27 Men Out: Baseball's Perfect Gamesby Michael Coffey
There have been only fourteen perfect games pitched in the modern era of baseball; the great Cy Young fittingly hurled the first, in 1904, and David Cone pitched the most recent, in 1999. In between, some great pitchers -- Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning,/b>
The first in-depth look at baseball's nirvana -- a lyrical history of pitching perfection.
There have been only fourteen perfect games pitched in the modern era of baseball; the great Cy Young fittingly hurled the first, in 1904, and David Cone pitched the most recent, in 1999. In between, some great pitchers -- Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Don Larsen in the World Series -- performed the feat, as did some mediocre ones, like Len Barker and the little-known Charlie Robertson. Fourteen in 150,000 games: The odds are staggering.
When it does happen, however, the whole baseball world marvels at the combination of luck and skill, and the pitcher himself gains a kind of baseball immortality. Five years ago, Michael Coffey witnessed such an event at Yankee Stadium, and the experience prompted this expansive look at the history of these unsurpassable pitching performances. He brings his skills as a popular historian and poet to an appraisal of both the games themselves and of the wider sport of baseball and the lives of the players in it. The careers of each of the fourteen perfect-game pitchers are assessed, not only as to their on-the-field performances but with a regard for their struggles to persevere in an extremely competitive sport in which, more often than not, the men and women who run the game from the owners' boxes are their most formidable adversaries. Along the way, Michael Coffey brings us right into the ballparks with a play-by-play account of how these games unfolded, and relates a host of fascinating stories, such as Sandy Koufax's controversial holdout with Don Drysdale and its chilling effect on baseball's owners, Mike Witt's victimization by the baseball commissioner, and Dennis Martinez's long struggle up from an impoverished Nicaraguan childhood.
Combining history, baseball, and a sweeping look at the changing face of labor relations, 27 Men Out is a new benchmark in sports history.
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Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER ONE: The Cyclone
Denton True "Cy" Young
May 5, 1904
Cy Young didn't know what to tell his young wife. After all, Ohio had always been their home. They had grown up together in the neighboring townships of Peoli and Gilmore, in the central part of the state. For nine years Young had thrived as the best pitcher on the Cleveland Spiders team, perhaps the best pitcher in all of baseball. Now, on the eve of a new season, after a winter of uncertainty, Young and his entire cast of teammates were being shipped to St. Louis.
Cy and Robba Miller had been married going on seven years that spring of 1899. By all accounts they were extremely close, with the big, quiet Cy dependent on the tomboyish and outgoing little pepperpot he called "Bobby." Robba would accompany her husband to his spring training sessions down in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and she would, on occasion, go with him on the road to see American cities at a time when Americans were moving in droves from the farms. In the post-Civil War decades, the country was bursting with change; assembly-line motor cars and the birth of American aviation were just a few years away; the movie industry was born; the century's last war -- the Spanish-American War -- ran its course in a year's time, and the country added to its territorial possessions, finishing the great work of dominion that would make the next century an American one.
The pace was both exciting and exhausting, as the many lurid entertainments and crack cures of the day would attest. For relaxation, Cy and Robba Young liked nothing better than the diversions provided by the novels of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and the homegrown Mark Twain. To while away the time on the long trips, Robba would read aloud to her husband, whose sixth-grade education had left him a little shy in literacy skills. Second cousins (Cy's mother was Robba's aunt), the two had played together often as children, and as adults they had a natural and contented ease.
The Youngs were comfortable enough on Cy's baseball salary, which was tops in the league at about $2,400 a year -- they lived about three times better than the average steelworker. Young's success on the field, however, was anything but run-of-the-mill. A dozen years later, he would retire with more wins, 511, than any other pitcher is likely to get (as well as more losses). In 1898 he was already an established star and a hugely popular figure not only in "The Forest City," as Cleveland was rather incongruously known, but around the country. People were even beginning to refer to him fondly as "the G.O.M." -- the Grand Old Man. And he was only 31.
