Bill Conlin: Does Halladay have no-how to match Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters?

Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 were far from perfect.
Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 were far from perfect.
Posted: October 14, 2010

IT IS TRENDY to state that baseball's most unbreakable record is Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Nobody has come close to that 1941 necklace of base hits, adding up until a nation was glued to the radio.

Perhaps nobody will . . .

Which is what they said about Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. Until Cal Ripken not only broke it, the Orioles shortstop destroyed it, running the record out to 2,632 games.

Which brings us to the next record Roy Halladay now has in his crosshairs.

That would be Johnny Vander Meer's 1938 feat of pitching back-to-back no-hitters for the Cincinnati Reds.

The first was against the Boston Bees on June 11. Four days later in the first night game ever played in Ebbets Field, the hard-throwing lefthander no-hit the Dodgers.

There have been 155 no-hitters pitched since Vander Meer's seminal feat. Ironically, the closest anybody has come to replicating the double no-nos, was Reds righthander Ewell Blackwell, the "Sidearm Assassin." Blackwell, a dour man who basically did not like people, particularly those with bats in their hands, was said to be so mean he would have drilled his mother - even if she wasn't crowding the plate. In his prime, which was cut short by arm injuries, Blackwell was the most feared pitcher in baseball. He threw from the same sidearm slot as the great Walter Johnson and is said to have thrown nearly as hard.

Blackwell was baseball's best pitcher in 1947. The 6-6 Californian was 22-8 with a 2.47 ERA and 23 complete games. He hit just four batters, mainly because righthanded hitters were bailing out when he brought his sidearm heat from the direction of third base. In another oddity, he threatened to tie Vander Meer's record against the same teams. On June 18, Blackwell no-hit the Boston Braves. Four days later, in the first game of a Crosley Field doubleheader, Ewell took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. With one out, leadoff man Eddie "The Brat" Stanky broke it up with a single. Jackie Robinson added a two-out single. Vander Meer's record survived.

Vander Meer's no-hitters were far from perfect. Against the Braves in Crosley Field, the lefthander walked three and struck out four. Four days later, in Brooklyn, under the lights, he walked eight and struck out seven. His two no-hitter totals were 11 walks and 11 strikeouts. The guy must have pitched well from the stretch.

Turns out No. 2 was one of the hairiest no-hitters of all time. Vander Meer spent the night on a swaying high wire with no pole. The crocs were leering down below.

The Reds' radio play-by-play man - color analysts were not yet invented - was future Dodgers icon Red Barber. All three New York teams prohibited broadcasts of their home games - imagine that. So Barber was in Cincinnati waiting for the Reds to come off the road. He had broadcast Vander Meer's first no-hitter from Crosley Field.

In 1979, 41 years after the game, Red Barber was at a broadcasters conference in Orlando and wound up recording a re-creation of the final inning of Johnny Vander Meer's flawed masterpiece. If Vincent van Gogh had been put through that much stress while wielding a paintbrush, he might have cut off both ears. (Stoky & Co.: He was a brilliant but insane painter who was played by Kirk Douglas in the movie "Lust for Life.")

Before an intrigued audience of his peers, Barber re-created the ninth inning. Bases loaded with one out, the hitter Ernie Koy, an outfielder with power and speed. Barber:

"There's nobody warming up in the bullpen. It's going to be Vander Meer going all the way [The Reds led, 6-0]. It has to be. He pitched a no-hitter 4 days ago in Cincinnati against Boston and tonight is his night. His father and mother are here [Johnny was raised in North Jersey]. The girl he is going to marry, they are all here and the crowd is now for him. They have turned their back on the Dodgers. They want to see him do it . . . "

Koy takes a called strike and swings at the second pitch, topping a weak grounder to third. Barber:

"The infield is back [?] because Koy can run. Vander Meer delivers. Koy swings. It's a ground ball half-speed going down to third. Riggs charges it . . . His only play is at home. He throws to Lombardi and the force is on Rosen at home. Two out . . . "

The hitter is Leo Durocher, who Babe Ruth dubbed "the All-American Out" for his poor hitting, but dangerous in the clutch. Barber's final call down the extended corridor of history:

Leo lined a two-strike pitch down the line in right. Just foul.

"Vander Meer has a new ball. No balls, two strikes, three on. The pitch. It's a high fly ball going out to centerfield. Harry Craft . . . comes under it, sets and it's a double no-hitter for Vander Meer." (On the recording, his audience breaks into applause.)

Based on what he showed an awe-struck baseball world here in Game 1, Roy Halladay would appear to be one of the better double no-no candidates. But the ghost of Johnny Vander Meer rested easy when Halladay took the mound in his next start after the perfect game in Florida. Doc was pitching at home against the Padres. Alex Gonzalez broke the tension early with a two-out single in the top of the first.

Roy got his second standing ovation of the night.

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