This Week in Baseball History: June 7 – 13

Reigning MVP Stan Musial vs. a 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall—who won?

 

June 9, 2008 – Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th Home Run

 

There was no player that 90s kids idolized more than The Kid himself.

With his sugar-sweet swing, flawless fielding, and iconic image, Ken Griffey Jr. endeared himself with fans of every team. Just to remind you of his greatness, in the 90s Griffey Jr. averaged: 141 G, 100 R, 38 HR, 109 RBIs, 15 SB:5 CS, 70 BB:90 K, and .302/.384/.581 (147 wRC+). Oh, and he also got a Gold Glove award every single year. Not only was he a top-five hitter, but he was also a top-five outfielder for an entire decade.

By the time that Griffey Jr. left Seattle for Cincinnati in 2000, he had 398 homers and had barely turned 30 years old. Between him and Barry Bonds, who finished the 90s with 445 career dingers, it seemed like Hank Aaron‘s all-time home run record would finally fall.

Griffey Jr.’s first season with the Reds was great: 40 HR while hitting .271/.387/.556 in 145 games. But starting in 2001, injuries would derail one of baseball’s most promising careers.

From ’01 to ’07, Griffey Jr. averaged just 100 games and 22 homers a year. As he entered the 2008 season, Griffey Jr. had 593 HR. Bonds, meanwhile, had reached 762.

The all-time home run king crown belonged to Bonds. Even though Griffey Jr. had lost the race, he could still try to climb his way up the career leaderboards.

Through the first third of the season, Griffey Jr. struggled, hitting .249/.339/.388 with six home runs, which put him at 599 for his career. Junior needed just one more dinger to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe RuthWillie Mays, and Sammy Sosa in the exclusive 600 HR Club.

That day would come on June 9. The Reds traveled to Florida to play the Marlins in a stadium that regularly contained crowds of less than 1,000 people. The listed attendance for this game was 16,003, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure was actually off by a couple thousand.

I don’t blame the small crowd, after all the Marlins starting pitcher Mark Hendrickson was not a big draw. Fun fact: did you know that Hendrickson was picked in six consecutive drafts from ’92 to ’97? I didn’t know that was possible.

Anyway, Hendrickson found himself in trouble in the top of the first. Jerry Hairston got a leadoff single on a weak infield hit, and Hendrickson retired Jay Bruce for out one. Griffey Jr. stepped up to the plate.

Three balls crossed the plate, and Hairston stole his way to third on two of those pitches. With a 3 – 0 count and a man on third, Griffey Jr. took a big hack on the next pitch but missed. Hendrickson, hoping to climb his way back to an even count, tried to sneak an inside breaking ball past Griffey Jr.

But The Kid saw it coming.

 

Just the sixth player ever to reach 600. He had the potential to reach 700, heck, even 800. But alas it wasn’t meant to be.

Two years later, Griffey Jr. was out of the majors. His final career tally: 630 HR.

 

 

June 10, 1944 – Joe Nuxhall Debuts at Age 15

 

During WW2, major league baseball took a lot of risks in recruiting new players. While baseball never stopped during the war, hundreds of players like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio took a break from the prime of their careers as they helped out the war effort. This talent void resulted in a ton of open roster space, which led teams to scout and recruit some of the most unique players in major league history.

Sometimes, teams dipped into a relatively underutilized talent pool: high schoolers. And I’m not talking about high school graduates—I mean kids who are years away from graduation. Many teams had few other options.

In the 1943 season, the Philadelphia Athletics were desperate for anything. From ’35 to ’42, they finished last in their division six out of eight times. The other two times, they finished second-to-last. So, they felt they had nothing to lose by signing the youngest player in baseball history: 16-year-old Carl Scheib.

It honestly proved to be an okay decision. Scheib was a big kid (over six foot and 190 pounds) and displayed impressive control and strength for his age. By the time of his age-18 season, Scheib had three major league seasons under his belt, posting a 4.10 ERA/85 ERA+ and 1.319 WHIP over 63.2 IP. It could’ve been a lot worse.

With Scheib’s serviceable adolescent tenure, could teams go even younger? The Cincinnati Reds though, well, yes of course!

In 1944, the Reds sent scouts to an amateur league in Ohio to look at a pitcher named Orville Nuxhall. But the scouts became enamored with Orville’s son, Joe Nuxhall, who also pitched in the same league. Joe was just 15 years old, but like Scheib, he was large (over six foot, 190 pounds) and possessed a mid-80s fastball. After the end of high-school basketball season, Joe signed a contract to join a Reds pitching staff that was among the best in baseball. With a $175 monthly salary and $500 signing bonus (worth $2,655 and $7,587 today, respectively), what was Nuxhall’s first purchase? A new carpet as a gift for his parents. After all, as he put it, Joe “beat [his] father out of a job.

For a couple of months, when the games didn’t interfere with his high school classes, Nuxhall would report to Crosley Field and watch from the benches. At the end of May, the Reds stood at second place in the NL, just two games behind the Cardinals. Whereas the Reds had excellent pitching, the Cardinals were the best offense in baseball in 1944 (108 wRC+). In their first six contests, each team won and lost three games. They would meet for the third time that year in early June in a four-game series. The Cardinals lost the first game but came back with a vengeance in game two on June 10.