Cy had spent nine seasons with the Cleveland Spiders, playing for owners Frank Robinson and his brother Stanley. He had won 25 games in '98, his eighth straight season with more than 20 wins; his career victory total already stood at 241. The Spiders managed to finish in what used to be called "the first division," taking fifth place, in the upper half of the 12-team league. The team had in fact been more than respectable for years, playing in the Temple Cup (which passed for a World Series before there was such a thing), and posting competitive second- and third-place finishes as well. The Spiders had one of the league's best hitters in Jesse Burkett, a future Hall of Famer who would finish with a lifetime .338 batting average, and Bobby Wallace, another Cooperstown-bound player, who would play for 25 years in the bigs. But all of a sudden, during spring training for the 1899 season, Young and Burkett and Wallace, virtually the entire team -- including the manager -- were traded to St. Louis. Not really traded to St. Louis, but traded for St. Louis, as an equal number from the Browns came to be Spiders in the same swift move.
It was a long way from Ohio to St. Louis, close to 600 miles. Cy tried to sell his wife on the splendors of the big river there. After all, Twain had made much of it, and was a fan of the game. "Baseball," Twain wrote, "is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century." So the Youngs moved west.
Baseball historian Bill James has called it "the greatest disgrace in the history of baseball," bigger than the notorious Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight embittered players threw a World Series. In 1899, two owners gutted a whole team and threw an entire season away. The reason was money.
Home attendance in League Park, Cleveland, which had been in the 150,000 a year range, fell to 70,000 in 1898; the Robinson brothers were convinced that Sunday baseball was the answer to their problems, but that was a liberty not allowed in their rather patrician city. The Robinsons publicly mused that perhaps another city -- how about Buffalo? -- would be more roundly hospitable to the game of ball and the likes of Young and Burkett and Wallace. With attendance dropping in midsummer, the Robinsons started converting home games to road, and ended up playing in places like Weehawken, New Jersey, and Rochester, New York. As the club became demoralized ("We could have won it by playing all our games at home," Cy later lamented; the Spiders arguably weren't out of the pennant race till mid-August), the Robinsons set their sights on the franchise in St. Louis, where the lowly Browns plied their trade in front of surprisingly energetic fans. But their ballpark, poorly maintained, caught fire, sparking lawsuits; the team, poorly skilled, finished last. Over the winter, the rest of the league's owners, not to mention the city fathers of St. Louis, worked to separate the Browns' owner -- brewer Chris van der Ahe -- from his franchise. They did, buying him out for the sum of $33,000. They sold it in a day to the circling Robinson brothers for $40,000, and all this accomplished during spring training, 1899.
The Robinsons now owned two teams, one in a baseball-mad city that loved beer and Sunday ball, the other in a morally straitened Cleveland. So, just before opening day, they transferred the Cleveland players to St. Louis, and the losing St. Louisans from the banks of the Mississippi to the Cuyahoga. Such a situation -- where men own more than one club -- is known as syndicalism, and was common in the early days of baseball. In theory, it is impermissible today; in practice, as was evidenced in the recent convoluted purchase of the Boston Red Sox by John Henry, who financed his acquisition by selling his Marlins to the owner of the Expos, who financed his move by way of a buyout of his beleaguered club by all of Major League Baseball, it is still going on.
The St. Louis fans couldn't have cared less about syndicalism. In the spirit of both renewal and alliteration, the fans and press ditched the name "Browns" and began calling their team Pat's Perfectos, after Tebeau, the new manager, late of Cleveland.
It was a different story for the Spiders, who managed to win but 20 games of the 154 played, good for last place, 35 games out of next-to-last place and a mind-boggling 83.5 games out of first place. The team's .130 winning percentage remains the game's low-water mark. They drew 6,000 fans for the entire season. The Spiders folded the next year, as part of the first contraction in Major League Baseball.
Cy Young was now 32 years old; he posted 26 wins for his new club, or rather, new locale. But he wasn't happy. He and Robba didn't care one bit for being shuttled off to the west bank of the Mississippi, to a town known for its un-Methodist ways and stifling summer heat. Neither were they thrilled to have Cy's salary capped by league fiat at $2,400. Nonetheless, Young gave it his all, as did teammates Burkett, who hit .396, second in the league, and Wallace, the brilliant shortstop, who drove in 108 runs. The team finished fifth, just as the Spiders had the year before. Little wonder: It was the same team.
As it turns out, Cy Young was not the only unhappy player in baseball. On an off-day early in the 1900 season, when most of the Western teams were in the East, the players held a meeting at the Stuyvesant House in New York City. They emerged newly organized, as the Players Protective Association, denouncing the language of the standard player's contract as "unfair, illegal, and too one-sided." They objected in particular to the so-called reserve clause, in which a team reserved exclusive rights to a player's services in perpetuity, if it wished, and also the right to terminate the player's service on only 10 days' notice. The players also proposed the establishment of a grievance committee. Cy Young was one of three St. Louis delegates.
