This article was written by Ernest J. Green
This article was published in the Spring 2012 Baseball Research Journal
During his major league career, Johnny Vander Meer possessed a lively fast ball, an effective sinker and a reputation for wildness. At 37, with his double no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds long behind him, the Dutch Master rose on one last occasion to capture the imagination of the baseball world.
During his major league career, Johnny Vander Meer possessed a lively fast ball, an effective sinker and a reputation for wildness. At 37, with his double no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds long behind him, the Dutch Master rose on one last occasion to capture the imagination of the baseball world.The night of July 15, 1952, looked unpromising for baseball in Beaumont, Texas.[fn]Approximately half the sources consulted for this article cited the wrong date and often the wrong opposing team for Vander Meer’s minor league no-hitter. The problem apparently stems from the usually reliable The Texas League (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1987) by Bill O Neal. On page 109 the correct date is mentioned, July 15, but the opposing team is misidentified as the Shreveport Sports. A second reference to the game correctly identifies the team opposing Tulsa as Beaumont, but incorrectly furnishes a date of July 12, 1952, instead of July 15 of that year (315).[/fn] Storm clouds and a forecast of rain kept attendance low as the visiting Tulsa Oilers prepared for a Texas League night game. Only 335 customers would eventually file through the turnstiles, the lowest crowd count of the year to date at Stuart Stadium.[fn]Tulsa World, July 16, 1952, 20.[/fn] Gloomy weather notwithstanding, the game began on time. Former major leaguer and veteran left-hander Johnny Vander Meer warmed up for Tulsa. He waited on the bench as his teammates staked him to an uncharacteristic two run lead in the top of the first inning, and then took the mound. Johnny set the Roughnecks down in order in the first.
Beaumont’s Stuart Stadium, built in 1923, featured a right field fence only 260 feet down the line from home plate. A vertical line had been painted on the fence in right center. Balls hit to the left of the line were home runs, while those clearing the fence to the right in fair territory were ground rule doubles.[fn]Michael Benson, Ballparks of North America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989, 28.[/fn] The ground rule partly compensated for the odd distance, but even a pop fly from a late-swinging right-handed hitter could disappear over the short right-field fence for a double. Stuart Stadium was not a pitcher’s ballpark.
The two Texas League teams had split previous series during the year, and the current three game set stood at one win each. Tulsa and Beaumont both hovered near the .500 mark in wins and losses, and were vying for at least fourth place in the eight-team Double A league. Finishing in one of the four top slots meant a place in the end-of-season playoffs, with the potential to advance to the postseason Dixie Series against the top Southern Association team.Each team went down in order in the second inning. Tulsa’s main problem during the 1952 season was run production. Recently, the Oilers had played a lackluster series against the league’s leading team, the Shreveport Sports. Since moving over to Beaumont, Oiler bats had shown more life, and they had pounded the Roughnecks for ten runs the previous night. Now, in the top of the third, with one out, Tulsa advanced a runner to first on an error. Two weak groundouts followed and Vander Meer went back to work.[fn]The most detailed accounts of the game were reported in The Tulsa Tribune and Tulsa World on July 16, 1952.[/fn]
After a routine out to begin Beaumont’s half of the inning, Tulsa third baseman Jack Weisenburger handled a hot grounder and made an on-target throw to first base. Earl York, Tulsa’s first baseman and leading home-run hitter, dropped the ball for an error. Johnny fanned the next hitter for the second out. During his major league career, The Dutch Master had possessed a lively fast ball and eventually developed an effective sinker. He had also carried a reputation for wildness and a tendency to lose command of the plate that could erupt at any time. At 37, his major league career behind him, control was still an issue for Vander Meer at times. He hit the next batter, Al Pilarcik, and walked Charles Bell to load the bases. Johnny Vander Meer, certainly not for the first time in his long and storied career, was in a jam.
