Among baseball achievements, the perfect game—one in which no runners reach base—remains the greatest. Though many have come close, only 20 pitchers have achieved such perfection in more than a century of baseball. This exhaustive compendium examines the fascinating story behind every perfect game and uncovers details both great and small, illuminating the majesty of these titanic achievements. The faithfully narrated record of all 20 games—punctuated by statistics, trivia, little-known anecdotes, and personal memories from both witnesses and the pitchers themselves—gets inside the minds of the players who made baseball history. In addition to profiling some of the game’s greatest pitchers, such as Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, and Randy Johnson, or others including Charley Robertson who had otherwise unremarkable careers, this updated edition features new chapters devoted to Dallas Braden, Mark Buehrle, and Roy Halladay, the three latest pitchers to throw a perfect game, and a comprehensive appendix profiles several pitchers who almost achieved perfection.
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About the Author
James Buckley Jr. is the author of more than 25 sports-related books for adults and children, including Spider-Man's Amazing Powers; Home Run Heroes: Big Mac, Sammy & Junior; and The World of Baseball. Currently an editorial director of Shoreline Publishing Group, he is a former senior editor for NFL Publishing and an editorial projects manager for Sports Illustrated. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.
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The Inside Story of Baseball's Twenty Perfect Games
By James Buckley Jr.
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 James Buckley Jr.
All rights reserved.
J. Lee Richmond
June 12, 1880
The game of baseball doesn't have a birthday. Instead of popping into the world fully formed, it was built over time, gradually, like the pyramids except with much less slave labor (though players from the days before the end of the reserve clause might disagree). The traditional histories date the first organized "base ball" game to 1845, played in the now-legendary (and so aptly named) Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, under the rules of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Scholarship in 2001 also unearthed newspaper references to a "base ball" game played in New York in 1823. Author and historian John Thorn found a law written in 1791 banning the playing of baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. And there are references in British writings to similar bat-and-ball games even earlier than that. The point is that unlike basketball, for instance, which one man invented in one day, baseball was not born so much as it evolved.
Baseball's perfect game, however, does have a birthday. There had to be a first instance of this rare event (a first instance in the "major leagues," that is), though like a child whose parents can't decide on a name, it wasn't called "perfect" until it was 42 years old. (Imagine calling your dad's brother "Uncle Baby Boy" until he was 42.) And there was indeed just such a birthday: June 12, 1880, in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts, home to a first-year National League team that was so green that it didn't even have a nickname. (Paul Dickson, in his Baseball Dictionary definition of the term "perfect game," calls Worcester the Brown Stockings, but Total Baseball does not give credit for that nickname, nor does any contemporary account of the game. You make the call.)
The "creator of the perfect game," a sobriquet he earns by doing it first, was a slender left-hander just recently arrived (in more ways than one, as we'll see) from Brown University. After almost no sleep, without a meal in about 12 hours, and pitching his second game of the day (really!), J. Lee Richmond became the first pro pitcher ever to set down all 27 men he faced in one game, defeating the Cleveland Forest Citys 1–0.
The perfect game was born.
But before we head back to 1880 to blow out the candles on the first perfecto, let's make a stop in Toledo, Ohio.
On a sunny June day in 2000, the 120th anniversary of the first perfect game (Okay, it was June 10, two days early, but they weren't perfect, Richmond was). A group of more than 50 of Richmond's descendants gathered in Forest Cemetery, atop Richmond's grave site, to erect a monument to their ancestor in honor of his greatest pitching feat.
Richmond's great-grandson John Richmond Husman had gotten the idea to honor his great-granddaddy when he saw similar monuments to Civil War heroes and other local legends. Husman is a baseball historian by avocation, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and author of several articles on Richmond's life and career. He had contacted all his relatives, and they had enthusiastically ponied up to buy the large stone tablet. Then many arrived to watch its dedication.
