Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Are The Odds?

On June 12, 1880 Lee Richmond, a 23-year old lefthander for the Worcester Ruby Legs threw baseball's first perfect game. His opponents were pitcher/manager Jim McCormick and his Cleveland Blues. McCormick would have a pretty good season in 1880. He pitched 657 innings and was 45 -28, much better than Richmond, who finished 32-32 and pitched a measly 590 innings.

Richmond had graduated from Brown University the year before after pitching his team to the college championship. His biggest asset was a curveball, a pitch which had been invented a few years before by Candy Cummings. (Candy was a superlative from the Civil War that meant the best of anything.) As a teenager Cummings threw clamshells into the water at a Brooklyn beach. The flat, circular shells could easily be made to curve in the air and the boy became interested in the mechanics of it. Later he would say, "All of a sudden it came to me that it would make quite a joke if I could make a baseball curve the same way."

Richmond had pitched Worcester to victory on Thursday, June 10 and then headed back to Providence for his graduation ceremony. After it he and his friends celebrated at length. He and his classmates apparently played baseball at 4:30 a.m. (must have been a full moon). Richmond caught a train back to Worcester in the morning and, without eating breakfast or lunch, got ready to pitch the Saturday game against Cleveland.

He allowed only three balls out of the infield in the game, which took an hour and twenty-six minutes to play, and one of them was a close call. Cleveland's Bill Phillips slashed a ball through the right side but the Worcester right fielder raced in and threw to first. The umpire was Foghorn Bradley. Foghorn was a good name in an age before P.A. systems when the umpires had to yell out lineup changes to the crowd. The play was close, but Bradley called Phillips out. The only other thing that stood in Richmond's way was a brief thunderstorm after which he pitched from a pile of sawdust.

Remarkably, just five days later June 17, 1880 John Montgomery Ward pitched a perfect game for the Providence Grays. Ward had led the National Association (the NL's predecessor) in strikeouts in 1872, with 14. It was pretty tough to strikeout in those days, the pitching rectangle (no mound yet) was just 50 feet from home plate but pitchers still had to throw underhand and batters were able to tell them where in the strike zone they wanted them to pitch. Ward made nation-wide headlines two years later though when he struck out six Chicago White Stockings in a row.

So, two perfect games in just five days. How long would it be until the National league would see another perfect game? How about 84 years!

Jim Bunning of the Phillies tossed one, in 1964. Mind you it should hardly have counted — his opposition was the lowly New York Mets.

But the very next year, Sandy Koufax, another lefthander with a pretty good curveball, would throw his one and only perfect game.

The most recent almost back-to-back perfect games were pitched last year. They were just twenty days apart, on May 9 and 29, 2010, by Oakland's Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay of the Phillies.

But baseball's oddest perfect game took place on June 23, 1917. The Red Sox starter was the American League's top hurler, 24-13 that year. Umpire Brick Owens called the first three borderline pitches to Washington's Ray Morgan balls. When Owens called the fourth pitch a ball the pitcher, who had been yelling obscenities after each call, punched Owens in the face, earning an ejection, a $100 fine, and a 10-game suspension. Ernie Shore was called on to come in and take over. Shore promptly picked Morgan off first and then retired the next 26 men. And who was the starter, league's top hurler, that Shore replaced that hot June afternoon ... that'd be Babe Ruth.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

What your post shows, Will, is just how much this game has changed. Someone led the league with 14 strikeouts? I think that's the largest change of all. Wow! My guess it was because pitching really had developed much of an arsenal that could cause batters to strike out — but that's just a guess.

Does anyone actually know the answer?