Before arriving at that stormy night in Beaumont, Johnny’s baseball career had followed a trajectory typical of career players in the mid-twentieth century. He was born in 1914 in New Jersey, and was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933. Johnny toiled in the low minors from 1933 through 1935, winning almost the same number of games as he lost for the three years combined (29–28).[fn]SABR Minor League Encyclopedia, www.minors.sabr.org.[/fn] The Cincinnati Reds acquired the young left-hander in 1935, and the following year he rocked the Class B Piedmont League by going 19-6 with an eye-popping 259 strikeouts. The Sporting News named him Minor League Player of the Year, and Cincinnati took a long look at him in spring training in 1937. Down for more seasoning in Syracuse for most of 1937, Johnny made the Reds as a starter in 1938. Except for a stint with Indianapolis in the American Association, where he was sent down as a cure for the omnipresent wildness in 1940, Johnny was a regular in the Reds pitching rotation through 1949 (missing two seasons during World War II). A sore arm and general ineffectiveness marred Johnny’s last two major league seasons with the Cubs in 1950 and Cleveland in 1951. As many players did in those days, Johnny stayed in baseball by descending through the minors in a reversal of his ascent in the early 1930s. Pacific Coast League Oakland used him sparingly in 1951, and he posted a 2–6 record. Cincinnati’s highest minor league affiliate, the Class AA Tulsa Oilers, offered Johnny a tryout in spring 1952. Tulsa represented the next rung down on the minor league ladder.[fn]Vander Meer has not been the subject of a full length biography. His professional career can be reconstructed by combining major league pitching performances in John Thorn and Pete Palmer (Eds.) Total Baseball, 2nd ed., NY: Warner Books, 1991, 1846, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database.[/fn]
On March 10, 1952, Tulsa Oiler batteries opened spring training in Eustis, Florida. Johnny Vander Meer was one of a handful of former major leaguers competing for a job, along with Kent Peterson and Niles Jordan, both southpaws, and right-hander Leo Cristante. Probably as a courtesy to a former Redleg, Johnny had worked out with the parent Cincinnati club for two weeks until reporting to the Oiler camp on March 13. He threw his first batting practice on March 14, and Tulsa manager Joe Schulz pronounced him in “…excellent physical condition.”[fn]Tulsa World, March 14, 1952.[/fn]Johnny’s physical wellness was a question mark. In the previous three seasons, his won-lost record with two major and one minor league team totaled only 16 games because of arm trouble. At 37, Johnny’s place in the Oiler pitching lineup must have been problematic as spring training began.
On March 29, Vandy made his first appearance for Tulsa in an exhibition game, pitching the 7th, 8th and 9th innings against the Chattanooga Lookouts, and yielding only an infield hit.[fn]Tulsa World, March 30, 1952.[/fn] Most of the pitching work fell to younger Oiler hopefuls during the preseason, signaling plans for a limited role for Johnny. His next spring training pitching appearance consisted of four scoreless innings against the Memphis Chicks on April 7.[fn]Tulsa World, April 8, 1952.[/fn] On April 11, the day before the season opener, Manager Schulz assessed his team’s prospects: “…top flight defense, good speed, some good pitching, but needs more power.”[fn]Tulsa World, April 11, 1952.[/fn] His words proved prophetic.
The Dallas Eagles beat the Oilers 13-6 in the away season opener. On April 15, the Oilers dropped their third in a row, 4–0, before a home opening crowd of 5,320, forecasting a troubling lack of ability to score runs.[fn]Tulsa World, April 16, 1952.[/fn] John’s first start came on April 22, eleven days into the season, another indication of his marginal status on the pitching staff. He acquitted himself well nevertheless, pitching eight innings and giving up just one earned run. A pinch hitter replaced him in the eighth, and Johnny lost the game to Elroy Face.
According to the Tulsa World reporter, he showed “some wildness.”[fn]Tulsa World, April 22, 1952.[/fn] The Dutch Master’s demon had accompanied him to Tulsa.