At that ceremony, in front of the crowd of relatives, friends, baseball fans, and local media, two little girls stepped forward. Amid the ghosts of the past, Richmond's great-great-great-granddaughters sweetly sung an anthem to a game loved past, present, and future. A few fans flapped back and forth as the words sung by Sophia Forbes Marciniak and Isabelle Richmond Marciniak wafted out over the crowd, and a few people joined in.
"Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd ..."
Okay, we can take a hint. Off we go to the ballpark, the West Side Fairgrounds in Worcester, Massachusetts. Set the Way-Back Machine for June 12, 1880, Mr. Peabody.
* * *
While we're zooming through space in a very non-Einsteinian way, let's examine baseball as it was played in Richmond's day. While in no way belittling Richmond's accomplishment, it's important to understand just how different the rules of the game, the style of play, the equipment, and the league structures were in 1880.
First of all, the rules. Three outs were still a half-inning, and there were nine innings per game, but by 1880, the number of balls necessary for a walk was only down to eight. It wouldn't drop, gradually, to four until 1889. Three strikes was an out, but foul balls of any sort were not counted as a strike. In the years following, fouls would first be strikes when bunted, then strikes at all times. However, a defensive player in 1880 could catch a foul ball on one bounce and record an out; this was called the foul bound. (Fielders' ability to get to these foul bounds on one hop would prove crucial to Richmond's perfect-game win, as will become apparent when you read about the single weirdest defensive play in any perfect game.)
In addition, pitchers like Richmond could not just rear back and toss the ball wherever they thought it would do the most good (from their point of view, that is). Batters could request a high ball (above the waist) or a low ball. Pitches missing that zone, even though the ball might be right down Broadway, were called balls (maybe that's one reason they got so many).
Just because Randy Johnson dominated the majors for more than a decade as a lefty with a Richmond-like aura of success, don't think the Big Unit would have even made the JV in 1880. To start with, his pitching arm couldn't go above his shoulder while pitching the ball. Richmond, like most other pitchers, pretty much threw underhand, much like today's fast-pitch softball players. Johnson might still have a nasty sidearm curve, but that overhand fastball would be illegal. Of course, he'd be throwing it from 45 feet away, so maybe he would be a star in 1880 after all.
The pitchers of 1880 threw from flat ground, not from a mound, inside a 4-by-6–foot box, the front edge of which was 45 feet from home plate (which often was a square, not the pentagon familiar today). Estimates of their velocity range from the mid-60s to the low 80s — not exactly radar-gun–busting but thrown from much closer and with all sorts of nasty spin.
Should this in some way denigrate Richmond's accomplishment? The question of the relativity of statistics continually pops up when comparing players, teams, and eras. Many "records" are actually only records since 1901, when the American League joined the existing NL to form the "major leagues." For instance, think Nolan Ryan's 383 strikeouts in 1973 is the all-time best? Wrong. Matt Kilroy whiffed 513 batters in 1886. Rickey Henderson's 130 stolen bases in one season are the most ever, right? Nope. Hugh Nicol swiped 138 in 1887.
Richmond deserves to be first on the list of perfect games because he fulfilled the rules of the game as he knew them: under the rules of play, erase 27 men in a row without one safely reaching first base. He did that. Perfect game.
Let the arguments fly, but the bottom line is this: those records were set, like Richmond's perfect game (and J.M. Ward's perfecto five days later, as we'll see in the next chapter) in the National League, which has played without interruption since 1876. There is an unbroken line between Richmond and the perfect games thrown by Jim Bunning and Sandy Koufax and Tom Browning and Dennis Martinez. A similar line connects Cy Young to Don Larsen and David Cone and all those guys to Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden, and Roy Halladay.
The players of the late 1800s, under the rules of play they were given, accomplished amazing things. The beauty of baseball is that we could argue all night about this, and neither side would be completely convinced of victory in the argument. Yes, the game was in many ways dramatically different. But should we punish old-time players because the game had yet to evolve? Although they did enjoy rules such as more balls for a walk or "called" pitches, they didn't benefit from modern training, equipment, travel, and so on.
