Johnny Vander Meer was an ordinary pitcher who set an extraordinary record when he threw consecutive no-hitters for the Reds in 1938.
The Dutch Master, as he was known, became major news around the baseball world. Chuck Stevens, who at 99 is the oldest living person to have played in the major leagues, was a 20-year-old minor-leaguer when Vander Meer accomplished something achieved by no other pitcher before or since.
“Guy walks in and throws two no-hitters. It’s unbelievable,’’ Stevens said from Garden Grove, California, before the season. “I thought it was astounding and everybody else did, too.’’
MLB historian John Thorn views Vander Meer’s record in the context of today’s game. These days, he said, “Two consecutive complete games are pretty rare.’’
Vander Meer, who grew up in Midland Park, New Jersey, was 119-121 in a 13-year major-league career that centered on two starts he made as a 23-year-old lefthander in his first full season with the Reds.
His first no-hitter came against the Boston Bees (also known as the Braves) on June 11. With Bees manager Casey Stengel reportedly taunting him from the seventh inning on, Vander Meer struck out four and walked three in the first no-hitter by a lefty since 1931.
His next start, against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field, came four days later in the first night game in New York. Vander Meer walked two hitters in the seventh, then went to the mound in the ninth with a 6-0 lead. With one out, Vander Meer walked the bases loaded. Ernie Koy dribbled a ball to third, where Lew Riggs fielded it and threw home for a forceout.
After hitting a loud foul to right, Leo Durocher flied out to center — and Vander Meer started his 80-year-and-counting run in the record book.
Vander Meer threw hard but was wild (he once walked 16 in a minor-league game), and Thorn theorized that may have served him well as he bore down on history.
“With the first night game, you can presume that the batters were not seeing the ball as well as they might have,’’ Thorn said from Los Angeles. “And Vander Meer, who always had control issues, might have had some of those batters shaking in their boots a little bit, given the arc lights.’’
In the start after his second no-hitter, Vander Meer held the Bees hitless for three innings before Debs Garms singled in the fourth. Vander Meer started the All-Star Game for the National League that year and finished at 15-10 with a 3.12 earned run average.
The final-out balls from his no-hitters sold for $43,020 in 2015 to an anonymous collector in Missouri, according to a spokesman for Heritage Auctions in Dallas.
Vander Meer pitched a one-hitter in 1941, when he threw six shutouts and led the league with 202 strikeouts. He spent the 1944 and ‘45 seasons in the military. A year after he returned in 1946, he was a teammate to Ewell Blackwell, who came the closest to duplicating Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters.
Blackwell, called The Whip, was a sidearm-throwing righthander who mastered a heavy sinking fastball.
On June 18, 1947, Blackwell no-hit Boston. He reportedly predicted he would throw another one when he faced the Dodgers, with future Rookie of the Year Jackie Robinson, in his next start. And on June 22, nine seasons after Vander Meer no-hit the Dodgers, Blackwell was two outs away in the ninth inning. But Eddie Stanky hit a hard grounder through Blackwell’s legs and into centerfield for a clean hit. Robinson singled a batter later and Blackwell finished with a two-hitter.
“He almost had Johnny Vander Meer’s pitching record,’’ 90-year-old former Dodgers utility player Tommy Brown said from Altamonte Springs, Florida. (Brown set a record of his own, becoming the youngest player to homer in the big leagues when he did it at age 17.) “We were well aware of the no-hitter,’’ Brown said. “Some of us were rooting for him in the dugout.’’
While Vander Meer was rooting for Blackwell, he did not expect his record to be duplicated.
“He didn’t think it would ever be tied,’’ Robert Vander Meer, the pitcher’s nephew, said from Baja, California. “He said everything was right in those games he pitched.’’
Vander Meer spent five years in the minors after his big-league career ended in 1951 with the Indians. At 38 in 1952, he no-hit the Beaumont Roughnecks in the Texas League.
Vander Meer, who died in 1997, never received serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. ‘If there was a Hall of Fame for great moments in addition to great careers,’’ Thorn said, “Vander Meer’s a lock.’’