Vander Meer’s first win came on April 30, a full game effort where he walked seven and struck out five.[fn]Tulsa World, May 1, 1952.[/fn] The Oilers struggled to a 24–30 record by June 4, eight games out of first place. The Texas League race was the closest in organized baseball at that time.[fn]Tulsa World, June 4, 1952.[/fn] Johnny won his third game (against four losses) on June 6 in Beaumont. In another Texas League contest the same day, Elroy Face pitched no-run, no-hit ball through nine innings for the Fort Worth Cats. He lost his no-hitter in the tenth but won the game.[fn]Tulsa World, June 7, 1952.[/fn]
By June 20 the resurgent Oilers had won 11 of their last 17 games, but were incredibly still in sixth place in the tight eight-team race.[fn]Tulsa World, June 20, 1952.[/fn] Vandy played a minor part in another kind of baseball history on June 28. He pitched against Dave Hoskins, the Dallas Eagles’ eleven-game-winning ace, and the first Negro to play in the Texas League. Johnny edged Hoskins 3–2 before a Tulsa crowd of 4,456 that included 754 Negroes.[fn]Tulsa World, June 29, 1952. The breakdown of attendance by race was possible since at Tulsa’s Texas League Park in 1952, separate turnstiles and segregated seating was the norm.[/fn]
Johnny Temple, recovered from an injury, took over second base duties on July 1. The team thus solidified defense up the middle, with Hobie Landrith catching, future major leaguers Alex Grammas at short and Temple at second, and the fleet Gail Henley in center. Run production still loomed as a large problem, but in Temple’s first game the Oilers beat the Oklahoma City Indians to move into fourth place.[fn]Tulsa World, July 2, 1952.[/fn]
Vander Meer now started every fifth or sixth game for Tulsa. An Independence Day doubleheader gave fans twenty-three innings of baseball (13 and 10 inning games) and Johnny gave up three runs in seven innings of the opener.[fn]Tulsa World, July 5, 1952.[/fn] He lost again on July 9, his last outing before the July 15 game in Beaumont, giving up seven hits, striking out three and walking three.[fn]Tulsa World, July 10, 1952.[/fn] At the season’s midpoint, a generous assessment would have been that Vandy had performed adequately in his limited pitching role in Tulsa. His won-lost record stood at 5–7. He had stayed deep in most games, and in none of his outings was he overpowered by opposing batters. Lack of run support often victimized him. However, little reason existed to predict that he would make headlines again within a week. On July 13, the league announced that Temple, Landrith, Grammas and pitcher Tommy Reis would represent Tulsa on the Texas League All-Star team for 1952. Johnny’s name didn’t appear in the article announcing the All Stars.[fn]The Tulsa Tribune, July 13, 1952.[/fn]
The early stages of the July 15 game in Beaumont followed the path of a typical Vander Meer outing. He escaped the bases loaded jam in the third via a force out. Tulsa then added five runs in the top of the fourth, giving Johnny a 7–0 cushion. He issued a walk in the bottom of the fourth, but set the side down with no damage. A light drizzle began in the top of the fifth. In that inning, Johnny began relying almost exclusively on his fastball. Landrith, noting the movement and precision of his pitcher’s fastball, called for very few breaking balls thereafter. The Roughnecks went down in order in the fifth and sixth.[fn]Game accounts are as reported by Tulsa World (morning) and The Tulsa Tribune (evening) editions for July 16, 1952.[/fn]
Back in Tulsa, Johnny’s wife Lois switched on the radio in the seventh inning. She wanted to see if the rain-threatened game was actually underway in Beaumont, and if Johnny was still pitching. She hadn’t seen Johnny pitch in three years because, she later explained, baby sitters were difficult to find for daughters Evelyn, 9, and their youngest, still an infant of twenty-one months. Though the announcer followed long-standing baseball tradition by ignoring the developing possibilities in Beaumont, Johnny’s wife heard or sensed something in his tone that made her leave the radio tuned to the ball game.[fn]The Tulsa Tribune, July 16, 1952.[/fn]