In the early days of baseball, wherever there were unhappy ballplayers, there were entrepreneurs ready to use that as a wedge to get into the baseball business. And the founding of the Players Protective Association prompted another run. Almost immediately, a man named Ban Johnson, president of the Western League, a professional league without major league status, with teams in cities such as Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, and Sioux City, rechristened his circuit the American League, and moved ball clubs into three National League towns -- Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland, the last city, as we know, now without a club. Plans for Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, also National League towns, followed. The National League owners knew a threat when they saw one. They had already absorbed a competing league or two, including one that was run by players. In the face of Johnson's announced intentions, they axed four teams and instituted a salary freeze. But that couldn't stop Ban Johnson, and hardly seemed designed to placate the ballplayers.
On January 28, 1901, Johnson walked out of Chicago's Grand Pacific Hotel and announced a 140-game schedule for his eight-team American League, consisting of the Baltimore Orioles (to be managed by John McGraw), the Boston Somersets (nicknamed after their owner, Charles W. Somers, a coal magnate who was a league vice president), the Chicago White Stockings (with onetime Johnson mentor Charles Comiskey as owner), the Cleveland Blues (so named for the color of their uniforms), the Detroit Tigers, the Philadelphia Athletics (whose part owner/manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, aka Connie Mack, was about to begin a 50-year term on the bench), and the Washington Nationals. Johnson also announced roster size -- 14 players -- and, most important, asserted that his league would recognize the recently formed Players Protective Association and accept their work-rule demands. The National League had already rebuked the association ("I do not believe in labor organizations or unions," said one owner who would come to regret it, Arthur Soden of the Boston Beaneaters. "When a player ceases to be useful to me," he went on, "I will release him.") But Ban Johnson and his merry band of owners, for their own purposes, welcomed the union.
Meanwhile, the Robinsons were feeling the pressure, too. The possibility of a new American League team sitting in St. Louis, siphoning off their fan base, did nothing to ease things. Frank Robinson sent a letter to all his players telling them that he was withholding their last paycheck because of general drunkenness and gambling, and warning them one and all to expect pay cuts for 1901. The honorable, disciplined, and nongambling Cy Young vowed never to play for the Robinsons again, and he didn't. Young jumped to the new American League, and he was not alone. More than 70 active National Leaguers from 1900 were in the new league the next year -- Young, Nap Lajoie, Hugh Duffy, Joe McGinnity, and Jimmy Collins all jumped. Every great player except Honus Wagner was lured by the new league's promise of no salary cap, even under the threat of permanent blacklisting by the National League. And Mrs. Young would surely prefer Boston's summer weather, and Cy's $1,100 raise.
Young would play for eight seasons in Boston, win 192 games, throw the first pitch of the first World Series game, and lay claim to being the greatest pitcher of all time. He would also, fittingly, throw the first perfect game of the modern era.
Cy Young wasn't born Cy but Denton, and his middle name wasn't Tecumseh, as his original Hall of Fame plaque had it, but True: Denton True Young, born March 29, 1867, in Gilmore, Ohio.
His father, a farmer by the name of McKinzie Young, served as a soldier in the Union army (under Gen. James B. True), fought at Gettysburg, and then came home after Appomattox and married Nancy Miller, the daughter of a neighboring family. They set about having their own family, and began with the one they called Denton, which was a common surname in the Young family.
"All of us Youngs could throw," the long-retired Cy Young told a New York reporter, Arthur Daley, in 1947. "I usta kill squirrels with a stone when I was a kid and my grandad onct [sic] killed a turkey buzzard on the fly with a rock." Young, from the first time he was seen by whatever hungry, bewhiskered pipe-smoking sort passed for a baseball scout in the late 19th century, was from another era, always a farm boy, always "strapping," always "honest as the day is long." And the name Cy was attached to the boy called Denton because he could break things -- backstops -- with his humming fastball, and leave boards splintered as if a cyclone had swept through: the Cyclone, or Cy for short.