Understanding the context of the feats, in my opinion, just adds that much more color and flavor to the story, rather than detracts from the players' successes.
Another thing that was different was that pitchers also threw pretty much every game. Part of the reason was that the underarm style was much less rough on the arm and shoulder. But still ...Richmond told of one streak where he pitched 13 games in 13 days. The "change pitcher," another fielder, was instructed "not to come in unless I had sunstroke," Richmond said. And he never did.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Richmond's perfect game (and there are other amazing things to come, trust me) is that there were no errors. Of course, that's what helped make it perfect, but as historian John Thorn notes, "The fields were rutted and poor, and all the fielders were essentially barehanded. To have a perfectly clean game played behind you was almost as rare as a perfect game."
In fact, only weeks earlier, Providence, another team in the National League, had managed to squeeze 11 errors into a nine-inning game. Thorn notes that his studies for Total Baseball, of which he is one of the authors and editors, found that the percentage of unearned runs was about 1 in 3 in those days; to compare, today it's about 1 in 20.
Richmond recognized this unusual feat and made sure to mention it eloquently in future interviews. "I couldn't have pitched it if the fielders had not been so expert in handling the ball. No pitcher can pitch a perfect game if he does not have perfect cooperation."
Finally, pro baseball was just about a decade old in 1880, and the National League was in only its fifth season. For none of the players was this a year-round job, and it was still considered a less-than-fashionable occupation for a gentleman, so most of the players weren't considered gentlemen.
But Richmond was.
After growing up in Toledo, he went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he soon became the top pitcher on the school team. He was so good, in fact, that he defeated professional teams in exhibitions in 1879, including Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings.
"He was considered the best pitcher in baseball even before he joined the Worcester team," Thorn notes. In fact, for his first full season, 1880, Richmond signed for a record $2,400 salary.
Before turning pro, however, Richmond led his Brown team to the 1879 national baseball title, defeating Yale 3–2 when he struck out the final batter after going to a count of 8–2 (the number of balls needed for a walk would drop to eight the next year). But his talents were so obvious to the fledgling pro teams that he was repeatedly wooed to play for them. He finally signed with Worcester while still a collegian.
Richmond's new life as a professional led to a major brouhaha about his collegiate/amateur vs. pro status. Richmond, in fact, can quite literally be called the first college athlete to leave school early to go pro. He gave up his final year of eligibility to join Worcester in 1879, and later his example was one used to pass rules banning pro athletes from competing at the college level. (Worcester then officially joined the NL for the 1880 season.)
In his first start with Worcester (then a part of a minor league), on June 2, 1879, he no-hit the White Stockings in a seven-inning exhibition game. "The game only went on seven innings because the Chicagos had to catch a train," Richmond remembered years later. "Just 21 of the old White Stockings came to bat."
Turning pro looked like the right idea.
Of course, he did go on to graduate, doing so in fact four days after his perfect game, and later got a doctorate in medicine from Columbia. So he didn't exactly toss away his education to play ball. In fact, he remained one of Brown's most celebrated athletes, with numerous articles honoring him appearing in alumni publications and memoirs popping up on anniversaries of his feats.
Richmond went by the name Lee and had apparently, according to Husman, simply added the J. at some point for style. "It's like Harry S Truman, but with a period," Husman added with a laugh. "He had a brother J. Otis. I found a baptism record when he was 13 and it says J. Lee, and his signature was always J. Lee." Many record books still call him John, but you can now win bar bets by proving that that wasn't his name.
Although Lee's was the first perfect game, he did go through some labor pains to deliver this baby — or at least to get to the park on time to deliver it. Mid-June was pretty much cruising time for the young gentlemen scholars of Brown University. Classes were over, exams were in the books, and commencement ceremonies were several days away. Then, as now, this was nothing more than an excuse to party.
