This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
The Cincinnati Reds were one of the surprise teams in baseball as they prepared to take on the Boston Bees in the Queen City on June 11. After 11 consecutive losing seasons, including five last-place finishes, the Reds (23-20) were in third place, 5½ games behind the New York Giants. One reason for the good showing was skipper Bill McKechnie, described by SABR member Warren Corbett as a “gifted team builder.”1 He led the Pirates to a title in 1925, guided the St. Louis Cardinals to the pennant in 1928, and transformed the Braves from a laughing stock that lost 115 games in 1935 to a winning team two years later. In his first season with the Reds, the Deacon was working his magic by stressing solid pitching and fundamental defense in an era that cherished offense.
“McKechnie was a master handler of men,” wrote historian Lee Allen. “Some managers will never learn to handle personalities as long as they live. McKechnie in that department was without a peer.”2 One player who responded to the Deacon was pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, scheduled to start again the Bees. The 23-year-old right-hander had struggled through an erratic rookie campaign the previous season, going just 3-5 and walking almost a batter an inning. The result was a midseason demotion to the Syracuse Chiefs of the Double-A American Association, where he didn’t fare much better (5-11 with 80 free passes in 105 frames).
Vander Meer’s potential was unlimited and his heater unhittable. He had fanned 295 for the Durham (North Carolina) Bulls in the Class-B Piedmont League in 1936, tacked on 30 more punchouts in two playoff victories, and was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. Taking the New Jersey native under his wing in spring training, McKechnie persuaded him to abandon his side-arm delivery in favor of an overhand release to harness his control. That suggestion and a big dose of McKechnie’s psychology worked wonders. After a rough 1938 season debut, Vander Meer was the surprise of the staff. He had won his last three starts, yielding just 13 hits and three runs in 28 innings, improving his record to 5-2 (2.77 ERA).
Casey Stengel, the former Brooklyn Dodgers manager (1934-1936) who was out of baseball in 1937, inherited McKechnie’s Bees for the ’38 campaign. The Tribe (21-19) trailed the Reds by a half-game. Not yet the “Old Perfessor,” Casey sent grizzled bespectacled veteran Danny MacFayden to the rubber. MacFayden, whose career McKechnie had revived, was coming off his two most productive campaigns and sported a 108-131 slate in parts of 13 seasons, including 5-1 thus far in ’38.
Both teams were well rested after rain the previous day forced the postponement of the first game of the scheduled four-game series. On a warm 80-degree Saturday afternoon, Crosley Field was peppered with modest crowd of 5,814, well under the eventual season average of almost 9,200.
The game unfolded as a pitchers’ duel. Vander Meer retired all nine Bees he faced in the first three frames. Reds center fielder Harry Craft pulled off the defensive gem of the game in the second inning when he made what sportswriter Lou Smith of the Cincinnati Enquirer described as a “spine-tingling one-handed” catch of Gil English’s hit to deep center on the terrace, robbing him of extra bases.3 MacFayden looked almost as sharp as Vander Meer, yielding two innocuous singles, one of which was erased in a 4-6-3 twin killing.
The fourth inning proved to be the most action-packed of the game. Vander Meer issued a leadoff walk to Gene Moore. When Johnny Cooney fouled out to catcher Ernie Lombardi, Moore twisted his left knee pivoting to return to the bag and fell down. At the same time, the future Hall of Fame backstop fired a bullet to first baseman Frank McCormick, who easily applied the tag to an agonizing Moore on the ground. According to the Enquirer, first-base coach Gene Kelly carried Moore piggy-back off the field.4 The next batter, Vince DiMaggio, hit a sharp liner that ricocheted off Vander Meer to third baseman Lew Riggs, who knocked the ball down and threw to first. First-base umpire Tiny Parker immediately called DiMaggio out in a bang-bang play which the player argued vehemently. Sportswriter Melville E. Webb of the Boston Globe reported that Parker ejected DiMaggio, but reversed his decision moments later when the player apologized.5
In the bottom of the fourth, Wally Berger, starting his first game for the Reds since his acquisition five days earlier from the New York Giants, smashed a hard liner off the shin of third baseman Gil English. The ball caromed into shallow left field and rolled away from outfielder Bobby Reis, enabling Berger to reach third on a “freak” hit.6 Berger scored on Ival Goodman’s fly to deep right field for the game’s first run.
According to the Boston Globe, Vander Meer was behind the hitters much of the afternoon, especially with 3-and-2 counts.7 He issued another leadoff walk in the fifth, but Lombardi caught Tony Cuccinello napping on a whip-throw to first for the second out. Vander Meer walked English, then ended the frame by scooping up Johnny Riddle’s tapper to the mound and throwing to first.
After the Reds squandered Riggs’s leadoff triple in the fifth, they tacked on two more runs in the sixth. Berger drew a leadoff walk, then Lombardi, en route to leading the NL in batting average (.342) in ’38, clubbed a home run over the left-field wall just below the roof of the laundry across from the ballpark on York Street for a 3-0 Reds lead.
Vander Meer was overpowering in the last three innings, setting down all nine batters he faced. “I had excellent control of my curve in the final rounds,” he said, “which made my fastball doubly effective.”8 The Bees didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the final two frames. Vander Meer retired three successive pinch-hitters in the ninth to complete the no-hitter in 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Vander Meer pitched with the “ease, coolness and courage of a veteran,” gushed Lou Smith about the Reds’ first no-hitter since Hod Eller turned the trick against the Cardinals on May 11, 1919.9 Vander Meer fanned four, walked three, and faced only 28 batters in fashioning the first no-hitter in the senior circuit since the Redbirds’ Paul “Daffy” Dean’s gem versus the Dodgers at Ebbets Field during the Gas House Gang’s pennant drive, on September 21, 1934. MacFayden pitched well enough to win most games, surrendering only six hits and three runs.
Vander Meer achieved heights never reached before or since (as of 2017) when he tossed another no-hitter in his next start, four days later against the Dodgers in Brooklyn on June 15. Struggling with wildness much of the game, Vander Meer walked a season-high eight batters, including two in the seventh and three in the final frame to load the bases with one out. An exciting force out at home plate for the second out and a harmless fly to center preserved the no-run, no-hit game and immortalized “Double No-Hit” in baseball’s Valhalla.
While the Reds (82-68) under McKechnie’s aegis finished in fourth place with their best record since 1926, Vander Meer established himself as one of the brightest young stars in the game. His final line was 15-10 with a 3.12 ERA in 225⅓ innings, and was the hardest-to-hit pitcher in the major leagues, yielding just 7.07 hits per nine innings.
This article was published in “Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: A Gem in the Queen City” (SABR, 2019), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, SABR.org, and The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record.
1 Warren Corbett, “Bill McKechnie,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8bb2437d.
2 Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948), 271.
3 Lou Smith “Vander Meer Hurls No-Hitter, 3-0,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 12, 1938: 1.
4 “Derringer-Weaver to Work Double-Header Today,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 12, 1938: 33.
5 Melville E. Webb, “Vander Meer Joins the Hall of Fame,” Boston Globe, June 12, 1938: 25.