By the time Denton Young was two years old, Candy Cummings had thrown the first curveball, Ned Cuthbert had instituted the practice of base thievery, and a fellow named Bob Addy had been the first to slide. And a group of businessmen had put together a team of barnstorming professionals, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. By the time the boy was nine, the National League had been founded, with teams in Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Boston, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati; the first minor league, the International League, would be founded the next year, 1877; when Young was only 12, the owners, on September 29, 1879, invented the reserve clause, which bound players to owners -- 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But that meant little to a kid tossing a ball in a meadow; his job was to get the hay in and figure out why in the world Mike Kelley would leave his Red Stockings for Chicago. Baseball was in Ohio in a big way, and though Denton Young grew to manhood on a farm and in a farm community, by all accounts following a path of discipline and self-control and piety, he couldn't get enough of the game.
By the age of 18 he'd become a local legend. At six feet two inches and 200 pounds, Young was a hitting and pitching dynamo. Team organizers would pay his expenses -- "and sometimes, a little extra," according to the biographer Reed Browning. Young was paid a dollar a game to play for a team from Carrollton, before moving on, at age 23, to became part of a full-fledged minor league team, in Canton, which is where he signed to play ball for $60 a month in the spring of 1890. And it was in Canton where "Cy" Young was, if not discovered, at least named, doing his backstop destruction in front of a crowd that spread the word.
There was a good reason the young farm boy's talents were attracting attention, a reason that goes beyond the appeal of his natural talent. In 1890, a new professional league had started up, the Player's League, which was an organization owned and run by players unhappy with their treatment at the hands of the National League and the American Association. As players jumped to the player-owned league, spots opened up elsewhere, and Canton was hoping to develop talent that it could sell to the highest bidder. And indeed, at the end of the Canton season, Cy Young was sold for $300 to the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Young would be paid $75 a month for his services. It was still midseason for the Spiders, and Cy Young made an immediate impression in his major league debut on August 6, 1890, beating the Cap Anson-led Chicago White Stockings and besting the great Bill Hutchinson, who would win 42 games that year. Legend has it that Anson -- who struck out twice -- tried to buy Young's contract right then and there for $1,000 but was rebuffed by the Spiders ownership. Cleveland knew what they had, and Young would be a Spider until the Robinson brothers made their move to St. Louis.
It was a different game in 1890, when Cy Young first turned pro, than the one we know today -- pitchers threw from a flat, squared off area, like a box (hence the still-current phrase "back to the box" to describe a ball tapped back to the pitcher). They'd only recently started throwing overhand, underhand delivery being the rule till the mid-1880s. The front of the pitcher's box was 50 feet from home plate, which itself was square and not five-sided. Pitchers were not confined by a rubber, allowing them to run, hop, jump, and skip before releasing the ball. The catcher was bare-handed and stood far behind the batter to field and return the pitch, unless runners were on base. There was one umpire, who moved to the infield when there were men on base, the better to adjudicate across the big pasture. Players wore all-woolen uniforms, though you wouldn't say they were uniform, settling mostly for the same colored sock or top jersey; gloves were for protecting the palm (and some players wore one on each hand, and some, like Young, wore none); bats were more like long clubs (some over three and a half feet long); the ball was rubber, yarn, and leather; the ballparks were made of hazardous wood, risking fire and collapse; the outfields were more likely ringed by spectators and horse carriages than walls or fences.
Young's abbreviated rookie season went well enough, considering he was pitching for the lowly Spiders, who managed to win only one in every three games that year. During the next eight years, Young would win 232 games. The increasing of the pitching distance to 60 feet 6 inches in 1894 didn't faze him much; after dipping to a "mediocre" 26 wins that year, Young won 35 the next. By 1898, Young had begun to add pinpoint control to his already impressive arsenal of blazing fastball and sweeping curve. He walked no one in 13 of his 41 starts that year, never walked more than three in a game all season, averaging less than a walk per nine innings. As we know, it was Cy's last year as a Spider.
Cy Young was 34 years old when he jumped leagues. The team, known then as the Boston Somersets, or Pilgrims or Americans or Plymouth Rocks -- nicknames variously bestowed by sportswriters -- would share the city with the crosstown Boston Beaneaters of the National League. But early on, it was the Somersets who won the heart of the Boston faithful (this is the team that would eventually become -- officially -- the Red Sox).
The team's owner, Clevelander Charles Somers, saw to it that the city's charter entry in the new league would be distinctive. First off, he lured the best third baseman of the time, Jimmy Collins, away from the Beaneaters. He offered Collins a whopping $5,500 a year, 10 percent of the gate, and the role of player-manager. Beaneaters' owner Arthur Soden, he of the "I do not believe in unions," could only sit and watch as Collins and others of his teammates signed up to play for Somers.
