Vander Meer's feat still amazing 75 years later
Reds honoring pitcher on anniversary weekend of back-to-back no-hitters
They remember Johnny Vander Meer in Midland Park, N.J., where a youth league ball field bears his name and a wooden chest in the library bears the mementos of his Major League career.
But many of those who had more than just a passing understanding of Vander Meer's importance in baseball lore have been lost to time.
"It's all hearsay now," says Garberdina Nywening, with a hint of resignation in her voice.
She is Johnny's sister and, at 90 years old, one of the few remaining links connecting us to a man most know only for his baseball record -- one that will never be surpassed.
Seventy five years ago this weekend, Vander Meer tossed his second no-hitter in as many starts. He did so while representing the Cincinnati Reds in the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field, and, by the end, the vast majority of those in attendance were rooting for him to finish the job against their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.
Garberdina and a large contingent of Midland Park residents were also in those stands that night, witnessing a singular, unbreakable achievement that ensures Vander Meer's name will never be forgotten in baseball lore.
"Every once in a while," she says, "a kid will find it in an encyclopedia. He'll say to his mother, 'Did you know Johnny Vander Meer lived in Midland Park?' And grandma will say, 'Yeah, and I knew him!' They'll get excited. I think it's kind of cute. It's nice to think about him, to keep his name alive."
The man behind the name left us in 1997, and he left very little behind. Vander Meer buried his wife, Lois, and both of his daughters, Evelyn and Shirley. He died broken-hearted.
"That hit him hard," Garberdina says. "He would say, 'My wife, when she went, that was bad enough. But when you lose your children, that's bad.'"
So on this diamond anniversary of his double no-hitters, let's remember Johnny Vander Meer not just for what he did but who he was. Let's celebrate the man behind the name.
Vander Meer was born in 1914, to parents of Dutch descent. Both sets of grandparents had immigrated to America from the Netherlands, and Vander Meer's parents settled into Midland Park, where the population was roughly 80 percent Dutch, when he was 4 years old.
Johnny was in the first grade at Midland Park Christian Reform Church School when he won a spelling bee and received a baseball as his prize. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the game, which he would play on the vacant lot near his house against boys often much older and bigger than he. The strong, young left-hander quickly took a liking to pitching, and, even in his earliest days on the mound, Vander Meer proved hard to hit.
"They never made a hit off me," he would tell biographer Paul Lichtman years later. "They couldn't. I walked them all. I could throw hard in those days, but I was terribly wild."
Indeed, it was Vander Meer's wildness that would come to define much of his early career. But his impressive strikeout totals as an amateur caught the eye of Fred Pidmore, a New Jersey oil salesman who had some Major League connections, and this led to an invitation to train with the Dodgers in their Miami Spring Training camp in 1933.
In fact, the 19-year-old Vander Meer -- tall, handsome and the son of a blue-collar industrial worker -- so fit the framework of the archetypical rookie with big league dreams that he was selected to star in a short documentary film on the subject, titled "A Typical American Boy." And truth be known, there was nothing truly atypical about Vander Meer's climb up the ladder to the bigs. Certainly nothing that would lead you to believe he was bound for the glory of those back-to-back no-hitters.
Vander Meer had some bouts with arm trouble as he bounced around the low Minors, his rights purchased and swapped by several teams along the way. And though he struck out an eye-popping 295 batters in 214 innings in the 1936 season with Durham, of the Piedmont League, the strikeouts came with the toll of 116 walks.
Still, the dazzling strikeout total alone was enough to compel the Reds to buy Vander Meer's rights from the Nashville Vols in 1937. They told him to report to camp, and Vander Meer made his Major League debut that May. But his first brush with the big leagues wasn't overly encouraging. Vander Meer had the same control woes as always, and he even sparred with Charlie Dressen when the skipper told him he wasn't pitching with "guts."
It wasn't until 1938, under the careful tutelage of new manager Bill McKechnie, that Vander Meer began to turn his control problems around. And this was the year Vander Meer pulled off his phenomenal feat.
The seeds of the double no-hitters were sewn on June 5, 1938, when Vander Meer, still technically a rookie after his 19 appearances in '37, went the distance in a win over the New York Giants, allowing just one run on three hits. This was the start that convinced him he had the stuff to not just survive but thrive in the Major Leagues. But nobody could have imagined what would follow.
On June 11, a Saturday, the Reds faced the Boston Bees (a temporary name change for the Boston Braves) at Crosley Field, and Vander Meer was dominant. He faced the minimum through three innings, then walked Gene Moore to start the fourth. Moore would be gunned down in his attempt to steal second, as would Tony Cuccinello after his walk in the fifth. The only other batter to reach base also walked in the fifth but was stranded at first.
It was after the seventh, when no Bees batter had yet reached second base, that Boston manager Casey Stengel taunted Vander Meer.
"So, you've got a no-hitter in your hands?" Stengel reportedly said. "Well, you won't get it because we're going to get you in the next inning."
Stengel's words stunned Johnny. Not because he paid any mind to Stengel's prediction but because, up until this point, he didn't even realize he had a no-hitter going.