As Johnny bore down in the middle and late innings, the score became even more lopsided. Tulsa added four more runs in the sixth to stretch their lead to 11–0; then pushed another across in the top of the eighth. By then the few fans still scattered around the damp ballpark remained only to watch the outcome of Johnny Vander Meer’s pitching efforts. Tension crested in the eighth. Roughneck second baseman Bob Kline smashed a grounder between third and short. Alex Grammas plunged deep into the hole, backhanded the grounder, and fired the ball toward first. Earl York stretched, squeezed the ball, and the runner lost a base hit by half a step.[fn]After the game, Johnny credited “tight defense” as a reason for his pitching achievement, but according to the Tulsa World reporter at the game, only Grammas play was more than routine.[/fn]
Tulsa mercifully failed to score in their half of the ninth inning, and the suspense continued. Beaumont’s last three outs stood between Johnny and a no-hitter. The first two hitters made routine outs, and Johnny walked the cleanup hitter, Jim Greengrass, on a 3–1 pitch. Marshall Carlson, Beaumont’s center fielder, ran the count to 2–2. He caught enough of the next pitch to send it to right field, where the short right field fence loomed. The damp air and perchance benign baseball Gods kept the ball in the park, and guided it into the glove of Tulsa’s Francis Brown. Johnny had his third no-hitter in professional baseball. As he watched the Tulsa team mob their pitcher on the field, Beaumont manager Harry Craft may have been thinking of Ebbets Field, 14 years earlier, when he squeezed the final fly ball hit by Leo Durocher that had secured Vander Meer’s double no-hitter and his place in baseball history.
Vandy sat the Roughnecks down in order in six of nine innings. Twelve balls made it to the outfield for putouts. As the Oilers celebrated in Beaumont, Lois Vander Meer woke her daughter Evelyn and told her that her father had just pitched a no-hitter.
“He did,” she agreed drowsily, and went back to sleep.[fn]The Tulsa Tribune, July 16, 1952.[/fn]
Johnny’s achievement made sports headlines in Tulsa, but elsewhere drew substantially the same reaction as that of his daughter Evelyn. Baseball was still the national pastime in 1952, but Beaumont and Brooklyn were worlds apart as stages for pitching triumphs. Also, national sports attention centered on the Olympic games in Helsinki that summer. The ever present Cold War had boiled down to the battle between the US and Russia for Olympic medals.
Johnny’s next outing was July 22 (the Texas League All-Star game intervened). He took the mound as one of the few pitchers ever to try for double-double no-hitters in professional baseball. That possibility lasted just one inning as opposing batters rocked him for eleven hits in the first three innings. The sloppily pitched and played game deteriorated as police escorted the Houston manager off the field. The teams combined for nine errors, and Tulsa lost it in eleven innings. The Tulsa World sports reporter, describing the drawn out affair the next day, wrote “…the fans finally went home to sleep, perhaps to another nightmare.”[fn]Tulsa World, July 23, 1952.[/fn]
On August 1 at Tulsa, Vandy lost to Beaumont. He gave up runs through the fifth inning, but then began putting up goose eggs, eventually running up a scoreless string of 22 innings. He shut out Beaumont on August 5, and Houston on August 11. In the latter game the veteran left hander fanned seven and walked one in intense 90-degree heat. The string of scoreless innings ended August 16 in the first inning as Houston assembled a run from two singles and a fielder’s choice. Johnny pitched well enough to keep Tulsa in the game through nine innings, however, and then watched from the dugout as the two teams played 22 innings, the second longest game in Texas League history.[fn]The author, as a 13-year-old Tulsa Oiler baseball fanatic, attended the game and sat through every inning, returning home about 3 A.M. to be greeted by an unhappy mother.[/fn] Tulsa won 6–5.