Collins was the instrumental pickup. He not only knew Boston well enough to help scout the location for the building of a ball yard -- they settled on the Huntington Avenue Grounds, hard by a handy trolley line and some Irish taverns -- he was also such a respected player that the new club had instant credibility. Cy Young and his batterymate Lou Criger fled St. Louis in a heartbeat to join up with Collins. Somers also signed players with some local appeal -- Freddy Parent of Maine, Hobe Ferris of Rhode Island. He also enlisted a man to work a megaphone at the ball grounds, announcing batters up and the official scoring.
The team was an immediate success. Drawing crowds twice the size of those drawn by the rival Beaneaters, the new American League entry, after a slow start, roared to a second-place finish, behind the Chicago White Sox. Young led the league in wins with 33 and posted a league-best ERA of 1.62. The next year, the Somersets grabbed yet another ballplayer from across town, the pitcher Bill Dinneen, who would post 21 wins for the club. And in 1903, with the addition of Long Tom Hughes to the starting rotation, the Somersets won the pennant by 14.5 games over Connie Mack's second-place Philadelphia Athletics.
By now, the National League was looking for peace with the Americans, who continued to outdraw their rivals in every city in which each had a franchise. With owners in both leagues interested in stability, a "National Agreement" was signed before the start of the 1903 season, in which all clubs promised not to raid each other for players and to insert and enforce the reserve clause in all player contracts. Additionally, the agreement standardized the game on the field, with the American League consenting to a National League rule that foul balls would be counted as strikes until there were two strikes. There was no mention in the agreement, however, of postseason interleague play. But by mid-September 1903, with the pennant races settled in each league, Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfus and the new Boston president Henry J. Killilea signed an agreement for a best-of-nine series at season's end. This is now known as the first World Series. Fittingly, at least from the long historical view of more than a century, Cy Young threw the first pitch of the first World Series game, October 1, 1903, at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, in front of an overflow crowd of 16,242. Young was the loser in that game, but came back to win his next two starts, and Boston shocked the venerable National League by defeating its champion Pirates, five games to three. It was akin to Joe Namath leading the American Football League New York Jets over the NFL's Baltimore Colts 66 years later, and it effectively had the same result -- the peaceful coexistence of two once-rival leagues.
"This old puritanical town is in for a lot of good base ball from now on," wrote The Sporting News on May 1, 1904, previewing the prospects for baseball in Boston after that championship season. "Captain Collins and the boys arrived in town this afternoon and all were congratulated by John I. Taylor, the new owner, for their remarkable showing at Philadelphia and Washington....The Americans have lost but one game since their bad start in New York on the first day of the season....The only criticism one can make today is that the boys should brace up their batting and this will come now that they are at Huntington Avenue and that Cy Young is not at his best." Young was indeed just rounding into form, having suffered a bout of tonsillitis in spring training followed by a severe cold. As The Sporting News presciently noted in the early May dispatch, "It is dollars to doughnuts that Cy will be doing his share at an early date in 'bringing home the goods.'"
In the year previous, in capturing his 362nd career win, Young had surpassed Pud Galvin as the all-time leader in victories, a crown he still wears. In his three years since jumping to Boston, Young had posted 93 wins against only 30 losses, and he owned the town. His wife liked Boston, Boston liked his wife and her agreeable and durable and nearly unbeatable husband. Young has become so popular, with a reputation of honesty and civility on and off the field (in a game filled with wild miscreants, hard-drinking noggin knockers, and an encirclement of gaming men), that he was routinely cheered, on the road as well as at home, and on those not-so-rare occasions when an umpire was delayed in coming to the game, he would, by mutual agreement between the two clubs, call the balls and strikes.
By early May, both the team and Young were on a roll. Boston got off to a hot start, standing in first place with a record of 12-3 on May 4. Young was on a bit of a streak of his own, which would reach record proportions before it ended, and have at its heart a gemstone of perfection.
