clear the bases. Before the inning was over he walked another batter but got out of the inning without any more trouble. Lombardi slugged a two-run homer in the Reds half of the fifth to give him a 3-0 lead to work with.

Now-a-days Casey Stengel is remembered as the wise, funny and beloved old manager of the Yankees of the 1950's, but back in 1938 ol' Casey was a bitter manager of second-rate teams. After being run out of Brooklyn in the mid 30's he was now Boston's manager. Today it is considered bad form to try to jinx or taunt a pitcher who is throwing a no-hitter, even if he is on the opposing team, but back then everything was fair game. Stengel walked up to Vander Meer between innings and hissed "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.” This was the first time Johnny realized he was throwing a no-hitter because his teammates kept quiet so as not to break his concentration.

As uncouth as Stengel's taunt was, Vander Meer refused to get rattled and retired the rest of the Bees that afternoon. After the walk in the fifth, no other Boston player reached base. 4 innings later the rookie from New Jersey had thrown a no-hitter! The city of Cincinnati went wild with excitement. The Reds had had terrible teams the past decade and finally with new management the team was starting to gain momentum. And now a no-hitter, too!

The Reds headed east on a road trip and on June 15th found themselves in Brooklyn to face the Dodgers in the first night game ever played in Ebbets Field. It was a big night in Flatbush. Marching bands played before the game and Olympic champion Jesse Owens was on hand to race Ernie Koy of the Dodgers and Lee Gamble of the Reds around the bases to the delight of the fans. Among the 40,000 sold-out spectators was Johnny's parents who took the trip over from New Jersey to see their first professional baseball game. Several hundred of their fellow townspeople also came to show appreciation for Midland Park's favorite son. By chance, 2 hours before game time manager Bill McKechnie tossed Vander Meer the ball and told him he was starting.

Through the first 2 innings Vander Meer put the Dodgers away. The Reds scored 4 runs in the second and another in the fifth. By this time Vander Meer knew he was throwing another no-hitter and he was nervous. His wildness, which he was carefully keeping under control started showing. In the seventh McKechnie sent Bucky Walters to the bullpen to loosen up, just in case. The sold-out crowd had now come around and was cheering for the lefty. They were watching history and they knew it. For this one time they were rooting against their Bums. When they saw Walters throwing, the crowd started booing him.

The ninth inning came and the Reds scored another run. It was now 5-0 and Vander Meer was 3 outs away from another no-hitter. Taking the mound, the first batter, Buddy Hassett knocked the ball back to Vander Meer who threw him out. With every living soul in the stadium on edge, the kid from Jersey was now 2 outs away from the unthinkable. Catcher Babe Phelps drew a walk. As did Cookie Lavagetto and then Dolph Camilli and suddenly the bases were loaded.

McKechnie called time and walked out to the mound. He told Vander Meer to take his time, but get the no-hitter. Ernie Koy was the next batter. He grounded a ball to third and Hassett was forced out at the plate. 2 outs.

Brooklyn manager and shortstop Leo Durocher stepped up to the plate. The first pitch was a ball, followed by a strike and then another ball. Leo lined the next pitch deep but it turned foul before dropping into the upper deck. The count was 2 balls and 2 strikes. Vander Meer caught his breath and bore down. Durocher smacked the next pitch to Harry Craft in center field who caught it. Game over.

Ebbets Field went berserk. Fans rushed onto the field and chased Vander Meer into the locker room. Babe Ruth, then a coach for the Dodgers pushed his way up to Johnny and said "nice going, kid." Such was the power of Babe Ruth that Vander Meer later said meeting his boyhood hero like that was better than pitching those two no-hitters. Sports writers realised that counting his June 5th game against the Giants, Vander Meer now had pitched 18.1 consecutive hitless innings. Only the great Cy Young's record of 23 hitless innings was better, and on his next start, June 19th in Boston, Young was among the sell-out crowd watching.

Nervous, annoyed at all the publicity and just wanting it all to end already, Vander Meer retired the Bees for three more innings. Mercifully, Deb Garms hit a looper to center with fell for a base hit ending the streak at 21.2 innings.

It was a heady time for Johnny. The press had a field day with the rookie pitcher who barely made it to the majors. Everywhere you looked there was Johnny Vander Meer's face. There was a serious movement in to erect a statue of Johnny next to the one of President Garfield in downtown Cincinnati. He was suddenly the idol of thousands of little boys all over the country. The Reds management even tried to get him to change his uniform number from 57 to 00. He declined.

After the Boston game his record stood at 8-2 and he won his next 3 starts before he cooled off. At the end of the season he was 15-10 and the Reds had finished in 4th place. The next year those old control problems returned and even though the Reds won the pennant, Vander Meer turned in a disappointing 5-9 record. He told reporters that all the interviews, photographs and attention was just too much for him to take. The next year he was sent down to Indianapolis to work out his problems. He came roaring back in '41 winning 16 games and lowering his era to 2.82 and the next year won 18 games with a career low 2.43 era. He led the National league in strike outs for three seasons starting in 1941.

Vander Meer was a good pitcher, not a great one, and his spectacular record made him seem more than what he was. To many he never lived up to the promise he showed in June of 1938, but he was good enough to stay in the majors through the 1951 season. His final major league record stands at a mediocre 119 wins and 121 losses.

