Baseball is full of obscure records and feats. Some of those records and feats are accomplished by the greats of the game, others by players who had one moment in the sun. Johnny Vander Meer is one of the latter.
Vander Meer was a left-handed starter for Cincinnati in the 1930s and 1940s. He was known as one of those scatter-armed lefties who could throw the ball through a brick wall, but you needed to make it a pretty big brick wall because it was anybody’s guess where the ball would impact the wall. His rookie year was 1937. He went 3-5 with an ERA of 3.84 in 19 games (10 starts). He struck out 52 in 84 innings, but walked 69. By June 1938 he was trudging along on the way to a 15-10 record with 103 walks and 125 strikeouts. On Sunday, 11 June, with a record of 5-2, he got the start in an afternoon home game. By the end of the game, he’d thrown an absolute jewel.
He faced the Boston Bees (now the Braves) and he shut them out. In fact, he no-hit them. He faced 28 total batters, walked three (including Woody English), stuck out four (including Vince DiMaggio) and used a couple of double plays to get out of two of the walk situations. All in all it was a great performance. It was the first no-no of the season and only the sixth of the decade of the 1930s. There were to be only two more for the remainder of the decade.
One of those came four nights later in Brooklyn. Vander Meer. now 6-2, again took the mound for the Reds. This time he shutdown the Dodgers in the first night game in Ebbets Field history. He wasn’t quite as good that night. This time he walked eight and struck out seven. Hall of Fame outfielder Kiki Cuyler got two of the walks and first baseman Dolf Camilli was issued three. But the Reds lit up four Dodgers pitchers for six runs (including a three run home run by first baseman Frank McCormick).
Vander Meer became an instant celebrity. No one had even thrown consecutive no-hitters. No one has done it since. It remains a unique moment in baseball lore. He won his next game (also against Boston) 14-1, giving up four hits, walking seven and striking out two. He managed to reach 10-2 before taking his next loss against Chicago on 10 July (he lost 3-1). As mentioned above, he finished 10-5, and made the All Star Game for the first time. He started, got the win, gave up one hit and struck out one. At the end of the season, Cincinnati finished fourth. They would make the World Series in 1939, win it in 1940, then slip back into the pack.
Vander Meer didn’t do much in either 1939 or 1940. He had good years in 1941, ’42, and ’43, winning three straight strikeout titles (and leading the National League in walks in ’43). He went off to war in 1944 and 1945, came back to Cincy, had one more decent year in 1948, then was out of the Major Leagues after a one game stint with Cleveland in 1951. He played minor league ball for a while, including throwing a no-hitter in 1952, then retired.
His record was 119-121 with an ERA of 3.44 (ERA+ of 107), 1132 walks, and 1294 strikeouts. So he was never a great pitcher. Well, except for those two nights in June 1938, when he was arguably the greatest ever.