By the second inning, St. Louis had a commanding 7 – 0 lead and 96% win probability. After the end of the eighth, those stats jumped to a 13 – 0 lead and 100% win probability.

Reds manager Bill McKechnie decided that the ninth inning was the perfect time to put Nuxhall on the mound.

“I’m sitting on the bench and watching the game, and I’m admiring the way the Cardinals are hitting the baseball, line drives everywhere,” Nuxhall later recalled during interviews with sportscaster Dennis Janson. “All of the sudden I hear this voice say ‘Joe!’ And I said, ‘He can’t be talking to me.'”

Nuxhall’s admiration quickly turned to anxiety as he realized that, yes, McKechnie was talking to him. Nuxhall stumbled as climbed the dugout steps to reach the field, and he warmed up with almost no control. Despite dealing with the insane nerves that would understandably affect any 15-year-old in this situation, Nuxhall somehow forced a groundout from the first hitter he faced.

The next batter walked, but then Nuxhall got an infield pop-out to short to put two away. It seemed like this kid from Hamilton, Ohio was about to have an almost perfect debut.

But then the wheels fell off. Nuxhall threw a wild pitch that allowed the runner to advance. Then, another walk. With two runners on, Nuxhall had to deal with a pitcher’s absolute nightmare: Stan Musial.

Not only was the 23-year-old Musial the reigning NL MVP, but he entered that game hitting .355/.454/.542 on the season. Welcome to the majors, Nuxhall!

On the first pitch, Musial hit an absolute “screaming meanie” to right field for a single to load the bases. Three straight walks followed, and then a single scored two more runs. After posting a line of 0.2 IP, 2 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, and 0 K, McKechnie decided to take Nuxhall out.

That was it in 1944 for Nuxhall. Shortly after that game, the school year ended and Nuxhall officially joined the Reds’ minor-league system. Nuxhall took a break in 1946 to return to high school and earn his diploma. Nuxhall still qualified as a high school athlete, and he once again became a multi-sport star. I would imagine that Nuxhall is perhaps the only person ever to debut in the majors and later earn all-state honors in multiple high school sports.

Eight seasons later, Nuxhall finally returned to the majors. Now that he actually had professional baseball experience, Nuxhall proved that he could hold his own at the major league level. Over the next 15 seasons, Nuxhall served as an anchor in the Reds’ rotation, retiring with a 135 – 117 record, 3.90 ERA/102 ERA+ and 1.340 WHIP over 2,302.2 IP. From 1967 to 2007, Nuxhall served as the Reds radio broadcaster.

Nuxhall died at 79 years old in 2007. He spent 63 years of his life in professional baseball. Truly remarkable.

 

June 11 & 15, 1938 – Johnny Vander Meer Throws B2B No-Hitters

 

While Nuxhall’s age-15 debut is one of baseball’s most unbreakable records, Johnny Vander Meer also did something this week in baseball history that will likely never be broken.

Before 1938, there had been 105 no-hitters. Just 62 in the 20th century. A mere 14 in modern era (1920 – present). Only 10 pitchers had thrown multiple no-nos.

Nobody had done it on back-to-back games.

Enter Vander Meer.

As someone who had spent his entire life working towards a baseball career, Vander Meer was still searching for his ceiling. His stuff was great, his control was not. He was a true Cherry Bomb—just as likely to pitch a 16-walk game as he was to throw a no-hitter. In fact, during one amateur season, Vander Meer pitched five no-hitters.

Vander Meer’s wildness meant that many teams passed on the high-potential youngster, which, in combination with a couple of injuries, delayed his MLB debut until 1937 with the Cincinnati Reds. That season, he posted a 3.84 ERA/97 ERA+ with a 7.4 BB/9 and 5.5 K/9 over 84.1 IP. Out of any pitcher with at least 50 IP, Vander Meer had the ninth highest strikeout rate. He also had the single worst walk rate.

The last-place Reds decided to switch things up, firing manager Chuck Dressen and replacing him with Bill McKechnie (hey, didn’t we hear that name before?). In the ’38 preseason, Vander Meer also made a mechanical adjustment, switching to an overhand delivery from a three-quarters angle.

Vander Meer started the season in the bullpen before rejoining the Reds rotation in May. In his first six starts, Vander Meer displayed significantly better control (3.55 BB/9 vs. 6.57 K/9 in 50.2 IP). To open June, he pitched two one-run, complete-game victories, allowing just four walks while striking out 12. Entering his June 11 start against the Boston Bees (that was actually a team name?), he looked like he had finally figured things out.

The first three innings were a pitchers’ duel between Vander Meer, who was absolutely perfect, and the Bees’ Danny MacFayden, who faced just one batter over the minimum. The middle innings are where all the drama happened.