Young had dropped the season opener, 8-2, to New York's Jack Chesbro (who would win 41 games that year, still the modern-era record). Young's first win of the year, and 380th of his career, came four days later, a 3-2 victory over Washington. And although he would be bested, 2-0, by the A's quirky left-hander Rube Waddell, on April 25, Young finished the game with seven shutout innings, the last two being hitless, finding a groove that would take him into the history books. Five days later, Young entered a game in relief of starter George Winter with two on and no one out in the third in a game against Washington. Young set down the next three hitters, and, in all, set down the opposition without a run or a hit for the final seven innings, getting the 4-1 win.
So on May 5, Young, on a run of 14 scoreless innings and 9 hitless innings, took a somewhat misleading record of 2-2 into his rematch with Waddell, the man who perhaps single-handedly inspired the common baseball wisdom that left-handers are by nature eccentric. Consider one-time Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen's unimprovable description of George Edward Waddell's 1903 season: "Rube began that year sleeping in a firehouse in Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia. In between those events he won 21 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men's Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married and became separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion." Among the activities Mr. Allen chose to gloss over: chasing fire engines, leading parades, and wrestling alligators. Evidently a free spirit and a terrific pitcher, now in the Hall of Fame, the six-foot-two-inch, 195-pound Waddell from Bradford, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh, would lead the league seven times in strikeouts, six in succession; his 349 Ks in 1904 would stand as a modern-era season record until another left-hander, more enigmatic than eccentric, Sandy Koufax, struck out 382 in 1965.
The Athletics, with the high-collared Cornelius McGillicuddy in the dugout, were struggling in the early going. But Cy Young would be facing a solid lineup indeed, one that, without much alteration, would come to dominate the American League in but a few years, winning five pennants and three World Series from 1905 to 1914. Topsy Hartsel, the left-handed-hitting leadoff man, stood only five feet five inches tall, but had led the league in steals in 1902 and hit .311 in 1903, and was perhaps the A's toughest out. Ollie Pickering was in center, a wily veteran though perhaps on the down side of his career (today he is remembered by cognoscenti for hitting seven straight bloop singles, in the Texas League, inspiring the general use of the term Texas Leaguer to refer to such a hit). Harry "Jasper" Davis, a Philadelphian, was the team's slugging first baseman. Davis would lead the league in homers in 1904, the first of his four consecutive home-run titles, a feat equaled only by Frank "Home Run" Baker, Babe Ruth, and Ralph Kiner. Lave Cross, christened Lafayette Napoleon Cross, out of Milwaukee, was a catcher converted to an infielder; despite a rule in 1895 limiting the size of gloves for all but the catcher, Cross lugged his catcher's mitt to his infield positions. Cross was an excellent hitter who would play 21 years in the big leagues and finish with more than 2,600 hits. Playing right field and usually batting fifth was Socks Seybold, who had some pop in his bat. He'd led the league in home runs with 16 in 1902. Danny Murphy, another Philly native, was a superb second baseman who hit a grand slam in his professional debut and would go on to play 16 years in the majors. Monte Cross played short, and though he was a good fielder, his lifetime batting average of .234 ranks him second lowest at the position, just ahead of Eddie Brinkman. Batting eighth was Ossee Schreckengost. Ossee roomed on the road with Waddell, but not before insisting on a clause in his contract forbidding his roommate to eat crackers in bed. A great handler of pitchers, he was one of the last catchers to don shin guards and among the first to catch one-handed. He would figure prominently four years later in the modern era's second perfect game. And batting ninth was Waddell, a good-hitting pitcher.
For Boston, pesky Patsy Dougherty led off and played left field; Dougherty was the first player to hit two home runs in a World Series game, which he had done in Game Two the previous year; earlier in the week he had opened against Waddell with a bunt single, making him the only batter to reach base against the overpowering A's ace. Player-manager and third baseman Jimmy Collins batted second; a native of Buffalo, New York, Collins would become the first third baseman inducted into the Hall of Fame, appropriate for a man who was considered to have revolutionized the position by playing bunts with a bare-handed pickup and throw. Charles Sylvester "Chick" Stahl batted third and played center. Like Collins, a jumper from the Beaneaters, Stahl had turned in a great World Series performance the previous year, batting over .300 and hitting three triples; he would replace Collins as manager in 1906 but come to a tragic end during the next year's spring training, committing suicide by swallowing carbolic acid in despair over a woman. (Young, his roommate, would find him in death throes.) Buck Freeman was the cleanup-hitting right fielder. He'd also jumped across town along with Collins and Stahl; back in '99, with the Washington Senators, he'd led the National League in homers with a whopping (for the time) 25. Freddy Parent, of Biddeford, Maine, was a very popular player in Boston, a slick fielder coming off a year in which he hit over .300. Candy LaChance was perhaps the league's best-fielding first baseman, and his arrival allowed Collins to move the stone-handed Buck Freeman to the outfield. Possessed of a sour disposition, the six-foot-one, 183-pound LaChance once challenged Waddell to a wrestling match, which lasted for an hour. Waddell finally pinned the exhausted LaChance and then went out and pitched a shutout. Hobe Ferris batted seventh and played second; he'd distinguished himself in the 1903 Series by batting in all three runs in the final game, a 3-0 Boston win. Lou Criger was the catcher, batting in the eighth spot. Despite a career batting average of .221, he remained Young's favorite batterymate, as they had been together in Cleveland and St. Louis. Quick-footed and with a strong arm, Criger was famous for being base-stealing Ty Cobb's greatest nemesis. Young, a crafty hitter and good bat handler, batted ninth.
