Matching Johnny Vander Meer.... a pair of near misses
With all the media attention centered on pitcher Mark Buehrle's perfect game against Tampa Bay last week, I thought it only fitting to recall a couple of efforts that nearly duplicated Johnny Vander Meer's historic achievement of consecutive no-hitters in June, 1938. When you consider that there have been a total of 263 no-hitters thrown in major league history; but just 18 perfect games and that Buehrle is only the eighth pitcher to do both, you quickly realize how truely rare Vander Meer's feat of 18 consecutive no-hit innings really is. With all that in mind, here's the story behind a couple of really close calls.
Late in the 1923 season(Sept. 7 to be precise), Red Sox pitcher Howard Ehmke blanked the Philadelphia Athletics 4-0 at Shibe Park by allowing only two base runners(on an error and walk) and faced just 28 batters to earn no-hitter fame. Ironically, it was the second no-hitter thrown against the Athletics in that same ballpark in less than a week, as New York's Sam Jones had previously blanked Philadelphia on Sept. 4 by a score of 2-0. However, Ehmke's no-hitter was not without controversy. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Athletics' starting pitcher, "Slim" Harriss, hit a long fly ball in the outfield gap for an apparent double, but was ruled out for failing to touch first base, ending the inning. In the eighth, a line drive off the bat of Athletics outfielder Frank Welch was muffed by Red Sox left fielder Mike Menosky. The official scorer originally ruled the play a hit, but quickly changed the scoring to an error, preserving Ehmke's no-hit bid.
All this set the stage for Ehmke's next start four days later on Sept. 11 versus the Yankees in New York. In the bottom of the first inning, the leadoff batter was New York centerfielder, Whitey Witt. Witt hit a sharp one-hopper towards Red Sox third baseman Howard Shanks, but the ball hit Shanks squarely in the chest and bounced off towards second base, allowing Witt to reach first safely without a throw. It was immediately scored a hit, although the news accounts of the game clearly spelled out a difference of opinion about whether it was hit or should have been ruled an error on Shanks. Long-time Cubs shortstop, and future HOF'er Joe Tinker, sitting in a field box along the third base line, told reporters he was sure it was an error. However, the ultimate importance of the scorer's decision wouldn't become clear until nearly 90 minutes later when, at game's end, Ehmke still had allowed only a single safety and defeated the Yankees 3-0. For, despite walking one batter and hitting another, three double plays by Red Sox defenders ensured that Ehmke ended up facing just 27 Yankee batters. And thus, Boston's Howard Ehmke established a new American League pitching record that still stands to this day of allowing just a single hit in 18 consecutive innings of work.
The second instance of a major league pitcher threatening Vander Meer's mark occured in 1947 and ironically it was another Reds starter who came within two outs of duplicating the feat in Cincinnati of all places. Ewell Blackwell was in the midst of the greatest season of his career(he would finish the year 22-8) in June of 1947, when he blanked the Boston Braves 6-0 on June 18 at Crosley Field. Despite yielding four base on balls, Blackwell needed just 1:51 to set down Boston behind support from a pair of three-run homers by Reds slugger Babe Young. When Blackwell took the mound in his next start to face the Dodgers in the first game of a doubleheader on June 22, he gave the home crowd of more than 31,000 something to cheer about. By the time the Dodgers came to bat in the top of the ninth inning, Blackwell had struck out six and walked three, but still not allowed a hit. Now, after getting the first out of the ninth, Blackwell and the crowd sensed history in the making. The next batter was the Dodgers leadoff hitter, second baseman Eddie Stanky. Stanky lashed Blackwell's second pitch straight back towards the mound where it bounded right between Blackwell's long legs and out into center field for a hit. Blackwell would later tell the assembled reporters, "I might have blocked it, but the ball hugged the ground and I felt it touch the right knee of my pants as it went by."
Blackwell quickly recovered to get the next batter, Al Gionfriddo, on a fly out to center, before Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson, completing just his third month in the major leagues, looped a lazy single into right field for the second, and final, hit of the game. Although the Reds' 4-0 victory was Blackwell's 11th consecutive win(and his fourth shutout the season), it provided little consolation to Blackwell and the large crowd of Reds fans who both came within two outs of seeing history repeated.
A third close call is also worth mentioning. In 1925, Brooklyn's Dazzy Vance threw a one-hitter followed up by a no-hitter in his very next start. After blanking the Phillies 1-0 on a single hit on September 8, Vance's next start was a nine-inning no-hitter against those same Phillies at Ebbets Field on Septemeber 13. And while he clearly didn't challenge Vander Meer's feat set 13 years later ( since the near-miss proceeded the actual no-hitter ), Vance nevertheless managed to rack up a stretch of 16 consecutive no-hit innings, no small feat in itself.