Johnny took Tulsa to their year’s apex on August 21 by throwing a 1–0, ten-inning shutout against the Shreveport Sports, eventually the league champions.[fn]Tulsa World, August 22, 1952.[/fn] The Oilers moved into third place and seemed positioned for a playoff run. However, Vandy beat himself on August 26, losing 3–1 when his error set up two unearned runs.[fn]Tulsa World, August 27, 1952.[/fn] On Labor Day Johnny won his eleventh and last game for Tulsa.[fn]Tulsa World, September 2, 1952.[/fn] The Oilers, still battling for a playoff slot, put everything on the line in a day-night twin bill on September 3. Johnny worked out of turn with only two days rest in the afternoon game against the Oklahoma City Indians. Behind 2–1, he left the game for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run on first base. The Oilers went down in both ends of the twin bill, dashing their playoff hopes. Mathematical elimination followed the next day.[fn]Tulsa World, September 5, 1952.[/fn]
Johnny had thrown his last pitch for Tulsa. At season’s end on September 7, the Oilers fielded a makeshift lineup before just 835 fans.[fn]Tulsa World, September 8, 1952.[/fn] Prospects had moved up to other teams. Johnny’s name never appeared in another account of a Tulsa game, and the Vander Meers may have left town by then. Johnny had put in a full, productive season for Tulsa, but he had bought a half interest in a hardware store in Tampa, and his reason for being in Tulsa had disappeared with playoff elimination.
Statistically, Johnny’s Tulsa pitching campaign ranked a close second on the staff. His 11–10 won-lost record, for a sub .500 team, ranked second only to that of Tommy Reis in games won and won-lost percentage. His ERA of 2.31 led the pitchers, as did his ninety-six strikeouts.[fn]Wayne McCombs, Let’s Gooooo Tulsa: The History and Record Book of Professional Baseball in Tulsa Oklahoma 1905–1989. Claremore, OK: 1990, 108.[/fn]
Johnny continued to pitch after the Tulsa year, but never again as an integral part of a pitching rotation. He managed Burlington of the Class B Three-I League in 1953, filling in as a pitcher when needed. He logged seventy innings and appeared in nineteen games, but started only four times. Managing in the Piedmont League in 1954, he inserted himself into the lineup for only twenty-one innings and two starts. Johnny’s last pitches in organized baseball came at age forty, two innings for Daytona Beach in the Class D Florida League.[fn]Minor League Encyclopedia, op. cit.[/fn] He continued to manage through 1962, and then settled in Florida to run a beer distributorship. The Dutch Master died in Tampa in 1997 at age 82.[fn]Robert Weintraub, “The Legend of Double No Hit,” ESPN Magazine, April 23, 2007, 2.[/fn]
Johnny’s minor league no-hitter for Tulsa was hardly a singular achievement that year. Seventy-eight no-hitters occurred in minor league baseball in 1952, though the number included less than nine inning games, two-pitcher efforts, and “lost” no-hitters like the tenth-inning win of Elroy Face. Ironically, Bill Bell, pitching for Bristol in the Class D Appalachian League, threw consecutive no-hitters in May 1952, thought to be the first such feat in the minors since 1908, and the first in organized baseball since Vandy did it in 1938.[fn]Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Baseball America, 1997, 419.[/fn]
In the seventy-plus years since 1938, no pitcher has thrown consecutive no-hitters in the majors. Ewell Blackwell came close in 1947, losing his second in a row after 8 1?3 innings.[fn]Ira Berkow, “Vander Meer’s Feat May Never Be Bettered,” The New York Times, October 8, 1997.[/fn] With today’s pitching specialization, even two complete games in a row garner special recognition, so Johnny’s record is probably safe. The Dutch Master won 119 and lost 121 in the majors. His minor league record was only slightly better, at 76–73. Vander Meer’s career totals pale by comparison to pitchers ensconced in Cooperstown. His name, however, is branded onto the collective baseball consciousness. Long before that rainy night in Beaumont, he had joined the fraternity of players like Don Larsen, Bobby Thomson, and Bucky Dent, who each rose to one glorious occasion and captured the enduring imagination of the baseball world.
Biographical note: The author, as a 13-year-old baseball enthusiast, followed the fortunes of the 1952 Tulsa Oilers closely, and attended as many games as the thirty-five cent bleacher admission permitted. Vander Meer’s no-hitter, sadly, was out of town and our radio was broken than night.
ERNEST J. GREEN is a former Chair of SABR’s Minor League Committee, and is author of the baseball travel book, “The Diamonds of Dixie.” Other contributions to the Baseball Research Journal include “Minor League Big Guns,” a comparison of career minor league top home run hitters. He lives near Washington, DC, within easy driving distance of five minor league baseball teams.