The two teams were set to square off in the final game of a six-game series. The weather was warm for early May in Boston. More than 10,000 fans showed up, half of them, according to a Sporting News commentator, attracted solely by the promise of a classic pitchers' duel. Young, of course, was always a draw, but the 28-year-old Waddell was enjoying the kind of fan interest that such eccentrics as Mark Fidrych and Spaceman Bill Lee would attract decades later. The year before, he had recovered from a rather rare ailment for a pitcher: an alligator bite, suffered in Florida during spring training while wrestling. Waddell recovered and went on to win 21 games, with a sparkling ERA of 2.44 and a league-leading 302 strikeouts. His mastery had carried into the 1904 season. Just three days earlier, but for the Patsy Dougherty bunt single to start the game, he was perfect against this very team, besting the tough Jesse Tannehill.
Waddell was not a man lacking in confidence. Before the game, he sauntered over to Young and informed him of his plans for the day: "I'll give you the same what I gave Tannehill." Waddell also took the time to taunt his former wrestling foe Candy LaChance, who, this time, declined the invitation to grapple.
Both pitchers breezed through the first two innings. The A's nearly got a man on base in the top of third, when shortstop Monte Cross blooped one over the head of second baseman Hobe Ferris, but Buck Freeman raced in from right field ("like a deer," Young would later recall) and made a lunging catch. In the fourth, nearly the same thing happened, as the A's Ollie Pickering looped one into the no-man's-land beyond the second-base bag -- in a bid for the kind of hit he made famous -- only to have center fielder Chick Stahl make a fine running catch. Pickering was almost the spoiler again, with one down in the top of the sixth, when he tapped a slow roller to short, but Freddy Parent charged the ball and nipped Pickering by half a step at first.
Waddell was rolling through the Boston lineup with equal dispatch. As Boston came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, there was no score. But the Pilgrims broke through when Chick Stahl slugged one over Socks Seybold's head in right and into the crowd -- a ground-rule triple -- and Buck Freeman plated him with a three-bagger of his own to put Boston up 1-0 after six. In the top of the seventh, the crowd held its collective breath when Danny Hoffman, a second-year man who had replaced leadoff hitter Topsy Hartsel after an injury, sliced a ball far down the left-field line, only to have Patsy Dougherty race into foul territory and make the catch, banging into the fence. It would be the last close call till the final batter.
In the bottom of the seventh, Boston added to its lead, on a Hobe Ferris triple and a double by catcher Lou Criger, making it 2-0. Young followed with a grounder to third, which turned into an error on first baseman Jasper Davis, who mishandled the throw, bringing Criger home with what would be the game's final run.
Young breezed through the eighth, and got the first two batters in the ninth -- Monte Cross, leading off, became Young's eighth strikeout victim, and then Ossee Schreckengost grounded out, Parent at shortstop to LaChance. Rube Waddell stepped to the plate. Odd as it might seem today, the hometown crowd booed A's manager Connie Mack for letting Waddell hit; they wanted Young to crown his performance against a tougher out. But Mack did not relent, perhaps counting on Waddell's irascible, troublemaking nature, or perhaps his flair for the dramatic, to put a dent in Cy Young's so-far-perfect day. Commenting on Waddell's off-season career as an actor in a traveling drama, the Philadelphia Inquirer had pictured him standing graveside, in a dark fog, intoning, "Alas, poor baseball..." Would he render a tragic end to Young's bid for perfection? Waddell took two strikes and then hit a drifting fly ball to center that seemed to keep carrying, but Chick Stahl made the catch going away for the 27th and final out.