Johnny bounced around the minors for a few years and he made headlines again in 1953 when he threw a no-hitter against Beaumont for the Tulsa Oilers. After his playing days ended Vander Meer managed teams in the low minors for the Reds organization before returning to Midland Park. Until his death at the age of 82, Johnny was a well-liked member of the community and was always generous with his time and money. He quietly donated thousands of dollars to the Midland Park Baseball Association, enabling generations of young boys to enjoy the game that made him a star.

I for one can't imagine anyone coming close to Vander Meer's record and if it was broken, I can almost guarantee it wont be by some steroid-riddled bum using dishonest equipment to do so.

Monday, December 6, 2010

59. Dwight David Eisenhower: AKA: Wilson, cf

My apologies for the delay in getting a new player up. I have been busy finishing up projects and wrapping up the premier issue of "Number 21" in order to prepare for a 4 week trip to visit my family back in Jersey City for the holiday. It has been a year since I have been back there and this will be the longest time I have spent in Jersey since I left in 1988. I've always had a love-hate relationship with the place of my birth, but this year I am really looking forward to being there again. Living in California I have come to miss the feel of winter, the way the air smells before the snow comes and the stunning, brittle silence even in the city the morning after a big snowfall. Anyway, without further delay, here is card 59 of the Infinite baseball Card Set...

Fresh from winning the war in Europe, commander of all Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, landed in New York Harbor, the first stop on a whirlwind victory tour of the States. A life-long baseball fan, the first thing he did was take in a New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds. While meeting the players in the locker room after the game, the General told the awed players and beat reporters that at one time, he too was a baseball player and had played in the minor leagues in Kansas. This wasn't the first time Ike had let slip his brief stint playing the National Pastime professionally. During the war he often talked about baseball and that in the summer before he went to West Point he played centerfield in Kansas under the pseudonym "Wilson". Indeed, a very often used quote from Eisenhower illustrates his love of the game: "When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish."

That one of our Presidents had a passion for and even played the game is not a big deal in itself, however the fact that Ike did it before he was a Cadet at West Point is a sticky point. He tried out for the baseball team but did not make it, saying later "Not making the baseball team at West Point was one of the greatest disappointments of my life, maybe my greatest." While not destined to be a college baseball player, Eisenhower was the star running back and linebacker of the West Point football team, even tackling Jim Thorpe in a game. That is where the problem lies. If Eisenhower did play minor league baseball back before West Point, he would have been ineligible to play college sports at West Point. Jim Thorpe, who Eisenhower famously tackled in a 1912 game, ran afoul of the same amateur rule when he forfeited his Olympic gold medals because of playing semi-pro baseball for money early in his career. If it was true that he played baseball for money, Eisenhower played sports at The Academy under false and dishonest pretenses.

At the time Ike was at West Point, the idea of college players earning an extra paycheck playing under a false name was nothing new. The Hall Of Fame features quite a few players who did just the same thing Eisenhower did in order to preserve their amateur status. Colleges and universities looked the other way back then, happy to field a winning team. But with Eisenhower, the situation was much more complicated.

West Point prides itself on its rigid "Cadet Honor Code". This beautifully simple ethics guideline is as follows: "A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." That's it. Although not formally adapted until the 1922, West Point had always held their cadets to that standard since it opened its doors in 1802. To have played college athletics would have put Ike in severe violation of The Code. If he had been caught as a Cadet, there is the possibility of his dismissal from the Corps of Cadets.

Years later when elected President in 1952, the press, eager to find any human interest story on the new Commander-in-Chief, seized on his collegiate football record and started asking questions about his baseball past. It had been common knowledge that Ike played baseball and the Kansas story was even quoted in the New York Times after the meeting with the Giants players in 1945. In 1952 baseball was still America's Game and their new war-hero President played the game for real. What a feature story this would be, kids would eat it up. But writers asking the President's staff for further information on his baseball career were met with silence. Eisenhower realized the ethical bind that fateful summer in 1911 had put him and ordered his staff to ignore any inquires into the subject. After meeting the wall of silence, newspapers found other things to write about and the story faded away.

So did Dwight Eisenhower really play baseball professionally? In 1911 Ike was 20 years-old and living in Abilene, Kansas. A former star outfielder for his high school baseball team, he was now a low-level engineer at a dairy plant and trying to gain acceptance to the Naval Academy or West Point. From his biography we know he was very short of money back then and desperate to pursue a higher education and get out of Kansas. A check of the records shows that in 1911 the Class D Central Kansas League had a team in nearby Junction City. The team was nicknamed the "Soldiers" after the massive Fort Riley Army base that lie right outside town. Box scores indeed show a "Wilson, c.f." played for Junction City for that summer only. Eisenhower was quoted by numerous sources as claiming to have used the name "Wilson" during his one baseball season. "Wilson" played in 9 games for the Soldiers and batted .355 in 31 at bats. Having committed no errors, his fielding percentage is a perfect 1.000. Because no first name, age or any information for that matter exists of "Wilson", we will never know for sure if this was Eisenhower. But the evidence is pretty good that it was.

Does this tarnish Ike's reputation and paint him as a liar? No, I don't really think so. In 1911, Eisenhower was just a young fellow trying to make a buck and better himself. He may have bent the truth a little. Whether or not his violation of The Code would have earned him a dismissal from The Academy will never be known. Perhaps it would have been overlooked much like most other colleges around the country at the time. What ever the truth may be, we do know that Dwight David Eisenhower, first as a General and then as President, devoted his life to the service of this country and for that, he will be remembered with great admiration. And to me, that he played minor league ball makes him an all the more cooler President.