20 years ago today, David Wells was perfect

Wells

It was 20 years ago today that I witnessed a piece of baseball history. On a chilly Sunday afternoon, Beanie Baby day at Yankee Stadium, Yankees southpaw David Wells carved out a slice of baseball immortality by pitching a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins.

27 men up, 27 men down.

My sister Aimee came up with four tickets in the lower stands in right field, and my son Dan, then 12, nephew Sean, 7,and brother-in-law Jack saw a game for the ages.

That day, Wells threw the first perfect game for the Yankees in nearly 42 years, going back to Don Larsen’s masterpiece against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Amazingly, Wells and Larsen graduated from the same high school, Point Loma, near San Diego.

There were several interesting sidelights to that game. For one, I just missed catching a home run ball by Bernie Williams in the fifth inning. If you go back and look at the videotape, I’m the guy in the orange windbreaker who gets shoved out of the way on Bernie’s blast.

A father sitting in the row in front of us kept getting up to buy food for his kids. Then after seven  innings he announced he was leaving.  My brother-in-law and I were incredulous. We both asked him if he knew what was going. He realized a no-hitter was in progress, but responded that he wanted to  beat the traffic. Jack and I just shook our heads and laughed.

Lastly as we left the Stadium, I turned to Sean, who had just seen the second major league game in his life. I told him he could go to a game every day for the rest of his years and never see another perfect game.

Box Score


Dodgers-Cubs Was Nearly Perfect Back in 1965

Sandy Koufax pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965. But his mound opponent that night, little-known Bob Hendley, was almost perfect too.

On a cool September night in Los Angeles almost 45 years ago, the Dodgers and the Cubs played a nearly perfect game, closer to perfect than any other game in major league history.

Sandy Koufax got the headlines that September 9 as he fashioned a perfect game, striking out 14 Cubs in the fourth and final no-hitter of his legendary Dodgers’ career.

But Koufax’s opponent, Bob Hendley, a journeyman left-hander, picked that night to pitch the game of his life, nearly matching the great Koufax. The 26-year-old Hendley allowed just one hit and a single walk, yet lost 1-0.

The game, played in 103 minutes, set several records, among them the fewest hits for both teams (1) and fewest total baserunners (2); the next lowest total is four.  Both pitchers had no-hitters intact until the seventh inning. The only run the Dodgers scored was unearned.

The Dodgers managed to score that run in the fifth inning when outfielder Lou Johnson walked, was sacrificed to second, stole third and continued home on a throwing error by Cubs catcher Chris Krug. Johnson had the only hit of the game, a bloop double over the head of Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks with two out in the seventh.

Koufax Breaks Feller’s Record
Koufax was magnificent that night, becoming just the sixth pitcher in the modern era to throw a perfect game. It was Koufax’s fourth no-hitter, breaking Bob Feller’s record of three (later broken by Nolan Ryan, in 1981, who finished with seven). Koufax’s 14 K’s are the most ever in a perfect game.

Koufax struck out the final six batters he faced to finish off the perfect game with panache. He fanned pinch hitter Harvey Kuenn on a 2-2 pitch for the final out of the game. The ninth inning call of that game by Dodger announcer Vin Scully is considered to be one a classic example of play-by-play broadcasting. Click here to listen for yourself.

Kuenn, a former American League batting champion who hit .303 lifetime with more than 2,000 hits, also made the last out of Koufax’ second career no-hitter, against Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants on May 11, 1963. Kuenn bounced out Koufax to first for the final out of that game.

Hendley’s career was not exactly Koufaxian. Over seven years with the Braves, Giants, Cubs and Mets, Hendley never won more than 11 games in a season, finishing with a 48 wins in 100 career decisions. Earlier in the 1965 season, he was traded from the Giants to the Cubs with Ed Bailey and Harvey Kuenn for Dick Bertell and Len Gabrielson.  Hendley wound up 4-4 that year with a 5.96 ERA.

Five days after the perfect game, a Koufax-Hendley rematch took place at Wrigley Field. This time, Hendley defeated Koufax, 2-1 with a complete game four-hitter. Koufax allowed five hits in six innings, including a two-run homer to Billy Williams in the sixth.

To date, Koufax’s perfect game is the last no-hitter to be pitched against the Cubs. They have gone the longest of all MLB teams since a no-hitter was last pitched against them


Almost Perfect: A Mustache on the Mona Lisa

This play at first base cost Armando Galarraga a chance at baseball immortality.

When umpire Jim Joyce blew the call on Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game, he not only painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa, he also opened Pandora’s box to all sorts of discussion, debate and historical comparisons.

For one, the inevitable cry for expanded replay rules to decide close calls on the bases ensued. (No, the games run too long as is.)

Secondly, many appealed to commissioner Bud Selig to invoke the “best interests of the game” clause to overturn Joyce’s call and give Galarraga the perfecto. (No, breaking precedent here could lead to all sorts of controversy moving forward.)