Boston first baseman LaChance, at game's end, was the first to reach Young at the mound, and told him, "Nobody came down to see me today," which indeed no Athletic had done. Only then, it is said, did Young realize what he had accomplished. Huntington Avenue may have had a megaphone, but it had no scoreboard recording hits.
Young would later say that it wasn't until a fan rushed to the mound at the game's end and pressed money into his hand that he realized he had done something special. The Boston Daily Globe reported that the ever-modest Young returned one bill to his benefactor. In a mere 83 minutes, he had beaten the tough Rube Waddell; he had retired 27 men in order, no walks, no hits, and no errors committed behind him, a feat that had been achieved only twice before, five days apart, in 1880, by Lee Richmond and John Montgomery Ward, back when the pitchers threw from 45 feet, it took eight balls to walk a guy, and the pitcher's hand could not rise above his hip on the delivery. Young's was the first perfection of the young modern era. The term perfect game wasn't even around yet -- the headline the next day in Boston read, "Athletics Lose in Unique Game."
The New York Times was even more nonplussed by the event. It's entire notice the next day read:
BOSTON, May 5. -- Not one of the Philadelphians made a run, a hit, or reached first base in to-day's game, by reason of Young's superb pitching. Young's feat is a record-breaker in the major leagues. While the champions batted Waddell hard, sharp fielding by the visitors kept down the runs. Attendance 10,000."
Over time, Young would come to appreciate what he had accomplished. In 1945, at the ripe old age of 68, he would say, "Of all the 879 games I pitched in the big leagues, that one stands out clearest in my mind. I was real fast in those days but what very few batters knew was that I had two curves. One of them sailed in there as hard as my fastball and broke in reverse" -- this would be called a tailing fastball today -- "and the other was a wide break. I don't think I ever had more stuff."
Young's good stuff continued. His perfect game of May 5 brought his consecutive scoreless inning streak to 23 and his hitless inning streak to 18. Six days later he would pitch a 15-inning, 1-0 shutout, holding the Detroit club hitless until the seventh, closing out his consecutive hitless innings streak at 24. On May 17, he would hold Cleveland scoreless into the eighth, before giving way in a 3-1 loss, finishing with 45 straight scoreless innings.
Cy Young biographer Reed Browning makes the point: "Although others can equal the performance, nobody can surpass the excellence of a perfect game. But there was an even more impressive accomplishment during these five great games. For the 45 straight scoreless innings that link the games constitute a feat that has occasionally been exceeded [it has since been eclipsed by Doc White, Jack Coombs, Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbell, Don Drysdale, and Orel Hershiser, the current record holder at 59 innings], and if his perfect game represents an achievement that has sometimes been equaled, there was a third record that emerged from these games that Cy Young -- over 90 years later -- still holds all by himself. [His] 24 consecutive innings without yielding a base hit -- no one has ever equaled that mark. Not even Johnny Vander Meer, who managed 22 hitless innings around his consecutive no-hitters in 1938."
Young would finish with another banner year: 26 wins, 1.97 ERA; Waddell would finish with one less win, and would just barely lose out the ERA title to Cleveland's up-and-coming "twirlologist" Addie Joss. Boston would win the pennant on the last day of the season but there would be no World Series: John Brush, new owner of the National League champion New York Giants, refused to play against a league that was run by Ban Johnson, who had moved an American League franchise, from Baltimore, onto his turf. (They would be known as the Yankees.) The World Series would survive two world wars and the intervening Depression, Red scares, Korea, Vietnam, social upheaval, not to mention disco and five-cent beer nights and double-knit uniforms and Bowie Kuhn and Bob Uecker and drug scandals and even an earthquake before being canceled again, in 1994, during a players' strike. By then it was a different game, because the rules of play between owners and players had changed, but the measurement of perfection on the field -- so objective and inarguable -- remained the same: 27 up, 27 down, no one reaching first base safely; perfection not as an abstract ideal, but as 27 things to do right and in a row. And Cy Young, as seems appropriate, showed the way.
Copyright © 2004 by Michael Coffey
Meet the Author
Bill James made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s with his Baseball Abstracts. He has been tearing down preconceived notions about America’s national pastime ever since. He is currently the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. James lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Susan McCarthy, and three children.
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