Somebody might tie it, but I don't think it will ever be broken.
- Vander Meer on his record back-to-back no-hitters in 1938
Left-hander Johnny Vander Meer took a rather circuitous route to immortality. The only pitcher in Major League history to throw back-to-back no hitters had been given up on by both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves as a farmhand before being purchased by the Reds in December 1935. Over his first three Minor League seasons, Vander Meer's talent was evident but so was his inability to master the strike zone. Things seemed to come together for him in his first season in the Reds' system as he was named The Sporting News Player of the Year after posting a 19-5 record with a league-record 295 strikeouts for Durham in the Class B Piedmont League. He made his Reds debut in 1937 at the age of 22 and put together a less than stellar pitching line of 3-5 with an above average ERA of 3.84, 52 strikeouts and 69 walks in 84 1/3 innings over 19 games. The question seemed to be open: Would Vander Meer regress to the form of his early Minor League career or could he be the pitcher who was so dominating in 1936?
The question was answered authoritatively as Vander Meer became one of baseball's best pitchers in 1938. Under the guiding hand of new manager Bill McKechnie who worked with Vander Meer to shorten his windup, Vander Meer won 15 games and was among the league leaders in almost every significant pitching category. And his was the only name only the leader board in the category of consecutive no-hitters thrown: Vander Meer - 1.
The first one came in an afternoon game against Boston at Crosley Field on June 11. Vander Meer struck out three and walked four in front of a sparse crowd. Because the Crosley scoreboard did not have a column for hits, many in the crowd were not even aware that Vander Meer had thrown a no-hitter. Only later did they find out that they had witnessed the first no-hitter by a Red since Hod Eller tossed one against the Cardinals in 1919.
There was considerable public attention surrounding Vander Meer's next scheduled start on June 15, but it had nothing to do with Vander Meer. The Reds were in Brooklyn to face the Dodgers in the first night game at Ebbets Field, the first Major League night game held outside of Cincinnati. The event was a star-studded affiar with luminaries such as track star Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth in attendance. An overflow crowd of 38,748 jammed into the ballpark. This included some 500 friends and relatives of Vander Meer who was a New Jersey native. Pregame festivities and the mass influx of ticket purchasers resulted in the start of the game being delayed until after 9:00 p.m.
When the game finally got underway, the Reds jumped to a 4-0 lead after three innings. Vander Meer was dominating albeit a touch wild. He held the Dodgers to five walks through eight innings while striking out seven. As the game progressed, the festive Dodger crowd rallied around the Reds' lefty, cheering each out he recorded. After retiring the first batter in the ninth, Vander Meer walked the next three Dodgers to load the bases. After a brief meeting on the mound with Manager McKechnie, Vander Meer settled down to coax a ground out for the second out and, after lining a ball foul, got Leo Durocher to loft a lazy fly ball to Harry Craft in center for the last out of the game. Within seconds of the ball settling into Craft's glove, thousands of Brooklyn faithful charged to field to celebrate with the Reds who had encircled Vander Meer in a congratulatory huddle.
The story of Vander Meer's remarkable achievement was a national sensation. Seemingly overnight, everyone knew about "Double No-Hit" Johnny Vander Meer. And everyone wanted to know if he could do it again. The Reds moved on to Boston to face the Bees, the victims of Vander Meer's first no-hit effort. Another capacity crowd was in attendance as Vandy held the Bees hitless through 3 1/3. The incredible run finally came to an end with the next hitter, third baseman Debs Garms, who lined a 2-1 pitch to left centerfield, for a clean base hit. Vandy allowed three more hits in a game the Reds won, 14-1. Said the victorious southpaw after game: "I'm glad that's over. I only wish the first man up could have hit and ended the strain."
Vander Meer's career extended to the 1951 season and was marked by periods of sustained excellence and unpredictability. He never fully overcame his propensity for wildness and his career suffered as a result. The back-to-back no-hitters are a powerful reminder of how dominant he could be. Much more than just an answer to an oft-asked trivia question, the consecutive no-hitters represent a true rarity in any sport: an unbreakable record. As Vandy himself was often quoted as saying, "Somebody might tie it but I don't think it will ever be broken."