Unfortunately, Joyce’s call will go down as one of the worst ever by an umpire, considering the circumstances. He joins the company of Don Denkinger, whose errant ninth inning call in game six of the 1985 World Series gave the Royals life and ultimately cost the Cardinals a championship.

Ironically, if Galarraga had dropped Miguel Cabrera’s toss, it would have been ruled an error, and a no-hitter would still be in effect.

Through it all, Galarraga exhibited remarkable poise and grace — especially when considering he’d been deprived of baseball immortality. In some strange way, he’ll be  remembered more for losing he perfecto than some of the 20 other pitchers who have been perfect since 1880.

And Joyce, one of the better umpires in the game today, showed class by admitting his mistake and apologizing to Galarraga.

12 Perfect Innings
Many still recall the hard-luck lefty Harvey Haddix, above right, of the Pirates, who pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose the perfect game, no-hitter, shutout and game in the 13th. When baseball redefined scoring rules in 1991, Haddix lost credit for both a perfect game and a no-hitter.

And then there was the strange case of Ernie Shore of the Red Sox, who in 1917 relieved Babe Ruth in the first inning after Ruth walked the first batter, argued the call and got tossed by home plate umpire Brick Owens, who the Babe slugged on his way to the clubhouse. The runner was thrown out stealing, and Shore then retired the next 26 Washington Senators. For years, Shore was credited with a perfect game, but the ruling was changed and the game is now listed as a shared no-hitter between Shore and Ruth.

In addition to Galarraga, nine other pitchers have retired the first 26 batters only to lose perfect games. Most recently, Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina came within a strike of a perfect game at Fenway Park in 1999 before Carl Everett of the Red Sox lined a single to left.

At Wrigley Field in 1972, Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas, left, was one strike away from a perfect game with a 2-2 count on Padres pinch-hitter Larry Stahl when fate, in the person of home plate umpire Bruce Froemming, intervened. Froemming called the next two pitches — both of which were close — balls. Pappas recovered to complete the no-hitter, but to this day he continues to begrudge Froemming.

Some 25 years later, a Chicago radio personality, during an interview with Pappas, got Froemming on the phone and the two argued on the air. Pappas also said in 2006 that he has seen video tape footage of that game on WGNtelevision and can see Froemming smirking immediately after the walk was issued; Froemming denied the charge.

Here’s the almost perfect list. Each of the following pitchers lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.

Almost Perfect

1908: Hooks Wiltse
New York Giants (vs. Philadelphia Phillies)
George McQuillan was hit with a pitch, but Wiltse ended the game with a 10-inning no-hitter.

1932: Tommy Bridges
Detroit (vs. Washington)
Dave Harris hit a single.

1958: Billy Pierce
Chicago (vs. Washington)
Ed FitzGerald hit a double.

1972: Milt Pappas
Chicago (vs. San Diego)
Larry Stahl was walked, but Pappas ended the game with a no-hitter.

1983: Milt Wilcox
Detroit (at Chicago)
Jerry Hairston hit a single.

1988: Ron Robinson
Cincinnati (vs. Montreal)
Wallace Johnson hit a single.

1989: Dave Stieb
Toronto (vs. New York)
Roberto Kelly hit a double.

1990: Brian Holman
Seattle (vs. Oakland)
Ken Phelps hit a home run.

2001: Mike Mussina
New York (at and vs. Boston)
Carl Everett hit a single.

2010: Armando Gallaraga
Detroit (vs. Cleveland)
Jason Donald hit a single.

PS — The SportsLifer was lucky enough to witness one of the 20 perfect games in baseball history. I was in the lower right field seats at Yankee Stadium with my son, nephew and brother-in-law on a May day in 1998 when Yankees left-hander David Wells pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. As we left the Stadium that afternoon, I told my nephew, seven-years-old at the time, that he could go to a thousand ballgames and never see another perfect game.


Perfectly Natural: The Odd Couple of Baseball

The cycle and the no-hitter are strange baseball companions, like Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, “The Odd Couple.”

Throughout baseball history, there have been 276 occurrences (30 before the turn of the 20th Century where batters have hit for the cycle — single, double, triple, home run — in the same game.

Over the same period, there have been 255 no-hitters (42 before the turn of the century). Of those no-hitters, only 17 were perfect games, 15 since 1900. Cy Young and Sandy Koufax are in this exclusive club

A natural cycle — single, double, triple and home run in order — is even more unusual than a perfect game. Only 14 batters in major league history have gone for the natural cycle, including Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri, (right) Charlie Gehringer and Billy Williams

Lazzeri is the only player ever to finish a natural cycle with a grand slam on June 3, 1932. However, this achievement was overshadowed by his popular Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig, who picked that same day to become the first player in the American League to hit four home runs in the same game. But the headlines the next day went to New York Giants manager John McGraw, who decided to announce his retirement after a 31-year career.

Personal Note: I’ve been lucky enough to witness both a natural cycle and a perfect game. Jim Hickman (left) did the honors for the Mets in 1963 in a game against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. And Yankees left-hander David Wells threw a perfect game against the Twins in 1998, 27 men up, 27 men down, baseball immortality.