Neither, by the way, did the fans in the stands. Crosley Field's scoreboard showed only the run totals and not the hits. So while Vander Meer finished the job by retiring the side in order in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the crowd was largely clueless as to what was actually taking place. Still, the next day's newspaper reports ensured that all of baseball now knew the name Johnny Vander Meer.
"Before the no-hitter against Boston," Vander Meer would say, "I was just a rookie that nobody but Bill McKechnie knew."
His name now known, Vander Meer still wasn't the supposed star of the show for his next start, June 15 at Ebbets Field.
The Dodgers pulled out all the stops for what was, by 1938 standards, a major marketing ploy on the part of executive Larry MacPhail. MacPhail had brought night baseball to Crosley while with the Reds in 1935 and now made the Dodgers the second team to accommodate their fans working 9-to-5. And that June 15 debut for the Ebbets lights was an over-the-top production. Olympic legend Jesse Owens was hired to race several Dodgers players around the field, to the delight of the crowd, and Babe Ruth was on hand to make the stirring announcement that he had signed on as a Dodgers coach.
Vander Meer, therefore, was an afterthought to most. But not to the several hundred folks who made the 30-mile commute from Midland Park to recognize "The Dutch Master" for his no-hitter four days before.
"I sat with a group of his friends," Garberdina says. "I didn't sit with my mother and father. I was with Lois, who was his girlfriend at the time. They were more excited [about the first no-hitter] than I was, because I don't get excited as quickly. Maybe I didn't realize it was as important as it was."
And what nobody realized was that Vander Meer was about to do it again.
The game began late, as the lights took over an hour to fully illuminate after they were switched on at 8:35 p.m. The Reds took a quick 4-0 lead, and the Dodgers -- perhaps affected by the lighting conditions -- couldn't get anything going against Vandy, despite the many deep counts on a night where he clearly didn't have his best control.
As the innings progressed and the Reds added to what looked to be an insurmountable lead, the announced crowd of 38,748 began to pull for the rookie visitor. In the ninth inning, Vander Meer walked the bases loaded, and McKechnie visited him on the mound. The crowd booed vigorously, worrying that McKechnie would pull Vander Meer with the no-hitter still intact. But McKechnie merely told the kid to stay focused and throw strikes.
The next batter, Ernie Koy, rolled a grounder to third, and Lew Riggs threw home for the force out. Two away.
Leo "The Lip" Durocher stepped to the plate, and Vander Meer got ahead of him, 1-2. His next pitch was a fastball on the outside part of the plate, and Durocher let it pass. Home-plate umpire Bill Stewart called ball two, quickly quieting the raucous crowd, which had assumed it was a called third strike. But Vander Meer kept his composure and tossed Durocher another fastball, and this one was hit high to center field, where Harry Craft gloved it for the final out.
History was made.
"Nice going, kid," Ruth said to Vander Meer as he shook his hand, and the compliment would ring in Johnny's ears for years to come.
On that night, Vander Meer became immortal, in a sense. Because no matter where life took him -- and it would indeed take him down some difficult roads -- his name would be remembered, his amazing accomplishment held in high regard.
"What is the old adage that you can only be struck by lightning once?" says John Thorn, MLB's official historian. "To get struck by lightning twice defies the odds. But it's not a model of consistency. It is a constellation of conspiring events."
The events never again conspired to lift Vander Meer to that level of greatness. But he was an All-Star in '38 and again in '39, '42 and '43, and he led the National League in strikeouts three times. Vander Meer was a member of the Reds' World Series championship club in 1940.
With the no-hitters, though, came an aura of expectations that were impossible to live up to. And though Vander Meer had a solid 13-year career (losing two years to his Navy service during World War II), he certainly was no candidate for Cooperstown.
"Vander Meer had good but not great stuff," Thorn says. "You look at his career, and there aren't the spikes, like a 20-win season."
There was, however, a man universally regarded as good and decent and hard-working. A man who loved the game enough to stay in it after his Major League playing days were done. Vander Meer managed and played in the Minor League levels after his release from the Indians in 1951. And while serving as player-manager for the Tulsa Oilers in 1952, 14 years after his double no-hitters, he no-hit the Beaumont Roughnecks of the Texas League.
Vander Meer would spend his later years working in sales for the Schlitz Brewing Company, settling in Tampa, Fla., and retiring with a pension from Schlitz in 1982. Baseball and beer had provided him with a comfortable life, but his retirement years would be marked by the unimaginable tragedy of losing his oldest daughter, Evelyn, to an aneurysm at the age of 32 and his youngest, Shirley, to complications from diabetes at 41. In between came the loss of Lois, who suffered a stroke in 1988. When Vander Meer died from an abdominal aneurysm at the age of 82, he left behind two grandchildren, one of whom has also since passed away.
"The family's all gone," Garberdina says. "I don't get the phone calls I used to get. Everybody's gone."
There is a sadness, then, to the way Vander Meer's life played out in his later years. But there is also some solace in sports' ability to take an ordinary man and hold him up in an extraordinary light. Because no matter where baseball or life took Johnny Vander Meer after June 15, 1938, and no matter how few voices are left to tell his tale, there is no question that he will not be forgotten.