On June 11, Class Day was held at Brown, a daylong — and eventually nightlong — series of parties and dinners that young Richmond took part in to the fullest, apparently. A letter written later by a friend describes the future doctor marching to the College Hill baseball field early on the morning of June 12 with an empty champagne bottle cradled lovingly in his arms.
It was 5:00 am on Saturday morning, June 12, when Richmond finally took his place in the pitching square. But he wasn't facing the Cleveland Forest Citys, and he wasn't pitching for Worcester. He was pitching in what was apparently a Class Day tradition; instead of enjoying some of the hair of the dog, the students took up the hide of the horse and played dawn patrol baseball.
"I doubted the time, too," said John Husman. "But I actually went back to Providence and found the site where we think the games were played. And I went out there early in the morning and there was indeed enough light to play."
Though the lack of light may not have been the only reason the players had trouble seeing, Richmond and his fellows wrapped up the game at about 6:30 pm and headed for bed. Just like Don Larsen would allegedly do many years later, the soon-to-be-perfect pitcher burned the midnight oil and then some. Of course, Larsen hadn't spent part of his supposed curfew-breaking activities firing heaters past heated classmates.
"Richmond's got to be the only perfect-game pitcher who threw two games in one day," said Husman, laughing.
Did I mention that not only did he get to bed at 6:30 pm, but he also had to get up to catch an 11:30 am train from Providence to Worcester to pitch in the game for which he was being paid? The train was then delayed, and he had to hustle straight to the park from the station "without his dinner [i.e., lunch]," according to the Worcester Gazette. So Richmond was fortified with only whatever was left from the previous night's bacchanal as he finally threw the first pitch of the game that would make him famous.
Richmond, 5'10" and 142 pounds at the time, was facing a Forest Citys lineup that was not exactly Murderer's Row; only three of the nine starters entered the game with averages above .250. However, this was very much in line with the standards of the time; the league average was but .245, and only a handful of players batted over .300.
To face these hitters, Richmond used a surprisingly varied list of pitches, including what was perhaps the first curveball put to consistently good use in the big leagues. The curve had been "invented" by Candy Cummings several years earlier, and most pitchers had something like it in their arsenal. Richmond seems to have perfected it. In fact, he once escorted disbelieving Brown professors to the diamond to successfully demonstrate that, as he once said, "a pitched sphere might indeed change its horizontal course during a pitch and that the 'curve' was not mere optical illusion." That Richmond threw this unusual pitch from the left side (he was one of only two southpaws pitching regularly at the time) made it all that much more difficult to hit.
"I also had a fast jump ball that was hard to hit when it was working right, and it must have been working right on that hot afternoon," Richmond told a newspaper interviewer in 1910. "My half-stride ball was also working splendidly."
Um, jump balls are in basketball, right? And a "half-stride" ball? Explanation, please.
Richmond threw basically a rising fastball that seemed to rise even more than would be possible thanks to the upward sweeping motion of his delivery. This "jump ball" appeared to pop up as it approached the hitter.
Here's Richmond on the half-stride ball, which was basically his change-up: "I would only stride half the distance [as I pitched]. The abrupt halt as the ball left my hand caused the ball to do some of the most remarkable things in the way of ducking, diving, and bobbing up again I have ever seen."
Excerpted from Perfect by James Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 2012 James Buckley Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. J. Lee Richmond,
2. John M. Ward,
3. Cy Young,
4. Addie Joss,
5. Charley Robertson,
6. Don Larsen,
7. Jim Bunning,
8. Sandy Koufax,
9. Jim "Catfish" Hunter,
10. Len Barker,
11. Mike Witt,
12. Tom Browning,
13. Dennis Martinez,
14. Kenny Rogers,
15. David Wells,
16. David Cone,
17. Randy Johnson,
18. Mark Buehrle,
19. Dallas Braden,
20. Roy Halladay,
Appendix. Nearly Perfect,
Appendix. Perfect Games: Ranked,