A leadoff walk to Gene Moore in the fourth led to a surprise double play after the next batter, Johnny Cooney, fouled out to catcher Ernie Lombardi. As the ball was in the air, Moore tried returning from his lead, but twisted his knee and collapsed to the ground in pain. Lombardi caught the pop-out, fired to the first baseman, who tagged out Moore as he couldn’t make his way back to the bag.

In the bottom of the inning, the Reds converted a leadoff triple from Wally Berger into the game’s first run. That was all Vander Meer needed to win.

To start the fifth, Vander Meer allowed another leadoff walk, but he later picked the runner off. One more walk in the inning proved fruitless as well. The Reds, meanwhile, repeated themselves with one more leadoff triple, although that runner failed to score. A two-out, two-run home run in the sixth gave the Reds a 3 – 0 lead, and from that inning on Vander Meer found his control and returned to being perfect.

Vander Meer retired the last 12 batters in a row to win the game and notch his first no-hitter in the minors (final line: 9 IP, 0 R, 3 BB, and 4 K).

How would Vander Meer build upon the best start of his career? By doing the same thing next time.

On June 15, Vander Meer and the Reds visited the Brooklyn Dodgers in front of 38,748 fans at Ebbets Field for the first night game ever on the East Coast. Perhaps Vander Meer viewed this game as an opportunity to get revenge on a Dodgers organization that had both abandoned him after his first minor league season and roughed him up for his worst start of the ’38 season (5 ER in 6 IP) on May 24.

The first five Dodgers retired without even a whimper before Vander Meer walked the sixth batter. Vander Meer felt that his fastball was really fast that day, reaching speeds as high as 97 MPH. As the game went on, his control faltered and the walks started piling up. By the end of the seventh, Vander Meer had allowed five walks, but thankfully no hits or runs.

The innings went by, and the Brooklyn crowd started rooting more and more for Vander Meer’s historic bid. Entering the ninth, he had a comfortable six-run lead, just three outs away from baseball immortality.

Vander Meer retired the first batter himself on a groundout back to the mound. But then Vander Meer allowed the next batter to reach on a walk… and so did the next one… and the next one, too. Just like that, Vander Meer had walked the bases loaded. For the first time in the past 18 innings, he had to deal with a runner on third base.

While mere moments before the crowd had loudly cheered for Vander Meer, they now sat silent. The second baseman, Lonny Frey, wondered, “when in the world is he going to get the ball over the plate?” The next hitter, Ernie Koy, grounded a ball to the third baseman, who reacted quickly and got the force at home. Up next was future Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher, who popped a fly ball to CF that was caught for the third and final out.

 

His second no-hitter was a lot messier (9 IP, 0 R, 8 BB, and 7 K) than his first. But no matter the journey, they both reached the same destination.

This seemingly impossible accomplishment, which was immediately declared by the Cincinnati Post as the “greatest feat in [the] game’s history,” rightfully earned Vander Meer national recognition. One month later, Vander Meer started the All-Star Game and pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one single and no walks while retiring all-time greats like Jimmie Foxx and Joe DiMaggio with ease.

 

June 12, 1880 – Lee Richmond Pitches the First-Ever Perfect Game 

 

1880 was a long time ago. Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States, the University of Southern California first opened, and Christy Mathewson was born.

Back then, yes, baseball existed. But there was no Major League Baseball. And nobody had a word to describe a game where the starting pitcher retired all 27 batters without any reaching base. Why? Well, it had never been done before.

Until Lee Richmond did so on June 12, 1880.

Born in a town just outside of Cleveland, Richmond went to Brown University, where he played on the college’s baseball team and developed a unique approach to pitching.

Richmond was a lefty, a rarity back then, and he used that to his advantage by attacking hitters from unorthodox angles combined with great movement on his curve. In 1879, Richmond had a monster year. Not only did he lead Brown to a championship, but he also no-hit Cap Anson‘s White Stockings in an exhibition game and made his major league debut with the Boston Red Stockings.

The next season, Richmond, a burgeoning baseball star, joined the Worcester Ruby Legs, who had just been admitted to the National League. That season, Richmond was the Ruby Legs. The pitching staff threw 762.2 innings. Richmond was on the mound for 590.2 of those innings. Old-timey baseball was wild.

Anyways, back to June 12. The Ruby Legs faced the Cleveland Blues at Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds in front of about 700 people.

Richmond, who also happened to be just four days away from graduating college, was masterful. In fact, only two Blues batters hit fair balls beyond the infield. Even though a rain delay forced Richmond to dry the game ball with sawdust, it didn’t interrupt his flow. Nine innings and five strikeouts later, and Richmond had achieved perfection for the first time in baseball history.

Newspapers described this as “the most wonderful game on record.” Since nobody had pitched a perfect game before, the term had yet to be coined. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the term “perfect game” first appeared.

 

Richmond would pitch just six seasons in professional baseball before retiring to become a teacher in Toledo, Ohio for almost four decades.

 

June 12, 1970 – Dock Ellis’ LSD No-Hitter

 

I was going to write a little bit about one of baseball’s… oddest accomplishments. But really, it’s best if you hear it directly from Dock Ellis‘ mouth.

 

 

Photo by Icon SMI | | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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